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© Frank

interviews

The Fight is in Mississippi

by Melissa Garriga
February 16, 2021

This interview with Melissa Garriga was conducted and condensed by franknews

Melissa | I was born and raised in Mississippi. I serve on the board of directors for the Mississippi Rising Coalition, which is an anti-racist, social justice nonprofit. I'm involved with the Mississippi Poor People's Campaign also, as a national organizer.

Everything that I'm involved in, puts an emphasis on how all of these issues are entangled. Poverty doesn't stand alone. There's an element of climate injustice, of criminal justice, of racial justice that explains why people live in poverty and why the number of people living in poverty is growing. Until we address all of them, we are truly not going to solve the issue.

frank | What are the goals of the Mississippi branch of The Poor People's Campaign? 

In Mississippi, 48% of our population, 1.3 million people, are considered poor or low-wealth.

We don't base that off of the federal poverty measure, we use the measure that the Poor People's Campaign has constructed. A lot of people are one paycheck away from that poverty line that is discounted in the federal measurement and we think it is critical to include them.

There's no representation for these folks. When elected officials make legislative decisions, we see time and time again that those decisions always almost negatively affect low-wealth folks. The idea behind the Poor People's Campaign is that until we move as one, until we make these 1.3 million voices heard and have a say in how policy is made, we are never going to progress as a society. We poor and low-income folks are never going to have a chance to get out of poverty. It's going to be generational.

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We call ourselves an organism rather than an organization because we move as one. We don't have a hierarchy. You don't have to have a degree to get involved. You don't have some great resume to be a part of the campaign. All you have to do is know your truth and speak your truth. And the hope is that if we can get everyone moving together, then we'll be a force that's unrecognizable and we can actually get policies that will better Mississippi and Mississippians.

Of course, in our state, that feels like we are trying to move a mountain. Mississippi is the last on many good lists and the first on many bad lists. We continue to fail to adequately address why that is. It comes down to the way resources are distributed around our state. It comes down to a predatory payday lending industry. It comes down to our minimum wage — our minimum wage is the federal minimum wage is $7.25, while the cost of living here is around $13 an hour.

Poverty and race are tangible and visible in Mississippi, whereas in a lot of other places it’s under the radar. 

The fact that almost 50% of folks here are poor does seem like, as a group, we should have a lot of political agency. It's a huge demographic, but it's a demographic that has had their access to voting chipped away at. Whether that's through redistricting or through voter suppression, their agency has been weakened in order to keep the capital with the Republican Party. The Poor People's Campaign had a study that showed how if poor and low-wealth folks were able to get access to the polls, they could make a huge shift in how states are represented.

The idea is that we have to get everyone united, and I think begins with a narrative. And even the Democratic Party is missing the narrative. We have to challenge even the idea that liberal policies are always representative of the poor, because oftentimes they aren’t. Sometimes they are means-tested, and if we know that the federal poverty measure doesn't represent reality, we know that these policies are automatically excluding many people who are struggling.

Both parties fight over who is going to be the champion of the middle class. Politicians are not speaking to the poor and low-wealth folks. If you are continuously excluded from the conversation, why would you bother to show up? What is going to draw you into the fight the problems that you are facing are not even being talked about?

The Poor People's Campaign is not talking about the middle class, we're talking to the 1.2 million people who are poor and low-wealth. We're not talking about main street, we're talking about back rural roads in Mississippi.

On top of that, we need to get people comfortable saying I am part of the poor and low-wealth, and I am being ignored. I work hard, but I don't bring home enough money to survive. People are uncomfortable saying those sorts of things because they see their reality as a personal failure. There is a stigma around poverty. We want to shift the conversation to talk about it as a failure of the system. 

There is this saying that if we can move Mississippi, the rest of the country will move. That is part of the reason why I can't move from here. I feel like the fight is here. There's a lot of resiliency in folks here, and we are starting to see slow progress. We know that when you're fighting here, you can't just give up. We're always going to face adversity. It is always going to be a large mountain to climb. We made gains in the civil rights movement, yet today it feels like we're not really that far ahead.

You did remove the Confederate flag from the state flag.

We did do that. And that was a great symbolic gesture. It was a hard fight and it took a long time. But now it's time to take that symbolism and make it something concrete, right? In this past session, they also voted back in a new Jim Crow law that was still on the books. We can't just stop there and not keep pushing forward.

I will say that, I feel like it's starting to turn a little bit to where legislators are wanting to know, well, where y'all going? What are you wanting? They're wanting to listen to our ideas and where we stand on issues. And, you know, I guess that's one step in the battle. I think it's a lot more than what we've had in the past. 

What did this election feel like in Mississippi? 

When Trump got elected in 2016, I warned a few friends in the media that what Mississippi looks like right now is what America would look like with this type of administration. Meaning, almost the majority of our population is Black, but we see a race divide. Like I said before almost 50 percent of our population is poor or low-wealth. We see a class divide. And we are under this super conservative majority with the Governor, the House, and the Senate. We are completely divided, but neither party addresses race and class together. Many Mississippians, then, feel left out of the conversation. 

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How do you talk about race and class together?

As a white ally and organizer, I literally question that every day. That is the challenge, especially when everything is so hyper-partisan and politicized.

My theory and what I think I've seen work is staying consistent with your messaging and your actions. You have to get into a community and break down how policies are affecting that community. Like, you're paying more taxes because of this. And you might think that you don't like taxes, but in reality, if the taxes were doing something else for you, you might view them differently.

Political education goes along with mutual aid. 

I think that is one approach, but I will be honest with you. I don’t have a clear answer. I grew up in a conservative household. My whole family is conservative and has voted Republican their whole life. By just staying consistent and having honest conversations with them, my mom went from a Trump voter to a Biden voter in 2020. 

Why do you think?

I feel like she saw the bad in the past four years, and chose to accept it instead of ignoring it.

But, poverty doesn't discriminate. In reality, we're all subject to being homeless. We're all subject to chronic illness and not having insurance to pay for it. We're all subject to losing our job. When you talk about these things in an open way with people, people realize that it's happening in their communities just as much as it is happening in other communities. You have to keep relating poor white folks and poor Balck folks to each other to bring them together. It sounds very idealist, but it's all you can do. 

The scope of The Poor People’s Campaign is great.

The original Poor People's Campaign did not have state-by-state campaigns. I think we win by applying pressure to each state, and to each state legislature. 

As you organize nationally, you start to realize that the same problems in Mississippi are impacting folks in Maine. And if you could connect Maine and Mississippi, politically, you're already starting to change that kind of narrative. We're excited about what's to come. Obviously, 2020 was a nightmare, but I really don't feel like we slowed down that much. We had a strong digital campaign this year for the election. We increased the number of poor and low-wealth folks who were voting nationwide. If we can get these people to show up we can change the political landscape. 

I hope the national narrative, among media, among policy, among electoral campaigns starts to focus on poor and low-wealth people. Our conversations have seemed to mostly center on business owners in the middle class, and we never left space for poor and low-wealth folks. That is what we are going to change.