Our Job is to Direct the Wind
by Rev. Carolyn Foster
March 10, 2021
This interview with Reverend Carolyn Foster was conducted and condensed by franknews.
I am Reverend Carolyn Foster. I am currently serving as one of the chairs for the Alabama Poor People's Campaign. I'm also the Faith in Community Coordinator for a nonprofit here in Birmingham, Alabama, called Greater Birmingham Ministries. We serve the greater Birmingham area and we also serve as an anchor organization for the Alabama Poor People's campaign. So, essentially, I'm wearing two hats.
I hope so.
Are you from Alabama?
I grew up here in Birmingham, Alabama. I came of age during the late sixties, during the turbulent time of the Civil Rights Movement. I actually grew up just west of the downtown Birmingham area, in a neighborhood called Smithfield. This was during segregation. Smithfield became known as Dynamite Hill, because it was bombed quite often by the Klu Klux Klan.
Jeremy Gray. 'Birmingham Alabama Bombing scene, 1960.'
There were a lot of activists that lived in the neighborhood. There were a lot of people who were working for civil rights. There was also an attorney who, whenever Dr. King was in town and got arrested, would bail out and represent Dr. King. His home was bombed at least twice in my memory as a child. So that was my neighborhood. I grew up in those surroundings and I have no doubt that that is what has led me to my social justice leaning as I became older.
How does the Poor People’s Campaign tie into larger civil rights movements, specifically in Alabama?
Well, history has happened in Alabama. The Children's March happened in Birmingham. The Bloody Sunday Selma bridge crossing happened in Selma. So Alabama was ground zero for the civil rights movement.
Once the Voting Rights Act was signed into federal law, Dr. King turned his attention to economic injustice issues. He began to work with low-income people and organized with them so that the Poor People's Campaign could become what he called a new, unsettling force. He was assassinated actually one month before the campaign was to launch.
Dr. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis, 50 years later, decided to pick up the torch of this movement and carry it forward because the issues that Dr. King was wrestling with then are the same issues that we are wrestling with now. Dr. Barber got in touch with my organization, Greater Birmingham Ministries, and we arranged for him to come to Birmingham twice for a Moral Revival, similar to the Mass Meetings of the 1960s. It was just a relaunch of what Dr. King did, and I got involved personally because it was my job to help organize that effort. My experience as a child was coming back to me again as an adult. I became very actively involved because I still live here in Birmingham, and I still see the same struggles. We've come a long way in Birmingham, and in our state in some ways, but we still have a long way to go.
Some areas of Alabama would really surprise you, it's almost like a third-world country, in particular in this area called the Black Belt. It gets its name for the rich, black topsoil that the slaves worked. The area is very poor. There is a lot of ecological devastation. There is soil contamination there because there is no proper sewage and children are playing and people are living among hookworms that are openly exposed in their yard.
Jerry Siegel. Birds. Perry County, Alabama. 2002
We see people who are suffering every single day in my organization. They come to us because they need food or clothing or school supplies or help with their utility bills. We hear these stories every single day, so it was natural for us to become actively involved with the Alabama Poor People's Campaign.
I am also a deacon in Alabama, and our role as deacons is to bring the needs of the poor to the church and bring the church into the streets where the poor are.
So when we relaunched the Poor People's Campaign in 2018, it seemed that my work and my ministry were joining together, like a hand in the glove.
Why is poverty a moral issue?
I think poor and low-wealth people have been so ignored and invisible to people in power that it is almost easy to say they don’t even exist. These people feel they have no power and no voice. They feel invisible to the larger society, and, because of that, they feel helpless to advocate on behalf of themselves.
That is a moral issue in my view. To completely ignore folk who are hungry, who are homeless, who have trouble paying their bills, and who are having trouble feeding their children, is a moral issue in a country that is as rich as the United States is. That is immoral in a country where, really, there is no scarcity.
Scarcity is a myth. It's just a matter of shifting resources.
What makes organizing in the south, or in Alabama, different?
I believe organizing in the South is quite different. We come out of a place of segregation. We have deliberately been kept apart as people. We have deliberately been told wrong and fearful things about one another. If you're going to cross lines of economics and race, then you have to be really intentional about that, when you have grown up in a place that has always kept people apart on purpose. The work begins with building trust and building community. We have to work first with our commonalities. We have to show that we have more in common than we do in differences.
We're all brothers and sisters. We're all related. We all are one human family. We should be united in this fight.
In my work with the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, I have been working for over 20 years facilitating anti-racism workshops, intentionally bringing people who are racially different together to learn about one another and to dispel myths. I bring that to the table in my work with the Poor People's Campaign. Once you build community between people who thought they were so different, and they begin to see they have the same concerns - caring for family, health, and well-being, it is easy to start building and working towards a purpose like overcoming poverty. So Alabama in particular, because of our history, there is still so much of that thinking about the separation of races and that poverty is a black issue when in fact, there are more white people living in poverty in Alabama.
Right now there seems to be a divide between those living in rural and urban communities, so we are working to build that bridge. We want people to see that though we live in different geographic areas, we are struggling with the same thing, we are still poor. One expression of the Poor People's Campaign is what we call fusion. Let's bring people together to overcome those myths of differences in order to build something powerful.
The original Poor People's Campaign went to Washington, camped on the mall – made their physical presence felt and seen by Congress and Senate, the center of U.S. government. There is a lot of work on the ground to do locally, and there is a lot of legislative work to do as well. How do you marry the two now? Do you feel like you have any politicians in your corner?
We have allies. I'll put it like that. Elected officials, who very much support the Poor People's Campaign. But we need more. Definitely, we need more. This is a strong conservative state, but little by little, we are chipping away at that in order to help our elected officials see that Alabama is a state that is struggling with poverty, struggling with poor education, struggling with lack of healthcare, and making those issues real to them by bringing faces and voices to the forefront.
The Poor People's Campaign in Alabama is developing leaders among the poor, who are able to share their stories. Amplifying the voices and the stories of poor and low wealth people is just so important. You can't unsee something once you have seen it, or un-hear a story once you've heard it.
Low-income people are reclaiming their power coming into council meetings, rallies, press conferences, and speaking at legislative offices. That's really important.
It's hard to ignore a person or feign ignorance when you're looking at someone face to face.
The Poor People's Campaign has begun to have some town hall meetings virtually and invited elected officials to come, not to speak, but to listen to these stories.
Our population is about 45% low-income. Those are the folks that we are trying to lift up and empower. Jim Wallis, of Sojourners Institute, said in one of his books that elected officials lift their finger to see which way the wind is blowing. Our job is to direct wind. By lifting up these forty-five percent of the people who are low income, we can direct the wind and make the politicians come around to our demands.
Trees in Wind, photograph, Date Unknown; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth49979/m1/1/?q=wind: accessed March 10, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, Library and Hall of Fame.
You say your state is “conservative” – what does that imply about the state's support of the Poor People’s Campaign? There is a link in American politics between conservatism and Christianity, especially in the south. The obvious point here is that Christian politicians should be against poverty. But that’s not what you’re seeing.
In Alabama, we still have a long way to go. This is a strongly conservative state. Some people tend to view morality in different ways. Some have a very narrow view, in my opinion. There are some who only think of morality in terms of a woman’s right to choose, for example. It is not that this is not an important discussion to have but it is too narrow when talking about morality.
There is a strong distorted narrative around what morality is in this very strong red state.
I mean, this is the Bible belt. We are, of course, predominantly Christian in Alabama. Jesus said, when I was hungry, you fed me. When I was in prison, you visited me. When I was naked, you clothed me. Jesus talked about bringing the good news to the poor.
Central Presbyterian Church, photograph, 1960; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth59197/m1/1/?q=church%20: accessed March 10, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Hardin-Simmons University Library.
We keep hammering that message to our elected officials.
Do you feel like you understand how to work within a Republican government better than others because of your geography?
You know, there are a lot of systems in place here in Alabama that directly impact poor people, but they don't really understand how systems work. We are doing a lot of work around education. In Alabama, people tend to vote straight ticket without thinking a lot about what it means and how it impacts them personally. People also usually only vote in big elections, state and federal, and not municipal elections. So turnout is sometimes very low.
But, we are doing education around every single election that impacts people, including local elections. Tuscaloosa, Mobile, Montgomery have some municipal elections coming up soon. We are working toward finding out where those candidates stand on certain poverty-related issues and disseminating that information in poor and low-income areas. We don't tell anybody how to vote. We just want people to vote in a more educated kind of way. We are working on getting people to see how it connects to their lives more directly. A lot of education has to happen, which takes a lot of grassroots work, but we are willing to do it.
Voting is really key to turning this state around and to educating people on how the systems work for you or against you. Our systems were not made for low-income people. They were made to keep power in place.
I live here in Birmingham and several years ago, we worked really hard to convince our city government to raise the minimum wage, and they voted to raise it. But, very quickly, one of our wealthy state legislators, went to Montgomery and wrote a bill saying that only the state has the right to raise the minimum wage and it passed. So no municipality can not do it on its own.
Even though Birmingham was willing to do it, it was nullified by the state.
That's just how these systems work. These are the kinds of systems we are trying to chip away at and to dismantle. We are trying to lift up our poor and low-income people. And we'll eventually change the wind in this state.