Nothin to Lose but my Chains: Poor People’s Campaign in Springfield

On Mother’s Day I went to bed early and read a magazine article that felt life changing. The Reverend William Barber, along with Liz Theoharris, has reignited Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign.  Barber is a minister trained in the tradition I grew up in, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). (The Disciples church in Macomb sits across from the Police Station.)

Barber’s theology fuels his tireless efforts to address poverty, and he has inspired folks all over the country—rural, urban, north, south, black, white, male, female—to join the Poor People’s Campaign.

Since I was laid off from my tenured professor position in Women’s Studies last year, I’ve struggled with insecurity and self-doubt, but after learning about Barber, I felt certain that I would walk with the Poor People’s Campaign. OPPC

I woke up early Monday morning, searched the web, and found that the first event of a 40-day campaign for moral revival was set to begin that afternoon in dozens of state capitols across the country. The theme of the week is one I’d taught in my Women Studies classes for more than a decade:  “Somebody’s Hurting Our People: Children, Women and People with Disabilities Living in Poverty.”

Even with the two-lane roads and the occasional monster tractor ahead, I could get to Springfield in an hour and a half. New-Banner Outside of Beardstown, IL, I passed a billboard: “Elect John Curtis.” John has walked my congressional district door to door and he’s seen for himself the extensive poverty (nearly one third of the people) that plagues McDonough County.  Though Curtis is a politician, not an activist, his walk through the poverty of our district reminds me that King did the same—choosing to begin his Poor People’s Campaign by marching out of Marks, Alabama, the most destitute town in the country.

IMG_2765                               In Springfield, the Lincoln Statue was hot and sleepy.

img_2744.jpgThe steps around the statue were empty, but I began to hear voices singing and tambourines ringing—and then a procession of marchers emerged from behind the capitol.

img_2746.jpgSinging in a minor key: “We are a new unsettling force for liberation and we’ve got nothing to lose but our chains.”

IMG_2785We gathered around the Lincoln statue, and Jade Mazon (purple shirt) told the crowd that poverty and PTSD from domestic assault have erected obstacles to her role as mother of Kiki, an honors student who stood by her side. Jade works two jobs and two “hustles,” (informal work). From Mazon’s perspective, Kiki’s school tends to punish Mazon for being poor and disabled with PTSD.  Our society has made parenting while poor a crime.


A close-up with Jade Mazon and her daughter Kiki. Jade is a mother struggling to raise her daughter, and the the speech she delivered was as clear and compelling as anything I’ve ever assigned in a Women’s Studies textbook. Jade and Kiki wore purple t-shirts that read “Rebel Bells,” a mother-daughter group the fights the storage and emissions of neuro- and lung toxins on Chicago’s Southeast side.


Poverty and toxic air and water are rural problems, as well as urban.  The Illinois Poverty Report ranks McDonough County as approaching a 30 percent poverty rate—one of the worst in the state.  One report ranked air quality around Macomb’s Elementary school very low. In addition, neuro toxins from agricultural fertilizers and other sources may poison drinking water in rural areas, such as McDonough County, IL.

Poverty and environmental destruction are UNIFYING factors because they affect every racial/ethnic category:  for example, most poor people are white and many LGBTQ folks are poor. And everyone needs clean air and water.


The War against the poor is immoral.

After speaking truth to power, we moved . . .

img_2794.jpgEvent leaders told us to march in twos, which we didn’t quite pull off.



Keeping the mood positive.  All but the red arm-banded will move to the sidewalk corners.

IMG_2835At the intersection of Monroe and 2nd St, three white women, three white men, and one woman of color, all wearing red armbands they had earned in civil disobedience training, stopped in the box and linked hands.


Most of us kept to the sidewalk corners. To encourage and support those who were risking arrest, Rev. Saeed Richardson led chants:  “We love you.”

A 93-degree sun beat down on the red-arm-banded protesters in the middle of the intersection.  Nearly a dozen police vehicles surrounded us.


“Prisoner Transport,” arrived last.



Police trained to address civil disobedience talked to protesters, escorted each one to the sidewalk, and ticketed them. The two women above graciously took selfies with me after coming off the protest line to wait for their tickets.  (Ticketing the poor??? Doesn’t solve much, but raises public funds, at least).

Afterwards, one of the ticketed protesters sat on the curb in the shade.  She was a woman who didn’t look that different from the white women who’ve recently made the news for calling police on black folks for engaging in completely appropriate activities.

She smiled, her face sweaty.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Hot, but I’m from Southern Illinois, near St. Louis, where white people hardly ever get arrested for petty crimes.  I wanted to take my turn, take a stand.”

“Thank you for putting yourself out there,” I said.

“I’ll be glad to see my kids tonight,” she said.

I went home and signed up for a civil disobedience training webinar.

I’ll return to Springfield each Monday in May to campaign with the poor people.



Note:  even the police officer, left, can’t resist jamming a little, smiling, and taking video.




Thank You for Re-carding your UPI membership

Dear Colleagues,

I want to thank you, my colleagues, who have re-carded your membership with the University Professionals of Illinois, Local 4100. In light of attacks from the SCOTUS, the Koch brothers, Governor Bruce Rauner, and our own administration, I feel an urgency to articulate my gratitude to UPI leaders and members.

The best explanation for re-carding I’ve seen comes from the Chicago Teachers Unions:

To proactively fight this expected decision . .  . reaffirm your membership and support for the union. We need to demonstrate our solidarity and our determination to stand united as a union.  We owe it to our students and ourselves to make this happen. Without a union, educators are relegated to lower pay, longer hours, and worse conditions for students.

Like in the Chicago Public Schools, the best way for public universities to provide high quality education to students is to keep education resources in actual education, meaning in the classroom (not management), meaning adminsitrators must pay faculty and professionals fairly and provide us with working conditions that are both psychologically and physically healthy.

Dear colleagues, I once had a heated debate with one of you, a sturdy southerner.  We were eating tortilla chips with cheese dip. When you said that scientists are always objective, I told you not to deceive yourself.  Your eyes narrowed—it was clear that we would not reach an agreement on the common belief that scientists are more objective than literary scholars.  But last week, when we crossed paths at a recent UPI event, we greeted each other happily.  One thing we agree on—we value our union and the importance of re-carding.

What I like most about my fellow union members is that you care about Western Illinois University and the region.  Many of you, I know, wrestle with the way you will vote on UPI questions, and you consider many factors beyond yourself.  After careful consideration last month, one of you decided to vote to authorize a strike, went to bed, woke up, and changed your mind, but you made your voice heard, you accepted that most of your colleagues voted for strike authorization, and you re-carded. Your willingness to cast a vote of dissent, and then support the union when things don’t go your way, impresses me. What we agree on is this: if the UPI doesn’t stand up for professors and professionals, no one will. I hope the next WIU administration understands that to support faculty, they will have to support the UPI.

I value my union because I love teaching and learning.  The UPI fights to keep resources in the classroom.  Paying professors fairly is the best way to value education.  When the UPI gives up pay, the administration directs those funds to expensive attorneys who don’t know our students and are not invested in our classrooms. Or they give a generous “promotion” (raise) to someone in Sherman Hall, where there are no classrooms.

If you believe, as I do, that education is a social good, that we are preparing students to be engaged citizens, that we will help them get jobs and avoid poverty (and please remember that a woman needs a college degree to earn the same as a man with only a high school education), then we have to fight to keep university resources in the classroom. That means we must all re-card now, before the Supreme Court announces the Janus decision.

For me, the UPI’s most important impact, after education, is social justice.  My union fights for a broad vision of justice.  Some folks assume that the UPI is just a group of middle-class professionals bargaining for a raise, but that is not an accurate picture.  (For one, we’re not even bargaining for a raise.)  Because wages do not keep up with inflation, while our health insurance premiums and bills are increasing, some WIU professors cannot pay basic bills each month.  In our house, we struggle to pay bills on one full-professor income.  We don’t have Netflix, cable, or cell phone plans.  Our cars are old and in need of repair.  We don’t eat out.  I get angry, ashamed, and depressed when a check bounces.  The women at the check-out are always kind when my debit card is rejected. Many of my colleagues struggle much more than we do.  Social Justice requires that professors and professionals have a salary that can support a family.  The UPI is the only organization fighting for our families.

The UPI takes a stand for free speech, which is necessary for social justice, as well as teaching and learning. When I angered the administration by speaking with the Chronicle twice, and then blogging about how sexist WIU’s administration is, the UPI could have told me that it would be easier to defend me if I weren’t so publicly critical. They didn’t–instead, they supported my academic freedoms and rights to free speech.

We know from historical and economic research that unions stabilize economies and prevent the widening of the gap between rich and poor.  This means that when you re-card, you are supporting the local economy.

I know from my experience of studying with Polly Radosh, a feminist activist academic, that the union has worked hard to close the gender wage gap, which is an important social justice issue. When you re-card, you are supporting fair pay for women.

Union activism and bargaining may be the most effective way to prevent neo-liberals million- and billionaires from draining resources from the public classroom and sanitizing curriculum. Wealthy conservative extremists are leading a national movement to reduce our public universities into training and instructional institutions (See Starving the Beast).  They attack the humanities, which are, historically, the very core of university degrees.  The union is a check on the senseless wealth of neo-liberal billionaires like the Koch brothers and their fellow ideologues, such as Governor Bruce Rauner and Mike Pence.

The UPI functions at its best when listening to members and engaging in difficult conversations. If I have a concern, I let UPI president Bill Thompson know and we talk through it.  After two grievances, two arbitrations, and two-plus years being laid off, I wish the UPI had won back my reinstatement already. Things have not gone exactly my way, but I support the union, as does my husband, who has already re-carded.  Though the UPI leadership always listens, they cannot please everyone at once.  When you re-card, you have a voice.

Union members know that we must balance individual concerns with the good of the whole.  A WIU administrator recently called this concern for the whole group a form of “Kool-aid drinking.”  What he calls “Kool-aid,” I call a broad vision of justice that looks beyond one’s individual wants and needs.  The UPI should be proud of our willingness to defend what is true and good beyond the individual.  President Goldfarb and other previous administrations understood the value of unions.  They didn’t accuse us of drinking “the Kool-aid.”

Thank you for recarding.  Thank you for supporting our union. Thank you for taking a stand for your own ability to pay bills and, if you choose, support a family.  Thank you for setting up yourself, and your position, for a solid defense should you find yourself laid off this month.  Thank you for contributing to the organization that fights for the classroom, our students, our families and the community.

Warmest Regards,