Episode 2 | On Poverty: The Power of The Camera
Fifty years ago, the Poor People’s Campaign took over a portion of the National Mall in Washington, DC. Their aim: change how Americans understand poverty. The campaign continues today. In this episode, we’ll connect with photographers who captured the movement at two key junctures and hear what they learned in the process about the narrative around poverty in the U.S.
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LISTEN TO THE EPISODE
- Narrative Shift: From The War on Poverty to “Ending Welfare as We Know It”
- Shifting the Narrative Report
- Poor People’s Campaign
- Repairers of the Breach
- Smithsonian Exhibit: City of Hope
- Steve Pavey
- Smithsonian Article about Robert Houston
- Robert Houston Obituary
- On The Case, a film by Edward Scherer
Reverend Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick [00:00:01] We are down in Washington feeling mighty sad, thinking about an income that never had. everybody’s got a right to live.
Will Coley [00:00:16] This is Reverend Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick, often known as brother Kirk, performing a song that’s synonymous with the Poor People’s Campaign.
Reverend Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick [00:00:25] Everybody’s got a right to live and before this campaign fails. We all go down in jail. Everybody’s got a right to live
Will Coley [00:00:40] in the summer of 1968, Brother Kirk saying at a temporary chanty town set up by the campaign in Washington, D.C., which they called Resurrection City, it was designed to draw attention to poverty in the United States. Photographer Robert Houston was there and captured brother Kirk guitar in hand, stoically looking at the assembled crowd. This was just one image of dozens that Houston took during his five weeks in the camps.
Robert Houston [00:01:06] Started shooting the very first day. I was overwhelmed. My first concern was get photographs. I did not have any problem. Nobody resisted. If anything, they would put up a clenched fist power
Will Coley [00:01:26] for Robert Houston. The reporting job would change his life and his photography.
Charon Hribar [00:01:36] Everybody’s got a right to live and before this campaign fails. We’ll all go down to jail. Because everybody’s got a right to live.
Will Coley [00:01:48] 50 years later, a new poor people’s campaign is using the same song and similar tactics to draw attention to economic justice. Another photographer, Steve Pavey, was there to document members of the campaign speaking truth to power.
Steve Pavey [00:02:03] I use a camera, among other ways, of trying to look at the world to see it better from the view of those who suffer from the margins. So it’s not really a job description, but that’s what I do walk along the side, the poor. I think accompaniment is my methodology and the camera is what I turn to the most to capture. What I see
Charon Hribar [00:02:24] And before this campaign fails. We’ll all go down to jail. Because everybody’s got a right to live
Will Coley [00:02:34] I’m Will Coley reporting for The Opportunity Agenda
Ellen Buchman [00:02:36] and I’m Ellen Buckman, President of The Opportunity Agenda. You are listening to Shifting the Narrative, a podcast series about what it means to shift the dominant narrative frame around critical social and cultural issues of our time. When we say narrative at the opportunity agenda, we’re referring to the big story explanation for a topic. We all walk around with big stories in our heads, and these narratives shape culture policy and move hearts and minds.
Will Coley [00:03:07] In this episode, we’re looking at how the dominant narrative about poverty in the United States has changed over the last 50 years, how it went from the war on poverty to ending welfare as we know it, and back to questioning economic justice in our society. A key component in shaping this narrative was the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. One of the legacies of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. And starting in 2017, a new Poor People’s campaign took up the baton to mobilize Americans against poverty. We’ll have the help of two photographers, Robert Houston and Steve Pavey, who set out to capture these movements and what they learned in the process. Robert Houston grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and always loved photography. We spoke over the phone a few days after his 85th birthday.
Robert Houston [00:03:58] I got my first camera when I was four years old. One of my aunts gave it to me to keep me quiet, I was active and the camera was the only thing that kept me calm. It was one of the old fold away Kodaks. The front pulled out. It had a bellows and a lens and a shutter release.
Will Coley [00:04:30] What was it about photography that got you?
Robert Houston [00:04:32] You could do pretty much what you wanted to do. You could create your own reality. Not that I knew about realities at that age.
Will Coley [00:04:43] Mr. Houston was hooked as he got older, he was determined to make a career as a photographer in the mid 1960s. Photography was already being used as a campaign tool by the presidential administration of Lyndon B. Johnson.
President Lyndon B. Johnson [00:04:57] We have declared unconditional war on poverty. Our objective is total victory.
Will Coley [00:05:08] Johnson had become president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and would soon run for president in his own right. The War on Poverty was spurred by a new awareness of economic hardship in the U.S. The civil rights movement was raising the issue of economic justice and the seminal 1962 book, The Other America by Michael Harington exposed the prevalence of poverty. President Johnson was also personally interested in the issue. In 1964, a few months after announcing the War on poverty, President Johnson did a photo op in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky. As this promo reel describes,
News Clip [00:05:44] in the south central mountain country, over a third of the population is faced with chronic unemployment.
Will Coley [00:05:49] The film follows Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, as they meet a local family. Photographers capture the moment.
News Clip [00:05:55] Typical of this group is Tom Fletcher, his wife and eight children. Fletcher, an unemployed sawmill operator, earned only 400 dollars last year.
Will Coley [00:06:05] The president and first lady treat everyone with kindness and listen to Mr. Fletcher talk about the economic challenges his family faced today. If you search on Google for the war on poverty, you’ll likely see images of Johnson sitting on the Fletcher’s rustic porch. The trip was designed to drum up support for a raft of legislation that Johnson needed to pass in order to tackle poverty. Back in Washington, D.C., civil rights groups helped with lobbying. They have been instrumental in helping get the Civil Rights Act passed by Congress. On August 20th, 1964, Johnson signed into law the Economic Opportunity Act, which established the agency responsible for implementing the War on Poverty, the Office of Economic Opportunity. A few days later, Johnson was nominated at the Democratic Convention to run for a full term as president. Throughout the 1964 Republican campaign, the Republican candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater, criticized Johnson’s domestic agenda, claiming that many poor Americans were personally responsible for their situation.
Political Ad Senator Barry Goldwater [00:07:11] In your heart you know he’s right. So vote Goldwater! That’s Gold Goldwater! That’s Gold Goldwater all the way!
Will Coley [00:07:14] Goldwater’s messaging would influence his party for years to come. You can hear the Democratic response to Goldwater’s framing in this campaign ad from 1964.
Political Ad for President Lyndon B. Johnson [00:07:23] Poverty is not a trait of character. It is created by circumstances. Thirty million Americans live in poverty. So will their children, unless the cycle is broken. That’s the goal of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. Help win it. Vote for him on November 3rd.
Will Coley [00:07:42] Johnson won the presidential election in a landslide, in part because he spent so much time talking about the anti-poverty initiatives that he was starting and he delivered on his campaign promise. Over the next four years, the Johnson administration created many of the programs that make up the nation’s safety net. Today, programs like Head Start, as described in this promo reel from the Office of Economic Opportunity
Promo Reel from the Office of Economic Opportunity [00:08:05] for Children Trapped by Circumstances need a way out. Headstart is that way.
Ellen Buchman [00:08:12] Initial media coverage of the war on poverty was generally positive.
Will Coley [00:08:17] Newspaper articles and TV often use images of poor white people, just like Johnson’s photo op with the Fletcher family. And these photos were typically paired with articles that were compassionate towards poor people and talked about poverty in the way that Johnson did as a condition of circumstance. But then the narrative around poor people started to shift in the late 1960s in poor black communities across the country, frustration with police misconduct, joblessness and the slow pace of change sparked urban uprising.
News Clip [00:08:46] Newark, New Jersey became a city of race riots, violence, looting and hate
Will Coley [00:08:53] Media coverage of, quote, “urban riots” in Newark, Detroit and Watts frightened white Americans. Although many were supportive of the civil rights movement, the era of goodwill towards the poor gave way to a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, much like what Barry Goldwater had used in his 1964 presidential campaign. The media gradually started portraying these anti-poverty programs more negatively.
Ellen Buchman [00:09:16] Journalists suggested that poor people were abusing these programs, which also happened to be inefficient.
Will Coley [00:09:23] And in this shift from positive to negative portrayals of poor people, something else happened.
Ellen Buchman [00:09:28] The imagery shifted from poor white people who were positively portrayed to poor black people who were negatively portrayed.
Will Coley [00:09:38] Poverty became more and more associated not with widows and orphans or Appalachia, but with black city dwellers. Even so, the War on Poverty also ignited a movement by providing an opening for the voices of poor people to be heard.
Dr. Frances Fox Piven [00:09:54] The War on Poverty gave a language and courage to poor people to begin to assert demands.
Will Coley [00:10:03] Dr. Frances Fox Piven is distinguished professor emeritus at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and she wrote a book about poor people’s movements.
Dr. Frances Fox Piven [00:10:12] Many of the demands that they asserted reflected policies that already existed but were minimal, were not being implemented in ways that reach significant numbers of people with significant assistance. In the kind of crux of the rhetoric and the politics of the war on poverty, it became possible for welfare recipients to find the courage and dignity and the justification for demanding a more reasonably administered welfare program.
Ellen Buchman [00:10:53] These demands were part of the movement that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading. To this day, most Americans tend to focus on his voting rights and his anti-discrimination advocacy instead of the nature of the work that he did surrounding economic injustice.
Will Coley [00:11:11] King and Johnson had closely collaborated in getting the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, but they began to diverge on the war on poverty and the war in Vietnam. In April 1967, at Riverside Church in New York, King explained how the conflict was destructive to anti-poverty programs.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. [00:11:29] It seemed as if that was a real promise of hope for the poor, black and white through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam. I watched this program broken and eviscerated. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
Will Coley [00:12:00] According to King, the war on poverty had not gone far enough. The conflict in Vietnam was part of the problem. A few months later, Dr. King preached on what he called the three evils of American society, racism, excessive materialism and militarism.
Ellen Buchman [00:12:17] It’s interesting to note that in this sermon, Dr. King doesn’t say poverty, but materialism. The word suggests a systemic view that the acquisition of wealth is the problem, not the people who lack the money.
Will Coley [00:12:33] Throughout this national debate in the 1960s, Robert Houston put his photography skills to work in advertising, but he decided to document the time in which he was living
Robert Houston [00:12:43] and said, I will use my camera to show what I feel, how I feel. There was a rally in Boston when the police came with the dogs and tear gas and all that stuff. an old lady, shouted at me, They get back here, come with us. You can’t do your job if you’re in jail or dead. And I always remember that.
Ellen Buchman [00:13:13] Like many Americans, Mr. Houston was following the work of Reverend Dr. King in the news. In early 1968, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched the Poor People’s Campaign so that they could draw attention to the economic inequality in the United States. They had the support of Robert F. Kennedy, who was then serving as senator. He suggested that the campaign bring poor people to Washington to make hunger and poverty visible. Visible for policy makers, the Vietnam War was consuming national attention while poverty was on the back burner. To explain the campaign, Reverend Dr. King preached his last Sunday sermon on March 31st, 1968.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. [00:13:59] You’re coming to Washington in a poor people’s campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We’re not coming to tear up Washington, we are coming to demand the government will address itself to the problem of poverty.
Will Coley [00:14:27] But just months before the planned action in Washington, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4th, 1968. Where were you when you heard about Dr. King’s death?
Robert Houston [00:14:38] I was in Massachusetts. My wife and I were just coming in from the supermarket and our son said “they just killed a man,” I said “who” and he pointed to a picture of Dr. King. Yeah.
Will Coley [00:15:04] In the spring of 1968, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference decided to continue its plans for the Poor People’s Campaign action in Washington, D.C., Mr. Houston wanted to be there. Dr. King’s death didn’t change the way he felt about going.
Robert Houston [00:15:18] No, I was more determined. The fact that I hadn’t done anything, I had not contributed anything and, as I said, the camera is my greatest weapon, let me use that.
Will Coley [00:15:30] The Poor People’s campaign was his unfinished work. Right? It was the thing that I didn’t get to do.
Robert Houston [00:15:36] Yes, that was his dream.
Will Coley [00:15:39] Mr. Houston pitched his idea to an agency in New York and they found an assignment for him to cover the campaign.
Robert Houston [00:15:46] I said, “May I ask who this is for?” and he said, “Yes, you’ll be shooting for Life”. To myself, I’m thinking, oh my God, I’ve hit the Promised Land. This is the largest magazine in the world. And at the time it was.
Will Coley [00:16:06] And within a few weeks, in May 1968, Mr. Houston arrived on the National Mall.
Robert Houston [00:16:12] I went to D.C., started shooting the very first day. I was overwhelmed. It made me very conscious of myself and the cameras I had. All of the equipment I had probably was less than 100 dollars. I saw people with gadget bags, cost more than that. Four or five Nikon cameras, Leicas the whole nine yards. Afterwards, I found out I shot more color slides of resurrection city than anybody else in the world.
Ellen Buchman [00:17:01] He was among hundreds of people who came in caravans from around the country and took over a piece of land on the south side of the reflecting pool between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. The protest had a city permit and they built a shantytown where more than 2500 would eventually live. The residents chose the name Resurrection City.
Audio from Resurrection City [00:17:23] I declare this to be the site of Resurrection City USA.
Will Coley [00:17:33] everyone lived in tents on wooden platforms. The encampment also had a city hall, a health clinic, a dining tent, a poor people’s university, a cultural tent, a psychiatrist and even its own zip code. Organizers wanted to support residents throughout the campaign for ongoing rallies and demonstrations in Washington. Mr Houston said that it rained every day.
Robert Houston [00:17:55] People in Resurrection City had gotten to the point where they actually, well not they but we, actually believed someone was seeding the clouds to make it rain. It rained every day.
Will Coley [00:18:11] All this rain meant lots of mud. What was like that?
Robert Houston [00:18:15] Living in a pigpen.
Audio from Resurrection City [00:18:18] And I’d like to say these are they who have walked the muddy roads of Mississippi to the muddy roads of resurrection city. These are they who have decided that they would make their bodies and their brains and their flesh and blood the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.
Will Coley [00:18:37] Mr. Houston was one of the few African-American photographers of Resurrection City.
Robert Houston [00:18:42] They must have sensed there was a sincerity about me. If anything, they would put up a clenched fist. Power. After the picture was taken, I would say thank you. It made a difference.
Will Coley [00:19:00] What were some of your favorite shots you took?
Robert Houston [00:19:02] It was a shot of two young men building their own tent. And in the rear you can see the Washington Monument. There was another shot. One of the Kennedy women has taken off her coat. She’s kneeling down, is a young black man beside her and she’s driving a nail in wood, building a tent.
Will Coley [00:19:30] Is there anybody in particular, you remember, from Resurrection City to this day?
Robert Houston [00:19:34] Absolutely. Absolutely. There was a little boy From Marks in Mississippi. Willy, I would figure he might have been about eight. Willy lived in the tent with his mother and sister behind my tent. Every morning when he would come and bang, knock on the side of my door, “Bob let’s go get breakfast”. I often wonder what happened…Well I just hope he made it.
Will Coley [00:20:04] Why did he say that he came all the way from Mississippi for that?
Robert Houston [00:20:08] Because he had nothing left. Those people, many people had nothing left, they had nothing to, nothing to go back there for.
Will Coley [00:20:19] Even though the organizers of Resurrection City had a permit, several congressional representatives objected to their encampment,
Congressional Representative [00:20:26] No man has a civil liberty to come up here and disrupt government.
Ellen Buchman [00:20:30] Reverend Ralph Abernathy, one of the leaders of the campaign, thought otherwise.
Reverend Ralph Abernathy [00:20:35] And we ain’t going to let nobody, nothing turn us around. We’re here to stay. Resurrection City will be taken care of in a very fine fashion. In fact we may, as a city, apply to the federal government for assistance and paving our streets.
Ellen Buchman [00:20:53] Not long after the Poor People’s Campaign built Resurrection City. The Senate held a hearing on Capitol Hill and allowed for residents to speak.
Barbara Arsenault of Berkely, Mich [00:21:02] It is working down in Resurrection City. That beautiful thing down there is just the top of a movement that stretches from coast to coast.
Marian Wright Edelman [00:21:12] This is the last chance, I think, for this country to sort of respond to the quiet and peaceful petitions of people asking for very, very justice solutions.
Will Coley [00:21:22] Mr. Houston left Washington before the end of Resurrection City because his wife was giving birth to his daughter. While he was away Resurrection City’s permit expired. The federal government sent in bulldozers and raised the community to the ground.
Robert Houston [00:21:35] It felt as if I lost a part of me. Friends, relationships, people I knew I would never see again in life. But nothing but memories of his life. It has got to be enough.
Will Coley [00:21:51] How do they experience change you?
Robert Houston [00:21:53] I had a deep appreciation for people, not all people, some people, More sympathetic.
Will Coley [00:22:04] Did it change your photography?
Robert Houston [00:22:07] Yes, it did. It made me try to tell a story in one photograph.
Ellen Buchman [00:22:13] It’s difficult to say what impact Resurrection City had on poverty in America, but some historians think the campaign created new connections between activists across the country and ethnic divides, connections that would prove to be important in the ongoing struggle. But more than that, participants in the Poor People’s Campaign took control of the narrative rather than waiting for photographers to come into their communities and take what would probably be exploitative images. The campaign set the terms of the discussion and of the scene right in the seat of power, the power of the United States government in Washington, D.C. It was a photo op on a grand scale. In the years after Resurrection City, political forces did all that they could to shift the national narrative around poverty. Ronald Reagan first ran for president in 1976 and at every campaign stop introduced audiences to the, quote, “welfare queen”.
President Ronald Reagan [00:23:14] In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record. She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans benefits for four nonexistent deceased veterans, husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax free cash income alone has been running a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year.
Will Coley [00:23:38] While Reagan doesn’t explicitly mention race. The implication is there any conjures an image in the minds of his audience. Here’s Dr. Frances Fox Piven again.
Dr. Frances Fox Piven [00:23:46] When you got a Ronald Reagan elected in 1980 with his both his history but his antagonism toward government and toward government programs that help the poor. And he began to speak that kind of rhetoric he helped to bring to the fore those ideas that people have, ideas which blamed the poor for their condition, ideas which attributed poverty to low IQ or low effort, of course in American political culture are associated with darker skins.
Ellen Buchman [00:24:29] While the Poor People’s Campaign raised the voices of people living in poverty and spoke of systemic injustice, conservative politicians promoted the idea of so-called personal responsibility. And they suggested that poverty was an individual moral failing.
President Ronald Reagan [00:24:47] We have found in this country that the homeless who are homeless, you might say by choice,.
George H.W. Bush [00:24:52] Personal responsibility, opportunity, ownership, and that all adds up to the American dream,
Representative Chabot [00:24:59] Requiring welfare recipients to take personal responsibility for the decisions they make.
Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson [00:25:04] We have been working in Wisconsin to end the disastrous welfare system and replace it with a system based on work.
Senator Bob Dole [00:25:12] We’re going to ask people to take personal responsibility for their lives.
Will Coley [00:25:17] Conservatives successfully reframe the discussion for the next 30 years, so much so that in 1996, Democratic President Bill Clinton also used their framing.
President Bill Clinton [00:25:28] Today, we are ending welfare as we know it. But I hope this day will be remembered not for what it ended, but what it began. A new day that offers hope, honors responsibility, rewards work and changes the terms of the debate.
Will Coley [00:25:45] Clinton’s Welfare Reform Act would reshape the safety net in the United States, creating strict time limits for cash assistance and adding onerous reporting requirements. But in recent years, many are questioning the dominant narrative that blames poor people for their situation. Some observers attribute this to the rise of the inequality frame which emerged in the Occupy Wall Street protests and other progressive movements. And in December 2017, two organizations, Repairers of the Breach and the Kairos Center, launched the Poor People’s Campaign, a national call for moral revival, building on the work of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. The movement has led by coordinating committees in 40 states.
Music transition [00:27:06] Is there a movement in the house?
Will Coley [00:27:14] In June twenty nineteen, the Poor People’s Campaign turned the tables on governmental elites rather than camping out on the National Mall, they organized the presidential forum in Washington, D.C. The 2020 election campaign was well underway by that point. And so the campaign invited presidential candidates to speak. I had a chance to go to this forum myself. Nine candidates, including Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, spoke at the Moral Action Congress, all of them vying to become the next president. The co-chair of the campaign, Reverend William Barber, prepared the crowd of a thousand people for the forum. With dozens of TV cameras and reporters also in attendance, Reverend Barber was aware that it was also a photo op.
Reverend William Barber [00:27:58] And it’s one thing to talk to the choir, but it’s another thing to have the chance to get a message out all over the world that can do our first part and that’s shift the narrative.
Will Coley [00:28:10] At the moral action Congress. I ran into an old friend, Steve Pavey. I’ve known Steve for many years through activist events like this. Steve is six feet tall with a shaved head and glasses. He’s kind of a quiet guy who wields his camera with such subtle fluid movements. You barely notice when he’s found a shot. The Poor People’s Campaign hired Steve to take photos of the event, and they’ve reserved a seat for him in the front row with reporters from the AP and Reuters.
Steve Pavey [00:28:35] They’re getting on the floor and breaking the rules and trying to get in front of me. But it didn’t really matter because the point was for the…from the poor people’s campaign perspective, the most important photos that could be taken are when we turned around from the stage and someone directly impacted would stand up and ask the question to the presidential candidates. That was intentional planning. My job was to capture those images. All the other photographers would like often missed that or not even see it or too late. They were so hyper focused on getting the best picture they could of Biden, you know, with Poor People’s Campaign’s banner,
Will Coley [00:29:13] Each candidate made their stump speech. Then the co-chairs and members of the audience ask each of them a few questions. Reverend Barber asked Joe Biden.
Reverend William Barber [00:29:21] In 2016, we had twenty six presidential debates on the main stage televised. Not one of them focused an hour on addressing the problems of forty three point five percent of this nation. One hundred and forty million poor and lower people. Will your campaign advocate for a complete debate on the issue of poverty in the United States of America?
President Joe Biden [00:29:51] Yes, and Reverend, that’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m here today.
Will Coley [00:29:56] And all the other candidates said yes as well. But as time would tell, this never happened. It wasn’t even a question posed in any of the other debates in 2020. But the forum wasn’t the only event that the campaign organized that week. They also spoke at a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill to present their poor people’s moral budget. This outlines the need for investments and good jobs and adequate incomes, fair taxes, investments and health care and child care support free college and investments in our planet and peace. Several activists with experience living in poverty spoke at the hearing, as well as Reverend Liz Theoharis, the co-chair of the campaign.
Steve Pavey [00:30:34] So I have lots of images of them telling their story but one image that really stands out is where Liz is like bent over the table with her fist in the air and she’s so angry.
Reverend Liz Theoharis [00:30:50] And then people are being blamed for the problems that this society has caused. How is it that you can see “the war on poverty failed” when it is politicians who defunded that war? How can you say that Headstart is a personal charity when it has lifted sixty five million children out of poverty?
Will Coley [00:31:23] Steve has been documenting social justice activism for many years. It all started in 2010 when he was teaching a college level class on social problems and invited undocumented immigrant activists to speak to his students. The connection would prove to be life changing. The student activists recruited Steve to take photos for their campaigns. Steve was soon invested in supporting and documenting their activism and eventually quit his tenure track job.
Steve Pavey [00:31:48] I felt the deeper call to go and be with the undocumented youth because it wasn’t just their battle that they were calling me into. It was what I began to see was it was my battle to it’s a collective struggle. It wasn’t a struggle for someone else’s freedom. It was a struggle for our freedom. And that’s what they were teaching me. And so the invitation was to no longer become an ally, but to become someone who was an accomplice or a comrade.
Will Coley [00:32:15] After several years documenting Dreamer activism, Steve was hired by the Poor People’s Campaign.
Steve Pavey [00:32:20] The Poor People’s Campaign is tapping into all poor people’s struggles. And my connection with some of those are what brought me into the into the campaign.
Will Coley [00:32:27] What do you think the role of photography is in shifting narratives?
Steve Pavey [00:32:30] Photography that is done in partnership with the with the poor, with those who suffer with the migrant and helps to humanize the story and helps us draw into understand some human experience that we wouldn’t understand apart from just words by themselves. The images that I create are images that help move us out of our heads and into our hearts and helps us see the the the humanity of the other. Like my photography wants to work at that intersection of of a call to do the inner work of of seeing who I am and who the other is, but also the work of transforming systems and structures. It’s deeply connected and I hope my work connects those two together.
Ellen Buchman [00:26:29] In 2018, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture mounted a special exhibition called City of Hope about Resurrection City. It featured several photos taken by Robert Houston in 1968.
Will Coley [00:26:47] How did you feel when your photos made it into the Smithsonian for that exhibit?
Robert Houston [00:26:52] It’s an awesome feeling. People will meet me you know say, “I’d like to see some of your work”. Go to the Smithsonian,
Will Coley [00:27:01] and that feels good to say?
Robert Houston [00:27:03] Yes, it does. Yes, it does.
Will Coley [00:33:23] You can see human connection and the images created by Robert Houston and Steve Pavey, people building a tent at Resurrection City in 1968, anti-poverty activists asking tough questions to presidential candidates in 2019. These movement photos show people uniting to challenge unjust systems that create poverty.
Ellen Buchman [00:33:42] It’s as though the pendulum swung from a systemic understanding of poverty in 1968 to an individualistic frame in the 80s and the 90s. And now it’s swinging back to the systemic view. It’s people who are living in poverty who are leading this change, who are making these demands. It connects to one of the findings actually in our shifting the narrative research, we need to center the voices of those who are most affected and connect them to the systemic solutions. The 21st Century Poor People’s Campaign has done just that with what it terms its moral budget. And as we’ve seen throughout this podcast series, it’s about framing. It’s something that photographers like Robert Houston and Steve Pavey help us to see with our own eyes.
Will Coley [00:34:34] In April 2021, Robert Houston passed away. He was 85 years old. We want to dedicate this episode to his memory and an appreciation for his vital photography. Houston’s mentor, Gordon Parks, wrote about his work: “One finds him immersed in the problems of poverty and inhumanity. People of all colors who suffer those problems come and go, and at times they tend to disappear. But wherever their destination happens to be, Houston’s camera seems to be there waiting, ready to take another look.”
Ellen Buchman [00:35:08] You’ve been listening to Shifting the Narrative, a podcast series from The Opportunity Agenda to see some of the photographs taken by Robert Houston and Steve Pavey, listen to a conversation between the photographers and read more from shifting the narrative case studies research. You can visit our website, OpportunityAgenda.org. The Poor People’s Campaign is organizing a year long series of actions leading to the mass poor people and Low Wage Workers Assembly on June 18th, 2022. Join and learn more about this by going to their Web site, PoorPeoplesCampaign.org
Will Coley [00:35:45] Big special thanks to Professor Frances Fox Piven, Rebecca Valis, Charon Hribar, Professor Martin Gilens, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, and Tom Scherer for the use of clips from his father, Edward Scherer’s documentary on the case. Some audio material was edited for clarity and time.
Ellen Buchman [00:36:05] I’m Ellen Buchman, The President of the Opportunity Agenda. Will Coley is our producer and our research and production team includes Elizabeth Johnson, Julie Fisher-Rowe, Lucy Odigie-Turley, Loren Siegel, Charlie Sherman, Lashaya Howie, Christiaan Perez, Brian Erickson and Rachel Reyes. Our editor is Alison Behringer. And the music was provided by Alex McKennis and Blue Dot Sessions
Will Coley [00:36:33] For more Shifting The Narrative episodes, be sure to follow us or subscribe wherever you listen to podcast and please rate and comment so others will find and hear these stories.
Ellen Buchman [00:36:44] Together, we can shift narratives for greater opportunity for everyone
Charon Hribar [00:36:49] Everybody’s got a right to live! to Live! Everybody’s got a right to love! to Love! Everybody’s got a right to dream! to Dream! Everybody’s got a right to breathe! to breathe! Everybody’s got a right to health! To Health! Everybody’s got a right Joy! To Joy! to Everybody’s got a right to learn! To learn! Everybody’s got a right to live!