With more than 46 million people living below the poverty line, struggling to survive on $19,530 or less for a family of three, and with more than one in three Americans living on less than twice that amount, scrimping to pay for basics, this country will require a broad-based movement to reverse the decades of failed national imagination.
The groups listed below are all worth watching as they do just that: galvanize communities, arm activists with information, and fight for living-wage jobs, stable housing and a strong safety net that catches people when they fall.
1. Coalition of Immokalee Workers: If you want to see what is possible through grassroots organizing by those who are most affected by poverty—or what it means to set a seemingly unreachable goal and persevere, or understand your opposition and find new ways to challenge it—look no further than the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
When the CIW was founded in 1993, it was as a small group of tomato farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, trying to end a twenty-year decline in their poverty wages. Who is historically more powerless than farmworkers? Yet today, most major buyers of Florida tomatoes have signed agreements with the CIW to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes. These agreements have resulted in over $11 million in additional earnings for the workers since January 2011.
In addition, through its Fair Food Program, the CIW has persuaded corporate buyers to purchase tomatoes only from growers who sign a strict code of conduct that includes zero tolerance for forced labor or sexual assault. As a result, the majority of growers (those accounting for 90 percent of the tomato industry’s $650 million in revenue) have agreed to that code. If major violations occur but don’t get corrected—and there’s a twenty-four-hour hotline for worker complaints—corporations will not buy from those growers.
The Fair Food Program serves as a new model of social responsibility, and its influence is clear in the recently signed agreement between retailers and factory owners in the Bangladesh garment industry. Follow the CIW not only to get involved with farmworkers but for a sense of what can be achieved through strategic, fearless organizing.
2. Center for Community Change: For forty-five years, the Center for Community Change has worked with low-income communities and local grassroots organizations to fight poverty. The CCC has intentionally worked behind the scenes, keeping the spotlight focused on members of the communities instead and organizing around issues ranging from voter registration, affordable housing and community development to, more recently, immigration reform, healthcare and retirement security.
Executive director Deepak Bhargava says, “We have chosen as our great task in this next era to build a nationwide movement against poverty and for economic justice. The core issue is jobs—making sure that good jobs are available and accessible to everyone.” The CCC plans to work with grassroots organizations at the local and state levels, and then form coalitions at the national level, to demand policies that create good jobs with good wages. Its goal, Bhargava says, is to help build “a massive, diverse, boisterous, energized and organized social movement.”