I’ve long been told by a lot of smart people that the nuns who taught them growing up are among the best teachers they ever had. As a Jewish man who attended secular and Quaker schools, I never had the privilege of experiencing that. But I have now.
Like millions of other Americans, I’ve followed the Nuns on the Bus over the last couple of weeks as they went on an inspiring 2,700 mile drive across the country to educate people on the House Republican-passed Ryan budget and the damaging effects it would have on poor, vulnerable and struggling people throughout America.
I was in Washington, DC, where the tour ended—right at the United Methodist Building where The Nation ’s DC bureau is located, in fact. There were about 400 people there—mostly boisterous fans, religious and non-religious alike—and a nice turnout by the press too.
The nuns made their way from the bus to a stage backed by a huge American flag. Eye of the Tiger blared from the speakers. It was a bit funny to hear the theme song from Rocky III accompanying an entrance by seven nuns. But it was also fitting. At a time when our politics is marked by canned speech, rehearsed talking points, and predictable rhetoric, the sisters are dedicated to something that is as courageous as it is unusual:
Sister Simone and NETWORK were the lead organizers of this effort. She has worked on poverty-related issues throughout her life, including as the lead attorney for the Community Law Center in Oakland, California, which she founded in 1978.
I had the opportunity to speak to Sister Simone about the tour, what inspired it, and what’s next for the Nuns on the Bus. This is what she had to say:
Greg Kaufmann: How did a group of nuns suddenly decide to drive 2,700 miles across the country?
Sister Simone: You know how? We asked for help. I do meditation and try to listen deeply to God’s nudgings, and for me the insight that I had was that with all of this notoriety—we’re not used to having the attention on ourselves—we needed to use it for mission. And in prayer what came to me was, “Ask for help.” So that’s what I did.
We had all of these folks come together to brainstorm, and we don’t remember who first came up with it—but it was a bus trip. That was May 14, and then on June 17 we launched the foolish thing.
Did that sudden notoriety stem from the Vatican’s reprimand back in April of American nuns—for being outspoken on social justice issues and “silent” on issues like abortion and gay marriage?
Sister Simone: Right. And the fact that they named NETWORK as a problem organization for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). They said that some of the reasons LCWR was doing poorly was because they were related to us. It was excruciatingly painful—the Vatican never even talked to us. Plus it was such a shock—we’re such a small organization, nine full-time staff. So that we were known by the Vatican at all was shocking.
I also think if Paul Ryan had never claimed that Catholic social teaching informed his budget, I don’t know that we ever would have gone on a bus trip. In some ways it’s a gift that he did it, but it’s also so infuriating.
You said that the nuns went on the road to explain to people about the Ryan budget but instead the people explained to you. You’ve worked your whole life on poverty-related issues. What is it that you learned on this trip?
The stories of people who broke our hearts over and over and over again. To meet people like Margaret’s family who came directly from her memorial service to our “friendraiser” because they wanted to raise up Margaret so that no more people would die without health insurance because they lost their job. Or Shiesha in Chicago, who is pulling her life together in this little oasis of hope on the South Side—to see her determination and work in getting her college diploma. Or Billy trying to feed his family when he can only afford to either put a roof over their heads or food on the table, so he uses the food program at St. Benedict’s dining room. Or the man who just got out of jail in Youngstown who now has this place to stay that’s like a bed and breakfast, who never felt his dignity until he had that experience. And it’s all because of the programs of sisters in these public-private partnerships.
Regarding public-private partnerships, you said in Iowa, “We each need to exercise responsibility. But responsibility only works when we’re in solidarity and community.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
I’ve begun to say that it’s an unpatriotic lie that individuals create their own advancement or pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. And what I realize is that this unpatriotic lie exists in order to protect individuals who have a lot [of wealth] already. The Constitution says it—it’s we the people, we’re in this together. And together we work to form the more perfect union.
For us, as people of faith, it’s a faith mandate. But it’s also a civic mandate, and it means in our complex society each person has to have a sense of the whole, and how he or she contributes to the whole, and how he or she receives from the whole.
Has the tour changed the way you see yourself and your fellow sisters doing your work moving forward?
This has given a new level of awareness for us, and urgency. At least for me, I’m frantic to get this message out: that our nation is hungry for an alternative that is communal, that pulls us together to solve tough problems. It is about trying to find the way to call ourselves back to being who we are. It’s a struggle for the soul of our democracy.
One of the news shows I was on said we’ve got four months left until the election, so this is a really important time. I said, “No, this is so much more than the election. This is about who we are as a nation, and who we want to be into the future.” And unless we recover and reclaim that, we are in really deep trouble and I think at risk of losing our democracy unless we begin to participate.
How are we at risk of losing our democracy?
The media treats democracy like a sports game: a candidate is up, a candidate is down—citing poll numbers as if they were betting lines. The fact is, democracy is not a game. Making it a game makes us couch potatoes, and we treat it like the Super Bowl. Democracy demands engagement and an educated populace that’s willing to wrestle with the hard questions.
How do you sustain the momentum Nuns on the Bus created so that people will wrestle with those questions?
We had no idea what the consequence of doing this bus trip was. The fact is it appears to have had a fairly large impact on individuals in the country, and on groups, and on politics.
I will never forget Janesville, Wisconsin, at Congressman Ryan’s office. That was when I began to see, “Oh my God, this is huge.” I thought because we were in his district we were going to have a really teeny turnout—it was huge. The police gave us a quick permit to hold a rally a block away at the park in front of the courthouse because the crowd was so huge, crowded on the sidewalks, there were cameras everywhere. That’s when I thought, “Wow, something big is happening.”
So now we need to continue at a really stepped-up level—not easy with just nine full-time staff. We’re still figuring out what in God’s green earth happened? What did we touch?
The three things we do know are these: our quarterly magazine on August 1 will be all about Nuns on the Bus—the places we went, the things we learned, the people we saw, [and] next steps, the way forward.
We’ll also be working to set up visits with the congress people whose offices we visited during the tour.
And probably in September we’ll do a briefing on Capitol Hill that’s not just about data—they’ve got enough data!—but I want to break their hearts with the people we saw and met. Because it’s so easy to arrogantly just dismiss programs—because you can argue about numbers and effectiveness. But tell me that Margaret should die again, and I’ll fight you tooth and nail. It’s just wrong.
If you want to stay involved with the Nuns on the Bus, you can sign up for NETWORK’s email alerts. Also, check out the Faithful Budget which was created by representatives of Muslim, Jewish, Christian and other faith traditions. The Nuns on the Bus support it, and Sister Simone says it can be summarized by her “five-word mantra”: “Reasonable revenues for responsible programs.”
2012 National Summit on Paid Sick Days and Paid Family Leave: Monday, July 9, 8:40 am & Tuesday, July 10, 8:30 am, Capitol Room of the Hyatt Regency, Washington DC. Top experts, labor and business leaders, and workers discuss the prospects for advancing paid sick days and paid leave laws at the local, state and federal levels. This year twenty-three states and DC are represented. Tuesday is a Day of Action.
50 Years Since The Other America : Understanding & Addressing Poverty in the 21st Century : Tuesday, July 10, 9 am–5 pm, The Newseum Knight Conference Center, Washington, DC. Leading researchers, practitioners, and journalists will assess how economic and policy trends are affecting poverty today, and discuss promising new policies and strategies for lifting and keeping Americans out of poverty.
Jobs Are Not Enough: Why are the Campaigns Ignoring Americans’ Lost Wealth?: Wednesday, July 11, 9:15 am–11 pm, New America Foundation, Washington, DC. What can government do to help ordinary Americans avoid ruinous debt and rebuild their wealth? Can a tax code that directs nearly half a trillion dollars in investment subsidies mostly to wealthy Americans be reformed to help average Americans build wealth? Could such an agenda put the economy back on a path to sustained, broad-based growth? Two panels discuss these and other issues.
2012 Kansas Conference on Poverty: July 25–27, Hyatt Regency, Wichita. The Kansas Association of Community Action Programs and the Kansas Community Action Network have their fingers on the pulse of poverty and what’s happening in the antipoverty community. I’ll be there and I hope you can check it out too.
Articles and Other Resources
“Poor Land in Jail… Huge Fees for Probation,” Ethan Bronner
“…How States are Keeping Adult Education Afloat,” Marcie Foster
“The Unfinished War on Poverty,” Indivar Dutta-Gupta
“The Ones We’ve Lost: Student Loan Debt Suicides,” C. Cryn Johanssen
“Health-Care Law’s Medicaid Provision Too Good to Pass Up,” Ezra Klein
“Protesters Deliver Petitions to Palermo Villa,” Nicole Levy
“Women Biggest Losers from Failure to Raise Minimum Wage,” David Madland and Nick Bunker
“A Day-Care Center’s…$10,000 Pepco Bill,” Courtland Milloy
“Peter Edelman on Fighting Poverty,” Bill Moyers (video and transcript)
“Houston Janitors Find an Ally in Danny Glover,” Joy Sewing
“Tea Party Govs Say ‘No’ to Medicaid Expansion,” George Zornick
“Opting Out of Medicaid Expansion: How Many Uninsured Adults Would Not Be Eligible for Medicaid?” Genevieve Kenney, Lisa Dubay, Stephen Zuckerman, Michael Huntress. In this brief, Urban Institute researchers estimate the number of uninsured Americans in each state who would be eligible for Medicaid if every state takes the option of expanding Medicaid coverage. The authors also estimate the number of uninsured Americans who are at risk of not being covered because the Medicaid expansion is now optional. Includes state-by-state data.
“Poverty in Southeast Louisiana Post-Katrina,” Allison Plyer and Elaine Ortiz. The suburbs are now home to the largest poor population in the region. The new demographics present new challenges for anti-poverty efforts as the suburban poor face difficulties in accessing jobs, safety net benefits and other work supports. This report from Greater New Orleans Community Data Center suggests a regional strategy with public-private partnerships that work across city and parish boundaries.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but these groups and others are working every day to generate the kind of popular and political will that helped reduce poverty by 43 percent between 1964–1973:
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
Center for Community Change
Center for Law and Social Policy
Children’s Defense Fund
Coalition on Human Needs
Coalition of Immokalee Workers
Community Action Partnership
Food Research and Action Center
Half In Ten
Interfaith Worker Justice
Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness
Jewish Council for Public Affairs
Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
National Alliance to End Homelessness
National Council on Aging
National Council of La Raza
National Employment Law Project
National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty
National Low Income Housing Coalition
National Partnership for Women and Families
National Women’s Law Center
Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Spotlight on Poverty
Western Center on Law & Poverty
Witnesses to Hunger/Center for Hunger-Free Communities
This excellent new infographic from Demos combines information drawn from the organization's own work, This Week in Poverty, and a recent American Prospect article written by Georgetown University Law Professor Peter Edelman.
Quote of the Week
“Forty-five counties in Ohio—half the state—have no power and haven’t since last Friday at 5:00. The estimate for restoring power in some areas is July 10th. We are nearly 100 hours into the Great Blackout of 2012 and it’s still 91 degrees. I suspect and fear people are going to die, as the right screams, ‘Who needs infrastructure spending or government?’ The food in food pantries has spoiled, all as the House prepares to make deep cuts to SNAP. So what’s next for the poor, and working poor, who aren’t going to get a paycheck because their employer lost power? A real state of emergency and Congress remains hell bent on taking food out of the mouths of the least among us.”
—Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director, Ohio Association of Foodbanks, on July 3.