To understand how 350 people—including more than 100 people from across the country who are experiencing poverty and hunger firsthand—arrived in Philadelphia last week for a conference that culminated in a call to action, you have to go back to 2008.

Dr. Mariana Chilton of Drexel University was doing cutting-edge research on the relationship between poverty and child nutrition—and the trauma of living in poverty—and testifying about her findings at the national, state and local levels.

But the hearings never included any witnesses whose very lives were the topics of discussion. Chilton also didn’t feel like her words sufficiently described the hardships that families in poverty were enduring and revealing to her in interviews.

So she gave forty-four women cameras and told them to document their experiences as “Witnesses to Hunger.” They began taking pictures—a child with an outstretched hand asking a caseworker for food; puddles of blood on the sidewalk at a bus stop; a child treated for asthma being cared for by his father who was missing work; drug paraphernalia next to a slide on the playground….

Thousands of photographs documented the experiences of families with food and health, banking and finance, work and opportunity, education, housing and energy, and access to technology. The photos were turned into an exhibit, and the women also learned to advocate for themselves at the local and state levels, and then at the federal level, too, when Pennsylvania Senator Robert Casey Jr. invited them to Capitol Hill to testify and speak with members of Congress. The women testified on issues like housing, WIC, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, child nutrition and more.

The Witnesses also began to form their own informal groups in their neighborhoods to support and counsel one another—talking together about issues ranging from food and nutrition to confronting domestic violence and past trauma; from fighting back against the stigma of being poor to navigating a welfare system that seems like a labyrinth designed to deny services; from providing childcare for one another to pooling resources to help make ends meet.

Word spread about this project that was putting the voices and experiences of people living in poverty front and center, and empowering women to overcome their despair and social isolation. Witnesses expanded to Boston, Providence and Baltimore (where one Witness is a single father). There are now seventy-three Witnesses and they have taken over 10,000 photographs and shot over 200 videos. There have been twelve formal exhibitions and many smaller showings. Currently, there is interest in starting new groups in California, Camden, Omaha, Pittsburgh and New Orleans.

With this kind of track record, it was somewhat natural for these women—and the advocates they work with at Drexel University’s Center for Hunger Free Communities, where Chilton serves as director—to break the conference mold and bring people together to pursue a new model of antipoverty work, one that builds a bridge between the advocacy community and people on the ground in low-income neighborhoods.

For three days philanthropists, advocates, researchers, journalists and government officials shared panels with Witnesses and other people living in poverty who came to the conference from as far away as San Diego and Sacramento, Denver, Oklahoma, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Nebraska, Texas, up and down the East Coast—and India.

Screenwriter Antwone Fisher was a keynote speaker. He described his experiences with trauma, homelessness and hunger, and turning his life around through telling his story.

“If you can do it, tell your story. It will be cathartic and healing,” said Fisher. “So many of us here—we could learn from one another. Some people don’t even know the kind of pain that exists…but it goes on. So if you’re in a position to tell it, just knowing that people are hungry or kids are hungry—you can do something about it.”

Gwen Ifill of Washington Week and PBS Newshour also grew up poor and said that we don’t talk about poverty “because we don’t like to talk about race.” But in her view now “race has the power to bring us together for a change, instead of driving us apart.”

She praised Witnesses for Hunger for doing its part to help people understand what is happening with poverty in America.

“The fact that you’re willing to step up and speak—and witness, I love that title, witnessing, because I think that speaks more to what we’re talking about here than almost anything else,” said Ifill. “If you don’t see it, if you’re invisible, nobody’s witnessing their misery, their need, their demands…. We don’t like ‘the other’ so much—something that seems different or alien to us. And once that’s stripped away, people begin to listen, people begin to hear, and then you can speak.”

Ifill viewed Witnesses and the people attending the conference as creating an opening for effective mobilization and political action.

“In the end it comes back to what the abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand,’ ” said Ifill. “And I might add it has to be informed demand. Rosa Parks didn’t just sit on that bus, she didn’t happen to be there that day—she signed up for civil rights training first.”

In that spirit, the conference ended with a call to action. The organizers had planned to focus on one clear action—such as protecting food stamps (SNAP)—but that plan changed. Instead, people wanted a working group to devise strategies to pursue multiple goals—as well as ways for the conference-goers to stay connected with one another.

In addition to protecting SNAP, the group wants to promote and support the voices and experiences of those who know hunger and poverty firsthand; simplify the eligibility criteria across safety net programs; demand a changed culture in the human services sector so that people are treated with respect and dignity, and case workers are trained to address trauma; push for an expanded understanding of poverty that includes access to food, energy, housing, health and education; and create a national plan to end hunger in the United States.

The working group will issue a report in the coming months that will detail next steps, and I’ll certainly let readers know about that and ways to get involved. In my opinion, only through action undertaken jointly by those in poverty and those who want to eradicate poverty will a broad, bold antipoverty movement emerge.

Finally, something else very important and unique came out of this gathering. The participants from India were part of the Society for the Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) in Andhra Pradesh, Hyderbad, India. Chilton went to India last summer to see the organization’s work and explore whether its approach could work in the United States as well.

SERP supports over 900,000 village-based, self-help groups that provide employment to more than 11 million rural poor women. The women all save money as a group, and leverage those assets for larger loans from banks. Some of the self-help groups have now started feeding centers where any mother who’s very poor can come and receive three meals a day, seven days a week. They are also providing day care centers, early childhood education centers, HIV and STD education, preventative healthcare centers and many other entrepreneurial activities that are lifting people out of poverty. Whatever projects a self-help group undertakes, they continue to meet and contribute to group savings on a weekly basis, so savings becomes the constant thread for continuity through the years.

Lakshmi Durga Chava, director of Community Managed Health and Nutrition for SERP, attended the conference and visited some of the neighborhoods and homes of Witnesses, too. She had little doubt that through the structures already in place—the groups of women meeting and supporting one another through Witnesses to Hunger—SERP-like activities and group savings could be undertaken by women within their own neighborhoods. (Chava estimates that a two- to three-block radius in Philadelphia is the equivalent of a SERP-participating village.)

One Witness has already stepped forward and is forming the first group of ten women to try out this model. The women will develop their rules for saving together and lending to one another, and determine which three or four issues they want to focus on to help their community. (Those issues could be anything—from taking on slumlords to addressing special education in schools, or working on health education, for example.)

“There is hope,” Philadelphia Witness Tianna Gaines told me. “As long as we keep having this conversation, and keep having people who really want to come into the neighborhoods and find out what they are about and talk about them—we can change things. Unfortunately we have so many kids that can’t wait—so many families that can’t wait and are being lost to the system.”

Images credit: Greg Kaufmann