By Nicole Martin
WEAP's IJES Associate
May 6, 2009

The work of poverty and health justice knows no boundaries. That is why the Women’s Economic Agenda Project (WEAP) has always made it a point to link the local situation to state and national levels.  The pain and injustices we are experiencing here in our home city of Oakland, CA, are the same struggles that are occurring in Sacramento, Los Angeles, Portland, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and hundreds of other cities and towns across the United States. This national scope and the dire need to make connections with people mobilizing across the country, was a driving force behind WEAP’s recent “mini-tour” of Rochester, New York.  

From April 20-22, WEAP’s Executive Director, Ethel Long-Scott, and WEAP’s Institute for Justice and Economic Security Associate, Nicole Martin, traveled to New York and joined with the Rochester arm of the Social Welfare Action Alliance (SWAA) in anti-poverty leadership development, education, and organizing work. Nationally, SWAA is an organization committed to eradicating the structural causes of inequality and injustice in our society. Founded in 1985, “the Alliance is based on principles that reflect a concern for social and economic justice, peace and coalition building with progressive social movements.” Both WEAP and SWAA are members of the umbrella organization, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC) and are dedicated to building a broad social justice movement across color lines to abolish poverty.  

With the building of that movement in mind, for three exciting days, WEAP educated and organized for "Health care as a Human Right" by teaching about Single Payer & Universal Health Care, sounding the alarm against unjust health care “Individual Mandates,” and highlighting the immediate need to end poverty and build a broad social movement to secure the health justice we need in the United States right now.  

To spotlight the urgent need to end poverty, Long-Scott appeared on two radio shows to help promote the message of poverty eradication.  The first was on WDKX radio, one of the few independent African-American owned radio stations, on the “Wake UP Club” show. Long-Scott was also interviewed on WXXI radio, a Rochester public radio station akin to the Bay Area’s KQED, on the Bob Smith Show.  On both shows, WEAP discussed the increasing poverty in our cities, our broken health care system, and how we need a social contract that works in the interest of the people and not for the profit of a few over the many.

WEAP also conducted two major speaking engagements during the mini-tour.  The first was near Rochester at the Brockport campus of the State University of New York, as part of the American Democracy Project Speaker Series Presentation.  The audience was approximately one hundred and fifty people, primarily social welfare and women’s studies students and scholars. The next night, Long-Scott spoke to the community at the Dugan Center of St. Mary’s Church.  This audience, also around one hundred and fifty, included a diverse array of people – social justice activists, concerned community leaders and members, the homeless and poor, and local politicians.

At each radio show and each speaking engagement, the people of Rochester responded positively to the vision that WEAP’s Long-Scott presented.  They articulated, often passionately and guided by their own heartbreaking misfortunes, their need and desire for change. People agreed that there is something fundamentally wrong with both our current health care system, and our overall economic system.  Like WEAP, they also said we need to start creating a world that places human rights ahead of the profits that increasingly leave so many people homeless, hungry, sick, jobless, and without an adequate education.  In other words, the audiences indicated they are tired of being treated like they aren’t worth it, like they can be kicked to the curbside and forgotten because our industries, including the medical industry, follow a “throw away” policy which dictates that cutting costs is the bottom line.

In between radio shows, speaking engagements, receptions, and strategy sessions, the superb leaders of the Rochester SWAA found the time to give its WEAP guests a tour of Rochester.  Currently, Rochester has the second highest rate of child poverty among the 100 largest cities in the United States, growing income inequality, and is often called the “Murder Capital” of New York.  As Californians from the Oakland Bay Area, it was absolutely eerie at times to see the similarities between one East Coast city and our own West Coast city- cities with rich histories and diversity, mixed with extreme poverty and wealth, sometimes just blocks away from each other.  One of the most memorable and sadly poignant moments was a stop at Rochester’s House of Mercy, a homeless shelter in a poverty and violence stricken neighborhood, only a couple of neighborhoods away from such historical landmarks as Susan B. Anthony’s and Frederick Douglass’ homes.  Inside this shelter that refuses to turn a single soul away, the amazing Sister Grace, who runs it and keeps it alive despite constant threats of closure, has been filling a wall with faces.  It is her wall of death, as she has placed there every obituary of all the people she knows and loves and whose lives have been taken too soon by poverty.

It is because of Sister Grace’s wall of death, it is because of the hundred plus homicides in Oakland that occur every year, it is because of the three-million-plus homeless every night across the United States, and it is because of the some 90 million uninsured and underinsured Americans, that Long-Scott reiterated again and again on the Rochester mini-tour:  “We MUST work forward towards a new vision.  This new vision, where everyone’s human rights are secured and poverty is eliminated, MUST inform new strategies.  A new, more just, America can’t happen until we all get involved in breaking the silence on the injustices we face and dedicating ourselves to fighting to secure health care as a human right.  It makes a difference what we do.”