Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is the co-director of the Kairos Center and the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, a National Call for Moral Revival. Building on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last, great unfinished project, the Poor People’s Campaign is taking on systemic poverty, systemic racism, environmental degradation, and militarism in an effort to end the war on the poor and transform our country.
We feel lucky to have had the chance to speak with Rev. Theoharis recently about her life, the Poor People’s Campaign, and how all of us, if we come together, can help save the soul of our democracy.
Can you tell us about your background and how you got involved in anti-poverty organizing?
I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with socially active parents. My mom was really active in our church, but also did social justice work, so I was raised going to protests, doing food drives, etc. from a very, very young age.
Then, when I went off to college in Philadelphia, I met a group of homeless people on my first day who were organizing there and all across the country. It was called the National Union of the Homeless. I had always been interested in poverty issues, both because my family had experienced poverty and because I was raised to see the work of ending poverty as what you were supposed to do.
At what point did you understand that you were being called to the ministry? How was that related to your anti-poverty work?
I got involved in the early to mid-1990s with very grassroots anti-poverty organizing, and have done that work ever since. I went into the ministry because I realized that my call to work and organize to end poverty was a religious one. I went to seminary and went through the ordination process, and got ordained to, basically, do this work—working with poor people and poor people's organizations across the country to build what Dr. King called a freedom church of the poor. That's actually much of what my ministry is—instead of having a local congregation, I travel around the country and help different grassroots organizations.
Can you talk a little bit about how you got involved with the Poor People's Campaign and Reverend Barber?
When I was in Philadelphia in the 1990s, we got great inspiration from the original Poor People's Campaign. We would look at moments in history, and see when people came together to try to right the wrongs of society. I have been working for a very long time on the idea of reigniting a Poor People's Campaign.
I met Reverend Barber in 2013, as folks in North Carolina were doing the Moral Mondays movement. At the time, I was launching the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary. I invited Reverend Barber to be one of the keynote speakers at our launch.
It's been many years in the making, and grassroots organizations have been doing a lot of work. Reverend Barber, and the network that he has, and the Kairos Center, and the network that we have, have been planting the seeds of this for a long time, but it's only been about a year since we made the new campaign public. The official launch was on December 4.
December 4, 2017, was the 50th anniversary of the launch of Dr. King’s original Poor People’s Campaign. What made this the right moment to announce your new movement?
I think there's so many things. But we would be doing this even if King hadn't had a Poor People's Campaign 50 years ago, because poverty is so dire. Systemic racism is so real. The climate crisis and the devastation of our environment is palpable, and our nation continues to spend so much more on the military, and on the militarization of the world and of our communities than it does on social programs like education and healthcare that, in some ways, we have no choice but to come together.
What are the next steps for the Poor People’s Campaign?
We are calling for 40 days of direct action and organizing, community education, arts and culture, and nonviolent civil disobedience all over the country. Starting on May 13, which is Mother's Day, and going for 40 days until June 21, with a big mobilization on June 23.
We think this will create strong coalitions, movements of people, in dozens of states across the country that can keep the pressure up, can keep the organizing going, both into the election in November of 2018, into the election of 2020, but beyond that, so we have these permanently organized communities who are working together across all these lines—race, age, geography, and much more.
What are your thoughts about nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience?
There’s a quote I really find very useful from Dr. King. He talks about how there's a reason for there to be red lights. There's a reason for there to be laws and order, but that when there's an emergency, when someone is bleeding, the ambulances are supposed to drive through those red lights, right? He makes this point that what we need in this time, and this was true 50 years ago, but it's even more so today, is that we need brigades of ambulance drivers who are willing to ignore the red lights of the current system. He then says that massive civil disobedience is at least as loud as ambulances driving through red lights, with their sirens on full. To us, having thousands of people in a coordinated fashion, willing to do nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action together will be a very loud siren. It will cause people to have to pause and think about, what is going on? And what kind of world do we live in? Does it have to be the way it is?
You and Rev. Barber are the co-chairs of the campaign. Can you talk a little bit about leadership in a campaign like this that’s driven by the grassroots?
The role that Reverend Barber and myself are playing is one of leadership, but of kind of servant leadership. We're trying to kind of shepherd this along, and serve people, and there's a powerful national steering committee, made up of real heroes and heroines across this country, folks that have been doing this work for a long time.
This feels really important to me. Having leadership for a movement, and coming from all walks of life and all places, but including, especially, those that are most impacted by the problems that they're trying to solve. Those leaders are in our communities, and they're leading the way. We just don't always hear about them.
This is not just the Poor People's Campaign. It's the Poor People's Campaign, A National Call for Moral Revival. What’s the importance of the word "moral"?
We really see that this campaign is about saving the soul of our democracy. The Poor People's Campaign, a National Call for Moral Revival, is about exactly that, in that we need a radical revolution of values to see that it's wrong for there to be 64,000,000 people who make less than $15.00 an hour, when there are 400 families who make $97,000 an hour. People of all faiths, and of no faith, unite around healthcare, and housing, and voting rights, and clean air. Those are the issues that our society should be concerned with, and they're moral issues.
What's the one thing you’d want people to do to support this campaign?
I think what we want is for people to spread the word that there is a movement brewing in this country. It's great if people can sign up to be involved in their states. It's awesome if people can donate to support the cause. It's amazing if people are able to find donated food, or clothes, and contribute those, but mostly, this is a movement that has to involve and reach everyone. Really, spreading the word and saying that things don't have to be how they are ... We don't have to be divided in the ways that we are. Love can rule, and love can trump hate.