Answering This Moment: Poor White Folks & Organizing in Maine

The below is a reflection from a Health Care is a Human Right member who was prompted by a fellow organizer with Put People First! Pennsylvania to write this piece. We hope it will spark conversation & critical thinking across our membership, and among white people in Maine more broadly.

My father grew up in Androscoggin County, poor and dependent on public assistance. He had lead paint poisoning as an infant, and his younger sister died in one of several house fires he survived as a child. His father was a veteran marine, a cab driver, and an alcoholic who brutally physically abused his wife and c1170826_692862550742296_1360311061_nhildren. My father was an adolescent before he had his own toothbrush. At 14, his mother was dead from a car accident; she drove to work during a snowstorm, no doubt out of necessity, and crashed on the way. His father was drunk and not around, so my dad and his siblings were divvied up among family friends and scattered across the state. By the age of 16, he had been turned out and was living on his own, renting a small trailer on his girlfriend’s father’s property, and working as a grocery clerk while trying to finish high school. At 18, he enlisted in the Marines, like many boys his age without another path ahead.

I share this because the life my father led back in the 1960s and 70s is very similar to the stories I hear from poor white people currently living in Androscoggin County. For many, not much has changed: the housing stock is old and largely neglected, leading to house fires, health issues from pests and mold, and cold winters; many don’t have any kind of dental care; the city of Lewiston is the poorest census tract north of Boston, and many rely on some combination of public assistance, charity, hustle, and temporary work; people mill around the Labor Ready office, waiting for day-long assignments that they hope will turn into real jobs; children in Lewiston-Auburn are still suffering from lead poisoning at alarming rates; and, addiction is a source of grief and exhaustion for many, something that comes up regularly in our discussions of health care.

What has changed in Androscoggin County? Well, jobs that used to exist in this old mill town have disappeared. And now there is a vibrant population of around 7,000 Somali residents making their home in Lewiston. The city is growing younger while the rest of Maine is in a “demographic winter.” The public safety nets people used to access are all but disintegrated, and have been replaced by nonprofit social service providers, churches, and community organizations that try desperately to fill the gaps. Racial tensions are high–in schools, on the streets, and in city council meetings. Blatant poor shaming is the norm, from the mayor of Lewiston and the governor.

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On the national stage, Donald Trump is firing up white liberals and progressives who decry xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia on social media platforms, in the streets, and in the opinion sections of their local papers. In Maine, we’ve been living (and resisting) under the tyranny of Governor LePage since 2010–a Trump of our very own. LePage regularly makes statements and rolls out policies that are anti-poor, anti-Black, and anti-immigrant. While their rhetoric and bombastic personae are very similar, there is an important difference between these two men: wealth.

Paul LePage grew up poor and sometimes homeless. He is a survivor of a family life characterized by domestic violence. Both he and my dad grew up in the Lewiston-Auburn area, and in many ways, they’ve come to hold a lot of the same political beliefs. Their class experiences have similarities and differences, revealing nuances of poverty and precarity in Maine. LePage’s position as governor shows us what we’re up against, because he isn’t merely resonating with poor white folks–he is of them. His words and actions show everyone what many poor people think of themselves and their neighbors. There are no excuses for LePage’s behavior–as a person or a politician. His actions are deplorable and a source of shame for the state. I do not make excuses for it; but, I cannot lie and say I did not come from and love and belong to people like him. He is not a stranger to me, and neither are many of the people who voted for him and cheer on his policies.

As I watch journalists, op-ed authors, and fellow progressive white people condemn the governor’s actions, I wonder about who gets lost in the storm of denouncements and sound bites? I also wonder how many white leftists with middle or upper class backgrounds are in relationship with poor white communities? How many folks have had an honest conversation with a poor white person who voted for Governor LePage? A lot of those folks are who our organizers sit with in libraries, parks, community centers, and churches as they share their health care stories. We meet working poor people who express anger and severe judgment on their neighbors who “cheat the system” and “don’t want to work because they’re lazy.” We talk with people living on disability and state assistance, who express shame for their inability to work and cast stones at their immigrant neighbors who “have kids just to get more food stamps” and “shouldn’t get anything because they aren’t from herOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAe.” We hear from people experiencing intergenerational poverty, for whom being poor and unemployed is a full-time job in itself–consisting of endless appointments, paperwork, and invasive bureaucracy. I should add that we also hear from people living on the streets and sleeping in shelters who immediately talk about human rights and the tyranny of capitalism. Also, the same folks who crudely say they don’t want their taxes to pay for those people to “mooch off the system” will babysit neighborhood kids so someone can pick up an extra shift, or organize a benefit supper for a member of their church who needs an expensive operation. Poor people–like all people–are complex.

Let me be clear about what ALL of these folks have in common:  each one is an expert on capitalism and our health care system. Poor folks–employed or not–know how the American economy works, because it works on top of them. Our job as organizers in this moment is to build trust with poor folks in our communities by 1) meeting people where they are at–physically and ideologically 3) validating lived experiences as sites of revolutionary knowledge, and 3) applying that knowledge to inform our organizing practices and outcomes.

We must continue to reject notions of anyone being unworthy. We have to confront racism head-on, with an understanding that poor white folks’ anger becomes dangerous for People of Color precisely when and because other white people abandon and write them off as trash, backward, hicks–as failures of whiteness. A lot of rhetoric and tactics I see from white leftists arise from middle class values and social positioning. Despite long-standing directives from People of Color for white folks to take care of our own, those with some comfort or security seem to interpret it as “go shame the others into behaving.” Poor white folks don’t need to be controlled or saved from ignorance–everyone else needs to meet, listen to, and invite them into the work of organizing for their own liberation, on their terms.

So, what the hell does that look like? I really feel like most of us don’t know. There’s talk about changing hearts and minds, but whose hearts and whose minds? Why is it one-sided? This void in leftist praxis perhaps explains why the first person with whom I completed a health care survey–a poor, white man on disability–referred to himself as “one of the abandoned”. I can remember how his vulnerability with a stranger standing on a street corner knocked the wind right out of me; I remember, too, feeling that he was saying something true.This country desperately needs a counter narrative. It must be built through cross-class and multi-racial organizing founded in a belief that redemption is possible, and grounded in a practice that seeks to move and be moved, on all sides.

I am working alongside incredible, ordinary people committed to building a movement of poor and working folks to change what is politically possible. Who believe there is enough for all of us, and that being human–not workers, not white, not citizens–makes us worthy of dignity and respect. We are learning as we go, and asking ourselves a lot of questions that rise up naturally from doing the work. Here are 10 of the soul-searching organizing questions I’m committed to tackling with fellow white organizers in 2016*:

  1. How do we engage strangers and neighbors alike about racism and entitlement when folks we’re talking to are poor and suffering?
  2. How do we avoid thinking of and talking about poor people as statistics/troubled/at risk/victims, and instead approach these communities as people with expert knowledge of how oppression works?
  3. How do we understand and confront the ways poor people internalize surveillance?
  4. How do we understand the ways shame operates in poor individuals, families, and neighborhoods as a tactic of class warfare?
  5. How do we learn to trust poor people’s perceptions and tellings of their own experiences, or do we believe somewhere that we know what’s best for them?
  6. Do we believe in and honor poor people’s rights to pleasure, rest, and recreation?
  7. How do we move beyond the narrative of “people voting against their own interests” in order to learn what poor and disaffected folks’ true interests are?
  8. How do we make slow and deep in-roads with poor white communities & remain accountable to People of Color in such a process?
  9. How do we go beyond the purely economic shared interests between poor white people and People of Color, and attend to the deep psychological and moral distortions wrought by white supremacy?
  10. If we think of poor white folks as “failing at whiteness” while simultaneously doing the heavy lifting of racism for white elites–how does this change the ways we approach them as people we want to organize? How do we talk about this while still holding folks accountable for resisting white supremacy?

Note: The “we” in these questions is complex. White members have diverse class experiences. At the moment, many folks involved in our work have some level of socioeconomic privilege, which is why these conversations are so urgent for developing more liberatory organizing practices.