‘The System Is Broken — The People Are Not’

The Courts of Women on Poverty have launched a challenge to economic injustice. Their gathering was held in Oakland, a city of extreme contrasts — from the hills of green abundance and million-dollar homes to a parking lot at Eastmont Mall, where a homeless woman sleeps in her car with three small children.

by Janny Castillo

 

“We are the community of survivors. We are not the people without a name, without a face, but we are people that will write a history because we have held the seeds for a new way, we have been the healers, we have been the story tellers, and it is that which must be heard now!” — Corinne Kumar, World Courts founder, speaking at the US Courts of Women on Poverty, Western Region

A special gathering on the “US Courts of Women on Poverty, Western Region” was held in Oakland from May 10-13. The gathering generated a thoughtful discourse on viable grassroots solutions to alleviate the effects of poverty in our communities.

The Courts of Women on Poverty were held in Oakland, a city of extreme contrasts — from the hills of green abundance and million-dollar homes to a parking lot at Eastmont Mall, where a homeless woman sleeps in her car with three small children; from the lights and music of downtown Oakland to the graffiti-saturated and litter-filled streets of West Oakland. Oakland was mother to peoples’ revolutions way before Occupy tents set up in the town square. It was righteous that WEAP, the Women’s Economic Agenda Project, chose Oakland’s Laney College as the site for the first US Courts of Women on Poverty.

Corrine Kumar, founder of the World Courts of Women on Poverty, described the purpose of the event. She said, “The courts of women are expressions of a new imaginary refusing that human rights be defined and confined only to that which has been hegemonic. These articulations are finding new ways of speaking truth to power, challenging the different notions of power, recognizing that the concepts and categories enshrined in the ideas and institutions of human rights are insufficient to grasp the violence (of poverty). The courts are creating another civic authority.”

Corrine Kumar, along with The Asian Women’s Human Rights Council and El Taller International, and a large collaboration of networks in different countries, have organized over 30 courts globally.

Organizations from across the United States sent representatives to the gathering, including Philadelphia’s Poor People’s Economic Rights Campaign, Portland’s Sisters of the Road, Women’s Economic Advocacy Project (WEAP), the Alameda County Community Food Bank, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), Hip Hop Congress, Lifetime, SEIU Local 1021 and St. Mary’s Center. These were a few of more than 60 organizations that helped plan this “history-making” four-day event.

Ethel Long Scott, WEAP’s executive director, said, “There has never been a time in this country of such tremendous opportunities and tremendous disparities. There is nothing quite like this globalization of capitalism. We at WEAP have a focus on making economic security and justice available to large numbers of people across this globe and. most particularly. in this country. We have this idea that poverty is violence! We are dedicated to not only elevating the national discourse, but also advancing the vision of the need for economic human rights. (We’re) dedicated to achieving a few small things: accessible, comprehensive health care for all, from birth to death, and a living wage so that we might thrive and not simply survive.”

The Court brought together experts from the different perspectives of the Economic Equity movement. Keynote speakers included Kay McMay, former president of the California Nurses Association, Richard Monje, international vice-president of Workers United, and community activist Emma Denice Milligan, teacher and writer for WEAP.

The truth-sayers and heart of the event were the personal and video testimonies of those affected by poverty, unemployment, homelessness and suffering from an inadequate health care system. The gathering reached consensus in declaring, “The system is broken. The people are not.”

The panelists spotlighted the scope of the problem and solutions to core issues such as poverty, jobs and immigration, foreclosures, homelessness and poverty rights, environment and the justice system, healthcare for the 99% and organizing for a quality public education.

Ashley Proctor, a panelist on “Healthcare for the 99%,” shared her story. Ashley has a disease which has deteriorated her throat system. Beginning at age 10, she went undiagnosed for 12 years. She saw 34 doctors who told her, without looking down her throat, that there was nothing wrong with her. She remembers, at age 22, sharing baby food with her son, because that was all she could eat.

“One day a lady at my church told me I was too skinny and that I was going to die,” she said. The lady, who was a nurse, took one look and recommended an upper GI exam. After the procedure, the doctor was amazed that Ashley was still talking. “ I weighed 97 pounds,” Ashley said. “My glands were permanently swollen and the inside of my throat no longer existed.”

On the same panel, Vanessa Nguyen, BOSS community organizer and Suitcase Clinic volunteer, talked about her experience. She said, “Folks in poverty are living in neighborhoods with tons of violence, walking home is stressful, scary, dangerous. Stress causes a slew of health issues, like stress-eating, smoking, drugs. Health and poverty are intertwined.”

Song, dance and poetry textured the days with color, great music and rich culture. Many times, the audience was brought to their feet in applause from performances by Antique Naked Soul, Las Bomberas de la Bahia, DeLabrie, Mamaz, Rahman Jamaal, Shamako Nobel, Revolutionary Poets Brigade and Youth Speaks.

On day two, BOSS director boona cheema led a California Partnership press conference, and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan spoke in support.

On day three, Rep. Barbara Lee shared that there is a serious push to cut billions of dollars from food stamp programs and from the Preventive Health Care Fund, a fund that helps women. Rep. Lee said, “Women of the world unite! Women’s leadership really defines whether the world will move forward or go backwards.”

The court culminated in a presentation by the jurors who were charged to witness the proceedings and draft a resolution that will be shared with three other courts in planning stages in other parts of the United States. Ultimately, a U.S. contingent will present a U.S. Courts of Women on Poverty Resolution at the Geneva United Nations Human Rights Council.

Here is an excerpt from the Juror Resolution: “The hurt heart, the damaged spirit must have a place to heal. The US Courts of Women on Poverty has created the space for this unstoppable healing to begin…. We, the Jurors of the US Courts of Women on Poverty, on this day which is Mother’s Day, bear witness to the suffering of our mothers and the pain of our sons and daughters. We bear witness to the violence of battery, criminal injustice, homelessness, mental illness and physical violence, food insecurity and economical genocide — indeed, the extreme violence perpetrated by poverty and the capitalist system….

“We, the Jurors of the US Courts of Women on Poverty, Western Region, hold the United States Government and corporations responsible and accountable for the multitude of gross human rights violations that have barred the way to basic human rights such as affordable housing, health and mental health care, quality education, right to justice and dignity, and the right to exist and thrive in a free and true democracy.”

Special thanks are due to WEAP and Ethel Long-Scott for taking the lead on organizing the first World Courts on Women ever held in the United States.

Women from more than 60 organizations gather in Oakland to expose the causes of poverty and injustice. Jon-Mychal Cox photo

 

In the inspiring words of Corrine Kumar: “We ask the powerful of the world, the giant multinationals, the rich in the richest country of the world, we ask you to look into the eyes of your children. What stories will you tell them? Will you tell them that once upon a time, not so long ago, when millions of people in America were living on the streets, when millions did not have health care, or food, housing or work, when millions of poor people have fallen through the holes in the safety net, that they, The Powerful, only looked away? Will you tell them you had no answers and accepted only violent ones? … What will you tell your children?”

Janny Castillo is a community organizer at BOSS in Berkeley, and was a juror at the Oakland gathering of the US Courts of Women on Poverty, Western Region.

 

We Looked Like Flowers

Song by Carol Denney

we looked like flowers

when we were young

we looked like angels

every one

our skin was beautiful

our eyes were bright

we sleep in doorways

night after night

asking for handouts

is no one’s desire

makes you so small inside

makes you so tired

just have to roll with whatever goes by

and want to surrender

and just want to die

we built all the bridges

we fought all the wars

now it’s just sirens

the slamming of doors

the slamming of jail cells

again and again

once we were soldiers

once we were workers

now we’re just them

they look at our clothing

they look at our shoes

our troubles and stories

are yesterday’s news

if we were puppies

they’d throw us a bone

if we were children

they’d take us all home

wish I had wings

wish I could fly

make me a home somewhere

up in the sky

where nobody hates

where nobody stares

where somebody listens

where somebody cares

night after night

day after day

looking for mercy

to meet us halfway

they want us to leave

but where do we go

we are just people

they don’t want to know

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