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Poor People Will Be Heard
Online-only: full interview with Cheri Honkala, Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign
Sarah van Gelder: What do you see as the most interesting possibilities for change in the 2008 election season?
Cheri Honkala: We intend to have marches both at the Democratic and the Republican National Convention, specifically talking about issues of housing and healthcare and living wage jobs. And we're going to be going door to door, asking folks to get out and vote, but we're also going to be documenting their very real-life pains around these issues. We're going to have a national Truth Commission in Minnesota, in which we will have jurists that will listen to the problems that are taking place in this country, and they will come up with findings in terms of what they see as the solutions. We will be asking all of the presidential candidates what they intend to do with all of this human rights documentation that we collect.
Sarah van Gelder: Interesting. The three items you mention have been with us for some time, but the housing question has gotten more acute recently with foreclosures. Is that what you're experiencing with your constituents?
Cheri Honkala: Yes. As a formerly homeless mother, I never thought that I would see things as bad as they are. People are quadrupling up in homes, people living on the streets are hidden out of view because of the criminalization of homelessness and poverty in this county, and our jails are basically the new housing plan for this country. Battered women's shelters used to be just a stop along the way, and now it's almost a miracle to get into battered women's shelters across the country.
Sarah van Gelder: I keep hearing about your organization as one of the success stories of an organization that's been able to organize across races. Can you talk a little bit about what's made you effective?
Cheri Honkala: I think one of the strongest, most amazing things about the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign is that we have always done our work based on what we have in common—the struggle to try to get money together to pay for a gallon of milk or find a place to sleep or pay the gas bill. It hasn't really mattered what color we are. And because we're dealing with life and death kinds of issues—like someplace to sleep, a way to eat, healthcare for our children, a way for our seniors to stay alive—we've been able to bring people of all colors and all ages, both in urban and rural areas, together.
Sarah van Gelder: Taking that to the next level—in a lot of countries, a political party provides a big umbrella or a big tent for a lot of different organizing efforts, and in the United States we have a Democratic Party that is failing to fill that role very effectively, and the Green Party unable to have an impact. What do you think it's going to take to bring together our different efforts in a substantial enough way that we can have a political impact?
Cheri Honkala: Well, I think that we are definitely on our way. We definitely need a political party that represents the majority of people that live here in this country, and we don't have that right now. And actually, Democrats have played the lead in taking away many necessary social welfare programs—the Clinton Administration “ended welfare as we know it” without first of all implementing a jobs program.
But I think that the key to a winning strategy is that those people who are most impacted by the issues need to be at the forefront of coming forward with solutions. And we haven't really practiced that in this country; whenever we talk about poor people's issues, they're generally nowhere in the room. Whether we're talking about farmers, immigrant workers, people that live in public housing projects, when you talk about any of their issues, the people who are suffering from those issues aren't involved in crafting solutions.
And I think that one of the exciting, dangerous—well, I shouldn't say dangerous, they think it's dangerous—but one of the most exciting things that's going to be happening, and what we're trying to make happen, is, we're putting all these people together in a room, and they don't necessarily see the Democrats or the Republicans as the answer. They don't have time to play politics as usual because they're talking about their very real lives and their families.
Sarah van Gelder: Do you think there are opportunities for those groups to make common cause with some of the other efforts out there, the peace movement, the environmental movement, and so forth?
Cheri Honkala: Absolutely. You know, we say ‘poor people' and we mean ‘poor people' in the broadest terms possible. If you're not rich you're poor; that's pretty much our category. There's this idea that the rest of the population is safe from these issues, and they're not. It's a revolving door. Most of the people in this country are a healthcare crisis away from homelessness, from some kind of financial devastation. It's amazing how fluid people's lives are in this country.
Sarah van Gelder: Are there any particular races or ballot initiatives outside of the national spotlight that you're going to be watching during this election?
Cheri Honkala: Well, we're watching anybody and everybody that is running. This is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we'll be setting up a forum in New York City in January, in which ourselves and probably members of other coalitions can ask all presidential candidates if they intend to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
We want to invite friends from different peasant movements in other parts of the world because we know whatever person becomes president of this country has serious impact on what happens in the rest of the world as well.
Sarah van Gelder: Alright, anything you want to add about the upcoming election that you think is important to keep in mind?
Cheri Honkala: This is definitely a year where people can't sit this one out. They can't be spectators and sit on the sidelines. We have an opportunity to begin to shape the kind of world that we want to live in, and people have a responsibility to do something about it. And if people don't know what they want to do, they can pull up our website and we'll help them with some ideas. But they definitely need to do something. Because to do nothing, when we're living in these very dangerous times — from the environment to the fact that we have the largest incarceration rate in the world—so we have to do something about it. Our website is www.economichumanrights.org.
Sarah van Gelder: Great, thank you so much.