Aengus Anderson: Welcome back to The Conversation. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Neil Prendergast: I’m Neil Prendergast.
Anderson: And this is our final episode.
Prendergast: And unfortunately Micah could not be here for our final episode. He’s doing some yuppie stuff in Portland, we think.
Anderson: Something with boarding a dog before a transnational flight. But we are here to helm this thing into the conclusion. And the person we’re talking to today is Lisa, she goes by “Tiny,” Gray-Garcia. She’s a self-proclaimed poverty scholar. She’s a poet. And she’s the cofounder of Poor Magazine, a publication by and for the houseless community. She’s also one of the driving forces behind the Homefulness Project, which is a grassroots effort to create housing.
We’ve talked to a lot of people in this series about a lot of really abstract stuff, and Lisa is coming from a really different world. And that’s kind of why we wanted to end the project here. In a way it’s sort of like a response to all of the interviews we’ve done.
Lisa Gray-Garcia: I’d say as a person who’s been criminalized and arrested for the sole act of being poor in the US, it’s probably something I’m always walking with, speaking on, and trying to effectively change just by…in some ways not so much raising awareness, which seems very passive to be, but more about sparking people’s understanding and change. That you don’t have to have necessarily these large, only large movements—although large movements are really powerful and good—for change to happen. You can also have individual change. You can have community change. And if a community starts to understand that there’s a housing shortage, that gentrification is alive and well like it is in San Francisco and Oakland, that people are increasingly poor, then they might start to understand why they shouldn’t be criminalizing poor families for the sole act of being without a roof.
My mom was raised in orphanages and foster homes. She was seriously tortured in those because she was an unwanted child. And sadly many children, almost all children who are unprotected end up somehow dealing with trauma. And in her case she made it by any means necessary, like a lot of us do, and came out the other side if you will and raised me as this poor single momma on welfare. Got off of that, got a job doing what I will call revolutionary social work. She got the paper by the university by any means necessary. And all of this is slipping and skipping over so many different hurdles that for us, for poor folks to get through these institutions are really complicated.
But anyway, she did that and she got this job doing this powerful work, and then she got laid off and we became homeless. And so that sort of story of one paycheck away from homelessness was our reality. And at 11 years old we were thrown into completely destabilization, if you will. So we were either sleeping in our car on the street, in shelters, or places that we would squat. And it was necessary that at that age I had to drop out of formal institutions of learning and enroll full-time in the school of hard knocks, where I graduated with a PhD in poverty. And that’s the poetic version but the reality is I had to also work to support my mom and my sister.
So that lasted for, almost up to when I was 20. And then the other sort of narrative about me and my mom was that we worked together. In this society they teach you to separate. The sole…you know, relationship you have with parents is to raise you and then push you out in the world. But actually as an indigenous (because I identify as indigenous Taino, which is the indigenous people of Puerto Rico, where my mom was from), we don’t practice that. We practice interdependence. And so that means if you’re a good daughter, or son, in an indigenous family you’re working together with your family to come up and out of poverty or to stay alive.
So that was our situation. We used to do artwork we sold on the street without a license, which a lot of poor people do all over the world. And so we made art about our homelessness while we were dealing with it, which is really insanely hard and crazy but was also amazing and beautiful, a moment in time. And one of the things that happened is that like I say, I was actually arrested, and put in jail, for the act of being homeless, and in a lot of ways that changed my life.
Listeners should already know but sadly most people don’t know, it’s actually illegal to be homeless in the US. It’s illegal depending on what city you’re in but it’s almost ‘cross the whole nation it’s illegal to—for basic things like sleeping in your car, is citable and arrestable. If you’re actually sleeping on the street, you will be arrested, cited, and it sort of depends city to city. Poor families being homeless and working to survive is actually not a narrative you ever see within a so-called first world reality but it’s actually very common. It’s just that in the US we’re unable to be seen because if we come forward, if we’re seen as houselesss families, as poor people on the street, we are criminalized, our stuff is taken by the police, and we’re put in jail or CPS calls.
Poverty has always been criminalized. In the beginning of the US, if anybody does their herstory, we just had pauper’s laws, ugly laws that said if you were unsightly or disabled you couldn’t be on the street. If you owed people money you’d be thrown in jail. And those of course were all based on English or colonizer law that was you know, transferred here because the same thing happened in England in the early days.
So arguably, that system of criminalizing poverty, legislating poverty, and incarcerating poor people has always been there. Giuliani started to sort of bring it into the 21st century and from his work, if you will, launched a thousand ships of what I call the criminalization of poverty, straight up. New York became one of the first ones that actually made being on welfare and not having a home sort of like this finable offense and you actually– When you stayed in shelters you actually had to pay for your shelter bed out of your little tiny meager general assistance, or welfare check.
Again, to bust people’s myths that are listeners, there is no free money. People on welfare are not lazy, we actually work for that little tiny bit of meager money. To receive that “check” or those food stamps, you actually have to do a certain amount of work that used to be union labor just to get it. And of course it’s not in any kind of way livable amount, like something between $169 for a single adult to $420 for a single parent or a parent with several children.
So people do this whole hateration on folks who receive government aid, but it’s all based on lies, actually. We do work. Single mommas do work. Single dads do work. And it’s really people who are unemployed and have no other way of supporting themselves.
Anyway so, I digress. Long story short, incarceration is a horrible thing. But in that moment as well, because I was in so much trouble just to stay alive and keep my family alive and I was so tired of so much work and on and on, the act of being incarcerated for a minute also started to open my consciousness up.
And so we started to audit classes at San Francisco State in Black Studies, La Rasa Studies, Native American Studies, and started to learn about the relationships between race and class and poverty and struggle, locally and globally.
And right about the same time, we found a landlord who didn’t evict us the first time we couldn’t pay the rent. Again, talking about what individuals can do. And in this case this landlord, you know, was an individual small family landlord. But she didn’t kick us out when we couldn’t pay the rent. That act was so seriously huge for us that it enabled me and my mom to think for the first time in our lives to not be caught in the hustle of struggle and fear of being on the street.
That, and then the attorney who helped me out of jail, who for the first time I met a serviceperson, if you will, who didn’t, again, take part in the poverty industry but actually just asked me, “What can I do?” And I told him I could write. And he said, “That’s a valid thing to do,” and he had me do that for the 20,000 hours of community service that he got my sentence commuted to.
So I only did three months in jail and then I wrote this article. Being able to write and being published—it was eventually published in the East Bay Express. And it was actually called “Criminal Poverty,” which eventually became the name of my book. That and learning about our culture changed our life and we were able to actually start to think and conceive of the beautiful fabulousness of Poor Magazine, which at first was just a magazine, an actual magazine; intentionally glossy, visual art and literary art magazine about people who are never given space in beautiful magazines. People like my mom and me and all the other founding members of Poor.
Aengus Anderson: When you’re working on Poor, what do you want to do with the magazine? Even when you have things like Street Sheet, or magazines like that out there. Like, they cover it very differently. Who are you talking to with the magazine? Like what are you trying to [crosstalk] get across?
Gray-Garcia: Well that’s a great point, because we’re no longer making the paper one, because of actually funding. Poor is in fact po, by the way. So if anyone’s listening, we definitely need donations. We don’t get foundation funding. It’s totally based on individuals who just believe in what we’re doing or like to consume our poor people-led media.
But that said, from the beginning, because we did create four paper issues and they are very beautiful. And when we flipped off to online (www.poormagazine.org) the goal has always been to reach everybody. I mean, it’s funny because people say, “What’s your audience?” Will, audience first and foremost of course is us. It’s not that we don’t have a voice. We have a very powerful voice. We just aren’t heard a lot of times. Or we’re talked for, you know. That’s a…whole different banana than telling your own story.
So, first and foremost us and our fellow comrades and survivors and families and elders. But, equidistant with folks with race and class privilege. It’s always like that at Poor. So, most definitely intentionally cross-class. And of course one of the reasons, but not the entire reason, that we go for the aesthetic, if you will, or what my mom would call “the Hollywood look” is because we’re from LA. In all of the stuff that we do, we bring art and we bring an aesthetic, with an intention to reach beyond those marginalized walls that people will put up when the word “poor” is mentioned.
Anderson: Right. It’s like you’d become invisible in print the same way you do in reality, right?
Gray-Garcia: Right. Totally.
Anderson: You know, with something like Poor, say you reach a really rich demographic—
Gray-Garcia: Right right right.
Anderson: —with the magazine… Raising awareness is one thing, but do you point them towards law, or changing things structurally? Like what’re the systems that you’re trying to raise awareness of and probably dismantle, right?
Gray-Garcia: Exactly. I mean, I’m really glad that you asked that and you’re following the dots. Because the goal has always been something we call the extreme sliding scale. So in other words, in the actual sale of the magazine when it was on the newsstand, if you will, was in places like Barnes & Noble and stuff like that, right. As well as, it was given away for free in shelters. It’s completely holistic in terms of the communities that’s it’s going to. And not to make anybody feel ashamed or guilty; those are useless and passive feelings.
But the point is how can you leverage your privilege and actually walk with change? And you can, right. So, from the beginning every issue has always been and continues to be solution-based. So the first issue was called “Homefulness.” We had actually launched a dream for what we knew to be, as poor and indigenous peoples, an actual solution. So, all the articles in the magazine dealt with different forms of struggle and then solution.
When I talked a couple minutes ago about the landlord who didn’t evict us, that’s a solution. A lot of people with different forms of access maybe have property. And I know out there for those of you listening who are you know, apartment owners and stuff, that’s very complicated; I get all that. But if you want to help poverty, and you want to make change, that’s one of the things you can do, is you can change the way you think about rent.
The second thing is that we stood with artists and tech people all along who would provide us for instance… At that time, I didn’t even have access to a computer. We were literally houseless in the beginning issue. Artists like Every Quang, a rather famous artist selling his work for 3 and 4 and 5,000 and more a piece in New York art galleries, donated his work to us to use. And then also that’s how we were able to raise enough money to print the first issue.
So again standing with and working in a cross-class framework, we were able to not only put out the magazine but also to reach across, right.
The other whole piece of that is we also teach people with race and class privilege in our PeopleSkool. And what we do is we teach folks who are what I call “meshed in academia,” who are only learning from the formal institutions of learning, to learn from what I call poverty scholars. So it’s a concept that has to do with deemphasizing that the only knowledge comes from formal institutions of learning.
Not to take away from the formal institutions of learning. You know, get the paper, whatever, do what you need to do. That’s how our system is set up. But, that there’s other forms of knowledge, and that you need to value those, right.
So it’s always been part of our dynamic to not only teach poor people or to provide facilitation of skills to poor folks to be writers and journalists; this is what we do. But also to teach folks with race and class privilege to actually decolonize their own minds around what does this access to wealth even mean, right. Where is it based? As you beautifully said, how do we dismantle this system that is so flagrantly set up so that some people are okay and a lot of people aren’t.
Anderson: So you can reach these more privileged people. At the same time, is it part of the system itself that it has to have a poor class? That like, capitalism as we practice it now couldn’t function without that?
Gray-Garcia: Well, that’s really of course a huge question. I’m not a socialist, a communist, any of those ‑ists, not because of no disrespect for any of them. I think that they’re powerful movements. It’s just that we—me and my mom—just were about trying to create people solutions in a humble way, walking the world with humility.
So I don’t have this grandiose-scale plan of what’s gonna work. I think that those are actually kind of illogical in a 21st century reality when you have so many variables of so many cultures and peoples and spirits. What we practice is really going back to our indigenous roots, and I say that to say that we have a multiracial, intertribal community of landless indigenous people and landless poor people. I don’t believe that there ever should be a society that is rooted on the backs of people suffering.
I will openly say that I believe that there is something very wrong with capitalism. I just find, from a personal level, not some like you know, major framework level, that it’s very damaging, and it’s not a human system. As people become more and more dehumanized, they do things like, a guy was on the street yesterday or a couple days ago in San Francisco, and he was dying. Was bleeding from the nose and the mouth. I wasn’t there, because if I’d been there it wouldna happened but… People just watched him. And they got out the cameraphone and they filmed him. But they didn’t call 911. They didn’t go over to him and give him some water. They did nothing. Sadly that’s becoming more the norm. So, this dehumanization is very dangerous.
Anderson: Yeah, where does it lead?
Gray-Garcia: Well, arguably it leads to what we’re already in, ‘kay. How do we get to a place that has the highest incarceration rate of any place in the world? Okay, we’re already there. Just to go back again to solutions, the main thing is in 1996 when we put out the homefullness issue, me and my mom, dealing with isolation which is one of the most horrible things that happens in capitalism, one of the things that we knew is that that way of living couldn’t continue and it was not a good way to be. And we created the beginnings, along with other poverty scholars, of what is now called The Homefulness Project.
It’s a sweat equity cohousing model in a school where we teach our children back our indigenous languages, a sliding-scale cafe, and a community garden. Me and my mom, dealing with the very things that we’re talking about now, sort of dreamed this. You know, fast forward, whatever, sixteen years or so. We’ve actually been able to get land for Homefulness. Which is huge. And the way that we did was we taught people with different forms of wealth and access, and different forms of race and class privilege, to leverage their wealth to support and stand in solidarity with a poor people-led, indigenous people-led vision. One of the reasons that so radical is it’s completely outside of said poverty industry.
Anderson: And how do you make the case? Like, say you bump into that person. You know, you meet a young person and you’re having a conversation with them. And they’ve never thought about any of this stuff before—this is all new to them. How do you tell them like, “Hey, this matters to you. This is why you should care…” You know, because it seems like a lot of what we’re talking about here is like, you’re up against an entire ideology that makes you invisible, right—
Anderson: And so, when you’re talking to the person who holds that ideology what’s the first point of contact?
Gray-Garcia: Mmm. Wow. That’s deep. And it’s really interesting, too, that you ask it that way because I want to name our solidarity family. We have what would be more generally known as a solidarity board. And what those folks are is people with race and class privilege. And again, these aren’t folks with a lot of money. They might have a little trust fund, or they might have some inheritance, right. But they started to understand that the system is not a human system, and how do they help to effectively make that change?
But the key piece to answer your question very simply is, I can’t do that. It’s that simple. They can do it, right. Because they can talk to each other. For me what it’s gonna look like, is some poor person trying to hustle some change out your pocket.
Sadly, that kind of marginalization/separation that verges on disrespect but I don’t even blame people for it, it’s how we’re trained, is common. It’s why the other crazy industry happens, which is what I affectionately philanthropimping. It’s why there’s a gigantic industry set up of “philanthropy” or “charity” which I’m completely against. I’m not saying that they don’t do great things for grassroots nonprofits, and obviously that’s the only way it’s set up right now so you know, keep on keeping on. But to allow it to just go unfettered is not okay. Because the reality is what those are is those are safety nets so that people with race and class privilege never have to deal with us crazy poor people trying to ask them for money. And again, that’s all rooted in these systems of separation.
So, the first step that we have people do is come to PeopleSkool. Because I personally cannot answer that question, can’t dismantle that gigantic narrative of BS—which is really what it is, right. But when they come to PeopleSkool they do a semester. And you know, you might think well that’s a lot just to get a donation for some–, but that’s really what they have to do. Because all of us poverty, migrante, indigenous, elder, youth scholars teach on our own experiences. And people learn themselves. We don’t pound anybody over the head. We’re not trying to hustle no change. We’re really just trying to teach people. An extremely powerful training that all people in the US should take part in. Just because it starts to take apart these myths.
Anderson: Where do those myths come from?
Gray-Garcia: Well that’s a crazy thing. I mean you know…so going back to the beginning again of our conversation. If you think about the way that this system was launched… And again, I’m not speaking for other places. One of things I just want to name is that people think, “Oh, there’s not real poverty in the US. Go to Haiti, and go to Jamaica and you’ll see real poverty.” Well, actually that’s again another mythology.
What is different in in the US, just to rename this, reclaim this, is that you cannot be seen as a poor person in the US. The actual street that we walk on can’t have shanty towns built on them. And when they do, they’re there for a little bit of time and then [snaps fingers] cops come, or the city department of cleanup comes to take all their stuff away, and sometimes even power washes down. There’s also street sales that are allowed in other parts of the world that are not allowed here. So what you have is you have a system or a society that’s set up to pretend like there’s no poverty at all.
Anderson: Right, and the same mechanisms that do that make it really damn hard to get a job, right.
Anderson: I mean, they make it… It’s like you’re trapped in the point where you can’t get out.
Anderson: But it seems like part of what we’re dealing with here is also this myth which allows the people who walked past you to go…, “The position you’re in is your fault.”
Anderson: Right. Because the systems are invisible to them.
Gray-Garcia: Exactly, and just to rearticulate because your question was really clear, “where do the myths come from,” and I think that’s very important to articulate. When we talk about the way that the US capitalist system was set up— So first of all you know, the founding fathers and all these things, and then chattel slavery, and then the stealing of indigenous people’s land. What happened is that the people came here and they brought their laws, their anti-poor-people laws, from other places.
For instance, the whole notion of access to property was already put on the books as one of the most important values in the US system. So you think about if that’s one of the most esteemed things, to be a so-called property owner…then what if you’re not? Right? So that’s the first split, right.
The second thing is we’re taught, again, under what we call the cult of independence, this Horatio Alger notion of “all I need to do is pull up my bootstraps” and, “get your S together and work hard,” right? And so anyone that is perceived as not doing that is considered, quote, a whole litany of slurs, right, from lazy, to crazy, to stupid, to a bum, to—on and on, hobo. And somehow this is taught to children very young—because I teach kids all the time. Like six-year-olds know the word hobo. It’s like the most insane—where did you learn that? They don’t even know, it’s crazy.
Anderson: It’s like it’s not the 30s.
Gray-Garcia: Yeah, exactly. It’s just off the chain. Because the hate of poor people, and the disrespect, is built-in. Why? Because you can’t build money hoarding up if you don’t believe in the mighty dollah, you see. And one of the things that’s most important in the US system is hoarding of wealth.
Think about it, right. How much can I get? How much can I build? How many houses can I have? How many—I mean, it’s insane. The Malawi people think we’re insane. They think we’re actually torturers, because they have a system that completely different, where they believe that if you have a job you’re going to support the whooole family. If you’re the only person in the house that has a job, that’s fine. Then at least the house eats.
So again, the cult of independence, where we are taught that I’m out for number one, and as long as I get number one clear and I got all my stuff and I got mines, I’m good. So then you perceive the people who so-called maybe aren’t doing the same thing as you, which is working hard, as lazy and crazy and stupid and bums, then you have effectively set up the idea that you are different than your fellow human being. That you are other than. That he is other than you. And then once you do that, you don’t care what happens to him, or her. It’s kind of hard to take in because you start to realize oh my God, how did this happen? You know, when people start to unpack this stuff it’s crazy.
Anderson: So we’ve got this mythology and we’ve also got law—
Anderson: —that’s built on methodology. What does a better future look like?
Gray-Garcia: [sighs loudly] Well…I’ll tell you this. I’m working on my second book. It’s called Poverty Scholarship #101, a people’s text. Subtitle, “population brings the popular education.” Heads up to Paolo Freire. And the reason I bring that up is that in the book I’m trying to— I’m basically not trying, but I’m along with my fellow poverty scholars locally and globally dismantling these mythologies and looking toward what we call a movement of solidarity.
So the movement that’s outside of poverty industry, nonprofit industrial complex, these big, huge you know, bulbous kind of systems that are not sustainable, to look at things that we can do which I believe are good for the planet whether you’re poor or you’re not. Which is to move in a humble way. In some ways it all relates back to food. So it’s based on the hunter-gatherer notion. Like you know, vegetarianism, veganism, or meat-eating—all that doesn’t really matter. The issue is we’re consuming too much. And so how do we live in a humble way, or in as our indigenous ancestors say, in a good way, that takes care of everybody? That doesn’t practice the continued hoarding of wealth.
It means that we flip these ideas—all of us together, in solidarity whether you be a person with race/class privilege or you be a person in poverty—of separation. And you practice what we call interdependence. Because it’s actually again good for everybody, because what we’re talking about is we’re having landmass decrease. And so we’re having more people in the world and less space to stand on. So global climate change is real, for whatever reason you want to say. And people are losing their space and these horrible tragedies are happening more and more for whatever reason. And the reality is that there’s also population growth, right.
So if you put all that together, one plus one plus one, plus capitalism, you basically have a recipe for incarceration, for extrajudicial killings, for intense criminalization, for more legislations, and for more hoarding of resources. And what does that mean? That means that anybody who falls in the middle anywhere, even whether they’re middle-class folks, end up with less and less. And the scary thing is people really have to understand that there is not this notion of scarcity. There is enough for everybody. It’s just a lot more people have to start hoarding the stuff that there is.
So if you’re a person with some form of race and class privilege what is it you can do? It’s a humble thing. Maybe all you can do is buy a Street Sheet that day and not question the Street Sheet seller about where he’s spending his money. Let me tell you, a CEO at [Chevron?] makes two million a year and nobody questions how much he’s blowing up his nose of that money. So why are you going to question someone if you give ’em a dollar that they’re gonna spend it on alcohol? That’s their decision. You either want the paper or you don’t. You either want to give the dollar or you don’t. Walk away if you don’t. End of topic, you know; guilt not necessary. But the issue is stop the criminalization, stop the mythologization, and let’s create the togetherness, right.
Similarily you know, again if you’re a landlord, if you’re a business owner, you’re gonna believe in this bullsh—in this idea (excuse my French) is Ban the Box, right. So Ban the Box is a movement that a lot of people at All of Us or None shout out, which is a prisoner-led movement to stop, before you hire somebody, trying to do a background check on their life. I mean, a lot of the times people were incarcerated because of poverty; many times, if non-violent crime that’s what it was. I can tell you, anyone doesn’t believe there’s apartheid in this country go into any plantation prison. Frightening. 90 to 98% of people of color. Mostly African-descended people.
So, how do you change these systems? You change them one at a time. You change them a community at a time. Stop buying into the idea of the criminalization of people for the sole act of being poor. Work effectively against these sit-lie laws. And support poor people and movements. One of the things I’m going to be doing is once our book, the book is done, which is very soon, we’re going to be teaching other communities in poverty across the globe how to start homefulness. Because we understand how huge this is.
And we’re doing it. We’re going to start building this summer. We raised enough to build our first straw-bale house. If people want to donate, they can definitely…it would be appreciated. Because we’re trying to raise 400 thousand, which isn’t really that much money. We’re gonna build eight straw-bale houses for landless families. And a school, and a sliding-scale cafe which basically gives people food if they don’t have any money for nothing, and if they do they kick down. So you’re always supporting each other, it’s always a circle.
Anderson: And it seems like you know, I always try to talk to people about what’s good. And it seems like the thing that’s emerging for me in this conversation is community, right [crosstalk], or the sense of an “us?”
Gray-Garcia: Right. Right.
Anderson: And, that’s one of the biggest tensions in this project, as I talk to all sorts of different people. If we look out this window at the world, do you see…us? Do you see a lot of different us’es? Or do you just see…all others? And it feels like that’s kind of one of the big tensions of the time that we live in. Why is thinking “us”—because it seems like your picture of us is big—
Gray-Garcia: Very big.
Anderson: —It’s like, the planet, almost.
Anderson: Where does that come from and why is that good?
Gray-Garcia: Well again, going back to…I wanna call in my indigenous ancestors, almost every… We all come from somewhere, right. Whether you be Northern European or not, you come from indigenous peoples. The ways of our ancestors was not to think about me, me, me. And I do want to say again, bringing the concept home, that is a very US notion. I do feel in a lot of ways most sorry for people in the US than I do anywhere else. Because there is so many layers of bullshit you have to cut through… Yourself, even if you’re doing your own decolonization or realization work. To not think the very thing that you just said. To not look at almost everybody as different than you.
Let’s talk reality. It’s deeply rooted in racism in the US. Deeply. Beyond even classism or poverty. That’s why we at Poor talk about the conflating of race and class as one; because one of the things that we are taught in this society because it was necessary to teach people to hate their brother and sister who didn’t look like them so that they can oppress them. So that they could not care about them when they were poor. So they could— Let’s go even further back. So they could not care about them when they were in shackles, right. How many people are still living with the ancestral memory of trying to struggle with the notion of chattel slavery?
And so many people of Anglo descent either are not necessarily descendants of that but come out of a knowledge base that’s rooted in that. And so when you talk about the us’ing versus them’ing or the me’ing it really is very much related to white supremacist values of separation, because that’s also rooted in that.
Anderson: Say we’re talking about out housing issues or equity issues, you know. Is that something that we can talk about it and we can like, have a mindset change socially? Or do we need to have something go really wrong, and then react to it and change?
Gray-Garcia: Well sadly I think that that’s just the way human beings are. They get comfortable…
Anderson: We’re reactive?
Gray-Garcia: Yeah. They get comfortable. They get…sort of static? And then just kind of keep going along even if they’re not happy. I mean the “aha” that we usually get to people actually, interestingly enough, is first of all how do you take care of your elders? How do you take care of your children? And how do you take care of yourself?
The isolation I spoke of earlier is an epidemic not just with poor people but it’s actually most with middle-class people. And isolation kills. To me it’s a tragedy that so many elders are alone in the US, of whatever class they are. That we practice these ways of separating ourselves from the people who gave us life. That they’re not teaching our children. That they’re not seen as folks with wisdom, and have very much to do with thrival and continuation.
But more importantly to answer your question, I know the people listening to this might wake them up, because we sparked some interest. I think conversation’s really powerful. I think what you do is important. I’m glad you do it. I know that that’s really—in a lot of ways we make art and we make media about this stuff all the time for the sole purpose of changing people’s minds. And well, we also do it to save people’s lives. But both of those things mix together, and in the end you also do need to put your feet on the pavement. You need to protest. You need to sign petitions. You need to activate change through legislation.
I don’t power one movement over another. So big ups to all the people who work in movement change. We do that as well. We support movement of all kinds. We need to do all of those things, and we also need to conversate.
Anderson: So we’ve got all of this history where it’s always been inequitable. And we’ve always had people who’ve been grabbing power. As a species do we always like, push people down? Are we always going to be keeping people in poverty?
Gray-Garcia: I’m optimistic because I’m activating change myself. I’m optimistic because my brothers and sisters and family at Poor Magazine, the Idriss Stelley Foundation, United Playaz, artists and activists all over the world, are operating change as we speak.
I’m not optimistic about our momma Earth. I’m worried…truthfully. I think that we don’t have a lot of time to change the way we are. And so I keep wanting to do more really quickly. I’m like, terrified that we’re not gonna get homefulness done in time, or we’re not going to raise the money, all these things, partly because I know how important it is to show a model of change to people.
But I know that also, a lot of us folks are doing as much as we can do. And really in the end, the concept of optimism is in and of itself kind of rooted in Horatio Alger capitalism. Like, I don’t— I think it’s overblown. I think we need to take from our sisters and brothers in other continents who say that they fight their whole life for change. They may not see it before they pass. They may not see it before they transition. And their children might take on the legacy that they’ve started. I think we want things too quickly in the US. That’s part of our legacy. If we’re really moving with humility, you do whatever you can do. And it’ll take the time that it’s gonna take. And we’re all just gonna be you know, moving along this path. But if we’re moving in a good way, that we know with our hearts that we’re sort of unpacking these lies; that we’re moving in interdependence rather than independence; that all we’re doing then is actually practicing optimism.
Aengus Anderson: I think the way she ends talking about optimism embodies why I think this is such an important episode to end on.
Neil Prendergast: Explain that to me.
Anderson: Everybody have asked about optimism in this project has said, “I’m an optimist.” I don’t think anybody said, “I’m a pessimist.” People have qualified it in different ways, but they just sort of like, rolled with the question and then explained a little bit about generally why they feel better about the future. And I think usually that’s because feeling worse about the future is just, unpleasant and scary so don’t.
Now, what Lisa does is she says well, optimism…pessimism…it’s even part of her equation. She’s just doing what she can, and she’s trying to make sure it’s going in a better direction rather than a worse direction. You know, it’s kind of like even thinking about optimism is almost being too impatient.
Prendergast: Right, and it seems like that comes naturally from the sense of humility that she clearly has and also discusses. For me I think this is a really great one for us to finish on, for a slightly different reason. So often in The Conversation, in this project, we’ve been talking about “the crisis.” You ask all these wonderfully interesting people, “What’s the crisis of the present?” For some people they can identify it. For others they say, “Well, it’s something I’m worried about for the future.”
What’s the crisis of the future? For some people they say, “Ah, you know, if we have reason or right-minded culture we can avert the crisis.” Other say things like, “It’s just gonna take the crisis to actually change things right then.” We can’t do anything about it. And that’s a discussion that I think runs across the interviews.
But in this last one have something I put a different category, which is, we actually do have the crisis here.
Anderson: She’s living the crisis.
Anderson: Yeah. The crisis is, what happens when you’re sleeping in your car and you’re taken to prison.
Anderson: Yeah. The crisis is being criminalized as a class of people.
Prendergast: To me this gives credence to what people have been saying in many of the episodes that we’ve put up, where they’ve said things like, “We can’t think of ourselves just as market beings. We’re bigger than that.” And I think that’s very much what she’s pointing to here. Look, I mean there are some basic fundamental human rights that we have. And the market can’t touch those things.
Anderson: And that were essentially…communal, right?
Anderson: Not in the sense that we must live communally, though that is a big theme, but that we’re deeply interconnected as a people and there are a lot of values underneath all of these things. And when you don’t have the luxury of wealth?, the necessity of those values shines in a really different way.
And you mentioned humility earlier, which is a big part of this conversation. And I think this conversation also forces us to be a little bit more humble ourselves and to acknowledge that in a way the sort of huge, speculative conversations we’ve been having about the future…are sort of an indulgence. They’re something you get to have when you’re affluent enough to be handwringing about things that many steps away. Which I don’t think is to discredit any of them? But I think it’s a really good reminder that there are a lot of radically different experiences on this planet. And while we have tried to get a lot of different viewpoints in here, when you’re really, really poor, you have a viewpoint that is different than everybody else in this project.
Prendergast: Absolutely. And you know, to be fair to the project, too, and to see how it connects I think to this interview, is to point out that she’s a poverty scholar. And so it’s not just that she’s interested in some sort of material distribution. She’s absolutely interested in changing what people think. It’s not just about redistributing material stuff. This is about changing the type of people that we are, and the way we think about ourselves, which is so much a part of this project, is also what she’s doing here, too. So there’s a consistency with this interview, and I think all of the ones that came before, in that way.
Anderson: In some ways so separate, in some ways so of a part. But in all ways, it really forces us to reflect back on the earlier episodes and maybe see them in a slightly different light. And it certainly demands us maybe to set optimism and pessimism aside and just to try to go out right now in small ways and make the world a slightly better place.
This is The Conversation, and that was Lisa (also known as “Tiny”) Gray-Garcia, recorded in San Francisco, California June 21st, 2013. This will be the final interview of The Conversation, but we’ll be back to discuss whether or not any of us are optimists or pessimists after going through this epic radio journey.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.