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​.poor​magazine​.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: Totally. 

Anderson: Yeah.

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—

Gray-Garcia: 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.

Gray-Garcia: Exactly.

Anderson: I mean, they make it… It’s like you’re trapped in the point where you can’t get out.

Gray-Garcia: Right!

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.”

Gray-Garcia: Right.

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—

Gray-Garcia: Exactly.

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.

Gray-Garcia: Yeah.

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.

Prendergast: Exactly.

Anderson: Yeah. The cri­sis is, what hap­pens when you’re sleep­ing in your car and you’re tak­en to prison.

Prendergast: Right.

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?

Prendergast: 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.

Further Reference

This inter­view at the Conversation web site, with project notes, com­ments, and tax­o­nom­ic orga­ni­za­tion spe­cif­ic to The Conversation.