Updated June 2016
How we got here
The University of the Poor emerged from the collective experience of a broad network of organizations and efforts. It comes from our reflection on many past successes and failures in developing cadre committed to the unity and leadership of the poor. Our lineage includes work with homeless unions, welfare rights organizations, trade unions and various other grassroots and poor people’s organizations.
This work has shown us the need to understand and respond to changes in the political and economic landscape, develop leaders with clarity and vision, as well as the commitment to unite the poor and dispossessed who have been historically divided to our detriment.
We have observed that without deeper education, people who are organized only on the basis of narrowly understood and short-term interests tend to leave the movement instead of becoming committed leaders. They leave once their immediate needs are met, or once they face failure in a campaign, or backlash, or other kinds of defeat. We’ve also seen that for every person you can help find housing, ten more become homeless. An approach that says you can solve homelessness, environmental injustice, racial oppression, war, or any other struggle one person or policy change at a time is not sustainable.
Although we have experienced victories, many of these were Pyrrhic or short-lived victories because we lacked the power to implement the changes we won, or because the campaign used up leaders instead of building them up, leaving them exhausted or demoralized. We find that it is not enough to be in motion without a clear direction, and setting that direction will require the best of our mental energies and serious study.
We see signs of hope across the country and the world in leaders of the poor — fighting for access to water or for welfare rights, or around other life-and-death issues — who are asking broader questions about why so many people are struggling to meet their basic needs.
We are seeking to learn from our collective personal and organizational histories, as well as from world history, which tells us that if we’re serious about actually ending these unjust and immoral conditions, “fighting the good fight” is not nearly enough.
What we’re up against
The problem we face is poverty in the midst of plenty. Today some claim we are seeing an economic recovery, but this recovery hasn’t reached many people who are still unemployed, homeless, working at low-wage or temporary or part-time jobs — or are otherwise struggling. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “an edifice, which produces beggars needs restructuring.” This edifice, which is a poverty-producing system, also produces extreme wealth.
This inequality is not an anomaly, but an essential part of the edifice, which is the present capitalist economic or production system. It is a system that compels the majority who are without property in the economic enterprises of the system — the dispossessed — to seek work and wages to be exploited and oppressed for the maximum profits of a tiny propertied class of capitalists. If poverty is the problem, then Global Capital is the enemy. Capital has an antagonistic relationship with the dispossessed and poor all over the world and affects people on many fronts–healthcare, jobs, housing, food insecurity, militarism, environmental crisis, racial, gender, and religious oppression, and more. The poor are the social embodiment of all of these social ills, bearing the brunt of all of them. The poor today is not the poor of yesterday. It is not the ancient slave, the feudal peasant, nor the industrial pauper of capitalism. Poverty today is no longer transient with the poor held in reserve for future expanding employment in production and circulation. It is now persistent and permanent.
The University of the Poor’s curriculum studies program, research and analyses projects, and other types of leadership work will be directed at examining the currently unfolding conditions that are giving rise to and shaping these economics and politics. We will be examining what is arguably the most pivotal factor today: the most rapid, profound and comprehensive technological revolution in human history. It is at once changing qualitatively world production, trade, finance, government, and communication.
This new era of labor-replacing technology — cheaper and more powerful micro-electronics and computers, along with increasingly sophisticated machine learning and artificial intelligence — is causing fundamental shifts in the world capitalist economy. It is daily driving more of the middle income strata into the ranks of the poor while rendering disposable an increasing number of the most impoverished sections of the dispossessed.
Deeply tied to this technological revolution is the globalization of capital, which means the globalization of the poor and dispossessed as a class. The task we face today has an immediately global character to it, different from previous periods. The study of the globalization of economic and social relationships is an important aspect of the University of the Poor’s research.
Our opponents have think tanks, training centers, journals, universities and foundations to understand this transition, develop their ideology, advance the political organization of their class, and replicate their intellectual leaders. We need these kinds of organizations also. In order to successfully fight the ideological and political battle necessary to end poverty, we need to develop the unity of the poor and dispossessed in both thought and action.
The unity of the poor
“You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
As stated in the University of the Poor’s founding concept paper, the “mission of the University of the Poor is to systematically identify and develop leaders committed to the unity of the poor and dispossessed across color lines and other lines of division so as to build a broad-based and powerful movement to end poverty.”
We draw on the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose active recognition during the last years of his life of the necessity of uniting the poor as “a new and unsettling force” was very prescient, anticipating the present global economic and political situation:
“The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against the injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty. There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life…”
Getting the poor and dispossessed to “take action together” as the poor and dispossessed can today serve as a rallying point for attracting the greater mass of the people who are now being increasingly economically and politically assaulted. Because this united action poses the greatest political threat to the Powers That Be, it is no easy task. Therefore the first and indispensable step in the uniting the most exploited, excluded, and oppressed is the identification, education, and uniting of its newly emerging leaders, teachers, and organizers. Facilitating this first and indispensable step is the precisely the task of the University of the Poor.
The University of the Poor seeks to put key groups and leaders in relationship to one another to facilitate deep and rigorous study and research, develop materials for learning and teaching and serve as a central depository for resources and analysis.
We aim to produce curriculum in order to develop a cadre of leaders with a common analytical framework, who see themselves as leaders not just of particular struggles, communities, or sectors but also of our class as a whole. And we aim to apply those analytical tools to research and in-depth study of the problems we face. This work cannot be disconnected from the everyday struggle and organizing of the poor, but instead must support and be fueled by that work.
What the University of the Poor is today
The University of the Poor is currently committed to three main areas of study: history, economy and the mental terrain (ideology). These areas have developed a focus on key texts such as Karl Marx’s Capital Volume I, W.E.B. du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America, and the Bible.
Capital Volume I provides a methodology and framework for understanding the economic system that is producing poverty, the laws of development of that system, and the class struggle waged in its context.
Black Reconstruction is a key text on political strategy. It illustrates the causes and consequences of racial oppression as well as racial disunity and the lack of leadership among the working classes in the history of the United States. It also demonstrates a scientific and engaged approach to historical study.
We study the Bible because of its great influence on people’s thinking in the US and around the world. Any fight for the hearts and minds of the American people has to involve a theological battle with the people power to reclaim the message and power of the Bible for the poor.
We are exploring these themes and more through our activities, which include:
- Study groups on key texts, including the three mentioned above
- Online and in-person seminars
- A website with book reviews, materials for study, resources for research, and archiving our work and the work of others committed to the unity of the poor
- Collaborative educational and research projects (with groups such as the Popular Education Project, the National Training Institute for Homeless Organizers, the Committee on US-Latin American Relations at Cornell University, and the General Baker Institute)
- Research and Analysis projects, looking deeply at particular aspects of the current economic and political situation. The eventual goal is to organize these projects into a think tank, to be named after General G. Baker (League of Revolutionary Black Workers) and Annie Smart (National Anti-Hunger Coalition and the National Welfare Rights Organization)
- Curriculum development for educational projects of the University of the Poor as well as partner organizations and efforts.
- An in person strategic dialogue (likely on a specific theme) to be held towards the end of 2016 or the beginning of 2017.
The University of the Poor has an informal coordinating committee to set the direction of its work, but the structure is evolving based on the emergent needs of a broad network of organizations and efforts.
Looking towards the future, we intend to engage more leaders from this network and other networks in taking up this work and putting it in relation to the mass organizing occurring around the country and the world.