Uniting the 99%, Interview with Carmen Cuadrado
This piece originally appeared on Pennsylvania from Below.
“Movements begin with the telling of untold stories” says the slogan of Philadelphia-based Media Mobilizing Project. Their work over the past six years has united union members, students and community organizations with the goal of building a movement to end poverty. To hear how their work relates to Occupy Wall Street’s “We are the 99%” message, Pennsylvania from Below interviewed Carmen Cuadrado, a member of MMP.
How is the idea of “We are the 99%” from Occupy protests connected to MMP’s work?
It’s very much connected. The banks took from us, and they got a big bailout. I mean, the inequality of life—of human beings—that’s where we stand and see eye-to-eye, I believe. We want justice.
How did you get involved with MMP?
I was with this organization called Community Leadership Institute, that was run by Rosemary Cubas, who unfortunately passed away. She started a network and MMP was in that network, and so was I.
What did the CLI do?
Rosemary Cubas was in the community in North Philly, in the West Kensington area, and her main issues were inequality and housing. The city was doing eminent domain in the early 2000′s—they were taking people’s houses from them and primarily people that didn’t speak any English. They’d take their homes, and the people would get only like 10 or 12 thousand dollars for their homes.
Rosemary Cubas stopped the eminent domain in this area, and as a matter of fact she ended up having to go to the supreme court to fight for somebody’s house, which they won.
Why did you join?
Actually my house was on the list, but I didn’t know about it until after this issue! I joined Community Leadership Institute because I knew that it was needed in the area, and I’d seen that redevelopment was just a way of moving us—the low income families—out of our neighborhood.
At one time, this area was considered ‘blighted’. They had a plan for this area, and they really wanted us out. I found that there was a need for everybody to get together and fight for our homes, ‘cause they were taking them. So yes, even my mother’s house was put on that list, too. Because Rosemary Cubas took up this fight, our homes are still here.
Will the message of the Occupy movement help MMP’s work?
Oh, of course it will. People are more willing to listen and to know that they can make some changes, because now, even on television, you have never heard them speaking like they speak now about the poor and about the politics—what got us in the predicament or situation that we in.
Since Occupy Wall Street came out, I mean that the media cannot get away from this idea now. It’s in their face, so they have to speak about issues that hurt us…I think they could do more of it—they try not to, but it’s getting out there.
Who are the “new poor” and the “old poor”?
The “new poor” is the middle class…that was the so-called middle class five and 10, even 20 years ago. 10 years ago I was in that category, thinking I was middle class, because I had a job paying $60,000 a year, but actually, I’m poor, you know. I’m the new poor…that’s who I am. I’m no longer working, I’m retired, so of course, you don’t make anything like a salary, but all those years I’m thinking I’m middle class and actually I’m poor because had I bought a home, I would have been in foreclosure today.
So who is the “old poor”?
Well, the “old poor” are just people that were below the poverty line. That was my thinking that the poor were people that were needing to be subsidized or have their salaries supplemented one way or the other. That was the poor to me, but actually, anybody that’s one paycheck away from losing their house, feeding themselves or just surviving is poor.
Who are some of the organizations that MMP has been working with who have been aware of this before the occupations brought it into popular awareness?
Some of the organizations are the United Taxi Workers Alliance. They are the taxi workers in Philadelphia, and they’ve been together because they have been discriminated against, as far as salary and because a lot of them are immigrants. They have been wanting to send them back home, or you know, harassing them about their immigration status, and so on.
We’ve been working with them, and we’ve been working with the Philly Student Union, who are [high school] students fighting against the educational system because we don’t get adequate education here in Philly. I mean, half the students don’t have books, they don’t have enough teachers. They pay police officers and correctional officers to guard the school instead of hiring therapists or social workers, so that’s a discrimination right there.
We also work with PASNAP [Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals] employees, a union run by the nurses here in Philadelphia at Temple University. In 2010, they had a strike, and they won. The strike wasn’t just for them, it was also for the patients that go to Temple Hospital for their services—they were making sure they are treated fairly. So they weren’t just fightin’ for themselves, which they understand…you know, people deserve to be cared for. Just because you’re poor, you don’t deserve to be stepped on…and so I was on the line with them because I agree with them 100 percent. I mean, it’s everybody’s fight. It’s not just one fight; it’s everyone’s fight.
What do these organizations see that they have in common?
Well, they see that they’ve been a victim of the system of society, and that every situation is intertwined with one another. I mean that’s obvious, like when I was a child, I didn’t realize…I thought that the poor was only people of color. I didn’t think there were any white people that were poor, or if there was, it was very little. But actually there is a whole lot. I took a trip to Ithaca, NY with Poverty Initiative a while ago, and it opened my eyes because the media doesn’t portray that…they try to hide the fact that, you know, white people is also going through…and they are also poor.
The media only illustrates the side for the rich people or the government. They don’t ever view our point, or show what we’re going through, and that’s why Media Mobilizing Project is in this work, so they can tell the truth, the whole truth—what we are fighting up against, what we don’t have, what do we need…you know, the injustice that’s been going on for years and years.
Martin Luther King, you know, he moved from civil rights to human rights because of this and nothing really has been done since his assassination, so this is long overdue for everyone to unite.
Why does MMP study Martin Luther King?
At the end of his life, he was working in human rights, meaning that everybody is entitled to affordable housing, everybody is entitled to a decent wage salary, everybody is entitled to adequate education. He made a statement: what’s the use of being able to sit at the lunch counter if you can’t pay for food? He was uniting across the board—black, white, people of color, poor, rich. He knew that changes had to be made for everyone.
How do organizing, media making and studying relate?
First of all, you need to study, because you need to educate yourself. Before this, I didn’t realize all that was going on, not just here, but globally. Before, I didn’t think about what happened in Africa that affected us…or what happened in Europe…but actually, all of that affects us right here, so I was blind to that. Through education that MMP puts out… it’s waking up your consciousness which is very important. Then they put media together around different issues that go on, and that’s educational.
And organizing is…you have to build leaders. As far as I’m concerned, that’s one of Martin Luther King’s downfalls—even though he did a fabulous job, one person cannot make huge changes. You have to have a lot of leaders. You have to build organizers.
What do we need to do to continue to build a movement to end poverty?
We need to really be strategic about what our plan is so we can actually reach out to not only people outside our community, but statewide and across states to build our movement. It must be strong. We need to all come together. We need to realize that, you know, your fight is my fight and my fight is your fight, instead of keeping us so divided, like the mainstream media does. And not only the mainstream media. Society’s designed this way, for us to be separated and not together. I think through making our own media, we need to tell our side of the story.