Recently, I had the chance to ask Michaelann Bewsee if she could imagine what her life would be like if she weren’t part of Arise of Social Justice, the poor people’s rights organization she helped found more than a quarter-century ago.
She paused for a moment to think. She used to sing classical music, Bewsee said, but she’d given that up by the time she started Arise, in her late 30s. At the time, she had recently returned to her home town of Springfield after living for some years in Maine, doing agricultural work, which she loved. “That’s probably what I’d be doing: homesteading in Maine,” she finally said.
Then Bewsee posed her own question: “What would the community be doing if it wasn’t for Arise?” she asked. “We get a lot of criticism as well as support, but I think Springfield would be a lot poorer without us.”
On Saturday, Nov. 10, Arise and its supporters will celebrate all that the organization has done to enrich the city, at a 25th anniversary party at Springfield’s Panache Ballroom. (The event, which includes dinner, speakers and entertainment, begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are $25, or $10 for Arise members who need subsidies. Call 413-734-4948 or go to http://www.ariseforsocialjustice.blogspot.com for more information.)
Technically, it’s Arise’s 27th anniversary. But members didn’t have time to plan a party two years ago; they were too busy fighting the biomass power plant proposed for East Springfield. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine there ever being a downtime for Arise, especially in this economic and political climate; Bewsee is already looking past the anniversary celebration and the time she’s spending on its planning, eager to devote more time to a campaign opposing new state regulations that make it harder for families to qualify for emergency shelter.
Then there’s Arise’s involvement in the Justice for Charles campaign, which is fighting for the release of Charles Wilhite, a Springfield man convicted of murder in 2010 but recently granted a new trial after a key witness recanted his testimony; its support of the anti-foreclosure group Springfield No One Leaves/Nadie Se Mude; its advocacy for criminal-justice reforms and police accountability; its work against homophobia and bigotry; its ongoing efforts to make sure that plans to “rebuild” Springfield after last year’s tornado include the voices of its lowest-income residents; its growing engagement in public health and environmental issues, including its fight against the biomass plant. To look at all that’s on Arise’s plate, it’s a wonder that the barebones organization—powered by a handful of part-time staffers, many volunteers and allies, and a modest budget—has time to catch its collective breath, let alone throw a party. But it also makes it all the clearer why a celebration is in order.
Arise was founded in 1985 by a group of Springfield women who were struggling to raise their families on welfare benefits that left them well below the poverty line. At the initial meetings, “we did a lot of talking and sharing about our personal situations,” Bewsee said. “We had a lot to learn. We didn’t know what we were doing. We had to build up political analysis [to] understand why things were the way they were.”
Arise’s earliest campaigns included fighting for increases in welfare benefits and for the enforcement of a child support law that guaranteed that mothers on welfare would receive the first $50 in child support payments made to the state by their children’s fathers. The group also organized Christmas parties for homeless children. “I remember the day somebody walked into our very first office and said, ‘Do you know there are homeless families living in a hotel?’” Bewsee said. “And I said, ‘You’re kidding. You mean it’s that bad?”
In the beginning, Arise’s efforts “really were trying to meet immediate needs,” Bewsee said. Before long, though, the group began thinking about the deeper roots of the problems they were facing, “Why are there families living in motels? That brought us to thinking about federal housing policy. It just took time to build that analysis. People knew how things affected them but didn’t know how it got that way. … We had to build the connections out of our own experiences.”
For the original group, that included the experience of finding jobs and leaving welfare, only to discover that working and being poor were not mutually exclusive. While Arise initially identified itself as a welfare rights organization, Bewsee said, it now redefined itself as a “poor people’s rights organization, whether you’re on public assistance or working and poor.”
Arise is not a service provider. While people who come to Arise’s State Street office looking for referrals for housing or food assistance will find help, “the ultimate goal is to help them become part of the movement,” Bewsee said. “There are no clients here. We are the same people that we’re serving. … We’re the same folks who’ve been in the same place: homeless, in jail, whatever.”
“Arise is a political organization,” said Holly Richardson, president of the organization’s board. “We are consciousness-raising. We are politicizing what is happening in our lives. There’s a larger context to these things.”
Not being a service provider means also that Arise rarely takes federal or state money. (There are the occasional exceptions; right now, the group has a small grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to work with Partners for a Healthier Community, which focuses on disparities in healthcare in Springfield.) Not relying on government money gives Arise an independence, freeing the group to take on fights without fear that it will compromise future funding. Consider, for instance, its recent involvement in the campaign against the shelter regulations for homeless families, which are enforced by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development. While Arise and similar organizations have been strong in their criticisms of the rules, agencies that rely on state funding, Bewsee said, are much more cautious.
“It’s a different environment for Arise than it was, say, 15 years ago, when some of the smaller agencies weren’t afraid to express solidarity with poor people,” she said. “Now it seems everyone’s on the DHCD teat. We just don’t have the allies we used to.”
Arise operates largely on a combination of private grants, donations and the occasional fund-raising event. The organization built its first donor base by reaching out to people who’d contributed to its annual children’s Christmas party. “After four years of holding Christmas parties, there were always more homeless kids, and it started to take up a bigger and bigger part of what we were doing,” Bewsee said. After some discussion, Arise members decided their energies would be spent best elsewhere, and sent a letter to party donors explaining their decision. “We said, ‘We’re not doing [the parties] anymore, because what we want to do is change why there are homeless kids in the first place.’” Donors who wanted to support that work were asked for contributions, and, happily, “the money kept coming.”
Arise, noted Richardson, is a true reflection of the community it serves, right down to its own financial struggles: “We don’t have a lot of money. Most of time we’re broke.”
But what the group does have, she said, are the relationships that members build and their understanding that their fates are shared. “People make friends with each other and love each other,” she said, “That’s very compelling, especially in a capitalist society that keeps people separate.”
Perhaps Arise’s best-known and most successful effort was its work with other groups to bring ward representation to the Springfield City Council.
For decades, the Council had nine members, all elected at large. Not surprisingly, that meant that the more political connections a candidate had, and the more money he or she had to spend on city-wide media campaigns, the more likely he or she was to win a seat. As maps put together by Arise made plain, those successful candidates tended to come from the city’s higher-income and more suburban neighborhoods, such as East Forest Park. Far fewer councilors came from neighborhoods with lower incomes and more people of color, such as the North and South Ends and Mason Square. No councilor had ever been elected from Indian Orchard.
The ward representation battle began in the mid-’90s and involved stiff resistance from councilors who desperately wanted to maintain the status quo. When a majority of city voters voted in favor of ward representation in a non-binding 1997 ballot question, the Council refused to make the change. Finally, in 2007, supporters were able to put a binding question on the ballot, where it was approved by a three-to-one margin.
Today, the Council has 13 members, five elected at-large and the rest from the city’s eight wards. While competition for the ward seats has been disappointingly thin (in the 2011 election, only one ward seat was even contested), the Council has become more diverse—for instance, it now has its first Latina member, Ward 1’s Zaida Luna—and a number of ward representatives have proven to be hard workers and leaders on the Council.
Arise also has been an integral part of the coalition fighting Palmer Renewable Energy’s plan to build a wood-burning power plant in East Springfield, which opponents warn could have devastating effects on the environment and public health. That controversial project is frozen, at least for now; while the developers received a final necessary permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection earlier this fall, they’ve been blocked on the local level since January, when the Springfield Zoning Board of Appeals overturned local permits the project had earlier received. Palmer Renewable Energy has sued the city over that decision.
Like ward representation, the biomass issue has particular implications for Springfield neighborhoods with many poor residents and people of color, where health problems such as asthma are especially common. Still, both campaigns served the interests of the entire city, regardless of race or income, which likely won them more widespread support. “Those were campaigns that benefited anyone in the city,” Bewsee said. “They weren’t just about their effect on poor people, even though their effect on poor people was worse than on others.”
Still, she added, Arise’s first commitment is to the city’s most vulnerable populations. “Ninety percent of our members are very poor. That’s always been the basis for our membership, for who we are, the campaigns we work on.”
In fact, Bewsee’s favorite Arise campaign, alongside ward representation, was one that involved a population so powerless that they’re often overlooked: Sanctuary City, an encampment of homeless people that was established in the spring in 2004, in response to a lack of shelter beds in the city. The tent city was in operation for six months, first on the lawn of St. Michael’s Cathedral, then on property owned by Open Pantry Community Services.
“I was so proud that people found a way—people who— everybody doubted their capacity—but they self-governed for six months,” Bewsee said. Arise helped by training camp residents on how to do things like run meetings, she said. “But they ran it.
“It wasn’t done as a political statement. It was done because a shelter closed, and people had nowhere to go, so we just took a chance and did it,” she continued. “And homeless people—some of them addicted, some of them mentally ill—were all part of making Sanctuary City succeed. And at the end of it, the city had to take homelessness seriously.”
Richardson first became involved with Arise in 1998, through an HIV prevention and education project with women sex workers. From that work sprang Arise’s Women In Support of Each Other, or WISE, Committee, which tackled several related issues, including an effort to bring a needle-exchange program to Springfield, a short-lived effort to decriminalize prostitution in the city, and a years-long campaign to stop the building of a new women’s jail in Chicopee.
Richardson called the work she did with the WISE Committee her favorite experience at Arise. “There were so many amazing women that were on that campaign, and that work was so rich and so full,” she said. “We did a lot of different kinds of work that was focused on women’s issues, poverty and racism and anti-homophobic work, all sorts of overlapping anti-oppression work.”
Not all its efforts succeeded; Springfield still doesn’t have needle exchange, and the women’s jail was built and is now being expanded. Still, Richardson said, “I think long-term organizers understand that there are far more losses than victories. But it’s this whole journey that counts. … You’ve got to keep slugging along. The work is so much bigger than any one particular thing.”
Giving up, she added, “is not really an option, for most of us, anyway.”
How does Arise choose which issues to devote its limited resources to? The group considers how an issue affects its membership, as well as the effects its involvement might have on the campaign, Bewsee said. Is the effort likely to do well without Arise? Would it, in fact, do better without Arise, which some in the city consider too radical a group?
“There are a few things that stay on our list,” Bewsee said, like reforming the criminal justice system, both on the state and municipal level (Arise has long supported the creation of a strong, independent civilian police review board); improving services for homeless people; and creating quality affordable housing. One issue that’s becoming increasingly important to Arise, Bewsee said, is the intersection of the environment, public health and the economy.
“I see a way in which issues like poverty, climate change, housing can all come together,” she said. “If we started to relocalize our economy, supporting small businesses and working co-ops that both provide employment for people and provide food; if we started retrofitting our schools and our houses to get off the grid and do some of our own energy; if we could rebuild local bakeries—you name it—if we stopped throwing clothes away and then dashing off to Kmart to buy new ones [and] we had seamstresses and tailors. We need to break this down, and keep this in our community,” Bewsee said.
“We have to find a way to get this vision out to the residents of Springfield. We can provide jobs and housing for ourselves and make ourselves more economically independent, bring it all home and improve our environment,” she continued. “I can see this. I can really see this.”•