At Bethlehem United Church of Christ on Sunday afternoon, Sister Simone Campbell gave an interactive lecture addressing poverty, structural racism and income disparity in the United States. About 200 people attended the lecture and fundraiser, which was sponsored by the Ann Arbor chapter of RESULTS, an advocacy group that seeks to end poverty.
Sister Simone is the Executive Director of NETWORK, a Catholic advocacy group that lobbies to mend gaps in income and wealth. She wrote the “Nun’s Letter,” a letter endorsing Obamacare which some credit as an important contribution in convincing Congress to support the Affordable Care Act. Sister Simone also led five cross-country “Nuns on the Bus” trips to lobby members of Congress on issues like economic justice, immigration reform and voter turnout.
The lecture was preceded by a song and spoken word from duo Ain’t Afraid, which consists of twins Zakiyyah and Sakinah Rahman, who do advocacy work in Ypsilanti. Their performance touched on the everyday, logistical burdens of poverty, as well as structural racism, and was met with a standing ovation.
“Daddy’s never home, only he’s locked up, but we were the ones imprisoned by the system, in the system, scattered thoughts,” they said. “The things I know. I know that they cut food stamps once the eldest child is 18, or once you make a little more than you used to. I know that in order to keep government assistance, you have to keep up with the new paperwork they give out almost weekly.”
Sister Simone spoke to the predominantly white audience about themes of white privilege and structural racism.
“Those of us who are white folk in this room have a special responsibility,” Sister Simone said. “Our responsibility to break out of our privilege requires us to get over that fragile, uncomfortable, shy feeling about talking about race, because we’re rather embarrassed, or horrified, or puzzled, or whatever our reaction is that makes it personal. We have work to do, my friends, and it can only be done together, knowing that we’re in community. That presentation was a spur to engage.”
Sister Simone later talked about her experiences with lobbying members of congress, and the differences in income growth between the periods of 1949 to 1979 and 1980 to 2017. To illustrate the differences in income growth, Sister Simone asked five members of the audience to represent different quintiles of the income bracket, and later asked two others to represent the top five percent and the top one percent.
Reading data about how much each quintile’s income grew, she asked the respective participants to take a certain number of steps forward. The top one percent had to turn the corner because the space was not large enough, while the bottom quintile took only one and a half steps forward.
Sister Simone said economic anxiety is a result of this lack of income growth.
“In our society, as we see people feeling the struggle, the fear, the anxiety, it’s because of this reality of very little change over all these years, with rising costs, increasing need, and promises that are never delivered,” Sister Simone said.
Ann Arbor resident Cilla Tomas attended the event and said she appreciated the interactive element of the lecture. Tomas said she was inspired to volunteer for RESULTS in the future.
“It was so simple, really. It’s this idea about showing the difference income gap,” Tomas said. “I have never seen it. You know, everybody talks about it, but how she did it, was just wonderful. It made such a big impression on everybody. She has a great way to talk to people and show them. Very good, different than a lot of other presentations.”
RESULTS activist Susan Beckett, who helped organize the event, said she thought Sister Campbell did a wonderful job, although she wished more people had attended the event.
“There are always a hundred other things competing for people’s attention and time,” Beckett said. “Like Sister Simone said, we don’t want to feel pain. So it’s hard to get people to prioritize something where the subject matter might be a little more difficult. But 200 people did, so there’s that.”