Feature

The Poor People’s Campaign Is Just Getting Started

At the National Mall in Washington on Saturday, two huge banners hung on either side of an elevated stage, framing the Capitol building in the background: fight poverty not the poor, they read. That was the central message of the thousands of people who cheered, yelled, chanted, danced, and sang in support of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

Over the past 40 days, more than 2,000 people have been arrested across the country as they demanded a right to adequate food, housing, health care, education, fair wages, and other basic necessities. They stopped traffic, petitioned state legislators, and engaged in other organizing and nonviolent direct action in 40 states and the nation’s capital. Many of those activists were on hand on Saturday to mark the completion of the campaign’s first phase as it continues the work that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who founded the original Poor People’s Campaign in 1968.

In the crowd, signs identifying contingents from at least 20 states were visible. Representatives from another 20 states identified themselves in a roll call on stage. Every region of the nation was well-represented, including by indigenous people from tribal lands. People came from as far as Alaska. “You are the founding members of the 21st century Poor People’s Campaign,” the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, co-chair of the campaign, announced to the crowd. “This is not a commemoration of what happened 50 years ago—this is the re-inauguration.”

A goal of this contemporary movement is to flip the dominant narrative of poverty in America from one that demonizes the poor to one that questions the morality of current public policy and the elected officials who craft it—a status quo in which 140 million people struggle to make ends meet, 54 million people work jobs below a living wage, 14 million are on the verge of not being able to afford their water bills, 4 million are homeless, migrant children are caged at our border, and black families continue to be ripped apart by mass incarceration.

The Nation spoke with some of the activists who came to Washington this weekend and who now plan to carry on the work of the Poor People’s Campaign for months and years to come. They are at the forefront of this decentralized movement, which emphasizes state-based campaigns led by directly impacted people.

LOUISE BROWN, CHARLESTON, SC: 49 YEARS FIGHTING FOR BETTER WAGES AND A UNION

Louise Brown, 83, is a bridge between the original Poor People’s campaign and the current movement. In 1969, she was one of 12 African-American women who were unjustly fired by Charleston’s Medical College Hospital after they tried to meet with the hospital’s director about higher pay and racism toward black workers. Their dismissal ignited a strike that lasted 140 days and brought in allies from the Poor People’s Campaign, who were redeploying after Resurrection City on the National Mall—among them were Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Four hundred workers—most of them African American—refused to return to their jobs until management reinstated the 12 workers and recognized their union. They didn’t get the union, but they did hold out and march with thousands of people—including some doctors—until they broke the hospital president who had said he wouldn’t rehire the “uneducated women.” Brown and her colleagues returned to their jobs.

“It was very hard, very tiresome,” said Brown, who had three young daughters at the time. The family was kicked out of their apartment and Emanuel Church provided them with shelter. “Forty-nine years later, I see the same thing that happened then is happening now—even worse,” Brown said prior to Saturday’s rally on the mall. She points to workers’ needing two jobs just to make rent, record corporate profits while wages remain stagnant, and a dwindling middle class.

Louise Brown (Photo courtesy of the Poor People's Campaign)
Louise Brown (Photo courtesy of the Poor People’s Campaign)

Those concerns led her to get involved with McDonald’s workers in their Fight for $15 campaign, and then the Poor People’s Campaign. While Brown said her experiences and treatment in 1969 were based on her being African American, now she says, “Everybody is being mistreated—overworked and underpaid. Seven dollars and twenty-five cents an hour—how can you live?”

“This fight is so different—people of all colors, all walks of life are participating in this,” said Brown.

Brown was arrested on a 100-degree day in June in Columbia, where the South Carolina Poor People’s Campaign delivered a set of demands at the governor’s mansion. “I went to jail in 1969 and I went to jail in 2018,” said Brown. “I’ll do whatever it takes, so long as it’s nonviolent. I’m staying until victory is won.”

AMY JO HUTCHISON, WHEELING, WV: BUILDING A COALITION OF MOMS TO PROTECT THE SAFETY NET

Amy Jo Hutchison, 46, has lived in West Virginia her entire life and “never spent a day out of poverty on some level.”

“Unemployed poverty or working poor,” she said. “And when I was unemployed, SNAP [food stamps] helped me feed my kids. You just can’t do it without the safety net sometimes.”

A single mother of two girls, ages 14 and 11, Hutchison has a bachelor’s degree and previously worked as a Head Start teacher. She is now an organizer for Our Children, Our Future, which is spearheading a campaign to end child poverty in a state where about 30 percent of children under age 6 live below the federal poverty line. Hutchison does some lobbying and policy work at the state level, but said her “passion is organizing low-income moms.”

“They have it in them,” Hutchinson said. “Sometimes people just need someone to say, ‘Hey, I believe in you. Let’s do this together.’” Her work organizing directly impacted people to protect the safety net was a natural fit with the Poor People’s Campaign, which is focused on breaking through historical racial divides that have kept white people in poverty from working with people of color in poverty. “Politicians have set it up to keep us pitted against one another—from Jim Crow on,” said Hutchison. “To change that you have to have boots on the ground—have conversations and establish relationships so you can begin to say, ‘Look, we’re all in the same boat.’” These conversations include Trump voters, who she says believed him during the presidential campaign when he said he was bringing coal back. “Since I’m directly impacted I can go in there and say, ‘I know what this is like, and we’re being hoodwinked,’” said Hutchison.

Amy Jo Hutchinson and her daughters. (Greg Kaufmann.)
Amy Jo Hutchinson and her daughters. (Greg Kaufmann.)

Hutchison organizes in 20 of West Virginia’s 55 counties, and her approach is to find a contact who can get her “a foot in the door” in a new community. Her goal is to set up a meeting with five mothers, which will lead to a referral and another meeting with five more, and so on. It’s a model that has helped the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign establish a formidable presence at the state capitol over the past six weeks, as residents fight to protect a safety net that is under constant threat.

Earlier this year, the governor imposed work requirements for food assistance, despite the state’s own study suggesting that it doesn’t help workers find employment; during a nine-county pilot project, there was also a spike in demand at food pantries. But recently, with the help of low-income mothers testifying at the state capitol, the legislature raised SNAP eligibility from 130 percent of the poverty line to 200 percent.

“That was a huge win,” Hutchison said. “With that we bring in thousands of working poor to make them SNAP-eligible since they aren’t paid enough to make ends meet.”

Now Hutchison has her sights on working with the Poor People’s Campaign on voter registration and mobilization, continuing to grow the coalition of mothers, and resisting the latest proposals from congressional Republicans to cut food assistance, children’s health care, and repeal the Affordable Care Act.

GG MORGAN, HARLEM, NY: HOMELESS AND FIGHTING FOR HOUSING AS A HUMAN RIGHT

In December, GG Morgan read an article about Reverend Barber and the new Poor People’s Campaign. She was familiar with him from his remarks at the 2016 Democratic Convention, and knew of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work on the original effort in 1968. The revived campaign was timely: She’d become homeless for the first time about six months earlier and moved into a women’s shelter in Harlem, where she still resides today. She signed up to get involved.

“I’m one of 89,000 people in shelters in the state,” said Morgan, who described her age as around 50. “Rents are skyrocketing, and every time you turn around there are more luxury condos going up, but nothing that’s affordable.” She said people of color and the working poor are being “pushed out and priced out” of their communities in what she calls “the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression.” A recent study indicated that in 2016 more than half of low-income households in New York City spent 30–50 percent of their income on rent.

In February, Morgan helped launch the New York Poor People’s Campaign by sharing her story at a press conference in Albany, and helping to deliver a letter to elected officials about poverty and voter suppression nationwide. She told The Nation that although she was new to activism she “long had a heart for justice.” Prior to becoming homeless, she would frequently visit shelters to serve meals. Seeing people sleeping in the streets, or on benches, or in the subways deeply affected her. “But I never thought it could be me, until it became me,” she said.

Morgan is now an organizer with Voices of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY), a statewide membership organization that helps build power for low-income New Yorkers impacted by HIV/AIDS, mass incarceration, the drug war, and homelessness. A lot of the group’s work overlaps with the work of the New York Poor People’s Campaign. “We’re trying to get homeless people to know that they have a voice,” she said, “and when we go to Albany where decisions are made and money is allocated we can voice our opinions and share our stories about what is happening.”

Morgan said the housing solutions she and the campaign are focused on include raising revenue by closing the carried-interest loophole, a tax break that benefits millionaires and billionaires, and a new Home Stability Support grant that would help people make rent.

“Working people, poor people need decent housing, decent education, decent wages, decent health care—is that asking for so much in the richest nation?” said Morgan. “This Poor People’s Campaign—a call for moral revival—is what’s going to get the heart and soul of America back.”

In the months ahead the campaign will pivot to power-building, voter registration, voter mobilization, and, as necessary, civil disobedience. The activists have already made their presence felt in 40 state capitals and the District, becoming what they call “a new, unsettling force.”

This is exactly where the organizers hoped they would be just 40 days in. As campaign co-chair the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis put it, “When we look at the history of social change in this country, it’s when those that are most impacted band together with clergy, moral leaders, and other activists—and commit themselves to being the foundation for larger scale transformation—only when you start there can you see real justice coming into society.”

This article was produced in partnership with The Nation.

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Feature

Trump Hasn’t Actually Ended Family Separation. Here’s How One Border Town Is Fighting Back.

“Tell them not to hug,” Antar Davidson’s supervisor shouted at him. “Tell them not to hug!”

Davidson, 32, was employed as a youth care worker at a Tucson shelter run by Southwest Keys Programs, the organization contracted by the federal government to house immigrant children across multiple states. His job was to assist with the approximately 300 immigrant children, ages 4 to 17, living there.

As the only staff member fluent in Portuguese, he had been called in to translate for three recently-arrived Brazilian siblings ages 8, 10, and 16. The siblings were distraught. They hadn’t slept since they arrived at the shelter that morning, and staff had told them that their mother had disappeared. In Brazil, those who are “disappeared” are abducted from their homes and never seen again. They were terrified. Davidson addressed the oldest brother, “You have to be strong.” Weeping, the boy responded, “How?”

These three children were among the more than 2,300 separated from their parents between May 5 and June 9. They are caught up in the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which separates children from their parents in order to criminally prosecute all adults who are caught crossing into the United States, even those exercising their legal right to seek asylum.

After Davidson refused to order the siblings not to embrace, he says his supervisor began to yell instructions at them in English and Spanish. According to facility policy, the siblings were then split up into different areas because of their ages and genders. When Davidson asked a case manager where the children’s mother was, she said she didn’t know, wouldn’t know for a week, and that it would be another week to speak with her. Two weeks later, on June 12, Davidson resigned.

*          *          *

Davidson had been seeking post-college employment when he interviewed and subsequently began work at the shelter in February. Inspired to work there because his father was an immigrant, Davidson proposed teaching a capoeira course. Posters on the walls read: “We are all humanitarian heroes.” Davidson says, “They have a progressive corporate culture they present. They make you feel like we’re a humanitarian organization.”

The Estraya Del Norte shelter on North Oracle Road in Tucson is unremarkable in every way. Painted beige, the squat building blends into a strip of old motels, many of them abandoned. Tucsonans likely pass the building every day without noticing or wondering who is inside.  When organizers and activists finally learned there was a detention facility for immigrant children in their own community, they came together to form the Free the Children Coalition.

Last week at a coalition-led rally, several hundred protestors gathered in front of the Tucson federal courthouse with markered signs reading: “Morals Over Profit,” “We Will Not Abandon Our Children,” and “Where’s Our Humanity?”

Isabel Garcia, board member of humanitarian organization Derechos Humanos and a longtime immigration attorney, called the policy of family separation “the lowest of the low.”

“We’re here because we allowed it,” she said. “What are we going to do moving forward?”

*          *          *

In 1924, Congress first passed legislation criminalizing illegal entry or re-entry, but over time, the prosecution of border-crossing has varied widely.

“There is no precedent for systematically prosecuting adults for illegal entry or re-entry if they came over with a minor child”

Border communities like Tucson have felt the impact of increased border policing in more recent years. In 2010, Arizona passed S.B. 1070, which required law enforcement officers to determine the immigration status of detained or arrested individuals if officers have “reasonable suspicion” they might be in the country without status. (The Supreme Court later struck down much of the law, and narrowed this specific provision.) Operation Streamline, a program begun in 2005, brings 70 migrants accused of illegal entry or re-entry before a federal judge almost every weekday. If migrants plea guilty to illegal entry, they are sentenced to time in detention but receive a misdemeanor rather than a misdemeanor and a felony for border crossing. In some courtrooms, prosecution of all 70 defendants, who appear before the judge seven at a time, takes as little as half an hour.

But American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Billy Peard, who has been meeting with immigrant parents held in detention in Eloy and Florence, Arizona, says, “From what I can tell, there is no precedent for systematically prosecuting adults for illegal entry or re-entry if they came over with a minor child.”

*          *          *

Davidson said the atmosphere at the shelter became “more intense” and “more authoritarian” after Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” announcement in May. Previously, he said, many Guatemalan children who came to the United States without their parents were prepared to enter a shelter. “They were very compliant, they kept their heads down.” But then under zero tolerance “kids started coming in who didn’t know the drill, who were ripped from their parents. Laws were rolling out differently day to day,” Davidson says. “If case managers didn’t understand, you can imagine what kids didn’t understand.”

“You know that audio clip everyone’s listening to of kids’ crying?” Davidson says. “That’s something we were experiencing every day—those were the sounds of the evening as we were preparing to go home.”

Two days prior to the arrival of the Brazilian siblings, three kids ran away. Davidson witnessed the most acute behavior from children referred to by staff as “of tender age,” those under 12. Kids ran around, cried through the night, and hit teachers. One child demonstrated problematic sexual behaviors, grabbing at his teachers’ genitalia. He was 6.

“I call it a triple threat of trauma,” Davidson says. “Escaping traumatic experience in their countries, becoming traumatized entering, and then again in facilities. When you combine that with underpaid and untrained workers, it’s a recipe for disaster.”

The short- and long-term health consequences of separating children from their parents were confirmed by Dr. Eva Shapiro, a Tucson pediatrician of over 40 years. “A parent’s role is to mitigate these dangers,” Shapiro said. “Robbed of that buffer, children are susceptible to learning difficulties, depression, and chronic conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, heart disease, and other chronic diseases.” She continued, “Officials at the Department of Homeland Security claim they are acting to protect the best interest of minor children, but the White House and Department of Justice have vocally supported the idea of family separation as a deterrent to keep migrant families from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.”

“The trauma for these kids and parents is going to be lifelong”

Last week, Tucson mother Daisy Pitkin awakened when her 3-year-old son cried out from a nightmare. After consoling her child, she sat on the edge of his bed as he fell back asleep and nearly had a panic attack. “I thought: What would happen if nobody came?” she said. “What would happen if a stranger came? That’s happening to children right now.”

Pitkin was one of 17 parents who brought their small children to a “Play Date” last week at Republican Rep. Martha McSally’s Tucson office. She said that contacting elected officials is “a foundational democratic act,” and that the parents’ chief objective was to find out the Congresswoman’s stance on the separation policy. For an hour, parents read stories, led children in songs, and helped kids make art.

When parents asked staff to call her D.C. office or try to reach the Congresswoman on her cell, their requests were denied. Staff told constituents that the office had two caseworkers: one for veterans’ issues and one to handle housing issues of elderly constituents. “When we asked what happens if one of her constituents comes asking about immigration, they said, ‘We don’t have anyone here who can talk about that,’” Pitkin said.

Another organizer and mom, Margot Veranes, said staffers asked why the group didn’t make an appointment or come when Congress wasn’t in session. “We don’t feel that this can wait,” Veranes said. “This needs to stop in the next five minutes ’cause every moment it’s happening to a new child—and the trauma for these kids and parents is going to be lifelong.”

In response to the “Play Date,” Congresswoman McSally’s chief of staff released a formal statement accusing the group of being led by “radical activists” and breaking into the office. “Events like these distract from the many issues our country faces and make it harder for our community to come together to address them,” the statement read.

Veranes, whose children are 6 months and 2 years old, argues that this is exactly the issue our country needs to address. “We’ll try anything to make this stop,” she said. “We have the luxury of being parents who are unified and we stand in solidarity with parents who don’t know where their kids are.”

The office handed out opinion forms, which many parents and some children filled out. One, from a 10-year-old, read: “Please try to stop this. It’s really wrong.”

On Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order purporting to end family separation that in reality just opened the door to the mass and prolonged incarceration of children along with their families—and potentially simply delaying family separation. This policy also contradicts a 1997 federal court decision that children accompanied by their parents cannot be held for more than 20 days. Moreover, the Trump administration has no plan to reunite the thousands of children whom it previously took from their parents.

“There will not be a grandfathering of existing cases,” said a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

One of the Tucson Play Date organizers, Reverend Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian Church, a mother to 4- and 6-year-old daughters, explained the new policy this way: “What the president said is ‘We won’t separate families, we’ll incarcerate them.’ My hope is that this is a moment of awakening for many people so they can begin to see what’s truly happening in our nation.”

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Analysis

New Jersey’s Governor Just Proposed a Millionaires’ Tax. So Why Is the Legislature Opposing It?

In an era of “alternative facts” and absurd promises about huge tax cuts for the wealthy paying for themselves, it’s refreshing to encounter an elected representative who is willing to speak a simple truth: You get the government you pay for.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is battling his Democratic colleagues in the state legislature over this very premise. The legislature is hesitating on Murphy’s proposal for a millionaire tax hike, restoring the sales tax to a pre-Gov. Chris Christie rate of 7 percent, and an end to budget gimmicks that made his predecessor’s fiscal plans seem more responsible than they were. At stake are investments in public education, transit, affordable child care, and other pillars of economic security. The showdown couldn’t be more relevant for antipoverty advocates or anyone interested in a more equitable economy.

The governor’s argument is simple: Lawmakers are constitutionally obligated to balance the state budget. If New Jersey residents want to make these fundamental investments—and they do—there must be adequate and sustainable revenues.

So straightforward, and yet …

Many lawmakers still don’t want to raise taxes on the wealthy, in part because they fear it will cause those residents to relocate. However, research shows that millionaires are less likely to leave a state than middle- and working-class families, and tax hikes on wealthy residents have a negligible impact on their moves out of state. Additionally, despite overwhelming popular support for asking the wealthy to pay their fair share, too many Democratic elected officials still worry that they will pay a political price for raising taxes.

Murphy’s predecessor cut $9 billion from public schools

But if you don’t raise taxes on the wealthy, you’re left with … budget gimmicks. You end up using one-time revenue sources such as draining funds that were earmarked for the Clean Energy Fund, or fuzzy math instead of transparent accounting. People deserve a government that plans for the long-term funding of its core functions and obligations, instead of one that reels from budget crisis to budget crisis, leaving constituents uncertain at best or pessimistic. People also respect a politician who is honest about the trade-offs and implications of budget decisions.

In the case of this budget fight, the stakes couldn’t be more clear: New Jersey’s millionaires just got an average federal tax cut of $21,700 courtesy of the Trump Tax Scam. In contrast, in the 8 years leading up to Murphy’s election, his predecessor cut $9 billion from public schools, which resulted in axing academic and extracurricular programs, teacher layoffs, and increased property taxes for working-class and middle-class families. If the choice is between protecting New Jersey millionaires from a negligible tax increase or restoring funds for public education, health care, transit, and other basic needs, there is a clear answer that is good politics and smart policy.

Despite low national unemployment, people are still rightfully worried about their own family’s ability to afford necessities like health care or save for a future home or college education. And while there is positive GDP growth, people know that the rich are getting richer while the rest of us aren’t—nearly half of Americans can’t afford an unexpected $400 expense. If advocates, policymakers, elected officials, and others want to connect with the American people and address their economic struggles, they need to be straightforward in their message and forward-looking in their policies. Rather than protecting millionaires due to unwarranted fears about a political price, let’s be clear about what it will take to fund the government that the people want and deserve.

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First Person

A Death in Emerald City

Jerry Maren passed away last month. That may mean nothing to you, but for Little People like me, he was an icon. Jerry Maren is credited as being one of the last living Munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz,” a movie I watched so many times as a child that I wore out two VHS copies.

I don’t remember the first time that I saw “ The Wizard of Oz”. I know there was a period of time before we owned it on VHS, because I remember what a big deal it was for my family the first time it went on sale. Both of my parents were also little. My mom ran a Disabled Students Center at a Community College and my dad served on the board of a Center for Independent Living, so disability issues were a constant topic of conversation around the dinner table (and in the car, and pretty much everywhere).  My mom and dad felt very strongly that it was important for me to grow up seeing positive images of people like us in the media, to offer an alternative to teasing and bullying that we were subjected to out in public. The film sat in a plastic vertical towers of about a dozen VHS tapes, along with those big plastic-encased Disney films, “Transformers,” “Jem and the Holograms,” “Willow,” and “Time Bandits.”  That was my library of cinematic masterpieces, designed to keep me away from my dad’s collection of Mel Brooks films.

Growing up in a family of Little People (LPs), this was totally normal. Those films weren’t the “little people” movies, they were just movies in the typical rotation. But, for some folks with dwarfism who are the only people like them in their families, “The Wizard of Oz” was the first time that they had ever seen themselves anywhere. That was how my parents grew up. They were the only Little People in their families: my mom in California as number 5 of 8, my dad in Alabama as a twin in a family of four children (his sister is Average Height). As kids, they went decades without seeing their bodies reflected anywhere, except in a 1939 MGM film.

It is impossible to disconnect “The Wizard of Oz” from its legacy as it relates to the representation of people with disabilities, and specifically LPs in Hollywood. No film before or since has cast so many disabled actors—at least 124. It cemented a relationship between the dwarfism community and Hollywood. LPs as a community can complain about the lack of quality roles in the media—for every Tyrion Lannister there’s the third elf on the right in a home improvement ad during the Christmas season—but they cannot complain about the lack of roles writ large. It wasn’t until recently that we started seeing average height actors “made short” by computer-generated imagery, instead of hiring LP actors for films like “Tiptoes” or “Snow White and the Huntsman.”

The Munchkins had a community and a culture, onscreen and off, that was the first of its kind.

That legacy is still complicated. The Munchkins are a fictional people, but far too often that word is used as a derogatory term to describe actual Little People. The characters are entirely white, objectified, and don’t get any development. But at least they existed. They had a community and a culture, onscreen and off, that was the first of its kind. Imagine showing up at MGM because of a casting call you heard about in some corner of small town America, and walking into a set in Los Angeles where there are hundreds of people at your eye level. Not having to ask people to reach things for you, not having to struggle to hear a conversation going on over your head, not having to explain why it was inappropriate to pat you on the head. Walking places with people who walk the same speed as you, talking to people who understand what it’s like to be teased, taunted, or abused for the very same difference that you have. It was such an intense experience that at the end of filming many of the LPs who played Munchkins decided to stay and settle in the Los Angeles area. In the time spent filming the movie, they met significant others onset and fell in love.  Many had families and stayed in Hollywood for work. It was the beginning of the development of a community of multi-generational LP families.

Several years later, actor Billy Barty, Texas Instruments engineer Lee Kitchens, Anna Dixon, and several other little people formed Little People of America. Jerry Maren was one of the first members. Because of the Wizard of Oz and the attention paid to the film, the formation of LPA became news, and Ed Sullivan had Billy Barty on his show to talk about the first annual conference. My maternal grandfather Jesse happened to see that episode, and for the first time he saw an adult with a similar condition to the smiling freckled red-headed daughter he had at home. It gave him a sense that her future would, in fact, be ok. That encouraged him to reach out to the local chapter and get my mom involved. A few years later, at a convention, met a rebellious boy from Alabama who drove a ‘69 Camaro all the way from Selma to San Francisco for a date. That was my dad.

Jerry was a regular attendee at the national conferences, and he always took time to greet the new families who were unsure of what their child’s life would be like. I remember how excited he was when I went to college; for most of his generation, our people didn’t go to college and many didn’t graduate high school. Those were the days before Section 504 or the ADA required physical accessibility of colleges and universities, and the public in general. School, and most everyday jobs, were physically inaccessible to Jerry’s generation. It would seem like light years until people actually started believing that people with disabilities could learn, could achieve, could love.

To adult LPs, Jerry and his wife were elders of our community. They were the folks you would point out to your kids when you saw them in the hotel restaurant. To kids they were heroes. To adolescents, they were a little something more complicated. When you’re plagued with feelings of not fitting in, and you find yourself fending off insults by both peers and members of the general public, it was easy to feel embarrassed by those that portrayed the Munchkins.

I will admit that snarky teenager still lives in me a bit. The last time I saw Jerry at a Little People Convention, I stood in line with my husband to get an autograph for our future children. I found myself wondering, aloud, what would be the most creative pick-up line you could use if you were the last living Munchkin. The list was long, and served to embarrass my husband for over an hour.

Now as an adult, and a parent myself, we’ve watched the film with our kids. My kids are still young, but I imagine that they’ll grow up with us having similar conversations about representation, about history, and about why things like “The Wizard of Oz” matter. And while it leaves us with longing for better, more well-developed work, its legacy laid the groundwork for that.

So thank you, Jerry. Thank you for the work you did to put our people in front of the camera, for taking the time to talk to so many scared families, for encouraging so many awestruck kids, for sharing so many stories, and for helping create a community at a time when so many of our people felt so alone. And for the other 123 of you changed history that day in October 1938, thank you for making it possible for me to be here now.

Related

First Person

I’ve Worked for Tips for Most of My Life. It’s Time to Pay Us the Minimum Wage.

Next week, D.C. residents will vote on whether tipped workers should make the minimum wage. The ballot measure, Initiative 77, would gradually raise the current base wage for tipped workers from $3.33 an hour, until it matches the city’s minimum wage in 2026. As far as local ballot initiatives go, this one has been contentious: the city is covered in signs, and our local press has been churning out hot takes for weeks. But people like me — people who have had to survive on tipped minimum wages — have mostly been shut out of the conversation, or too scared of their bosses to speak up.

I’ve worked in the service industry for 18 years, which means I’ve been a server in a restaurant for more of my life than I haven’t. There was the sports bar in Florida where we had to wear Catholic school girl uniforms, the barbecue joint in South Carolina next to the arena, the tiny Irish pub in South Charlotte, and the tiny English pub in South London. There was the café in pre-gentrified Brooklyn where the chef made the fluffiest scrambled eggs I’ve ever had, and the Mediterranean place in Helena, Montana with the teal ceiling and bright red chairs.

Clashing color scheme aside, that Mediterranean restaurant is one of the only places I’ve been able to feel at home. The other servers had worked there for years, and we actually made enough money to live on. I shared an apartment with my sister that overlooked Mount Helena, and we had enough left over after we paid our bills that I could make roast beef at Christmas and throw my sister a surprise party to make up for her third-grade birthday party when no one came.

Montana is one of the eight states that does not have a subminimum wage for tipped positions. In North Carolina, I only made $2.13 an hour, but in Montana I made the state’s minimum: $8.30 an hour, and tips were a bonus. For the first time in my life, I could save money. I could get a drink with friends after a good week, and still be confident I’d be able to pay my rent after a bad one.

After a year of making $2.83 an hour, I had to sell my bed frame, bike, air conditioner, and beloved textbooks

I never even meant to live there. I went out to visit my sister after a car accident left me depressed, rattled, and unsure about my direction in life. I stayed because it gave me time to heal.  By the time I left, nine months later, I was a first-time thousandaire. I had enough money in the bank to start over again in Philly, where I was back in restaurants that paid a subminimum wage. After a year of making $2.83 an hour, I drained my savings and had to sell my bed frame, bike, air conditioner, and beloved textbooks to pay my bills while I moved to D.C.

Now that I’m here, D.C. residents actually have a choice to get rid of the tipped minimum wage.  The debate has been one-sided: Besides the signs, restaurants have pushed their workers to vote against Initiative 77, or to keep their opinions to themselves if they’re voting for it. Meanwhile, my Facebook feed is filled with residents asking if anyone knows what tipped workers actually want, with most of us staying uncomfortably silent.

The truth is, I would not have been able to support myself as a waitress in North Carolina, Florida, or Pennsylvania had it not been for my family’s help. That support is a luxury. Most tipped workers are well into adulthood, past the age that they can expect family to support them. The other servers I know work second and third jobs just to buy the basics, and almost half of us still need to rely on government assistance. Even though federal law says that restaurants have to make up the difference if a worker doesn’t earn the state-wide minimum wage in tips, that math never worked for me. Employee wages are perpetually pilfered by restaurants that feel their base wages, low as they are, are somehow enough.

One well-known restaurateur I worked for, who owns one of the most prominent restaurants in D.C., has a habit of arriving at his boutique restaurants in a chauffeured car, occupying several tables, ordering more than $800 of food and wine, and then leaving without tipping his server. His reason for not tipping was that he paid our wages, which added up to about $8.50 after the three hours of service he demanded. To him, that was enough. For me, it never was.

That restaurant owner thrived by underpaying us. He would still be successful if he paid us a fair wage. And the data shows that’s true across the industry.

Initiative 77 could help us. I’ve seen it first-hand. So, me? I’m voting yes.

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