Journey to Justice is thrilled that Jean Stallings, a long time campaigner against poverty, will be joining us for twelve days in December. While in the UK Jean will open the JtoJ travelling exhibition at Rich Mix, Tower Hamlets and meet young people, teachers and community workers there and in Sunderland and visit the room where Martin Luther King received an honorary degree from Newcastle University in 1967.
Born in 1940, as a young mother in the 60s, Jean got involved with the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). ‘I didn’t consider myself part of the civil rights movement, although reflecting back I can see that we were. We were a group of mothers, some single, some married, most on benefits. As women on welfare, we were humiliated – we felt talked at, as though we had no part in the decisions in our lives.
I had three children, and it was a struggle. How did it happen? I was always looking for a place to buy things at a discount… so one day I walked with my kids, one of them in a stroller, to a sale at the Five Towns community center in Inwood, Long Island, which was being run for the NWRO…. I walked in, and that was it – forget the bargains! I listened to the speakers. It seemed to me that it was a place of safety, where mothers’ voices could be heard. Someone asked me to sit in on a meeting. It changed my life.
At the time, in the 1960s, there was great shame in being unmarried and having children….. Poverty and shame went together. And intimidation. The social service authorities would just come, unannounced, and look under your bed, in your belongings, searching for a sign that you had a man in the house. They checked your food, they checked everything. It was terrible. They were disrespectful – as though your welfare payment was coming out of their pocket. They would say, you’re going to do what I tell you, or else; they would threaten you.
I felt so good going to the NWRO meetings. I got involved in local campaigns, we talked to politicians about childcare and it gave me confidence to speak. You have a voice, Jean! That’s how I felt. My mentor was Beulah Saunders from New York – a woman still active in human rights, she taught me how to be an activist.
At that time, women were not at the forefront of these movements. We were called “warrior mothers” – we were mothers, vocal, demanding, not pleading, saying, ‘We have a right!’ Sometimes people were taken aback. Even Dr King’s movement wasn’t always pleased with us. People today don’t realize what we were up against.
They called us “warrior mothers” because we didn’t be, we told. Some people thought we were too aggressive, but it was what we had to do. At the 1968 National Democratic Committee we shouted our way in – open the doors, open the doors for us mothers! And they did. I was invited to the caucus for childcare, and they listened to us. We got the funding for childcare that we needed. That kind of success for poor women was pretty rare in those days. We were women from all over – Baltimore, Roxbury in Boston, California, all across the US.
The organization wanted me to go to the national meeting. They asked me to be a delegate alone with two women, Adie and Mabel, both from New York. And we met Dr King and expressed our desire to be recognized by his movement. I asked, ‘Why isn’t Coretta talking to us as a mother?’ “Sister,” he replied, “Coretta’s not feeling well, but I will relay the message to her.” He was killed a few months later. But his poor people’s movement was branching out – he was starting to oppose the war in Vietnam and include women.
We had dignity. The War on Poverty in the early 1970s helped us women. We got jobs, they put us in training programmess for people on welfare, they provided childcare and a community center. I was chosen to be a manager for a food pantry in a poor community in Elmont, Long Island. Along with distributing cheese, butter, beans and dried milk, I put up a bulletin board with notices to the community telling them what their rights were.
The National Welfare Rights Organization propelled me to go on to other things – I got my education and volunteered in different things. That voice for change was in me and I went on. It’s so important to feel part of something. It doesn’t have to be big – you don’t have to be famous. You just have to give a part of yourself. I wasn’t a leader but a little seed – I had a voice. I learned to speak without fear.
These days, young people don’t feel they can do anything. You just have to plant a seed of hope. And listen to them. Listen to their pain. Their experience means more than anything. Once they start talking to others, once they meet others and listen, they see people who are suffering more or less than them, and begin to feel the safety net opening up.
I hope young people know there are things they can do. In my day, it wasn’t just the Freedom Riders or the leaders. Everyone played a part. Today, maybe it’s just a small part, but what matters is that people change their lives and someone else’s life, too.
Jean has been an activist with ATD (All Together In Dignity) Fourth World for over 15 years. On behalf of Fourth World, she’s participated in the UN’s human rights committee and the subcommittee on the eradication of poverty.
Jean Stallings at the United Nations in New York as part of the official commemoration of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty in 2014. Photograph courtesy of ATD Fourth World USA.
ATD: Fourth World, UK: http://www.atd-uk.org/
With many thanks to the JtoJ supporters and BAAS/US Embassy, London whose generosity has enabled Jean and her grand daughter Brianna’s trip to the UK.