Shailly Barnes is the Policy Director for the Kairos Center and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. She has a background in law, economics and human rights and has spent over 15 years working with and for poor and dispossessed communities. This is part of a series of interviews in which you can get to know the grants given under the 2022 Equity Rises Request for Proposals and the people behind all the work.
Question 1: Tell us about your work! What kind of goals do you have? What are you excited about?
I’m the Policy Director for the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. My work is anchored in a theory of change that 1) has come out of decades of poor people’s organizing and 2) shows how those most impacted by injustice must be at the forefront of any effort to address those injustices. Whether it is the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, labor rights, LGBTQ+ rights, indigenous rights, or welfare rights, this has been the only way to advance a more equitable and just society.
“Kairos” is a Greek term for a break in chronological time. A “kairos” moment is a time of great crisis and opportunity, where the whole direction of society can be fundamentally changed. I believe we’re in a kairos moment now, with all kinds of crises, but also opportunities to move our society in a new direction.
We know our society is failing us – at least 140 million people in the US are poor or one emergency away from economic ruin. Those most impacted by those failures are being thrust into action to secure their most basic needs. Their struggles for housing, water, welfare rights, worker protections / living wages, health care, democracy, immigrant rights, indigenous sovereignty, climate justice and peace are providing new energy and direction for organizing, but also for the whole of society. In fact, the policies and programs that come out of poor people’s organizing today, if scaled up, can respond to most of the problems we’re facing today. This means that, even though we’re in this time of great crises, there are opportunities coming out of these crises, that can move our society in a new direction. We just have to follow their direction.
Question 2: Who or what inspires you?
I am inspired by grassroots leaders, who are constantly pushing for more than what this society and economy is willing to give them. For instance, mothers and families in Flint, who were organizing for years before their water crisis hit the news, have been calling for some of the most far-reaching demands around water: to provide Medicare for all, because everyone was impacted by the poisoning; declaring the crisis a federal disaster to access federal funding that could go towards updating / repairing the water infrastructure; eliminating the emergency manager system and restoring accountability in their government; and ending the water shut offs. They knew their water crisis was not just about water – it was about infrastructure, health care and democracy – and they kept all of those issues together in their demands.
We see the same kind of analysis and vision in poor people’s organizing around housing, health care, living wages and more. In fact, I was recently at the southern border in Texas, listening to grassroots and community organizers who are facing intense repression in their communities. But their demands and organizing were about more than immigration – they were about education, welfare, housing, democracy, policing and safety – and that’s what they were building capacity and organization around.
I’m always looking for opportunities to connect with and learn from people who are the forefront of these crises – and then connect them with others, so we can share these lessons and tactics, expand this network of poor people’s organizations and catalyze a broader social movement to end these injustices. But it always begins from this basis. All big, transformative movements were once small. They grew because they had the leadership and networks to grow from, when the opportunities presented themselves to do so.
Question 3: How do you measure progress in your work?
There are many ways to see the impact we’re having. First, we have seen a narrative shift on poverty. For years, we have been calling out the widespread poverty in this country, pushing back on the narrative that poverty is a marginal issue that is best left to philanthropy, churches and individual behavior to take care of. When 40% of the nation is in real economic distress, poverty is a systemic problem, requiring a systemic response. Over the past couple years, Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and other members of Congress have both mentioned and taken up the 140 million figure; we see more data on people living under 200% of the poverty line; we’ve even seen more media attention on poverty. There is still a long way to go, but this is progress from a time when “poor” was a word rarely used in politics or in the media.
Second, we are also seeing growth in poor people’s organizing. In the Poor People’s Campaign, nationally and at a state level, our event on June 18 was the biggest in-person gathering of poor and low-income people in decades. At the Kairos Center, our grassroots and community-based organizations and churches are taking on new bodies of work and collaboration: around mutual aid, projects of survival, political and theological education and more. There is an expansion of this work in just about every dimension.
Finally, and most importantly, we’re seeing new leaders emerge through this expansion. They are so diverse – people of every race, age, gender identity and sexual orientation, education, faith and more – and they are hungry for ways to understand what’s going on today and then make it better. They’re so brilliant and I love working with them.
Question 4: What's the most interesting or memorable project you've gotten involved with in your career?
In 2009, I went to a leadership school organized by the pre-cursor to the Kairos Center, called the Poverty Initiative. It was in West Virginia and brought together 150 people from 40 different poor people’s organizations. This was right after the financial crisis of 2007-2008. People were still reeling from its aftershocks. Together, we talked about how our economy and society were organized, new forms of organizing, and the role of religion, politics, media and culture. I had never been in a meeting like that, but I could feel the energy bubbling up and needed to be a part of whatever came out of that.
Over the next decade, we did many more of these meetings. Through them, I was exposed to a new methodology and approach to social change, one that was rooted in poor people’s organizing. This completely changed my understanding of economics, policy, law, basically, everything I had learned up to that point. And it informs everything I do today.
In 2021, we organized a similar series of strategic dialogues – this time online - on issues that poor and low-income people continue to face through the pandemic: hunger, housing insecurity, welfare rights and access to health care. The Kairos Center convened organizers, cultural workers, artists, policy experts, scholars, military veterans and faith leaders around these issues. We called them “survival summits” in reference to the “Up and Out of Poverty” survival summit organized by the National Welfare Rights Organization, the National Union of the Homeless and the Anti-Hunger Coalition in 1989 – some of the leaders in our organization and network today were at that gathering and joined us for this new series, more thirty years later. It’s still so important to have these spaces for exchange, learning and building trust and commitment.
Question 5: You coordinated and edited the report “Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America” for the Poor People’s Campaign. What key takeaway or lessons do you hope readers learn from the report?
The Kairos Center co-anchors the Poor People’s Campaign with Repairers of the Breach. The Souls of Poor Folk was the first report we developed together – Kairos, Repairers, and the Poor People’s Campaign - with the Institute for Policy Studies. It was released in 2018, just before we held 6 weeks of non-violent civil disobedience reaching from DC to over three dozen states.
The report traced 50-years of policy and economic history, from the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign to 2018, covering four themes: systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation and militarism / war economy. The report showed how conditions have become worse across every single dimension and how these injustices are deeply intertwined. We cannot address any one without also tackling the others. Key takeaways from that report are:
- 140 million people are poor and low-income, people of every race, place, age, gender, and background.
The top 1%’s share of national income has doubled since 1968.
- There are 4 million households with poisoned water and 14 million households that can’t afford water.
- One-in-five US households has zero wealth or owes more than they own.
- US spending on incarceration and immigration enforcement went up ten and eight times, respectively, since 1976. The number of incarcerated people, detainees and deportees has also gone up tenfold.
- The US spends 53 cents of every federal discretionary dollar on the military.
- We are living through a significant attack on our democracy with 23 states passing voter suppression laws before 2021 (and even more since).
At the same time, none of this is intractable. It can all be changed. We know what to do, we have the resources to do so, we just need to raise the political will to move our country in a new direction. That’s what we’re doing today.
Question 6: How can someone best support the Kairos Center?
You can find us online at kairoscenter.org and on social media: @kairoscenternyc (FB, IG); @KairosCenterNYC (twitter).
Please follow and share our work, become a Kairos community member, join our mailing list and support us with your generous donations. We have a great community store where you can find new resources and merchandise, including hoodies, bookmarks, posters and more. I love the We Cry Justice hoodie!
Question 7: What is the best book you’ve read recently?
I’m a late fan, but I just read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and it’s amazing. It’s from the perspective of a young person, who comes into their own leadership under terrible conditions, but then inspires something new and necessary. It really captures what a “kairos” moment is and reflects back so much of what we’re facing today. Read it! And then read it again and share it with someone else.