A vocal advocate for low-income families: William C. Bell honors equal voice action initiative

A vocal advocate for low-income families
RUNTIME: 00:28:50
RUNTIME: 00:28:50

In this speech, Casey Family Programs President and CEO William C. Bell described conditions in the United States that have led to increasing levels of income inequality and poverty, asking us to “raise our collective voice and demand change.”

Bell congratulated the Marguerite Casey Foundation and member organizations on the launch of Equal Voice Action (EVA), an initiative to ensure that poor and low-income families have a voice in shaping public policy that directly impacts their daily lives.

“Equal Voice Action is going to be one of the most significant efforts towards income equality and eliminating poverty for decades in America,” said Bell.


Good morning, and thank you Luz for those kind words of introduction. It is indeed an enormous privilege and pleasure to be here with you this morning, and as you have launched the Equal Voice Action. I believe Equal Voice Action (EVA) is going to be one of the most significant efforts towards income equality and eliminating poverty in decades in America.

As I think Diane Limas would say, this is a great victory for the little guy. And Joseph, bear with me — I’m also a preacher, and Luz didn’t say that — but Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, when he was sold into slavery for 20 pieces of silver by his brother, he went on from slavery to prison to rise to become the second most powerful man in Egypt next to Pharaoh himself. I think Diane would say that that was a victory for the little guy.

When David picked up five stones, he only needed one of those stones to slay Goliath the giant, with one swing. Goliath, who was indeed a giant, with armor, with sword and shield, coming against a small lad, Joseph, one stone. I think Diane would say that that was a victory for the little guy.

Diane is a volunteer for the Chicago Neighborhood Council and one day she and her colleagues looked around at what was happening to the little guys in her community and decided something needed to be done about it. And I’ll say a little bit more about Diane in a minute.

But I want you to know that today it’s not just an insignificant day. And I’m sure Luz knew this when she was planning. But 57 years ago today, nine “little guys” walked into a public high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Nine “little guys” — nine African American children — who were just simply seeking the opportunity to get an equal quality education walked into Little Rock’s Central High School that they had been blocked from going into by the governor of Arkansas. And they walked in and as they got in, thinking that they had finally integrated that school system, there was a crowd outside that began to grow and to chant — a crowd of over a thousand white men, women and even young people, who were saying, get them out of that school! Because those “little guys” were simply saying, I have a right to get the same quality education as everybody else does. But they had to be escorted out of the school by the local police because the crowd was getting angry and violent. And just a day later — so, tomorrow — the U.S. Army troops showed up after President Eisenhower sent them in, after President Eisenhower, also federalized the National Guard in the State of Arkansas so that these young people could be escorted back into the school. The first day they went in, they snuck in through a side door. But this time they walked in through the front door.

I think Diane again would say, that was a victory for the little guy. And Diane is right because throughout the ages, the little guys have found a way to change that which was destined to be forever. Just as this governor said, you will never get into our school. The little guys said, yes, we will. It might cost us something but yes, we will. As so many of us and our ancestors know that people have said to us, you can’t have this. You’re not qualified. But we said, “yes, we are.”

Diane and her 12 organizations in the City of Chicago saw an injustice. Many of those organizations I should say were grantees of Marguerite Casey Foundation. They saw an injustice where while America was focused on the housing — homeowners’ housing crisis in America — the foreclosure for homeowners, very few people were focused on the foreclosure of rental properties. People living in rental properties in Chicago were being evicted with some less than 24 to 48 hours’ notice because the rental properties had gone into foreclosure. From 2009 to 2013, over 72,000 rental units in Chicago alone resulted in evictions of people who had been paying their rents on time — people who had been longstanding tenants in those buildings. And this group, led by Diane and others said, “You can no longer lock our doors while we’re at work. You can no longer turn off our heat in the middle of the cold, windy Chicago winters.” I think somebody in here knows what I’m talking about — about how cold it gets in Chicago in the wintertime. I got family there but I don’t go there between December and April unless I have to.

But they decided — the Chicago Renters Association decided — that enough is enough. They decided that they were going to take a stand. And as a result of taking a stand, they had an ordinance passed in the City of Chicago that tomorrow will have been in place for a year. What this ordinance required was that when rental properties go into foreclosure, banks now have to assume ownership of those properties and allow those renters to remain in those properties, paying their rent until a third party buys the building. Or, if they’re not allowing them to remain, the banks have to pay them a fee to help them with their relocation. No longer were renters required to step out into the streets to find what they could find.

And Diane, when she was asked about this — and that’s why I keep repeating that phrase, the victory for the little guy— she said, this was a victory for the little guy. But what made this victory possible was that a bunch of little guys joined their voices of discontent together, to help them realize their vision that something had to be different. What the Keep Chicago Renting Coalition victory illustrates is the power of membership. It illustrates the power of coming together to elevate our voices, to speak as one, using the collective voice to make a difference for all of us. What we can accomplish together is more than any one of us can accomplish separately. That is the power of membership.

AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, is a membership organization that I’m sure most of us are aware of, regardless of how young some of us are. But how many of you know that AARP got its beginning because one retired school principal had a vision that people who had spent their entire careers teaching and training and developing others to have a better life themselves, should not have to spend the latter years of their life impoverished and living without health insurance? That was the vision of Dr. Andrus, who started what was then called the National Retired Teachers Association. But it was designed to be a mechanism where members could come together and lift up their collective voices and demand a change that would not see retired teachers living without health insurance because at that time, there was no real private health insurance in this nation. And some 11 years after that, in 1958, the National Retired Teachers Association became AARP because they then expanded it from teachers to all professions. But what’s so interesting is, this membership organization, this vision today extends to everybody who’s 50 years and older. And it started almost 20 years before the federal government in America created Medicare.

A group of affected people decided that we can’t keep living the way that we’re living. Something has got to change in America. And 20 years before the federal government decided to act, they were active. That, to me, is what Equal Voice Action is about. A group of people living in America deciding that it is time to act. Today on its website, AARP says that it believes in the principles of collective purpose, collective voice and collective power to change America, to change the markets in America to conform to the needs of those who are 50 and over.

My question is, “Are we ready to change America? Are we ready to change America, to conform to the needs of income insufficient families?” I have evolved from calling them low-income families, though I know this is the same thing. But I’m calling it “income insufficient” because I don’t believe that it is families’ desire to be low-income. I believe that the structures that exist in this country make it so overwhelmingly challenging for families not to be low-income that we have to stand up collectively to say it’s time to change. Are we ready to challenge America to live up to its promise?

Are we ready to challenge America to live up to its promise that we should have a more perfect union? Because when I look around, I see evidence every single day that we’re not there yet. Here we are, some 240 years since the founding of one of the greatest nations in the world, one of the greatest experiments in democracy in the world, and I would say we’re still experimenting with that thing called democracy, but that’s another two-hour speech.

But here we are, some 240 years later and I would submit to you, we’re not there yet. And that the evidence is not too far away. We only need to look at the conditions of our young people and look at the conditions in many of our communities to understand that we are not there yet.

On average, every 24 hours in this United States of America, approximately 2,000 children are confirmed as victims of child abuse and neglect — on average, every 24 hours.

Every 24 hours in America, nearly 700 children are removed from their families and placed into foster care.

Every 24 hours in America, ask yourself the question, “Are we there yet?” when nearly four children in America, most of whom have not reached their fifth birthday, die from child abuse and neglect in this great nation.

Ask yourself, “Are we there yet?” when, on average, every 24 hours, nearly 7 million children wake up in a household in this great, richest nation in the world, where their families are living off of $8 a day per family member. And that’s called extreme poverty in America, as though if you had $10 to $12 a day that wouldn’t be too extreme. I just paid $4 for a cup of coffee, and I didn’t have breakfast yet.

On average, every 24 hours in America we lose 13 young people under the age of 25 to homicide. And worse yet, we lose 12 young people under the age of 25 to suicide. That’s 12 young people making a statement that death is a better option for them than one more day of life as they know it.

We are losing, on average, 29 young people under the age of 25 in communities across America. And every 15 days — and this is a startling revelation for me — every 15 days that means we’re losing 435 young people in America under the age of 25. And that just happened to be the same number of people that we have elected to serve us in the House of Representatives in this great nation. Every 15 days we lose the potential of the entire House of Representatives and it doesn’t seem like anybody is dissatisfied.

It doesn’t seem like anybody is ready to say, it’s time for a change in communities across America. And it is not every community. And that’s the challenging part for me. We have less than 40,000 residential ZIP codes in America, and less than 20 percent of those ZIP codes produce an overwhelming majority of the young people who go into foster care. Less than 20 percent of those ZIP Codes produce the overwhelming majority – this is some 2 million plus inmates that we have incarcerated in America. Less than 20 percent of those ZIP Codes produce the predominant number of murders that we have every year in America. And it has been indicated that a white police officer kills an African-American young man, young person, 96 times a year in America. And that’s from their data. That’s an average of about two per week.

We know where they live. We know where the underperforming schools are. We know where the crime is happening. We know where the infrastructure challenges are. We know where the abandoned buildings are. We know where the communities where young children are underperforming academically are. But yet, I still ask the question, is anybody ready to challenge America to build a more perfect union?

How many more Fergusons is it going to take before we explode? But yet, the FBI data, which is the most comprehensive data that we have, doesn’t paint the whole picture because the FBI data in its crimes report does not require every police department to report every killing, and it only accepts justifiable homicides. And so you get to decide what’s justifiable. You get to decide what you report. But some suggest that only four percent of the police departments in America actually make that report. Which means that Michael Brown might not be included in that number.

Which means that 43-year-old Eric Garner, who died three weeks prior to Michael Brown, after a police officer in New York put him in an illegal chokehold because he thought he was selling illegal cigarettes, might not be in that number.

Which means that John Crawford, age 22, who was killed by police four days before Michael Brown in Beavercreek, Ohio, for waving a BB gun inside of a Walmart, a BB gun that he just picked up off the shelf in Walmart – he might not be in that number.

What that means is that Ezell Ford of Los Angeles, 25 years old, who was killed by police under disputed circumstance two days after Michael Brown, during an investigative stop – he might not be in that number.

Or Dante Parker, 36, who died after being repeatedly tased by police in Victorville, Calif., three days after Michael Brown’s murder, all because he was riding a bicycle in the vicinity of a place where a residential burglary had taken place and it was reported that the perpetrator escaped on a bicycle. Dante Parker might not be in that number.

Five unarmed, young African American men killed in America in a span of about four weeks and none of them might be in the official number that tells us what’s going on in America. It’s time for something to change.

Because all of this is happening in a country that was founded to stand on the affirmation that every person is endowed with certain inalienable rights: The right to life; the right to liberty, the right for the pursuit of happiness being chief among them. This is the great nation that says in its founding document, the Constitution of the United States of America, that sets forth a foundation for us to form a more perfect union. To establish justice, to ensure domestic tranquility, to promote the general welfare for all people in all communities.

But I say to you today, something needs to change in America. And you have the power to change it. Something needs to change, and my message to you today is, the world as we see it today, does not have to be the end of our story.

Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and former slave, said “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.” If you’re waiting for the economics to trickle down to you, you’re going to have a long wait because it will not come without a demand. It never has and it never will.

To change what we see happening in our communities and to make them stronger, we must raise our collective voice and demand change.

We must say at the state level, at the local level, at the federal level, we have had enough. We have had enough of militarized police forces using the same people who just came from the combat zone in Iraq and Afghanistan, using the same equipment that they used in Iraq and Afghanistan, using them on citizens in America. It’s time for a change.

It’s time for us to stand up and say, just as it is atrocious and undeniably wrong for an American citizen to be beheaded in a foreign country, it is just as undeniably wrong for an American citizen to be shot down on their own streets here in America.

How long will we have to wait for our children to be fully treated like the other children in America? How long will we have to wait for their schools to prepare them as well as the best schools in America, and they won’t have to go through a lottery to get in? How long? How long will we have to wait for every hard-working person in America to be able to adequately feed their children? How long do we have to work 40 and 50 and 60 hours a week and not be able to adequately clothe our children? How long?

Do we have to work 40 and 50 and 60 …. I met a woman last night as I was coming through the airport. She’s an African-American woman. My plane was delayed for two to three hours so it was close to 10 o’clock. And I walked by and I said, “You’re walking like it’s been a long day.” She said, “You think it’s been a long day? I’ve been walking since 4:30 this morning.” And I didn’t dare to ask how much she made.

How long?

When we work — not be lazy, lookin’ for handouts — how long will we work and not be able to provide adequate housing for our families? How long?

There’s power in membership. And with that power, we can slay every Goliath in our path. With that power, we can give hope to the young people who will follow us — that says they can slay any Goliath that comes their way. With that power we can give hope back to our communities. We must demand that our families in our communities be given a reason to hope. We must demand that our families and our communities be given a reason to believe that this is their America too. No longer does this America belong to those who just happen to born in the right ZIP code.

I think the biggest challenge in America today is the lack of hope. There are too many of our people who are living in circumstances in communities and conditions where they have been come to believe that change doesn’t stand a chance against the status quo. We have too many of our families, our young people, our older people who need the power of membership that comes with the Equal Voice Action.

And so I implore each of you, as you go back to your cities, as you go back to your ZIP codes, if you have been empowered by the launch of Equal Voice here these last couple days, that you decide it’s time. Decide that it is time, the same way that 50 years ago the Freedom Summers that occurred in Mississippi when Freedom Riders came from across America to help with voter registration in Mississippi. And Dave Dennis from the Congress of Racial Equality, as he reflected on that summer, he said, Freedom Summers gave people courage. It gave people hope. And it gave them a reason to believe that things would be different.

We need to restore hope and the power of collective action and our ability to change the stories for our young people. We need to be able to say to every young person who thinks that life is too hard, who thinks that their life doesn’t matter, who thinks that their life is a throw-away life that your story can be re-written. What you see today doesn’t have to be your end. We need to get to every young person who will attempt to take their own life in America because the conditions in which they live have become so unbearable that they think death is the best option.

We need to help them re-write their stories. We need to get to every young person who is about to pull the trigger and take the life of one of their friends. And I say ‘friends.’ And I don’t say it loosely. The majority of young men of color, be it Latino, Asian, Native American, African American – the majority of the shooters look just like the victim. The majority of the shooters are not strangers to the victim.

We use terminology of drive-by shootings to make it sound random. These are people who know each other, who are cramped and crowded into devastated, deplorable conditions, who are just simply crying out and fighting to say, I need a way out. Because that young man who pulls the trigger knows that 75 to 80 percent of the time, after he pulls that trigger, somebody’s going to pull the trigger on him.

It’s time. And I just simply ask you the question: How long? How long will we stand by? How long?

A news organization reporting on the influx of children from Central America coming across the border in Texas was questioning why would families in Central America send their unaccompanied children to the borders of Texas knowing all of the dangers and anything that could happen to them – why would they do that. In this place where so much trafficking is going on, why would you let your child go? And so he stopped a 12-year-old boy and asked him why your family would let you do this. And the 12-year-old looked at him and very plainly said, “Look, it’s tough to live without hope. And our hope is kept alive by the rumors of some kind of amnesty in the United States.”

Hope alone driving people as it always has: whether it is crossing an ocean to escape the tyranny of persecution, whether it is crossing the Mason-Dixon line to escape Jim Crow in the South, whether it is crossing into the safe haven of a refugee camp and a relief camp to escape war and famine, or whether it is crossing a border to escape joblessness and poverty, people throughout generations have always acted on hope to re-write their stories.

And as I interpret the lyrics of an old hymn, “Once to Every Man and Every Nation,” it says:

Once to every man and once to every nation, there comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good versus the evil side,
Some great cause, some great decision…

You cannot remain neutral. The moment for us to decide as a people, the moment for us to decide as a nation is now. Now is the moment to decide whether we will offer hope and equality to those who need it the most among us. Or will we cast them further into a pit of hopelessness? Will we give them what they need to rewrite their story? Will we give them what they need to transform their lives? Will we give them a reason to believe that this is their America too? We must give them the hope that David had as he slew Goliath. We must help give them the hope that Diane Limas and her colleagues had as they fought to end the oppression of a failing rental property situation. We must give them the hope and the victory that can only come from the power of membership.

You are on the verge of great things. You’re on the verge of an opportunity to transform the America that we know.

The question is, how long? How long are we willing to watch people struggle with the question: Is this is my America? Do I have a right to be here? Am I as worthy as the kid in the other ZIP codes, or is there something wrong with me?

Equal Voice Action has the power to change that. I congratulate you on your launch, and I wish God’s continued strength and blessings to you as you continue to move forward. Thank you for allowing me to share this morning with you. God Bless you.

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