“Yes, in the United States, we can be whatever we want to be, but there’s a grand design set up for some people to stay down and for some people to live privilege. And the greatest privilege is being aware of your choice and being able to exercise it,” Lora McDonald, Executive Director for the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equality (MORE2) says.
I was asking about her opinion on those who attribute causes of poverty to personal choice. McDonald is a social worker who has been working in Kansas City for the past twenty years, and has been employed with various non-profits before obtaining her current position. Often drawn toward advocacy-focused service, she now works on achieving economic change through policy work with the faith based MORE2 .
I have been hearing McDonald’s name a lot since moving to Kansas City last year. A few weeks ago, I finally got the chance to meet her when we had coffee and talked about the many subjects that currently have her and MORE2’s attention-from cab monopolies to Ferguson. Each topic we discussed could easily stand on its own in an article, but hopefully this post provides an adequate overview of our conversation.
When asked what influenced both her career path and decision to join MORE2, the first thing that comes to mind is her own experiences. “My life is like this weird juxtaposition of wealth and poverty.” She says that during her family’s less fortunate periods, “I remember being embarrassed all the time. My mom applied for food stamps and I remember her coming home and crying because they told her she’d have to sell her car.”
As her family’s finances improved and she was “blessed to go to college,” McDonald says, “There was no question that I had to do something with the privileges I did have to help other people.”
She was introduced to MORE2 in 2005 when the organization was just months old, after becoming a member of her current church’s congregation. (Her decision to join this particular parish was cemented upon hearing a visiting preacher’s sermon that centered on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”)
Her first experience involved training with MORE2 ‘s parent organization, the national faith-based community organizing Gamaliel Foundation. Gamaliel’s education style, which McDonald describes as “agitational in nature,” may be intense, but proved to be enormously helpful in teaching her effective action in the public policy realm.
“You’ve got to deal with the internal tension inside of you about why you’re doing this, so when you get in the public arena and are dealing with an elected official, you already experienced that internally.” Today McDonald oversees five MORE2 task forces: Education, Criminal Justice, Health Access, Transportation and Workforce, and Immigration.
Though MORE2’s focus is in the KC Metro, their current actions could be happening in any U.S. city because, as McDonald puts it, “there may be unique nuances, but inequity’s universal.” Some of the policies in their current agenda do actually extend beyond Kansas City.
The night before we spoke, she attended an event where the speaker was an adolescent boy who had been held at the Artesia Family Residential Center detention facility in Artesia, New Mexico. MORE2’s Immigration Task Force is working with Gamaliel to advocate for closing the center, referred to as the “baby jail.” McDonald relayed stories told the previous night of refugee children being shackled and treated “worse than adult prisoners.”
While the Health Access table is focused on Medicaid expansion, the Criminal Justice table has celebrated victories in the past year, including “Ban the Box,” which removes the question about arrests on city employment applications, and a lift of Missouri’s ban on food stamps for those with drug related convictions.
Some of the issues MORE2 is focused on, however, haven’t received as much public attention. For instance, despite common beliefs held by opponents of the Affordable Healthcare Act, the ACA has apparently had an adverse effect on access to healthcare for undocumented people. McDonald recently applied for a grant to study the specifics.
The week we spoke, the Transportation and Workforce group was celebrating a resolution they helped pass to study the impact of Yellow Cab’s monopoly on Kansas City area cab business. She explains that the franchise, under new ownership in many cities by French transit company Veolia, has negotiated exclusive contracts with downtown KC hotels stating other cab companies may drop off but not pick up customers on the property. These contracts have had an adverse effect on local independent companies, many of which employ mostly women and minorities.
“Since these exclusive contracts have gone on, 45 percent of [independent] drivers have hung up their hats.” McDonald also points out that if fees are raised because of this monopoly, “Our concern is, what happens to [organizations that use cabs like] the school district and Meals on Wheels. All these things could be hiked up. We got a city resolution voted out of committee [but] we need a city ordinance.”
MORE2 has also been working with Metro Congregation United (MCU), their sister organization in St. Louis over the last two months following the events in Ferguson. When I asked about how Ferguson has affected MORE2, her first thought was to show me a picture on her phone taken the weekend of Michael Brown’s death.
She happened to be in St. Louis for Gamaliel leadership training at the time. Her hotel room had a balcony overlooking the same courthouse that issued the Dred Scott decision. As she showed me the image of this courthouse, she spoke of reflecting on the significance of being in that exact location, while watching the news as the riots were starting, and being overcome by the feeling of “What can I do?”’
She says of her primary thoughts on those first few days in Ferguson, “Riots happen because you don’t think you have a voice. What I think of Ferguson is the people so left out, sidelined on purpose, and relegated to a small isolated world where people who look like you are not in positions of power. [When you are] told you are powerless-those are the people who weren’t protesting but rioting. And that’s not to make an excuse, that’s the reality. And they didn’t create that, we all did.”
During this discussion, she makes an important observation about her own place of privilege in the work that she does. “I don’t think anyone who’s caucasian in America can fully appreciate what it’s like to be a person of color in this nation. And I don’t. I can walk in and out of all these worlds. That’s what privilege is. I can say whatever I want and the worst that will happen is somebody will give me a dirty look. And I am steadfastly naïvely hopeful about being able to change these things. And that naiveté comes from being pink skinned and not ever being beaten down by the realities of race.”
She adds that because of being in that position of privilege, she “shouldn’t come in professing to have the solutions.” Part of the work MORE2 has done in conjunction with MCU is organizing a faith-based coalition, and connecting Ferguson congregations, so they can have conversations on what those solutions might be.
At the time that we spoke, McDonald was debating whether or not to go to Ferguson on October 9th for the two-month anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. While excited at the prospect of joining the protests, she says, “I don’t think going there is the end all. I think [this work] needs to be ongoing. MCU and us share educational, Medicaid expansion, and criminal justice work. We need to build a wider movement and keep pounding away at these issues.”
In the days following our conversation, however, she did decide to go back to St. Louis after MCU member Rev. David Gerth, McDonald’s “brother in the Lou,” requested MORE2’s presence. It seems that while there, she got a picture of that wider movement starting to form. In an excerpt of her essay, “We Stretch,” she describes her experience.
“As I go back to Kansas City, I am left with images I won’t shake. Ever. People walked for miles to surpass police blockades in St. Louis (City) in order to peacefully protest. Perhaps a thousand people walked some 1-3 miles, at 2 a.m., in the fog, as we did, to “occupy” the private St. Louis University, setting up tents in the center of campus.
“I am moved that the countless other organizing groups, along with Gamaliel, put all differences aside to stand together as some 700 people stood in the rain at the Ferguson Police Department, with dozens ready to face arrest in this act of civil disobedience. We stood in the pouring rain for 4 hours and 32 minutes (the exact amount of time Mike Brown’s slain body laid in the streets), facing a line of officers in riot gear, and 13 brave souls, mostly clergy, got arrested.
“And, as I stretched this past week I must acknowledge younger-than-me organizers who have done nightly actions since 67 days ago when Mike Brown laid dead in their community. And I know definitively that they know so much I don’t know and that they will continue to stretch. I know I have much to learn from them. I know we need to act in solidarity with one another, across this state and this nation, to breathe each other’s passion for justice, to share a taste of the fruit of one another’s labors. I know that this is a new day in the heartland of the nation. We are at the center.”
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