Poverty in the Mother Lode will be the focus of the 24th annual Martin Luther King Jr. birthday commemoration this year.
Hosted by the Motherlode Martin Luther King Jr. Committee, the event will take place in the Sonora High School Auditorium, at the corner of Shaws Flat Road and North Washington Street in Sonora on the Sunday, Jan. 20, at 2 p.m., according to a press release.
Attendance is free to the public.
A panel of four community speakers from diverse backgrounds will discuss economic injustice in the Mother Lode.
This year, speakers will include Steve Wilensky, former two-term Calaveras County supervisor, Margie Bulkin, retired Tuolumne County schools superintendent, Mark Dyken, Jamestown School Resource Center director and Irvin Jim, chairman of the Woodfords Community Council of the Washoe Tribe.
Presenters will delve into the causes of generational poverty and the structural systems that impede people from obtaining living-wage jobs, as well as the class and racial prejudices that hold low-income earners back from advancing in their careers.
Additionally, speakers will address attitudes that blame the impoverished for the economic conditions they find themselves in.
Wilensky emphasized in a Jan. 3 phone interview that a common misconception about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is that his work as a civil rights leader was focused exclusively on black people. Rather, Wilensky explained, at the heart of King’s efforts was a unifying voice for all working-class citizens, no matter their race or gender. This was demonstrated in his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War in 1967, and his organization of protests for underpaid sanitation workers’ rights in Memphis in 1968, Wilensky said.
“As his understanding of the country grew in many years of organization, (King) showed a sense not of tribal politics or siloted identities, but an inclusiveness, an understanding that all of these issues are related,” Wilensky said.
Paraphrasing a sermon King delivered in 1968 titled “The Drum Major Instinct,” Wilensky said, “All people want to grab a baton and get out in front of the band and lead them. Most leaders grab a baton and try to get out and lead. Real leaders find as many batons as they can get and distribute them as widely as possible."
“That’s something we could learn from now,” Wilensky said. “We have ego-based leadership without the generosity of sharing the baton. It’s time to admit that we’re all equal – we have the same desires, the same dreams.”
Pat Cervelli, chairwoman for the event, hopes disseminating information about poverty will help people develop empathy for those suffering economic injustices.
“It’s true for me that when I hear information I didn’t know it can change my outlook on something,” Cervelli said. “Learning about addiction, for example, might change my idea of it.”
Cervelli hopes to give a comprehensive answer to those asking the question, “Why don’t people just get a job?”
Part of the problem is that finding employment is not that simple, Cervelli said, especially in rural counties like Calaveras and Tuolumne, where younger people are leaving for opportunities elsewhere.
“If you don’t have transportation, if you have tattoos, a criminal record, all of these can be barriers to getting a job,” Cervelli said. “People need information, (such as) understanding that the majority of jobs in our community are low paying.”
Adding to Cervelli’s points, Wilensky said, “The thing that I’m shocked by is that in such a short time we (the United States) could’ve criminalized poverty and blamed people for it even as we created an economy with greater and greater disparities. If we don’t link the social mayhem of poverty to its causes, we will surely never feel safe as a society and we will lose our democracy. We have to heal our politics, bridge gaps and discuss issues in a civil way, speak with understanding rather than blame. These are cultural norms. We are losing that rather rapidly at the moment.”
Of the economic injustices at work in Calaveras County, Wilensky said, “The list could go on forever."
“We’ve got a significant but somewhat invisible homeless problem. Prices of rentals have skyrocketed since the Butte Fire; people are couchsurfing, living in cars, trailers and tents. We have homeless veterans. We have a lot of economic displacement due to policy shifts, zig-zagging on (cannabis cultivation laws). You have senior citizens on fixed incomes with rising costs, young people getting out of school finding that a lot of jobs in the blue collar world are being automated. That might be great for production in other areas, but where do displaced workers go?”
Additionally, Wilensky stressed the importance of keeping dollars local to secure jobs in the county.
“When you bring a Dollar General to West Point, people think it’s going to be great and cheap, but the money you spend there doesn’t stay in West Point,” Wilensky said, adding that local businesses are often forced to close down or lay off workers when a corporate giant moves into the area.
In 2005, Wilensky founded a nonprofit called Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions (CHIPS) with the goal of reducing local economic inequality through sustainable forest management in the Sierra. Over that span of time, the organization has recruited roughly 150 employees, cut unemployment in half for a population of young men from the Hung A Lel Ti – a Washoe Community situated in Woodfords in Alpine County – and helped at least 75 people advance in their careers, according to Wilensky. With a cogeneration plant set for construction in Wilseyville in spring of this year, the CHIPS crew continues to grow.
“I just appreciate the program they’ve got going for us,” said CHIPS employee Tyler Sweet, a pile of branches and felled logs behind him. “They’re giving people work in West Point and Rail Road (Flat).”
A 31-year-old Rail Road Flat native, Sweet started working with CHIPS in 2014 and plans to stay with the organization “for a while,” filling in wherever he is needed.
“Those of us that have an opinion more geared toward tolerance and inclusion need to lead by example and show benefits, not be judgmental or haughty,” Wilensky said. “We’re showing by example that people can work together and accomplish not just economic recovery, but also social equity and environmental justice at the same time. It’s not so much about arguing, it’s not a bunch of words or blame or shame, not arguing about the spotted owl or greed-based resource extraction. It’s showing how we can reconcile things. We’re rebuilding a new forest economy based on stewardship and restoration.”
In addition to those of CHIPS, local efforts to reduce poverty in the county are growing in numbers.
As part of the 2018-19 Leadership Calaveras project, Kathy Gallino, Calaveras County director of economic development, has been reaching out to faith-based organizations, community groups and service providers to help assist in a point-in-time count (PIT) of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people throughout the county. The survey will take place on the night of Jan. 23.
Because the county receives federal funds from the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants program, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mandates that the count be conducted annually.
In the past, PIT counts have been used to fund projects to provide housing and case management services for homeless or those with a mental health disability, in addition to other services, according to Sierra HOPE Executive Director Jerry Cadotte.
“Our case managers make sure (people) are getting appropriate care for symptoms of their disabilities and overcoming obstacles they may have to maintain stable housing,” Cadotte said.
Cadotte pointed out that the count is “only as good as our ability to have people conduct it.”
“A huge component will be education and outreach,” Gallino said. “Some people don’t want to be counted, but I think if they knew the importance they would be more willing.”
Gallino will be training volunteers to help with the PIT count at the Valley Springs Veterans Hall, 189 Pine St., Valley Springs, on Jan. 18, from 2 to 4 p.m.