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CURRENT ISSUE:  October 23, 2006VOL. 44, NO. 18Oakland, CA

A call to end extreme poverty

Poverty is not a natural disaster. “It’s a man-made decision, fostered by greed,” Anuradha Mittal, a food policy analyst, told 300 people gathered at St. Mary’s Senior Center on Oct. 17 for the Oakland observance of International Day for the Eradication of Extreme Poverty.

Mittal, executive director of The Oakland Institute, was the keynote speaker. The annual international observance, a United Nations project, was first celebrated in 1987 by thousands of participants at the Human Rights Plaza in Paris, France.

Since its creation, Oct. 17 has become a day for those living in deprivation to speak out for all people to consider how they can contribute to its banishment through political activism at the city, state and federal levels. The UN goal for this world-wide well being is 2015.

“Some people think this is a grandiose idea, but it’s not,” said Carol Johnson, executive director of St. Mary’s. “We are the first generation to realize that eradicating poverty is an accomplishable goal.”

Mittal underscored Johnson’s assertion, in spite of statistics which seem to prove otherwise.

“Ten years ago, at an international meeting in Rome, world leaders, faced with the specter of 815 million people suffering from food insecurity, vowed to reduce that number by half by the year 2015.
Ten years later, however, the Food and Agricultural Organization reported that food insecurity has increased from 815 million to 850 million. What happened? Did we forget how to grow food?” she asked.

Mittal placed the problem on the desks of policy makers who seem to be more attached to waging war than eliminating poverty in all of its manifestations.

“We’ve spent $370 billion fighting a war which has killed 650,000 Iraqis, 3,000 U.S. soldiers and has wounded 20,000. Meanwhile, there is no freedom. Iraq is burning and the poor in the U.S. are burning,” she said.

“If there were a change of political hearts and policy, that same $370 billion could feed everyone in the U.S. and every child, could have access to health care and Head Start programs.”

She told the group that the Oct. 17 U.N. observance “is a commitment for all 365 days of the year. It means knocking at the doors of Congress and the Senate.”

A 12-foot puppet of Mahatma Ghandi accompanies about 300 marchers on a walk along San Pablo Avenue to Oakland City Hall and the Federal Building to urge officials to do more to eradicate poverty, hunger and homelessness.


Standing in front of a 12-foot puppet of Martin Luther King, Jr., William Smith, a seventh grade student at St. Martin de Porres School in Oakland, addresses the crowd gathered on the steps of Oakland City Hall.


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The Oakland event featured a host of speakers who told what it is like to be homeless, hungry, and without medical care.

Michael, a Vietnam veteran, said he once spent a frigid night sleeping under a cardboard box over a steam vent on a New York sidewalk. If he hadn’t broken down, “swallowed my arrogance,” and asked a friend for housing help, Michael says he would be dead by now.

Letting the story sink in, Michael shifted his gaze to a group of elementary school students seated in the front row. Unless the political spectrum changes, “in your lifetime, one of your classmates is gonna become homeless,” he predicted.

“You’re making a big step being here,” he saluted them. The youngsters came from St. Martin De Porres, St. Lawrence O’Toole, and Park Day schools in Oakland.

Sometimes, food insecurity and hunger can be hidden. It often includes people whom society assumes are doing okay.

Margaret Molina, a social justice advocate on St. Mary’s staff, spoke of the difficult time she had when she and her husband first separated, “leaving me with four kids. There were days when I had to feed my family by recycling cans. At mealtime, I would tell them, ‘You eat. I just ate.’ It was a lie. I didn’t eat.”

The lack of affordable medical care is another issue that needs the attention of policy makers, said a woman who recounted her recent experience of visiting a local hospital with an elderly friend. By the time her friend had gone to four different departments for lab tests, exams and medication, she had made co-payments she could ill-afford on her meager income. The ailing woman’s philosophical observation that day was, “They give you too little to live and too much to die on.”

The speaker called for a show of “righteous anger towards injustice wherever we see it.”

Testimonies were interspersed with a spirited sing-along led by Berkeley composer Betsy Rose and San Francisco Latino activist and musician Francisco Herrera.

Rose and Herrera continued their singing in St. Mary’s courtyard as the crowd circled for an interfaith prayer and commissioning ceremony. The brief ritual was a preparation for a march to City Hall and to the State and Federal Building to speak with lawmakers.

As a Native American, a rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Buddhist and a Hindu invoked prayers reminding the group that it is connected to the same Divine Being and the same earth, two 12-foot puppets depicting Martin Luther King and his mentor, Mahatma Gandhi, hovered above. St. Mary’s seniors, coached by a group of local artists, built the awesome, colorful figures.

And in the spirit of Gandhi, who in his lifetime always followed the children and other participants during political marches, the two puppets brought up the rear of the procession as it made its way down San Pablo Avenue, silent witnesses to the never-ending call for social justice.

Catholic groups co-sponsoring the local event included the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Holy Names Sisters, Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, Presentation Sisters, Oakford Dominican Sisters, Religious of the Sacred Heart, St. Vincent de Paul Society of Alameda County and of St. Jarlath Parish, Corpus Christi School, St. Martin de Porres Regional School, and the YLI Laurentian Institute.

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