It’s a Friday night at the First Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama. As the wooden pews fill up, latecomers tuck coats and handbags onto the floor beside them. Up front, an organizer adjusts microphones and introduces the next speaker, Shailly Gupta Barnes.
The crowd is here for a 2018 panel discussion sponsored by the Poor People’s Campaign, a national anti-poverty organization. Forty-three-year-old Shailly rises to the pulpit, dressed simply in a long black tunic and loose white pants. Her silver earrings clink as she greets the crowd.
Shailly reminds listeners of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which began when the city’s unelected emergency manager switched its water source without adequate testing or treatment. The corrosive water leached lead from aging pipes and delivered it to every tap and faucet. As a result, Shailly says, an entire city was poisoned. Applause and shouts of agreement echo through the church.
I had never been in a space like that before: our discussion of economics, our discussion of history, our discussion of how poverty was legal. All of their insights just broke through my understanding of the world at that time, made me revisit everything I thought I knew. And once that happened, I really couldn’t turn back.
Shailly is the campaign’s resident policy wonk. Her work — distilling data on present-day poverty — begins at gatherings in church basements, temples and classrooms, listening to poor people. Then she combs through transcripts from these meetings, looking for common threads.
Jess Engebretson is a journalist fellow with the Spiritual Exemplars Project.