Kait Ziegler of the Poor People’s Campaign

“Poverty is a policy choice,” Kait Ziegler, co-director of Social Justice Organizing at the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Renewal, (PPC) begins. “One-third of the US electorate is poor or low-wealth and these people have the ability to shift the narrative and build political power.”

Ziegler has been working with the PPC since 2017 and had previously held two positions: Co-chair of the California Campaign and co-founder of Moral Mondays Los Angeles. That effort was patterned after the Moral Mondays protests initiated by the Rev Dr. William J. Barber II in North Carolina. The goal? To bring attention to the 140 million poor and low-income US residents living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold, $27, 180 for a single person and $55,500 for a household of four. . 

Her current work involves building for what she hopes will be a massive gathering in Washington, DC scheduled for June 18th: The Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls

Ziegler spoke to Lilith’s Eleanor J. Bader in late February. Their conversation centered on her commitment to intersectional political activism – the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism, the war economy, and religious nationalism – issues directly addressed by the Poor People’s Campaign.

Eleanor J. Bader: Let’s start with your political involvement. What drew you to progressive activism?

Kait Ziegler: I attended Virginia Commonwealth University from 2006 until I graduated in 2009 and it was there that I began doing social justice work combined with political theater. My mentor at VCU built an anti-racist theater program and through my classes I began to learn about systemic racism and abolitionist work. We did one theater project on the prison industrial complex and another on the first Reconstruction that followed the Civil War; both were clarifying and politicizing experiences for me.

After I graduated from VCU, I moved to Chicago to pursue theater. But I needed a job so began working at Snarf’s coffee shop where I got involved in Fight for 15. We were simply trying to get our wages increased to $15 an hour. Most of us were right out of college and we all got fired by Snarf’s management after we went on strike for living wages. It was a very intense journey and we ended up winning. The company publicly apologized to us and paid our back wages but we were not rehired. Nonetheless, it was instructive for me; I learned the importance of organizing, and that when we fight, we often win. I also learned about the lies management presents: ‘We’re one family here, so you don’t need a union,’ the same thing Starbucks is now saying to its workers. It’s paternalistic. And, of course, it’s possible for workers to be paid $15 an hour, no matter what the bosses say.

EJB: How did you connect with the Poor People’s Campaign?

KZ: I moved to Los Angeles in 2015 after completing a Master’s in Public Health and Humanitarian Management at Tel Aviv University.  As I was getting settled in LA, a friend asked me if I had heard of the Rev. Dr. William Barber. I hadn’t.

 I watched a speech he’d given at the Democratic National Convention in 2016. She also gave me a copy of one of his books where I learned about the Moral Mondays protests he’d organized at the North Carolina statehouse. Shortly thereafter, when my friend asked me if I wanted to help organize a Moral Mondays campaign in California, I felt deeply called to it. 

We reached out to low-wage workers, community organizations, faith groups, and others and connected them together to address shared struggles in Los Angeles.Then, when we learned that the first national tour of the PPC was going to have a mass meeting in Albuquerque, eight of us piled into an old minivan and drove overnight to attend the gathering.  I met campaign co-chair Rev. Liz Theoharis and several other folks who are on the PPC’s national team at that meeting. Funnily enough, I learned that the next stop on the tour was Los Angeles, so I was able to help with outreach for the LA mass meeting happening a few weeks later.  

As part of the California stops on the PPC tour, I took part in the Moral Political Organizing Leadership Institute and Summit training. After the training, in December 2017,  we launched the California Poor People’s Campaign. I became one of the state co-chairs and helped organize 40 Days of Nonviolent Moral Fusion Direct Action in Sacramento during the summer of 2018.

EJB: What is it that drew you to, and keeps you in, the PPC? 

KZ: It’s the fact that we’re a campaign, not an organization, and have such a deep, comprehensive moral analysis. The goal, to build a grassroots campaign that is large enough to connect all people who are suffering, to say that society does not need to be this way, that we can challenge our economic, political, and morally bankrupt system of governance, speaks to me. It is a visionary, but still realistic, assessment. And it is truly intersectional. As a feminist, as a woman, and as a queer person of color, the campaign offers me and others like me an analysis that pushes against the distorted narratives we’ve been fed about the inevitability of poverty. The campaign helps us feel less alone by building solidarity and unity across lines of division and helps us understand that we are not poor because we made a few wrong turns.

EJB: The Campaign also integrates the arts, which connects to your earlier work in theater. Is that an added draw?

KZ: Yes. I feel connected to the movement musicians who ground our gatherings. My background taught me that talk is not the only tool to organize people. Music that is rooted in spirituality has always undergirded movements fighting for freedom, and many of the songs we sing in the campaign go back to the first and second Reconstructions. Movement songs and movement arts have the power to heal, to build power and courage in the midst of struggle, violence, oppression, and fear. 

EJB: Let’s talk about the planned June 18th mobilization in Washington, DC.

KZ: Over the next few months, we’ll be building mobilizations in more than 40 states to reach out to the 140 million poor and low-wealth people in the US. We want this to be the largest gathering of poor people and their allies in US history. 

The timing is important. We are mobilizing in the lead up to the 2022 midterm elections, getting people registered and then making sure they get to the polls. But our electoral work is not focused on one election cycle; it aims to unleash a moral agenda at the ballot box far into the future. 

In addition, June 18th is a chance to harness our moral anger and offer those in power a chance to right what is wrong.  Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the wealth of US billionaires has skyrocketed from $3 trillion to $4.8 trillion. This didn’t just happen. It came about due to policy decisions.

The $778 billion that was given to the military this year is another outrage, especially since the same Congress that passed this bloated military appropriation can’t seem to pass Build Back Better to actually improve people’s lives.

EJB: Congresswomen Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced a bill called Third Reconstruction: Fully Addressing Poverty and Low Wages from the Bottom Up. What’s the status of this legislation?

KZ: The bill is groundbreaking. It acknowledges that 140 million people are poor, low-wealth and/or living one emergency away from economic ruin and shifts the narrative to discuss the extent of domestic poverty. We’re using the bill to build political power and push Congress to address poverty.

EJB: Who are the writers and thinkers who’ve influenced you the most?

KZ: There are so many! All of the books written by PPC co-chairs Theoharis and Barber. Ibram X. Kendi, W.E.B. DuBois, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, bell hooks, Grace Lee Boggs.  All offer such important perspectives.

EJB: Do you have any messages about the PPC for the Jewish community?

KZ: Our movement is for people across all faith groups as well as for those with no faith. 

I was born in South Korea and was adopted by a Jewish family in Virginia when I was eight months old. I grew up going to a Reform congregation. For me, being called to Jewishness connects to the traditions I learned, the necessity of working for justice and creating a better, more equitable world.

The co-chairs of the PPC are both Christian, but the Campaign itself connects to Judaism’s most sacred teachings. Many rabbis and Jewish organizations have already signed on as supporters but we need everyone to raise their voices, pray with their feet, and put boots on the ground.