Reflections on Meyer's 2019 Equity Speaker Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II on stage at the Alberta Abbey in Portland during Meyer’s 2019 Equity Speakers Series.

I’m lucky to be working at an organization that holds significant privilege but has asked us to take a “learning stance” to better understand the issues that face those we serve. Meyer Memorial Trust envisions a Meyer that, among other tenets, requires us to build our learning muscle to step out of our traditional philanthropy ivory tower and reduce our distance from the organizations we fund and the communities they serve.

To that end, Meyer has established an “Equity Speaker Series,” bringing national leaders to Portland two or three times a year to ignite dialogue on issues of race, equity, inclusion and diversity.

In partnership with the Coalition of Communities of Color and the Oregon Center for Public Policy, Meyer hosted 2019 Equity Speaker, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, in November. Rev. Barber is a nationally recognized social justice advocate and pastor who has built a broad-based grassroots movement to strengthen civic engagement and inspire people to imagine a more humane society.

Rev. Barber has served as the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, since 2003 and as president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP from 2005 to 2017. Calling himself a “student of morality and public policy,” Rev. Barber founded Repairers of the Breach. The national leadership development organization began a series of “Moral Monday” rallies outside the North Carolina statehouse to protest laws that cut funding for public education and health care, suppressed voter turnout and further disenfranchised poor White, Black, First Nations and LGBTQ+ communities. The movement waged successful legal challenges to voter suppression and racial gerrymandering, and it engaged massive voter registration and education efforts.

Expanding on the Moral Monday movement, Rev. Barber has also revived Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign for the twenty-first century. In recognition of his selfless street-level activism and long history of leading national civil rights campaigns, Rev. Barber was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” in 2018.

Although the issue of U.S. poverty is deep and challenging, Rev. Barber reminded us that it may not be as complex as we make it out to be. When it comes down to it, the mandates that we hold as foundational and even sacred as stated in the Constitution require us to interrogate what it really means to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” when 140 million people are living in poverty in this country.

Additionally, he asked the audience to consider that the racialization of poverty has only supported policies that keep poverty in place. Population data show that in raw numbers, there are 40 million more White people living in poverty than people of color. In Oregon, that equates to 1.3 million. At the same time, people of color are overrepresented in the poverty and low-wealth categories. Making poverty a race issue divides us to create and maintain racist, and therefore, morally corrupt policies. We need to work together across races to address poverty. As Rev. Barber stated, “If we can’t pay the light bill, we’re all Black in the dark.”

In past positions and as Meyer’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion manager, I have theorized, planned and trained around DEI issues. But as much of these things I’ve done, and as passionate as I feel about equity and inequities, there is something so simple, and perhaps even more moving, about Rev. Barber’s logic. His call for us to stand together against the racialization of poverty and build bridges across race to address this moral crisis make total sense to me!

We are truly grateful to Rev. Barber for sharing his message in Oregon. Want to hear more from Rev. Barber himself? Watch his speech here. Want to talk more about this or Meyer’s Equity Speaker Series? Please reach out to carol [at] (carol[at]mmt[dot]org)

P.S. If you missed the event, you can watch Rev. Barber’s keynote on Meyer’s YouTube channel here.