Issue Date: September 2, 2005
Cycling 300 miles for poverty awareness
Riders meet with poor people, policymakers to seek solutions
By MELINDA TUHUS
Its not about the bike. Well, its partly about the bike.
A group of 17 social justice advocates in Connecticut found that cycling across their state for a week was a good entrée to talk to policymakers and parishioners alike about poverty in the richest state in the richest nation in the world. During the last week of June, they participated in Brake the Cycle of Poverty, a 300-mile trek crisscrossing the state, with a support team of eight.
This was the second Connecticut ride, modeled on a cross-country bike ride of the same name in 2003, in association with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
Most of the riders were Catholic, and many had taken a 30-week study and action course called JustFaith, in which they learned about the seven themes of Catholic social teaching, including the preferential option for the poor -- that the basic moral test of a society is how the poor and vulnerable are treated.
After rider Susan Stuart completed the course, she said, I started hearing God telling me I needed to do more -- that I have a voice as a Catholic and a citizen.
Riders knew that getting parishioners around the state to feed and house them and listen to them for an hour or two in the evening was more likely if they biked 50 miles to get there, rather than just driving over for dinner. Ditto for all the staffers of state and federal officials they visited during the day.
And, since from June 26 through July 1, they rode all week in a heat wave, they used that discomfort to make the point that poor people without air conditioning suffer the same discomfort all summer long.
Their four-fold mission -- on and off the bikes -- is to learn about poverty in Connecticut (see box), spread awareness of poverty to others, meet people struggling to get out of poverty, and work together to find solutions to poverty.
The riders spent time in soup kitchens, in job training programs for women on welfare, and with young children who had dreams and goals, as well as teens who just wondered if theyd finish high school.
They met with so many representatives of elected officials that some of the riders logged just 200 miles by the end of the week -- an indication that the event was not about the bike.
This reporter, who participated on the last day, attended two such meetings. The format was similar for all the gatherings. About half the group met with each staffer and described their own brushes with poverty: One knew a family about to be evicted from their apartment because housing prices have skyrocketed with the real estate bubble; a special education teacher said shes now working with many children with untreated mental illnesses; a nurse said the private ob-gyn practice where she once worked turned away a woman who had no insurance, and the womans baby died. These kinds of experiences have turned all the cyclists into advocates for raising povertys profile in Connecticut.
We come in our little bike outfits, all sweaty, to visit Congressional offices, said Charlie Chatterton, and what do the people we see want to talk about? The ride, the weather -- they are uncomfortable talking about poverty. He added, Poverty will not be eliminated until those who are not in poverty are as indignant and outraged as those who are. Chatterton pitched the idea of a poverty summit with federal, state and local officials and people living in poverty that would result in action steps, not just another report.
Doug Hall, an avid cyclist whose day job is research and data analysis for a statewide antipoverty organization, had specific policy suggestions for Gov. M. Jodi Rell. Connecticut is the only state in the region without an earned income tax credit, which has been proven to help lift people out of poverty, Hall told the governors assistant, Nicole Griffin. He added that raising taxes for those with the highest incomes would generate money for needed programs. His organization, Connecticut Voices for Children, has for the past several years been promoting a so-called millionaires tax that would add a surcharge to taxes paid on income over a million dollars.
After six meetings with politicians staffers in Hartford, a group of us set off around 2:30 p.m. to ride to East Haven, 39 miles away. The sun was blistering, the traffic was heavy, and riders broke off into groups of two or three. One rode alone and arrived at St. Clare Church an hour after everyone else. Since the group was supposed to stay together, some kvetching ensued, as riders were hot and tired after five days in the saddle and very little sleep. But the moodiness slipped away with the sudsy water down the shower drain, after everyone arrived at that evenings destination.
Each day the cyclists, along with their support team, rolled into a different parish (one night it was a Buddhist temple), where they got to clean up, relax, and dine with the locals. A somewhat formal program followed, where various members of the team ran through a PowerPoint presentation of poverty in Connecticut. Someone always ended with the invitation to, PEDAL with us, even if you dont have a bike. Participate, Educate, Donate, Advocate, and do it all with Love.
The ride ended at noon July 1 with a program at Farnam Courts, a public housing development in New Haven. In addition to welcoming the cyclists, African-American and Latino residents and their supporters were celebrating their successful effort to get a barrier erected between their homes and an interstate highway running right behind the complex, where vehicles spewed toxins suspected of triggering asthma attacks among kids and adults.
Dozens of young children on bikes accompanied the spandex-clad visitors through an archway into a central courtyard to begin the celebration. Local leader Mary Ogman was honored for her persistence in fighting to improve conditions in the complex. Asked what difference she thought it made that a group of middle-class white people from towns outside New Haven had just ridden their bikes five days to make poverty more visible, she said, I wish we had more people that care like they do. That was the point the cyclists had been making all week -- that poor people are invisible and ignored, a situation they want to change.
Melinda Tuhus is a freelance writer based in New Haven, Conn.
National Catholic Reporter, September 2, 2005
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