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© Photograph of students boycotting. Austin History Center.


Power on the Margins

by Jamila Michener
February 3, 2021

This interview with Jamila Michener, professor at Cornell and author of Fragmented Democracy: Medicaid, Federalism & Unequal Politics, was conducted and condensed by franknews.

Jamila | I study poverty, race, racism, public policy. I try to think about the politics of those policy areas, with an emphasis on how those who generally don't have a lot of power in our political system are affected by policies and how they can affect policies. I try to understand the place of economically and racially marginalized folks in our democratic life, and how to enhance their power so that this thing that we have that we call democracy reflects a more ideal democracy.

frank | How long have you been focused on this work? 

When I think about how I got into this work, I think about how I always had these questions. Ever since I can remember, I would wonder why the world that I saw was the way it was. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from the Caribbean in the 1970s. I grew up in Brooklyn and Queens. Living in Brooklyn in the late 1980s was an intense thing.

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And I remember feeling that. I remember feeling like my neighborhood wasn't a safe place. Thinking back on it now, as an adult, I was right. I recently found this New York Post article from 1993 that called the neighborhood I was living in at that time, Cypress Hills, a “killing ground”. 

A lot of this was propaganda on the part of the Post, but there was this line in the article from the mother of a little girl that had just gotten killed by a stray bullet right near where I grew up. She says, “People think that we have to go to Iraq, to see a war zone. We have a war zone right here.” I mean, in that zip code, there was a murder every 63 hours. 

I didn't know all of that when I was a kid, and my parents worked really hard to shield us from the worst excesses of it, but I knew that the way that we lived wasn't the way that everyone lived.

I knew that we were all Black and brown, I knew that we didn't have a lot of money, and I wondered about how those things were connected to each other.

I had an aunt who moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey. She was a nurse and had done well for herself. She was able to take my cousin and get out of the hood. They moved to central New Jersey, and we would go to her house to visit. The neighborhood was quiet, the streets were tree-lined, there was a pool in her backyard, and everybody was white. I remember thinking, “Okay, these people live differently than us. Why?”

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People don’t need formal education or training to understand politics. They are living it. 

Oh, absolutely. That is one of the reasons why so much of my work is qualitative. People know much more about their world than anyone else, and they can make sense of their world. Maybe not in terms that fit within the confines of academic analysis, but when that's the case, I think academics have to change their analytical lenses. Good research has to be informed by people or else it's going to miss the mark, especially when the topic is politics because politics is fundamentally about people and institutions and how they interact.

What does a more people-centered analysis look like?

You have to listen to people and be willing to change course in response to what they tell you, even if it doesn't comport with what the literature says or what other academics think. I think that's really important. I am also increasingly trying to involve people in the research process in really substantive ways that are bi-directional and not extractive. I try to figure out what research questions would be helpful to have answered. I try to talk organizations before I formulate really specific research questions, and talk to folks doing the work about what it is that they need to know, and then sharing my work back out once its done, making it a product that is not just to be consumed by other academics but for the people meant to be at the center of it. 

Moving to your article, Power on the Margins, was there a specific need or research question you were trying to answer? 

Well, I knew that people living in poverty have some set of rights, but, what good are rights if there is no mechanism for enforcing them? And what can people do so that they have a mechanism for taking power back from the people exploiting them? Those questions had been floating around my head for some time, but I didn't pursue them early on because they don't fit well in the scope of political science. 

Then, in 2017, I heard that Intro 214-B passed in New York City. That legislation gives everyone who's facing eviction, and who's at 200% of the poverty line or below, access to an attorney. I knew that there had to be a story here about power behind that law. This was a game-changer. Frederick Douglass said that “power concedes nothing without demand. It never has. It never will.” You don't get legislation like that just because de Blasio decided to do something really nice and really expensive. That is not how this works.

I wanted to understand how this happened, and I wanted to think about it in a way that the insights could be applied broadly to the work of expanding civil legal rights. If we can understand how this happened in New York City, if we can understand the politics of it, that can inform the work in other places. 

And more broadly, how can we understand what it looks like for people living in poverty to exercise power?

The dominant narrative in political science is, "it is really sad, but these folks don't have power." That's often true, but it's not the whole story.

And it robs people living in poverty of a certain degree of agency. I mean, I don't think of my friends and my family as hapless victims of our larger political economy. In some ways, they are very much victims of a political economy that is built to chew them up and spit them out, but that's not all they are. That's not the entirety of it. I really wanted to think about how agency and power is developed, channeled and how it can lead to successful outcomes in low-income communities.

So what does it look like for people in poverty, or on the margins, to exercise power?

It looks like organizing. 

It's interesting because this is an insight to some political scientists, but not so much to organizers. Civil legal problems, like being evicted, are very easy to interpret as individual problems: this is an issue between me and my landlord, either I can't pay the rent or the landlord is being predatory. But, as long as these are viewed as individual issues, we don't really exercise collective action to try to hold landlords or the local officials accountable. That is why organizing is key. 

In the article, I find that grassroots membership-based organizations help channel people's individual grievances into collective action and into a collective movement that can lead to significant concessions, even when concessions were not going to be made otherwise. 

I mean, de Blasio and a lot of members of city council were initially very clear about their lack of interest in the bill. The movement did not start with them. It started with a really small, local, membership-based organization in the Bronx. They knew that housing court was a source of pain for a lot of the people and they decided to take a survey about people's experiences. In the process of going door to door and asking questions, they learned a lot and they mobilized people. They started to gain momentum through what organizers called people power. It wasn't political elites that made this bill a priority. 

That was a point you made in your article. You mentioned it was a coalition of elites and non-elites, but non-elites specifically had a particular power. I think often that is not how we think of the relationship. Can you talk more about it? 

There were political elites — lawyers, people in charge of legal aid, civil legal services, and judges — who were quite positively disposed to the expansion of civil legal rights. They tried several times to make it happen, particularly in the 1980s and the 1990s. They tried to identify sympathetic populations, elderly people, families, and get folks on board with providing services to these groups at the least. Even though their sights were set on much smaller and more narrow goals, it didn’t work. They couldn't move the political process on their own. There was just not enough buy-in. 

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Then, this organization in the Bronx started to organize in their community and realized the depth of demand and the passion and the amount of investment people were willing to make in service of this kind of work. They reached out to their counterparts at organizations in Brooklyn and in Queens and asked how can we work together to try to make this happen? They were able to identify a few members of the city council who were willing and brought them in. They started to do direct action. They started to do rallies. They started to show up outside of people's offices. They started to garner media attention. They started to show up outside of courtrooms. And the more that happened, the more people got brought into the fold. 

At the core, always, was people power. Even though we imagine the kinds of folks that find themselves in court, being evicted, without a lawyer, as people without political power, they can be tremendously powerful. Especially through consistent organizing around a struggle, people have incredible power. As a result, we got groundbreaking legislation in New York City. That's the story I tell.

What should people do with that? What should politicians do with that? 

One, we should put resources behind things that position people to leverage the power that they have.

This kind of thing presents, for example, a real challenge to philanthropy, which often takes a pity approach. It is very technocratic and very elite-driven.

There is a sense of, oh we know how to fix them. Why? We're not experiencing what they're experiencing, and we don't necessarily get any input from them. And if we do it can be quite superficial. 

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Instead of trying to fashion solutions, how about putting resources behind enabling the power that people already have?

I don't use the word “empowering” because nobody is generously giving power to people living in poverty. Those folks already have power. There are just barriers to their power being exercised effectively. It's like when people say Georgia was not a red state, it was a voter suppressed state. In many ways, people in poverty are not powerless, their power is suppressed through institutional design. The Intro 214 legislation shows that when that suppressed power is developed and channeled, it can lead to significant policy change. So politicians and anyone else who cares about change, anyone who wants to see the world look different than it looks now--must be thinking about building power in marginalized communities.