Human Rights Awards Reception - Spotlight on George A. Jones
by Lanice Williams, UNANCA Human Rights Committee Member
The United Nations Association of the National Capital Area Human Rights Awards Reception will take place on Thursday, December 7, and amongst our distinguished list of awardees, we are pleased to highlight one of our award recipients; Mr. George A. Jones.
Currently, Mr. Jones serves as the Chief Executive Office for Bread for the City and will receive our Distinguished Community Human Rights Award on behalf of Bread for the City. His human rights works have focused a great deal on social justice, homelessness, and poverty alleviation sector and we also had a great conversation about his work, life, and pursuit of human rights.
If you have ever wondered what connection exists between poverty, nutrition, and health and what Bread for the City is doing to combat these issues in the nation’s capital, you should definitely take the time to hear what he has to say.
UNA-NCA - You have been with Bread for the City since 1996. What was it that brought you to the organization, and what has kept you there for so long since?
G.J. - I came to the organization from Los Angeles, California. It’s important to know that before Bread, I had already been in the social justice space for around 14 years. I had always tried to find how to help people struggling with low income, homelessness, chronic unemployment, and those types of challenges. So when the opportunity to join Bread for the City came along, I had done a whole range of things that in some way qualified me to lead this work. So I feel this was a calling, and honestly, this does not feel like work to me, because I have always stayed on fire trying to help improve the conditions of the people that turn to Bread for the City, so it feels natural to me doing this type of work.
UNA-NCA - Bread for the City offers a wide array of very specific services to clients. Why these particular services and service areas? How did they come to be selected, are others ever considered, and do any of them ever get "retired?"
G.J. - We provide various programs, including Food, Clothing, Medical, Legal, Social Services, and we support community members in advocacy spaces. Those programs came together in an organic way, initially by the merging of our two original organizations. Zacchaeus Free Clinic began in 1974 as a volunteer-run free medical clinic, and Bread for the City was created in 1976 by a coalition of downtown churches to feed and clothe the poor. The two entities decided to merge their efforts in 1995. Both organizations decided to co-found our Social Services Program, so actually, the current programs evolved partly because of the conjunction that happened, and also because these type of issues were fundamental challenges for our clients.
Do we ever retire these programs? Well, our core programs have remained intact since their beginning, but we do have some initiatives that sometimes we step away from, and decide that they are no longer relevant to the community, and therefore to us.
UNA-NCA - Your mission statement notes that you work to help "DC residents living with low income to develop the power to determine the future of their own communities" and "seek justice through community organizing and public advocacy [and] work to uproot racism, a major cause of poverty." Can you talk to us about this mission? It seems like a large challenge to take on for many reasons, not least of them the current conversations around racism in the country today.
G.J. - Bread for the City’s mission has recently been renewed; it has moved from simply talking about how we help people to really emphasizing the way we work with the community, in order for them to use their own power to support themselves. We talk about assisting community organizers so they can seek social justice based on their own needs instead of us, Bread for the City’s staff, being their spokespersons. We talk about public advocacy as being a really important piece of reforming the systems that we know perpetuates poverty. We remain committed to providing direct services that serve as a safety net for our community members, but now we believe we have to also stress the need for public policies reform that can help to make our direct services less and less relevant.
Addressing the disparities that exist in housing, income, employment, the criminal justice system even, is going to be key if we want to create an equal community. I also think our mission has lifted up the notion that we want to take on racism as a direct cause of the social economic disparities that affect people of color almost exclusively. Whether you’re talking about housing, income, or even arrest, these challenges too often affect people of color, so we understand it’s important to name that. Only when you name it can you deal with it directly, and only then you are able to figure out how to reverse the patterns that have played themselves out in these ways.
UNA-NCA - In a related question, since part of what you work on is community organizing and public advocacy, what does that look like in your work? What are your thoughts about the power of having a voice and how we shape and use that?
G.J. - As I mentioned before, when it comes to our community organizing and public advocacy work, it’s a transition that is taking place where the voices that are being listened to and that we are amplifying in public discourse are less and less the voices of Bread for the City’s staff and now, it’s our community members’ voices. We created the Terrance Moore Organizing Institute, named after one of our former clients that passed away years ago. This institute has created space for community members to get training on the fundamentals of advocacy work; we are teaching them how to tell stories, understand public policy, organize their neighbors and perform outreach to community members, and those kinds of things that are fundamental for social mobilization. We teach them how those pieces work together so they understand the mechanics of advocacy. We are trying to be supportive in terms of making it realistic for them to go out and advocate, so there’s not only the learning part, but also the action part: we want them to be involved and want them to be engaged in addressing these challenges to advocacy, like child care or transportation. This is important because sometimes people forget that they can show up to places and be powerful, and actually achieve things.
UNA-NCA - Bread for the City is not just a local organization; you're an organization that is addressing issues at the core of the nation’s capitol. How do you see the importance of this community and the work you do on the national level - and on the international level?
G.J. - This is very simple: it’s at home where the example needs to be set. So, if we are going to address the values of human rights and social justice and be a leader here in DC, and if the District Government is going to see itself somehow as a leader nationally in terms of justice, and if this country is going to perceive itself in being a world-leading nation, we have to lead by example.
That’s the main reason why Bread for the City is focusing on being an anti-racism and social justice institution in every single way. Our politics, our practices, our staff, everything surrounding our work needs to demonstrate these values, and so does the DC Government, and so does the national government, because if we want to be a leader in the city, and the city in this nation, and this nation in the world, as I think all of us do, that leadership requires us first and foremost, to act in ways where we can become that more perfect union.
What I love about Bread is that we get what this means: we are always seeking ways to become better than we were yesterday, not only at a local level but also in a national level. A great example of this is that we sued the federal government to compel the U.S. Department of Agriculture, its Secretary, and its Food and Nutrition Service to comply with Congress’s unambiguous mandate to provide billions of dollars of food to emergency organizations who feed the needy and homeless. This was a civil action suit where we acted on behalf of the entire country and hoped that the court would agree that the founding law was being improperly interpreted. Unfortunately, we lost that lawsuit on appeal, but it served as a great example of how even just one organization can try to take on a system as large as the United States Department of Agriculture. While the outcome wasn’t what we hoped for, we stood proud knowing that we used our voice to spread the message about food and racial justice in the states.
UNA-NCA - Eleanor Roosevelt once said that unless human rights have the meaning close to home/locally, they have little meaning anywhere, and that "without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world." What are your reflections on that, and on what that means for action and prioritizing action?
G.J. - Justice starts at home. When you are talking about Bread for the City and our own policies and services, it all comes down to having a real meaning and authenticity around justice and equity. If we don’t have that, we don’t have the right to go to DC City Council and speak to them about justice and equity, and the same happens nationally with the federal government. Justice has to be prioritized at home, if you are going to talk to the city and the rest of the world about how values of justice and human rights should lead modern societies, if we want to be seen as the beacon of change, we have to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.
UNA-NCA - Which of the new SDGs as they relate to Human Rights is most important to you personally and, that you would say, to Bread for the City, and why?G.J. - The obvious answer for an organization like Bread for the City, where we talk about poverty hunger and health on a daily basis, is that the goals of No Poverty, Zero Hunger, and Good Health and Well-Being are the central goals for us. But to be honest with you, all of these goals are built upon each other and in some ways they hold each other together. If you think about it, these goals together will create a world with the purest level of justice you can find. It will take a lot of creativity to accomplish this, and all the talents we have in the world, and all of the people who are in these spaces linking efforts to make change more effective than we have ever had before. I would like to add, though, that the notion of racial equality is kind of missing in these 17 goals. I suppose it’s implied in Reducing Inequalities, and in Peace and Justice even, but it might be worth considering whether to talk about ending racial disparities in an explicit way, because this isn’t just a problem in the U.S., it’s a worldwide problem. The color line still decides too often who has or who does not have; it might be the right time to stress it as one of the SDGs.