Working families in Memphis share their questions for GOP debate
By Wendi Thomas
Center for Community Change Writing Fellow
Ten Republican presidential candidates will take the stage in Cleveland Thursday for the GOP’s first televised primary debate.
When they do, many voters in Memphis, the nation’s poorest large metro area, will be listening for solutions to the issues that matter most in their community.
Tami Sawyer, a local organizer in the Black Lives Matter movement, wants to know the candidates’ plans for reinvestment in inner-city communities.
Ella Collins, a home health care worker, is looking for a commitment to creating good jobs with decent wages and benefits for working families.
Rev. Earle Fisher, a pastor and social justice activist, wants proof that the GOP has a strategy to support citizens who struggle the most.
In Memphis, the poverty rate is more than 27 percent. Just over 33 percent of blacks and 47 percent of Latinos live below the poverty line, which is $24,250 for a family of four.
They’re not looking for clever phrases that become memes or snarky one-liners that become viral videos.
They’re looking for strong public policy that will support working families and allow them to care for their children or aging relatives and save for their retirement.
If given an audience with the candidates, here’s what these Memphians would ask.
BLACK LIVES MATTER
Tami Sawyer, 33, works in human capital development for a government agency.
Her role in the local Black Lives Matter movement intensified following the July 17 shooting death of Darrius Stewart, an unarmed black teen killed by a white police officer following a traffic stop.
A recent study showed that the Memphis metro area has the nation’s highest share of disconnected youth – people between the ages of 16 and 24 who aren’t working or in school.
Sawyer would ask: “What initiatives or plans of action would you have to reach inner city youth and to make education a priority when so much federal and state funding funnels into prisons?”
She also wants to know: “What is your presidential duty to improve race relations in this country, and even more so, the economic and educational structure of inner-city residents?”
Rev. Earle Fisher, pastor of the progressive Abyssinian Baptist Church, has stood with Sawyer in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Be they LGBTQ, people of color, the working poor or immigrants, wherever people are being marginalized in Memphis, Fisher, 36, is not far away, advocating on their behalf.
While he’d love to ask the candidates about the impact of racism on the economic outcomes for people of color, he doubts the candidates would respond.
So instead he’d ask the candidates about the people Jesus cared for most: The most vulnerable.
“In order for us to achieve the most effective level of social justice, you have to have policy support,” Fisher said.
“What are you proposing for the most vulnerable people in our society?”
FIGHT FOR 15
When Ella Collins, 64, started working as a home health care worker 23 years ago, she earned $5 an hour.
Today, she earns $10 an hour– not enough to cover her mortgage, health insurance premiums and medication for her terminally ill husband. She’s been forced to rely on high-interest payday loans to make ends meet.
“The cost of living has changed tremendously,” she said, “but the increase in pay has not.”
None of the Republican candidates has supported the Fight for $15 movement and Collins wants to know why.
“Why do they think it’s not important that we get $15?” asked Collins, who traveled in July to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress to support higher wages and paid time off for workers like her.
“What’s the reason why a health care worker is not worth of making $15 an hour?”
Wendi C. Thomas is a distinguished writing fellow for the Center for Community Change, a columnist for The Memphis Flyer and a 2016 Nieman fellow at Harvard University. Follow her at @wendi_c_thomas.
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