Lessons from Poor Magazine’s People Skool - Part 1 of 2

Tobias' face next to the title of the blog post Lessons from Poor Magazine’s People Skool Part 1 of 2:Telling Other Privileged People  What I Learned

I’m writing this blog post in response to a request I received as a student in Poor Magazine’s People Skool: Tell other privileged people what you learned. So while I welcome all readers, this post is directed at you if you benefit from race, class, or educational privilege. Added urgency if you’re a white, cis-male, financially cushioned, educated lawyer like me. I’ve attended school and worked with so many of you, and I know you’re out there! I’m sending love to you and to all of my fellow privileged folks, and inviting you to join me on a journey of healing. And please check out the footnotes too, despite any unpleasant memories of professors berating you to do so. I promise you they're different. They give proper credit to and lift up the work of Tiny Gray-Garcia and other members of the Poor Magazine Family, who created key concepts and terms that underlie this post and to whom I owe deep gratitude. 

The Lies Our Ancestors Told Us

Our biological and professional ancestors gave us immense, undeserved benefits at the expense of other humans, and set all of humanity on a path of destruction that could wipe us out, while building a matching culture and a set of beliefs to justify their (and our) behavior. Even though sometimes their intentions were good, they told us the following lies about land, money, family and community: 

1. Humans are all separate individuals who look out for themselves only, so it’s OK to ignore the suffering of others, especially poor and houseless people; [1]

2. It’s OK to buy and sell land at whatever price it will fetch (or buy and sell land, period), even though our connections to land are sacred and we would not exist but for the land, just like our connections with our families and ancestors are sacred and we would not exist but for them; [2]

3. Accumulation of money and land are the sole sources of security, so it’s OK to hoard them [3], since everyone is separate and in competition anyway; and 

4. It’s healthy to maintain distance from - or even break ties with - your elders and community of origin, and instead become a part of the  “mobile workforce” that travels wherever work needs them or wherever their interests and money decide to take them, decoupled from a family and community that would otherwise meet all their needs and keep a mutually beneficial relationship to land and each other intact. [4]

By believing and enacting these lies, we not only continue the economic system our ancestors built, which accelerates inequality and climate change. We also become isolated and vulnerable. Our ancestors taught us to rely on gross amounts of accumulated money and land to meet our needs and provide security for us and future generations. Or if we didn’t have a gross accumulator in our family, then we were taught to build an alliance with one, or become one ourselves. “I made it, and if you just work hard [and exploit others], you can too. Once you get yours, you don’t have to care about anyone else.” [5]

Why We Need to Collectively Unlearn These Lies - And How

Based on what I’ve read, heard and experienced, the age of natural disasters and economic contraction is here. [6] To pull through it, everyone will have to learn to consume much less, and to rely on everyone else around them. I mean everyone - we can’t have the kind of local self-reliance we need if there is anyone in our communities who can’t meet their basic needs. And having money does give you a leg up - I don’t want to downplay that, especially for people with immediate needs. But if shortages and natural disasters are widespread, us middle class/financially cushioned people can’t just continue paying money to solve all our problems. We need to rely on everyone in our local communities, not just family members or people we know already. And if that’s true, do we really expect others to come to our aid if we just have money to offer, and they know that we’ve played an integral part in screwing them over and haven’t done a damn thing about it? And even if that’s not true, do you want a society where the privileged few have to shield themselves from everyone else who is struggling to survive and banging at their doorsteps?  And even if you’re OK with that future, what assures you that you’ll be a part of the privileged few?

In addition to people, we also need to make sure the land we live on can sustain us and everyone else in our communities. We likely won’t be able to rely on cheap, globally sourced goods anymore. [7] We need to view the land and ourselves as inseparable. We take care of it and it takes care of us. [8]

I was told lies about land, money, family and community - essentially that everything and everyone is separate, and we are all in constant competition. For me, the key to undoing these lies is viewing myself as an integral part of everything around me. I want to build a future where I’m in right relationship with everyone and everything. Especially where I’m integrated into a local community with dense networks of resource flows and reciprocity.  

People Skool Gave Me a Way to Unlearn the Lies on a Personal Level

I came to Sustainable Economies Law Center, and to social justice work in general, with the desire to unlearn these lies, not knowing about all of them or how deep they run. I truly appreciate the ways my past and present colleagues and friends have facilitated this ongoing process. People Skool taught me how to start unlearning them on a deeper, more personal level: moving back to where I grew up to be closer to my family. 

I was lucky to get to know Poor Magazine and learn about their People Skool through the Law Center. Poor Magazine is an Oakland-based grassroots, non-profit, arts organization founded and operated by houseless people. They are dedicated to providing extreme media access for silenced voices, education and art to communities of color struggling with poverty, racism, disability, immigration/migration, and criminalization in the Bay Area and beyond. One of their goals is to re-frame the debate on poverty, homelessness, disability and race locally and globally, and they do this in part through a seminar called People Skool. It’s both for people who benefit from race, class or academic privilege - like me - and people who are living in poverty or struggle - whom folks at Poor Magazine call Poverty Skolaz. The sessions at PeopleSkool that I attended were online, and in addition to the first two, there were three more sessions for people with privilege to enable us to take a deeper dive into the systems we benefit from. 

What I greatly appreciated about People Skool was that Poor Magazine created educational programming for me, as a person with a wide swath of privileges, to learn about their work and their perspectives, and in doing so start to build a relationship of mutual support  with them on their terms. I recognize that this takes time and energy that not all poor-people led organizations have. I want to express my deepest gratitude to Poor Magazine, especially to Tiny Gray-Garcia who leads their People Skool seminars, and share with others how powerful and life-changing it was for me. 


[1] [^Jump back] Tiny Gray-Garcia of Poor Magazine created terms to describe this: the “cult of independence” and “separation nation” as well as the “violent act of looking away”. See also p. 188 of Poverty Scholarship: Poor People Led Theory, Art, Words & Tears Across Mama Earth by Tiny Gray-Garcia and the Poor Magazine Family (2020).

[2] [^Jump back] Tiny Gray-Garcia talks about how the cult of independence wants us to “colonize ideas, and peoples like there was nothing before us except us…enabling our collective separation.”

[3] [^Jump backTiny created the term “wealth hoarders” for people who have accumulated stolen money and land - and need the  “medicine of redistribution and community reparations because we are all in a crisis of scarcity and hoarding and need to understand there is a different way to live and walk interdependently.” See also Poor People Help “Rich” People Redistribute Stolen Inherited and Hoarded Wealth Across Mama Earth by Vivian Flaherty, reprinted on pp. 361-2 of Poverty Scholarship.

[4] [^Jump back]Tiny Gray-Garcia created this concept and calls it the “away nation.” PeopleSkool teaches that  “eldership,” or respecting our elders and listening to their wishes and guidance, is important to counteract this lie. See also EXCERPT | The Nature of MAMA: An Interview with Dr. Wade Nobles, by Dee Gray, reprinted in Poverty Scholarship  on pp. 219-21.

[5] [^Jump back] Tiny calls this the “I got mines mentality”. See also p. 176 of Poverty Scholarship.

[6] [^Jump back]  See e.g. https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/how-much-is-enough/2021/08/10/what-is-enough and https://350.org/science/.

[7] [^Jump back] See e.g. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/03/business/economy/pandemic-supply-chains-inflation.html

[8] [^Jump back]  “We are them and they are us” is a phrase I heard Tiny Gray-Garcia say - I did not create it. The view of land and humans as inseparable is expressed by Poor Magazine and many indigenous groups and cultures, and is behind Poor Magazine’s campaigns to “Unsell Mama Earth” - a term they created - which means “spiritually and legally taking land off the commodities market and giving it back to the people, so we can grow healthy food and build homes not tied to the lie of rent, speculation and profit.”


Thank you for staying with me through Part 1 of this 2-part blog post! We will post the second part in the coming weeks, where I’ll talk about my personal experiences and relate them to what I learned in People Skool. In the meantime, check out Poor Magazine’s People Skool and the books published by Poor Press, especially Poverty Scholarship: Poor People Led Theory, Art, Words & Tears Across Mama Earth.

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  • Erika Sato
    followed this page 2022-06-08 08:38:00 -0700
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    published this page in Blog 2022-05-31 09:03:50 -0700

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