Arise for Social Justice By Olivia Sayah

Introduction

Arise for Social Justice, a grassroots organization focused on furthering the rights of low-income people, was founded in 1985 in Springfield, Massachusetts. Founding members Michaelann Bewsee, Cindy Montoya, Hollee Patterson, Karen Rock, and Pam Scott, and Terrill Winston centered the early activism of the group around their shared identity as women on welfare. For over thirty years, Arise has supported the needs of low-income people in their area, as low-income people themselves very connected to the community and its experiences.

Historical Context

President Ronald Reagan (free image from Pixabay)

This group emerged during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who repeatedly invoked the racialized trope of a black, single mother “welfare queen” with the case of Linda Taylor in his campaigns for presidency to paint a picture of welfare recipients as lazy and undeserving of assistance from the government. This rhetoric comes out of Protestant ideas about America's identity as hardworking and consisting of people who earned everything they owned without the help of others. Other forms of welfare like social security and benefits to those in the armed forces and veterans have been normalized and don't face the same discrimination. Welfare recipients suffered from attitudes at play about the proper path for females to marriage and consequently financial stability. Critics of welfare also considered people of color in America to be privy to all the same opportunities as white Americans and merely lazy and deviant in their inability to find success, which completely ignores how systemic racism has operated in America.

“In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record. She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.” Ronald Reagan at January 1976 Rally
President William Clinton (free image from Pixabay)

This focus on welfare continued under Bill Clinton, who also used this characterization to support welfare reform with the substitution of TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) for AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), which:

  • Required welfare recipients to work or perform community service to receive care
  • Pushed marriage as a solution to poverty
  • Excluded felons from aid
  • Imposed time limits on aid
  • Didn't guarantee aid for the first time
A long time ago I concluded that the current welfare system undermines the basic values of work, responsibility and family, trapping generation after generation in dependency and hurting the very people it was designed to help. -Bill Clinton in August 1996 upon implementation of TANF

These presidential attitudes set the stage for other reforms in the state of Massachusetts and created the necessity for activism for survival of low-income women.

STATE ATTITUDES ON WELFARE

In 1984, Governor Michael Dukakis initiated a Workfare Program for welfare recipients, a pro-market response to poverty that required people to work to receive welfare. This was negative for welfare recipients in that it put their daily livelihoods in the hand of the state, requiring them to work undesirable positions, although it was better than Reagan's ideas about workfare in the way it attended to the needs of welfare mothers through providing day care for their children.

Governor William Weld was notorious for his callous attitude towards welfare recipients which manifested most noticeably in the 1995 passage of a welfare reform bill. This bill:

  • Required welfare recipients to work or do community service
  • Gave recipients 60 days to find said work
  • Cut benefits off after 2 years
  • Refused benefits to parents if they have more children
  • Supervised and required teenage parent recipients to complete high school
MS. WRIGHT MAINTAINED THAT BUSINESSES AND INDUSTRIES DID NOT HAVE ENOUGH JOBS FOR 20,000 UNTRAINED WORKERS, AND THAT COMMUNITY SERVICE WOULD NOT GIVE WELFARE RECIPIENTS THE SKILLS NECESSARY TO FIND GOOD-PAYING JOBS. "IT KEEPS PEOPLE FROM GETTING JOB TRAINING AND GOING TO SCHOOL," SHE SAID OF THE NEW LAW, "SO IT TRAPS PEOPLE IN THE LOW-WAGE END OF THE ECONOMY." -NEW YORK TIMES

National Welfare Activism

Throughout the 60s and 70s welfare activists in groups like the National Welfare Rights Organization conducted campaigns to make sure that welfare recipients were aware of their rights and not able to be taken advantage of. Activists fought for guaranteed income and against many presidential bills regarding welfare that euphemistically harmed recipients of color like Richard Nixon's FAP (Family Assistance Plan). Welfare activists also engaged in a myriad of legal battles to fight against measures that restricted aid, especially those that operated around stereotypes about race and gender.

  • King v. Smith (1968) challenged and gained a favorable ruling against substitute-father laws. These laws had kept women on welfare from receiving welfare if there was a man living with them, supporting ideas that nuclear families didn't need aid. This ignored the discrimination that men of color faced in their search for employment, keeping them in the lowest-earning jobs. The laws had also served as a way to police the morals of poor women, trying to fight their supposed licentiousness and the birth of more children and resulted in the government raiding welfare recipient's homes regularly.
  • Shapiro v. Thompson (1968) won protections for welfare recipients' right to mobility as many laws at the time refused to aid people unless they had moved to their new home with the guarantee of a job. This was really a veiled racist measure to keep black people migrating to northern cities in the face of great violence in the south off the rolls and othered black Americans in holding them to standards asked of immigrants at the time.
  • Goldberg v. Kelley (1970) confirmed welfare recipients' right to not have aid terminated without a fair hearing, which was important for establishing an entitlement to aid that had previously been viewed as a privilege that could be stripped whenever the government chose.

WELFARE ACTIVISM

One of Arise's first actions was to join with the Up to Poverty Campaign, which was organized by over 90 groups advocating for welfare rights in the state of Massachusetts in 1986. The activists' goal was to get the amounts received by people on AFDC up to the poverty level! Two groups, the Coalition for Basic Human Needs and the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless sued the state on this issue starting in 1985. Eventually the judge, Charles M. Grabau, ruled in favor of the activists and reports were sent alerting the government about the inadequacy of welfare.

Photograph of mother and child from the Up to Poverty Campaign, c. mid 1980s, Box 26, Folder 52. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

How Arise's Welfare activism affected Smithies!

As early as 1985, in the beginning of Arise's activism, welfare provisions forced women to choose between eating and their education. Pell grants were considered income and taken out of the amount given to women in food stamps. President Mary Maples Dunn and Arise connected with Ada Comstock Scholars at Smith to protest these measures.

Cartoon of Children eating books instead of the food provided by food stamps and Cartoon fighting making students choose between eating and learning, n.d., Box 26, Folder 60. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Expanding Activism: Helping the homeless

In centering the needs of low-income people, Arise decided to expand their activism from welfare, and homelessness was the next obvious step, as many of their members had experienced homelessness or were close with the homeless in their community. Members of Arise did a lot of work trying to destigmatize the homeless community and organized vigils like the one pictured below for the death of the homeless that could not find adequate shelter in the winter.

Arise holds a silent vigil for homeless man, n.d. Box 14, Folder 7. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Arise also participated in actions to ensure that homeless people in their community were taken care of, through drives that garnered food and toiletries for the homeless, as well as objects that could aid them in transitions out of homelessness like furniture and home appliances. In 1993, they also served the homeless food regularly with their Hot Meals program.

Letter asking for donations to homeless by Synthia Mitchell, n.d. Box 14, Folder 7. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Unfortunately, as they listened to more and more homeless people's problems, it became clear that many of the shelters in the area were not providing the best services. Some were unsanitary and unsafe and those that were not were completely filled, so Arise pressured the local government consistently to use more buildings to house the homeless. In many shelters, those in charge stole resources that were supposed to benefit the homeless and used the community to help with the labor of personal projects. Many complaints about the people in charge's demeanor in shelters also emerged with the homeless citing employees' paternalistic and condescending attitudes.

Pamphlet for Marsha's Apartment, housing for low-income residents of Springfield, n.d. Box 14, Folder 9. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.
WE, the homeless, feel that there is the attitude, a judgement, that we are homeless by choice. we are not homeless by choice. We are frustrated that there are no jobs out there, and feel humiliated that we have to rely on others for our basic need. our self-esteem isn't the greatest and not being treated with respect by staff and some volunteers doesn't help. -Statement about the conditions at the shelter loaves and fishes

TEnt City

Arise has worked for the issue of homelessness since the beginning of their activism in the mid-80s and in 2004 they continued this trend with the construction of the controversial Tent City. This activism followed the closing of the Warming Place, a shelter that Arise had advocated to be built following the freezing to death of homeless people due to the lack of winter shelter.

Bumper sticker supporting a sanctuary city, n.d. Box 29, Folder 3. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Arise was involved on the political level, protesting the sale of government buildings to wealthy bidders instead of setting one aside for the homeless community and they also joined many local government boards and coalitions to fight for the rights of homeless people. On the ground, they acquired permits and established rules for a tent city, securing visibility of the lack of adequate shelters in Springfield. They also pressured the local government and social services to aid the homeless in their transition out of homelessness.

Flier for sanctuary city, c. 2004. Box 14, Folder 10. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Fair Housing

Arise observed landlords' abuses of power in Springfield and was there to make sure that people weren't illegally evicted. They also worked on providing affordable housing for low-income people, in 1992 advocating with other local groups for the rehabilitation of Rainville Hotel.

Flier advertising Arise's ability to help with issues with housing, n.d. Box 16, Folder 25. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

In 1988-1989, Arise collected thousands of signatures to try to get rent control on the ballot. The document below highlights that rent control would prevent landlords from raising their rents to unaffordable amounts and would give struggling tenants a commission to advocate for their rights in the face of a landlord's abuse of power.

Flier for rent control, c. 1989. Box 17, Folder 28. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.
Image of Michaelann Bewsee advocating for rent control in newspaper article, 1988. Box 17, Folder 24. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Criminal Justice Work

Political Prisoners

Fliers calling to free political prisoners. Box 7, Folder 1. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

All of the political prisoners shown above were indicted for the supposed killing of police or FBI figures, when in reality Amnesty International has listed many of their cases as ones with an unfair trial. In reality, here prison is serving as a reaction to their revolutionary behavior as activism to change ideas about race and in terms of Puerto Rico, imperialism, in this country. Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal are still imprisoned today.

Fighting the Death Penalty

Flier against the death penalty, n.d. Box 7, Folder 4. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Arise fought against the punitive attempts by Bill Weld to reintroduce death by lethal injection in Massachusetts many times! While Weld was interested in arguments about punishment and making more profits for prisons, Arise focused on the inhumane suffering endured with any form of the death penalty and the frequency that wrongfully convicted individuals have perished by this cause. The death penalty has also showed itself to be unfair in the way people of this country think about who deserves to die and conflates this with ideas about race.

"Weld makes 7th try on death penalty bill" Associated Press, 1996. Box 7, Folder 4. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Police Brutality and Misconduct

Arise centered the fight against police brutality and misconduct after ex-convicts joined the group to complete community service in 1988. They fought against the criminalization of poor people of color and violence they experienced in everything from being arbitrarily strip-searched to having their homes ransacked. Members pushed for cultural sensitivity training for police officers, so that they could better humanize the communities they policed.

Poster for protest against police brutality, 1997. Box 7, Folder 15. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

This fight coincided with national conversation around police brutality. Members of Arise organized marches to show solidarity with those in Los Angeles protesting against the failure to indict police officers that brutally beat Rodney King in 1991, as shown below.

Citizens protest the Rodney King case verdict at Springfield City Hall, 1993. Box 7, Folder 33. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

The protests continued to come from incidents happening locally after the 1994 murder of Benjamin Schoolfield and failure of the jury to indict his shooter, Donald Brown. Eventually Schoolfield's family reached a settlement with the city for this wrongdoing, but not without great protest and pain. In addition to honoring Ben Schoolfield's life, protestors fought for an investigation of the Springfield Police Department following a party thrown for Brown after his failed indictment. The officer was presented with a ham, which echoed histories of racist southerners presenting people with hams after they killed or sent a black man to jail.

Protestors express outrage at the murder of Benjamin Schoolfield by police, 1994. Box 7, Folder 35. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.
[THE POLICE] SAID "MADAM, DON'T MAKE ME ROUGH YOU UP" ...TOLD HER TO GET IN THE UNMARKED POLICE CAR AND GO DOWNTOWN... AFTER THE [POLICE WOMAN] CAME SHE TOLD HER TO TAKE OFF ALL HER CLOTHES AND MADE HER SQUAT...SAID SHE WAS IN THE WRONG PLACE AT THE WRONG TIME. -TESTIMONY REGARDING POLICE BRUTALITY EXPERIENCED IN SPRINGFIELD

Establishing Community Policing

Members of Arise were crucial actors in the push for the establishment of a community police force and a Civilian Police Review Board in 1994. In the past, officers had not been held accountable for misconduct because the city players responsible for reviewing their actions had let their violence slide. Also, the community's relationship with the police was fractured and filled with mistrust, so community policing attempted to listen to the people and deal with the problems that they identified in their neighborhoods.

Community police talking with Springfield resident, n.d. Box 7, Folder 26. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Better Prison Conditions

Activists fought against the proposal of a new women's prison for Hampden County in 2003, because of the fear that more low-income people of color would receive exaggerated sentences for petty crimes and become disenfranchised without hope of ever finding a meaningful existence in Springfield following these experiences. Arise sought to introduce methods of rehabilitation to local prisons to help with the transition to life outside of jail. They also fought against mistreatment of inmates in the area, that came in the form of anything from denying time with loved ones to withholding crucial medical needs.

Why is it that you can go all over the community looking for a bed in detox, a bed in a shelter and come up with nothing, but there is always a bed waiting for you in jail? -Member of Arise in "Women's Times"
Statistics of community opinions on building a new women's prison in Chicopee and article in "Union-News" about rehabilitation in Massachusetts prisons, 1993. Box 7, Folder 40 and Box 8, Folder 1. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.
I'm of the belief that prison should be like a tour through the circles of hell. -Governor William Weld in speech about criminal justice systems in massachusetts

Voter registration

In the late 90s and early 2000s, Arise focused on registering thousands of voters throughout Springfield. Many voters felt disenfranchised because they supported progressive candidates that never actually found their way to office and even if they did, they often abandoned promises they had made in the past. Activists countered these thoughts by saying that this was exactly why Arise wanted to mobilize voters, so that a large group of voters could push through a candidate that represented them and use the power of their votes to threaten candidates who didn’t abide by their promises with a promise of their own that the support from wards that were known for lower voter turnout could lose them the next election.

Flier for the Campaign for Fair Politics, n.d. Box 6, Folder 46. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Ward Representation was an important issue because it was crucial to have people in office that understood the needs of the people in the community represented. Those elected had also not been representative of the racial make-up of their wards, and this problem was a systemic one, seeing as many people of color had ran and only a few had actually served on the City Council over several decades. While the people overwhelmingly voted for Ward Representation, the City Council repeatedly voted against this measure, because it lessens that chances of outsiders like them being able to run for office for people they don’t represent. Arise printed flyers detailing who had not voted for the proposition for 8 ward representatives and 3 overarching representatives on City Council.

Jo Hill of Arise registering voters in Springfield, 1999. Box 22, Folder 13. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Environmental Justice

Packet about pesticide use reduction, n.d. Box 8, Folder 64. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Arise's past work regarding the health of low-income people had been focused on creating a single-payer healthcare system for the state, but in 2009 they began to focus on the daily spaces they inhabited in Springfield and how environmental racism creating polluted, unhealthy environments for low-income people of color.

Flier for Clean Air Now Campaign, c. 1999. Box 8, Folder 64. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

This focus began because of the need to stop the construction of a biomass waste incinerator in Springfield, which Arise has continued to fight despite multiple attempts at its erection.

Action Alert about local power plant, n.d. Box 8, Folder 64. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Following this Arise members have fought against the general pollution of their city, especially its air quality which has consistently received failing grades from the American Lung Association. They were able to change the area's biggest polluter from coal to gas, establish a community garden, and bring together different groups in their community to form a coalition focusing on environmental issues.

Newspaper article about methane gas in Springfield, 1985. Box 8, Folder 65. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

HIV/AIDs Prevention

Working with at-risk communities

As a part of their work to prevent HIV/AIDS, in 1997, Arise reached out to at-risk groups like sex-workers to educate them about the disease. But this relationship quickly grew into something deeper with the establishment of the group W.I.S.E. (Women In Support of Each Other).

Flyer for W.I.S.E., n.d. Box 12, Folder 12. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Besides gaining skills on how to engage with sex-work safely and working with Arise to get those in abusive, coerced circumstances to a better place in their lives, the group met regularly to talk about their lived experience as sex-workers. They produced Arizine to create a community dialogue with space for creative expression, writing poems about their lives and engaging in activism.

Arizine, 1998-2003. Box 12, Folders 13-17. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.
Image of dancer flipping off customer, n.d. Box 12, Folder 15. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Here's an example of one woman's path of self-reflection, made possible through a creative writing exercise led at Arise.

Woman's self-reflection for W.I.S.E.'s writing exercise, n.d. Box 12, Folder 9. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Needle-Exchange

In the 1990s, Arise received funding to combat HIV/AIDS and worked for the distribution of clean needles, because this was a proven method that stopped the spread of the disease, although of course they fought opposition that ignored these facts because others didn't want the government to support drug-use.

Fliers negating opposition to needle exchanged and advertising educational meeting, c. late 1990s. Box 11, Folder 39. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Arise also came under fire with the distribution of condoms to school children as a method of prevention. Members went to many schools to talk about HIV/AIDS and the importance of protected sex, so this distribution was coupled with education.

Arise's Marsha Burnett distributed condoms to high schoolers as part of Arise's HIV/AIDS prevention and education initiatives, n.d.. Box 11, Folder 21. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Current Activism

Today Arise has several committees and coalitions focusing on the following issues:

  • Housing
  • This group advocates for affordable housing and holds landlords accountable. They also focus heavily on pushing policies that work towards ending homelessness and making sure that shelters are fair and just. They are developing a Community Land Trust which will work to change laws that deny shelter to families.
  • Environmental Justice
  • The committee began to combat environmental racism in the form of the construction of a biomass waste incinerator in the neighborhood. But since then they have become a leader in educating Springfield residents about the effect of pollution on low-income communities, shifted the city largely from coal to gas, and are currently working on improving the air quality and pollution in the city.
  • Criminal Justice
  • The Injustice Liberation Front combats police brutality, working for the transparency and accountability of policemen, as well as exploring alternatives to police forces and punitive measures through community. The group has identified and partnered with lawyers that have similar aims and reinstated the Springfield Police Commission in 2016 to monitor policemen.
  • Stop Hate and Homophobia
  • The group is currently working alongside many other activist groups on combating the hateful rhetoric and crimes against humanity of Scot Lively in the case SMUG v. Lively. He was preaching and running the Holy Ground Coffee House in Springfield, which he used as a platform to spread hate as a member of the religious right hate group Abiding Truth Ministries.

My interest in this project

I am interested in the ways that history and activism intersect and many people at Smith I admire are engaged with creating digital sources for activist groups to teach them their own history. It is easy to feel weary of the consecutive fight to fix the same issues, but instead I think it is empowering to see histories of continued organized resistance and perhaps activists can note what has worked for their organization in the past. I also thought it was important to root myself locally and focus on a group like Arise that truly has always operated from the immediate needs of the people.

How to Get involved

Contact the Arise Housing and Economic Justice Organizer Liz Bewsee at lizma62@gmail.com.

Contact the Arise Director of Public Health and Environmental Initiatives, Jesse Lederman, at jesselederman2016@gmail.com.

Contact Arise ILF Organizer (Criminal Justice Committee), Ellen Grave at ellenforpeace@yahoo.com.

Contact Ellen Graves at ellenforpeace@yahoo.com for information about the Stop Hate and Homophobia Coalition.

For general information about involvement and what Arise is currently up to you can call the Arise office at 413-734-4948 or visit their website at http://www.arisespringfield.org/.

Citations

Background Image #1: Arise symbol of sunrise heading document, n.d. Box 7, Folder 15. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Background Image #2: Together We Are Stronger document heading, n.d. Box 7, Folder 1. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Background Image #3: Free image of the American flag found on Pixabay.

Background Image #4: Poster criticizing Bill Weld's welfare reforms, c. 1994. Box 26, Folder 60. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Background Image #5: Photograph from "The Politics of Welfare Reform: Knowing the Stakes, Finding the Strategies" in Resist newsletter, April 1996, Box 19, Folder 9. Guida West Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Background Image #6: Drawing of women from Arise fighting for the Up to Poverty Campaign, n.d. Box 26, Folder 60. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Background Image #7: Newspaper article with image of Arise members preparing food for Hot Meals Program, 1987. Box 14, Folder 7. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Background Image #8: Image from Newspaper article "Homeless find shelter in tents," c. 2004. Box 14, Folder 10. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Background Image #9: Pamphlet encouraging organizing around unfair housing practices, 1988. Box 17, Folder 8. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Background Image #10: Political cartoon showing racism of death penalty, n.d. Box 7, Folder 4. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Background Image #11: Photograph showing protesting in Springfield marching for justice for Rodney King, 1992. Box 7, Folder 33. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Background Image #12: Seal from Civilian Police Review Board, n.d. Box 7, Folder 25. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Background Image #13: Map showing which wards were represented by local elects, n.d. Box 22, Folder 13. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Background Image #14: Sample letter to legislators about unhealthy conditions in plants and factories, n.d. Box 8, Folder 65. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Background Image #15: Fight poverty not the poor drawing, n.d. Box 26, Folder 60. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Background Image #16: Arise for Social Justice Banner, n.d. Box 29, Folder 1. Arise for Social Justice Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

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