Poverty Scholars Program

Poverty Scholars Program Participants, September 2008, Photo: Anthony ClarkThe Poverty Scholars Program is a leadership development, technical assistance, and skills training program for low-income organizers from grassroots organizations nationwide working around issues of economic justice. Since it’s beginning in 2007, the Poverty Initiative’s Poverty Scholars Program has focused on reigniting the Poor People’s Campaign and finishing the unfinished business of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Poverty Scholars Program has led dozens of individual trainings and educational series for hundreds of leaders – strengthening a network of low-income, community, and religious leaders and providing intensive leadership development, human rights education, joint study and strategic dialogue, technical training and assistance, ongoing organizing and advocacy support for targeted partner campaigns, and networking opportunities to its local, national and international partners. In order to end poverty in our minds and to become the clear, competent, committed and connected leaders we must be in a broad-based movement to end poverty led by the poor, this Program to develop a deep and effective poverty scholarship has been developed from years of organizing and educating. These lessons are in the form of specific methods and activities as well as content of the teaching and learning.

Willie Baptist is the Coordinator of the Poverty Initiative’s Poverty Scholars Program.  Willie is a formerly homeless father who came out of the Watts uprisings, the Black Student Movement, and working as a lead organizer with the United Steelworkers has 40 years of experience organizing amongst the poor including with the National Union of the Homeless, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, the National Welfare Rights Union, the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, and many other networks. To learn more read Willie Baptist: “It’s not enough to be angry

Poverty Scholars

The Poverty Scholars Program seeks to lift up the hidden genius of existing grassroots leaders most affected by poverty, while further developing their leadership voice, organizing skills and capacity for intellectual engagement.

The Program brings together a unique network  of leading grassroots organizers (men, women and youth from urban and rural communities) – Poverty Scholars – with proven local level success working on issues of unemployment, community revitalization, housing/homelessness, immigration, water privatization, ecological devastation, eviction and foreclosure, health care, low-wage workers rights, organizing poor youth, public education reform, grassroots media production, and living wages. 

Strategic Dialogues and Leadership Schools

The Poverty Scholars Program has trained over 500 multi-racial, inter-generational, and multi-faith, low-income leaders of over 200 community organizations and religious congregations to participate in a yearlong series of high-level leadership development and training opportunities. We have sponsored 2 Leadership Schools, 9 Strategic Dialogues, 6 Intensive Study Programs and numerous events and exchanges with global grassroots and religious leaders. Also through the Pedagogy of the Poor Organizing tour, the Poverty Initiative has established wide and deep network of community and religious leaders, spanning across 28 states and 17 countries around the world. Learn more about the Leadership Schools and about Strategic Dialogue gatherings.


The Poverty Scholars Program seeks to make an impact at three levels: 1) to provide leadership development and skills training for each individual leader or “Poverty Scholar”; 2) to inform and sharpen existing and future local campaigns conducted by each partner organization; and 3) to nurture a national network that unites across lines of race, religion, geography and issue-focused organizing into a social movement to end poverty.


What Being a Poverty Scholar Means to You…

Kym McNairKym McNair, Antioch Baptist Church:

“It means I am a part of a community of people who take seriously the call to end poverty.  It means I have access to ideas, best practices, and strategies from a wide variety of people in the struggle.” 

Dan CarrionDan Carrión, Tompkins Workers Center:

“Being a Poverty Scholar means that I am a leader who gets to connect with other leaders in the movement.  Horizontal learning and deep relationship building as an emphasis are really important to me.”

Jake WilliamsJake Williams, Vermont Workers Center:

 “It means that I have a unique responsibility to work towards the end of poverty, and look at my work as an extension of Dr. King’s final campaign. As part of the Poverty Scholars Program, I have a network of peers and allies in the struggle I can rely on for help and guidance in my work.”

What has the Poverty Scholars Program Contributed to your Organization…

Alicia Swords, Tompkins Workers Center:

“A strong appreciation for the critical importance of leadership-building for movement-building.  The development of some leaders that can help share the strategy of Ashley our organization.  The opportunities to participate in and feel the strength of being part of an international movement to end poverty and build a new society.”

Ashley Hufnagel, Leadership Organizer, United Workers:

"Thank you Poverty Initiative for building this unity of vision across organization by creating spaces for learning, strategizing, and sharing lessons. The United Workers would not be who we are without you."


Anonymous responses on the impact of the 2011 Leadership School:

This School "reaffirmed my commitment to this movement and this work; I will revisit my history and more actively seek out opportunities to study and learn with my fellow Poverty Scholars."

"The really great thing about my time here is being encouraged by all the people from different organizations and their commitments. It gives me courage to try to do more."

"I feel energized and committed, even more so, to organizing and doing my part to educate people, as well as myself, in the struggle to end poverty."

 "I am very impressed by the organizations and the resources put into this effort to support a new and unsettling force. I'm very touched by the passion, commitment, and energy of the organizers that attended."

"I feel energized and committed, even more so, to organizing and doing my part to educate people, as well as myself, in the struggle to end poverty."

"I love being in this room! The emphasis on leadership development creates incredible organizations. This is the most important think tank or university that exists, in my opinion."


More voices of the Poverty Scholars themselves about the impact of the Poverty Scholars Program in it’s first years:

  • On November 5th, 2009, Poverty Scholars from New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Detroit gathered to report on the impact of the first year of Poverty Scholars Program from the frontlines of the economic crisis. Learn more.
  • On April 8th - 11th 2010, the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary hosted close to 100 Poverty Scholars, religious leaders and media makers from more than 40 organizations for a Strategic Dialogue and invited well-known author and journalist Chris Hedges to talk with them.  To see a response to featured speaker Chris Hedges by Dan Jones of Philadelphia Student Union, and to hear Dan's thoughts about the role and importance of these gatherings watch the excerpt.

Poverty Initiative

at Union Theological Seminary
3041 Broadway
New York, NY 10027
(212) 280-1439