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Three people hold hands during a public forum on poverty at the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse Monday, following a candlelight vigil in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (Holly Pelczynski)
Three people hold hands during a public forum on poverty at the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse Monday, following a candlelight vigil in celebration of
Three people hold hands during a public forum on poverty at the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse Monday, following a candlelight vigil in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (Holly Pelczynski)

BENNINGTON -- A group of concerned citizens met at the Four Corners for a candlelight vigil in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., before moving to the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse for a forum on poverty.

The annual event, which was entitled "Moving Toward Economic Justice in the Greater Bennington Community: The Dream and the Reality," is funded by the Greater Bennington Peace and Justice Center and the Bennington Interfaith Council, which runs the Bennington Free Clinic and the Kitchen Cupboard food pantry.

During the walk from the Four Corners to the meetinghouse, candle-holding marchers sang variations of John Lennon's famous line, "All we are saying, is give peace a chance." Once at the meetinghouse, the lyrics were passed out, and the group sang several traditional African-American spirituals in honor of King, including "I Shall Not Be Moved" and "We Shall Overcome."

Speaking first was UU minister, Rev. Lucy Ijams, who spoke about King's dedication to fighting for economic equality. "So, here we are, 45 years later, and the battle has not been won," said Ijams, "Is the destiny of the rich and powerful the same as the janitor, the caregiver, the schoolteacher?" Ijams went on to say, "Poverty does not exist because of the moral or intellectual deficits of individuals. Poverty is simply a lack of money." Ijams praised the individuals who were fighting the symptoms of poverty, but called on those in attendance to fight the structures and systems that were the underlying cause of poverty as well.

State Representative Brian Campion spoke on some of the bills he supports in the state legislature that he believes will help combat economic inequalities. "Vermont really is a great state," he began, "and I think that most people, most days, really feel they are lucky to live here." He praised Vermont's record on being ahead of the rest of the country in terms of fighting for issues such as "women's' rights, gay rights, equal rights, and civil rights," but said that, "Now, we need to turn the page and look at economic rights."

"The inequality around access to higher education is astounding," said Campion, who went on to say, "Capitalism has, in some ways, really led higher education astray." He also praised his colleagues who support additional funding for pre-kindergarten education, as, "There's a strong correlation between early childhood education and academic success."

Maryann St. John of the Bennington-Rutland Opportunity Council, better known as BROC, spoke as well. "We have so many clients, we feel that we're putting out fires with one client, then moving on to the next," said St. John, "rather than focusing on the base issues." St. John argued that minimum wage is not a livable wage, and an increase would go a long way towards creating economic equality. She also called for more opportunities for vocational training to help give people the power to contribute to the economy. She closed with a quote from writer Howard Zinn, who said, "Civil disobedience is not our problem, it's civil obedience."

Sue Andrews, of the Bennington Interfaith Council, spoke on the topic of economic injustice, based on people she had met while working at the Free Clinic and the Kitchen Cupboard. "Injustice is people standing in line on a night like tonight to get food," said Andrews, "Injustice is also knowing there are people sleeping outside on a night like tonight. Injustice is a student who can't go on a field trip because they can't afford the $15 fee. Injustice is being an illegal Latin American farm worker, working 70 hours a week, many of whom are paying taxes into social security but can't get a thing back from the system. Economic injustice is a 14-year old whose teeth are decayed right down to their gums, and a mother who has no idea this isn't normal."

"We need to talk about this, and make changes, so that people's basic needs are met," said Andrews. Andrews related the story of a woman who, during the first few weeks of the free clinic's existence, came in because she was experiencing severe back pain and was almost unable to walk. The doctor found what Andrews described as a "large, open lesion" on her breast, that she said had been there for over a year. The woman hadn't been to see a doctor about it, because she didn't have health insurance and couldn't afford it. Because she had waited so long to seek treatment, until she was literally unable to live with the pain, the breast cancer had spread to her bones. "That is economic injustice," said Andrews.

Mary Gerisch, who works with the Vermont Worker's Center and the Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless, was in attendance as well, and spoke about the challenges of overcoming social stigmas. "It's much better as an immigrant or as a member of an ethnic minority to be invisible in this town," said Gerisch, "There are people who go through great lengths to remain invisible, because of the social stigma." Gerisch told the story of an older couple she had met while volunteering at the Kitchen Cupboard, whose home had been foreclosed, and they had been forced to live in their car because their Social Security payments weren't enough. When she suggested they try living at one of the shelters, they responded, "No, no, no, what would people say?"

"That is the stigma associated with poverty," said Gerisch, "A lot of our job as human beings, and members of a caring community, is to educate each other, our friends, our families, not to blame the victim in these situations, that injustice does exist."

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB