Genny Nelson has been a community organizer working with people experiencing poverty in Portland since 1972. She is the co-founder of one of the nation’s most unique gathering places for individuals to barter for a hot meal and build community, Sisters of the Road Café. Today, 26 years since its inception, the café serves more than 300 people a day.
Nelson has spent her lifetime organizing with a philosophy of nonviolence and gentle personalism, earning her comparisons to the late Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Mother Teresa, who worked with the poor in Calcutta, India.
Nelson has co-authored a manual about how to replicate Sisters of the Road Café, and is currently writing a memoir of her life’s work. In 2001, she spearheaded a project involving 600 one-on-one interviews with people experiencing homelessness in the Rose City that will be published in book form next year.
Earlier this month, Nelson traveled to Washington D.C. to accept an award from the National Caring Institute for her lifelong work in the community.
Real Change: Can you tell us a little bit about the philosophy of Sisters of the Road, and how it has evolved over the years?
Genny Nelson: The philosophy came from my experience with the Catholic Worker Movement. When we open the doors, we are going to ask people to practice non-violence, and gentle personalism, a philosophy [movement co-founder] Peter Marin brought from France with the idea that we don’t need a government authority to tell us how to be good people.
When we open the doors in 1979, I think a lot of people on Skid Row expected us to be like any other group in the neighborhood. We weren’t. One story I remember is when this woman came in, and she was a prostitute, and she made that known to me. She was scared and hungry, and 10 minutes later this guy walked in and was acting like her pimp. And we said to him, you are welcome to stay and have a cup of coffee, but you can’t tell this woman what to do, not in this café. So the man ordered up a cup of coffee, and eventually left.
Those experiences at Sisters got around on the streets, and people soon realized that in Sisters, it’s not going to be business as usual. And over the years, it’s the people on the streets who have mentored us. And we don’t have the level of incidents of violence as we had in the early days.
Real Change: Can you tell us a little bit about the award you have received from the National Caring Institute?
Nelson: Last summer I got a call from the Caring Institute saying, “Congratulations, you’re a nominee for a National Caring Award.” In the 1980s Val Halamandaris, founder and executive director of the Caring Institute, had an opportunity to meet Mother Teresa when she was in the U.S. He asked her what she thought was the greatest need in America. She told him in the United States you have a great poverty of spirit, and that’s what you should concentrate on.
Mr. Halamandaris was very inspired by that, and decided to honor individuals making a difference in people’s lives. On Nov. 7, Sisters’ 26th birthday, we got the news that I had won the award. I asked them how they found out about me. The gentleman I spoke with told me they had been tracking me for a long time (laughs).
Real Change: What are some of the accomplishments you’ve seen over the years on the homeless front?
Nelson: As much as I would like to say there have been multiple accomplishments, I think homelessness has gotten worse, not better. When I started my work in ’72 in [Portland’s] Old Town/Chinatown [neighborhood], which was a skid row at the time, all of the hotels were still open. A person’s pension or Social Security check could pay the rent in one of those hotels, with money left over for an eatery, or maybe even a show once in awhile.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s no romance about Skid Row. Were these stellar places to live? No. But the person who rented a room with their own income could build relationships with the people next door to them and maintain their self-esteem. You had very few people who were actually homeless.
But once we hit the ’80s we started to lose that housing. Portland didn’t lose as much as some cities; we had enough foresight to say let’s keep some of these in place. But hundreds if not thousands of rooms where lost. In the ’70s, with minimum wage, you could rent a modest place, but in the ’80s minimum wage stopped keeping up with the cost of living, and the cost of housing skyrocketed, and it hasn’t stopped. Also, accessing a room in a hotel didn’t require case management. Now in low-income units, rules are strictly enforced. For instance, the hours you can receive guests. In my apartment my landlord doesn’t tell me I can’t have a friend over after 10 o’clock. Over time it wears on a person’s dignity.
Real Change: Do you think the institutions that we’ve built for poor people are enabling them, or helping them get on with their lives?
Nelson: Unfortunately, I would say the former. I would never say any institution is all bad, or has a monopoly on the truth for that matter.
However, whatever model you use, if it doesn’t share power with the consumers then it’s not going to lead to systemic change. What we’ve created by institutionalizing homelessness is a constituent base that too often feels entitled to services, or ashamed. People are not encouraged to do things for themselves.
What Sisters has found is that a first-time customer may walk into the café and ask us why they have to pay or barter for their meal. They might even have attitude about it not being free. They may have to come back in a few times before understanding their mutual participation makes a difference. And that’s when they can begin to organize for lasting change for their own life and the others around them. Sisters has always said we are all in this together.
Real Change: Sisters was instrumental in being the first nonprofit café to pass federal legislation so people experiencing homelessness could use food stamps for a hot meal. Can you talk a little bit about those efforts?
Nelson: That was an organizing effort that came straight from the streets. When we opened in 1979, Sisters could take food stamps from elders, and people on disabilities, but people experiencing homelessness could not use their food stamps for a hot prepared meal. People would tell us, “What use are they?” The food you could purchase with the stamps had to be cooked up. Folks would exclaim, “I’m outside with a sleeping bag. I don’t have a can opener, much less an oven and stove.” It was that simple. People asked us to take a look at this issue.
Sisters did an inquiry with the Department of Agriculture. We sent them a proposal for a pilot project that would allow us to accept food stamps from people dealing with homelessness in exchange for a hot, cooked meal. We got in touch with Mark Hatfield, who was an Oregon senator at the time, and he set up a meeting for us with representatives from the Department of Agriculture, and an aide in his office. Mind you, this was during the Reagan administration, when ketchup was a vegetable.
So we went to the meeting and the USDA reps humiliated us. They couldn’t grasp why this proposal would work, and even if it did why anyone would want it. After the meeting, Sen. Hatfield's aide apologized for how we were treated.
Ultimately, it put a fire in the belly of the senator. He worked diligently on this issue, and got it attached as an amendment to Reagan’s drug bill. There was no way it wasn’t going to get signed.
It took two years. Sometimes we think the system is so vast and unchangeable, but two years when you’re thinking long-term isn’t that much time for a campaign to change policy for a nation forever.
Real Change: What would you say to the next generation of people who are committing their lives to systemic change around the world?
Nelson: Take hope. At this point in my life I think systemic change is the only approach that makes sense. We are learning what that will take. Build authentic relationships across the barriers that constantly separate us by race and class. Work in partnership, share power. Create a culture that supports a paradigm shift, including changing the underlying values, beliefs, and assumptions.
In other words, if you always think the way you’ve always thought, you will always get what you’ve always got. Working together does not mean the absence of conflict; expect it. Struggle, reflection on that struggle, and love can transform the world.
Published in January 2006, Real Change, Seattle, Washington.