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Tavis Smiley and Cornel West Examine Poverty in America

Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West have put together an exhaustive week-long television series on poverty in America–set to run nightly next week on PBS. The pair went on an 18-city, 11-state tour of America this past August to report their series. On top of their in-the-field efforts, Smiley landed interviews with Jeffrey Sachs and Kathleen Sebelius among others.

As we reported yesterday, Smiley and Dr. West will be in Los Angeles this weekend to promote their series and to support the Occupy Los Angeles protesters outside of LA City Hall. We spoke with Smiley and Dr. West about their efforts and about the recent Wall Street protests that have spread across the nation.

FishbowlLA: With 50 million Americans living below the poverty line, I imagine you didn’t have to travel very far to find people to interview. Where did you go?

Smiley: We went everywhere. We started where we should have–on a Native American reservation in Wisconsin. We ended in Memphis where Dr. King was assassinated. Before he was killed, he was marching with sanitation workers. He was engaged in his own poor people’s campaign.

In between those two places we talked to all races colors and creeds. Coal miners in West Virginia. We stayed all night on streets in DC. We spoke with military veterans in Ohio. We met with children in Detroit, senior citizens in Chicago, immigrant workers in Atlanta. We met with people of all races, creeds all ilk and that’s why we can say now, with certainty, that there is a new face of poverty in America. The new poor are the former middle class, and we saw that every where we went.

FishbowlLA: There was a report recently widely disseminated across the mainstream media that said Americans in poverty didn’t have it so bad. Is that what you found in your travels?

Dr. West: That was a Heritage Foundation report that was indifferent to the reality of the situation. I don’t know how the Heritage Foundation can rationalize saying things here aren’t as bad as Africa or Latin America, so no problems exist. It is these types of myths that we’re trying to combat. This was an attempt to hide or conceal the reality of genuine social misery in America.

FishbowlLA: What were your respective goals in setting out to tell this story?

Smiley: There are too many poverty deniers in America. Dr. West and I are lucky enough to have access to various platforms in the media: radio, print, television. And so we have access to the hearts and minds of the average American. Our goal was to use the platforms that we have to raise awareness of poverty in America. And what with the Occupy Wall Street protests underway, our timing is propitious in trying to raise awareness and bring this issue forward. Because if we don’t eradicate poverty, poverty will eradicate us.

FishbowlLA: What are your thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street protests? Do you think there is sufficient energy in these protests to sustain a movement?

Dr. West: There’s no doubt this is a significant movement. It overlaps fundamentally and unequivocally with our poverty tour. We’re talking about power and influence shaped from the top. Escalating poverty. I’m over-elated to see fellow citizens standing up the way they are. Brother Tavis and I will be at the Occupy Los Angeles protests this weekend.

Previously on FishbowlLA:
Exclusive: Tavis Smiley and Cornel West to ‘Occupy Los Angeles’ This Weekend

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