An Overview of Welfare "Reform"

Out on a Limb Poetry


 Original Graphic Image, "Building Lives" by Emmanuela Copal de León, 2001, based on the fine photography of Brian Lanker



I'm a woman. I'm a black woman. I'm a poor woman. I'm a fat woman. I'm a middle-aged woman. And I'm on welfare. In this country, if you're any one of those things, you count less as a person. If you're all those things, you just don't count, except as a statistic. I am a statistic.  

--Johnnie Tillmon, 1972


Perhaps Johnnie Tillmon was precisely what she claimed to be: a statistic. Still, like all of us who have been measured by one kind of numerical datum or another, she was so much more. Johnnie Tillmon was a woman who combined the keen clarity of Audre Lorde, the historical momentum of Fannie Lou Hamer, the straight-forward presence of Sojourner Truth, and the unmovable dignity of Rosa Parks, with a grit and wit all her own. Yet, unlike Lorde, Hamer, Truth, and Parks, the life and works of Johnnie Tillmon have not been widely recognized. Not yet -- but there is perhaps no one more deserving of our collective honor.

Tillmon was not a celebrity. Her work toward welfare reform wasn't even a  cause célèbre. As in most other parts of the world, here in the U.S. the struggle to end poverty is more often debated than celebrated.

A few politicians will deny that poverty is even a deep concern in the United States. Others, in acknowledging poverty, spend their time in the "blame game," shifting the burden of poverty alternately between "big government" or to the people who are poor, themselves.

Johnnie Tillmon, as a founding chairperson (and, in 1972, the director) of the National Welfare Rights Organization, was a woman who would not accept blame. Nor would she be shamed. Tillmon saw past the thin guises of politics and rhetoric. "I believe in rhetoric to a certain extent," she once said, in an interview with Brian Lanker, "But you can only rhetoricize so long and then you have to deal with the fact. Now, I can do as much rhetoricizing as the next person. But sometimes I had to start a mess to get to the facts." (Lanker, page 92)

Tillmon's pointedly sassy attitude and unadorned style of speech endeared her to millions -- from activists and organizers to welfare mothers, and even to a handful of policy-makers. She was a woman thunderously resonant with pride, and her works imbued that shamelessness to others. Like Sojourner Truth's 1851 impromptu address, "Ain't I A Woman," Tillmon's now-famous 1972 essay, "Welfare Is A Women's Issue" galvanized not only her generation, but those to come.

Yet, while both seminal works are now regularly taught in Women's Studies courses, there remain those bastions of education where Tillmon's work is unknown, where welfare and poverty issues are studied absent the searing context of voice and personal experience, where "Welfare Is a Women's Issue" is an essay that has been unfavorably viewed as "anti-intellectual."

Still, Tillmon made her voice heard and her presence undeniable across the U.S., including in the nation's capital. There, in 1972, at the age of 46, she was called a "nigger" for the first time. "I politely took off my coat, handed my bag to my attorney, and went and had me a fist city on that man's head. He didn't hit me back or nothin', but he ran. Never had been called that by a white person out of all the thirty-five years I lived in Little Rock and Arkansas. But many years ago I had decided that's what I was going to do." (Lanker, ibid.)

Irrepressible in both determination and humor, Tillmon lived in Watts for a good deal of her life, while travelling to nearly a thousand cities, bringing dignity to social and political change.

We are a proud people. Yet the work of Johnnie Tillmon humbles us, deeply. Which is as it should be.

Every day, all over the world, we lose leaders. Many go unnoticed, in life or in death. Many cannot be replaced. The people who knew Johnnie Tillmon, through the courage of her person or the vastness of her works, continue to mourn her passing, and to celebrate her many achievements.




Text © 2001 by Canéla A. Jaramillo

References: 1. Brian Lanker, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, (NY: Stewart, Tabori, & Yang, 1989; revised 10th Anniversay Edition, 1999), edited by Barbara Summers, foreword by Maya Angelou. 2. Johnnie Tillmon, "Welfare Is a Woman's Issue," originally published in the first issue of Ms. magazine.



Revolutions: Welfare Reform

Contents by Author | Contributors | Submissions | Home | About STANDARDS

| Volunteer Opportunities | Contents by Genre |



 Entire Contents © 2001 by the Individual Contributors

and the Standards Editorial Collective