Institutes & Initiatives

Institutes & Initiatives

The Poverty Initiative

A Program of Kairos:  The Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice

Poverty Initiative


The Poverty Initiative’s mission is to raise up generations of grassroots religious and community leaders dedicated to building a social movement to end poverty, led by the poor.  Since 2004, we have been steadfastly working to place poverty at the center of both theological study and the prevailing human rights discourse in the United States, asserting that because poverty is not a permanent feature of our society, we have a moral imperative to end poverty today. 


This belief comes out of a long history of the poor and dispossessed organizing themselves in the United States, drawing on the mission of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the work of the last years of his life on the Poor People’s Campaign.  Our roots trace back to the National Welfare Rights Union of the 1970s, the National Union of the Homeless of the 1980s, and welfare rights and economic human rights organizing of the 1990s. 

In 1999, this rich history of the poor and dispossessed in the U.S. came together with Union’s 175-year legacy of social justice ministries when Union opened its doors to the March of the Americas.  Union administration, faculty and staff welcomed hundreds of poor and homeless families from the United States, Latin America and Canada who were marching 400 miles from Washington DC to the United Nations in New York City, calling attention to the deepening inequality of the Western hemisphere.   Leaders from that March knew of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Myles Horton, and others whose pulpits, professorships and organizations have launched and sustained the major U.S. social movements of our time. A few years later, with the support and blessings of Union’s administration, trustees, faculty and staff, the Poverty Initiative was formally instituted at Union in 2003-2004. 


Since then, we have been working to live into our mission.  Through 3 national poverty truth commissions, 2 leadership schools, 11 poverty immersion courses, 10 faculty-sponsored semester long courses, 16 one-day seminars, 4 books and numerous religious and theological resources, 9 strategic dialogues, 6 intensive study programs and numerous events and exchanges with global grassroots and religious leaders, the Poverty Initiative has established wide and deep network of community and religious leaders, spanning across 28 states and 17 countries around the world. 

 Since launching our Pedagogy of the Poor National Tour in 2011, the Poverty Initiative has personally witnessed the breadth and depth of this network by connecting with the heroes and heroines fighting on the frontlines of the struggle to end poverty.  Whether in the classroom, the pulpit or around a conference table, we have met with hundreds of leaders in over 120 organizations. 


Poverty Scholars Program

With its Poverty Scholars Program, we have 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. 

The Poverty Scholars Program identifies and develops organizers with proven local level successes on issues of unemployment, community revitalization, housing and homelessness, immigration, water privatization, ecological devastation, eviction and foreclosure, health care, hunger, low-wage workers rights, organizing poor youth, public education reform, grassroots media production, and living wages. PI has also provided technical assistance, leadership training and strategic support to successful campaigns of our partners via our Poverty Scholars gatherings, seminars, on-site trainings and consultations.

Religious Outreach

PI works closely with congregations, faith-based institutions and community organizations by offering biblical and religious analysis, training, and faith-based strategy development. This work engages those who are inspired by their faith to make social change, while also leveraging much-needed support from local faith communities to partner organizations. This is also fertile training ground for budding religious leaders.

PI organizes Preaching, Adult Education, and Bible Study programs at congregations throughout New York City and around the country. We also sponsor Lenten Bible Study series and organize other ways for faith communities to engage and address poverty, including Mission Trips, youth programs, conferences and events to bring the issue of poverty to the forefront. PI organizes worship services at religious congregations and among the community and religious leaders we convene through our programs.

Theological Education

On campus, the Poverty Initiative works closely with Union faculty and seminarians to design curriculum for day- and semester-long courses, seminarian Fellows training and immersion experiences. PI has sponsored over 20 one-day seminars and 10 semester-long courses (including “A Political Reading of the Bible”, “World Religions and Poverty”, “Preaching for Social Transformation”, and “Social Theories and Social Movements”) and 12 immersion courses.

Our immersion courses take students, faculty, religious leaders, and community leaders to the epicenters of US poverty to study and meet with local religious and communities leaders. Past immersions have traveled to places including the Mississippi Delta, the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, Appalachia, the Mid-Atlantic States, and our own New York City. Internationally, we have traveled to Haiti and Scotland for global immersions and PI leaders have participated in immersions to Central America, and other global hot spots of social movement building.

Fellows Program

Launched in 2010, the Poverty Initiative Fellows Program strengthens the leadership capacity, skills and community partnerships of emerging religious leaders interested in moving beyond charity toward social justice. The program involves a cohort of Masters-level students in a yearlong intensive Fellows Program that provides training, theological reflection and practical community organizing experience. Graduates from our Fellows Program have successfully moved into leadership roles in nonprofits, social service agencies and congregations, drawing extensively from their experience at Union and time with the PI.

Resource Center

Poverty Initiative also serves as an online and offline resource center and communication hub for community and religious leaders by collecting and distributing printed and online materials, training curricula and modules, films and images from our community partners.

We also engage leaders and the public in dialogue via our range of social media tools. We have published four books and many other Bible studies and theological materials that are used in community organizations, university and seminary courses, and congregations.

The Future: Launching Kairos: the Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice:

We know, however, that this is not enough.  The deepening injustices of the world today demand a forum that can bring leaders together from communities experiencing all forms of social ills to build a common vision of the world we know we all deserve.  We are, therefore, excited to launch the next phase of our work by  establishing a Center on Religions, Human Rights and Social Justice at Union in the fall of 2013.  

With the Poverty Initiative as its cornerstone program, Kairos will afford us the opportunity to connect poverty with all forms of social injustice that humankind are experiencing. Through this Center, we will not only amplify the work of our first ten years, but carry forward Union’s legacy and King’s vision on a global scale. 

Support the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary's 10th Anniversary Fund

Visit Union's Giving Page and select Poverty Initiative as the designation of your gift.

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