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Sacred Steps: An Anti-Poverty Policymaker Finds New Meaning In Hindu Texts

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Shailly Gupta Barnes
Shailly Gupta Barnes

The Poor People’s Campaign is an interfaith movement to end poverty in the United States. Today, we meet one of its leading tacticians: an Indian American who grounds her commitment to economic justice in her family’s Hindu traditions.

The biggest lesson that I came out with by revisiting those texts...was that God takes a position against injustice. God is not neutral.
Shailly Gupta Barnes
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Shailly Gupta Barnes
Shailly Gupta Barnes was arrested during a protest at the United States Supreme Court in June 2018.

It’s a Friday night at the First Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama. As the wooden pews fill up, latecomers tuck coats and handbags onto the floor beside them. Up front, an organizer adjusts microphones and introduces the next speaker, Shailly Gupta Barnes.

The crowd is here for a 2018 panel discussion sponsored by the Poor People’s Campaign, a national anti-poverty organization. Forty-three-year-old Shailly rises to the pulpit, dressed simply in a long black tunic and loose white pants. Her silver earrings clink as she greets the crowd.

Shailly reminds listeners of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which began when the city’s unelected emergency manager switched its water source without adequate testing or treatment. The corrosive water leached lead from aging pipes and delivered it to every tap and faucet. As a result, Shailly says, an entire city was poisoned. Applause and shouts of agreement echo through the church.

I had never been in a space like that before: our discussion of economics, our discussion of history, our discussion of how poverty was legal. All of their insights just broke through my understanding of the world at that time, made me revisit everything I thought I knew. And once that happened, I really couldn’t turn back.
Shailly Gupta Barnes
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Shailly Gupta Barnes
Shailly Gupta Barnes sharing stories at a Campaign gathering in El Paso, Texas in September 2019.

Shailly is the campaign’s resident policy wonk. Her work — distilling data on present-day poverty — begins at gatherings in church basements, temples and classrooms, listening to poor people. Then she combs through transcripts from these meetings, looking for common threads.

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Shailly Gupta Barnes
Shailly Gupta Barnes at a Poor People’s Campaign March in April 2018.

Visit spiritualedge.org to read the rest of this story, or click the play button above to listen to the audio documentary.

This story is part of a series called "Sacred Steps" produced in collaboration with KALW’s "The Spiritual Edge" and USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Reporting was also supported by the Alaska Humanities Forum. Judy Silber is the executive editor of "The Spiritual Edge" and Cheryl Devall is the "Sacred Steps" editor. Tarek Fouda engineered this story.