“The value of a man cannot be reduced to dollars and cents because he is a being of Spirit….the freedom of a man is more than the will…” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, II, speaks volumes as the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus on the urgent need for jobs. As the national debt debate delves deeper into “dollar and cents” discussions, the voices of everyday men and women are at risk of being muffled by socio-political interests. Cleaver however is speaking up for everyday people and their need for jobs. Cleaver’s recent debt deal comments made national news when he called the debt deal a “sugar-coated Satan sandwich.”
Congressman Cleaver’s political speech is matched by his action. Cleaver is known for implementing transformative economic strategies to improve poverty-stricken communities, as seen in the Green Impact Zone. Within the United Methodist Church, Cleaver currently serves as the Special Assistant in Charge of African American Church Development. This role requires Cleaver to assist churches facing difficult problems including economic crisis.
P365: Will you tell us about your role as Chairman of the CBC?
Congressman Cleaver: As a chair of the CBC like previous chairs I have to design the agenda for the CBC based on my vision for the organization. In that role I am responsible for planning out the complete action oriented plan for the organization.
P365: What issues are at the forefront for the CBC?
Congressman Cleaver: In any legislative body you will necessarily have to make alterations based on what is going on. Nobody at this time last year would have imagined we would be in the troughs of a debt ceiling discussion two weeks before the nation would go into default so the legislation agenda changes sometimes week to week. So what we have decided to establish as our maximum focus is jobs. We have concentrated more on jobs than anything else. We have introduced more than 40 bills which if approved and implemented would almost automatically reduce the high numbers of the black unemployed. It’s been jobs and jobs and after that it has been jobs. Of course while concentrating on jobs we have to be multi-faceted as a Caucus because there are so many other issues that surface to which we have to provide attention.
P365: What in your experience has shaped your approach to issues currently facing America?
Congressman Cleaver: We all are shaped and framed by unique experiences. I grew up in a shack for the first 7 years of my life and lived in public housing for about 5 years after that. That has caused me to resent all of the suggestions about people in public housing: how they do not want to work and how they are lazy and that they created a culture. My father worked three jobs to be able to buy a home in a white neighborhood, but because we could not live there he moved it over to the east side of town where we could live and I came from that frame of reference….some things you do, you sacrifice and there are some you don’t sacrifice and the goal in life is to figure out which is which.
P365: In light of the current economic crisis what issues are you addressing in your role as the Special Assistant in Charge of African American Church Development?
Congressman Cleaver: One of the problems we are having right now is that the people who are being laid off are people who are members of our churches. We are having difficulties just trying to keep the doors open at all and our churches have not made the societal changes necessary to continue to grow.
P365: Tell us about your work to transform a poverty stricken area of Kansas City through the Green Impact Zone.
Congressman Cleaver: When the President announced the stimulus program of which Congress approved $800 billion dollars, I remember telling my staff in Kansas City that this would be the largest amount of money approved by Congress for domestic use in our lifetime. So I said we have to maximize it and instead of trying to give money to 25 or 30 different agencies or organizations in Kansas City we are going to set up a green impact zone because of the large amount of dollars that had been set aside for sustainability. With the Department of Energy and weatherization and so forth so we would establish a 150 block area right in the heart of the most decrepit neighborhood in Kansas City. we decided this is going to be our area of concentration. We have done weatherization, we have put in furnaces, we have stopped water and faucets from leaking. We have installed something called smart meters inside the home which residents of this 150 block area information on their utility bill before the end of the month. In fact a resident who wants to know what their phone bill will be could simply could go check the smart meter. We tell people their neighborhood is one of the top neighborhoods because none other in the metropolitan area have that kind of technology. So it generates pride with the people that they have something that even the most progressive neighborhoods do not have.
Congressman Cleaver is serving his fourth term representing Missouri’s Fifth Congressional District. Prior to Congress, Cleaver served twelve years on the Kansas City, city council and was elected as the city’s first African American Mayor in 1991. In addition to five honorary doctoral degrees, Cleaver received a bachelor’s degree from Prairie View A&M of the University of Texas, and a Master’s from St. Paul Theology of Kansas City. Cleaver has dedicated over 37 years in ministry and is an ordained elder within the United Methodist Church.