Merlene Davis: Melissa Harris-Perry visits Lexington to talk about poverty

To my daughter and many of her girlfriends, Melissa Harris-Perry is as close to a rock star as those 30-somethings want to get.

A group of them had tickets to her Lexington appearance this Thursday soon after the ink had dried on the contract with the Community Action Council.

Harris-Perry, who is an author, political science professor at Tulane University and host of the two-hour MSNBC Melissa Harris-Perry show on Saturdays and Sundays, is an unflinching yet humorous examiner of politics and social trends. She is also a lightning rod for some conservatives and black activists alike.

Couple that with her passion to right wrongs and level playing fields, and you have a woman who encourages people like my daughter and her friends — most of whom work in the non-profit arena — to fight another day.

Those young women must not be alone in their admiration of Harris-Perry.

Her keynote address at the council's Sixth Annual Poverty Forum, "A Night to Fight Back," on Aug. 8 is sold out and has been for a few days. After her speech, Harris-Perry will lead a panel of guests in a discussion about issues tied to poverty and the people trying to survive marginalization, just as she does on TV.

She will also sign copies of her book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, starting at 6:15 p.m.

Reached by phone last week, Harris-Perry said she will try to show why poverty matters, and "how, in this country, poverty is marked by race, gender and zip code," she said.

Worldwide, a majority of the people who are poor are women, mostly women of color, and most live in areas where access to the tools to correct the situation is minimal.

"I am solidly middle class at this point," she said. "But we are never a whole generation from poverty."

The youngest of five children, Harris-Perry said there were times when her mother, an educated woman who worked with low-paying non-profits, had difficulty keeping herself and two daughters, Harris-Perry being one of those children, from the brink of homelessness and bankruptcy.

Once, when her mother was diagnosed with double pneumonia, Harris-Perry remembers her mother, who could not work, being terrified of what would happen to her daughters if she were to die.

"I remember the stress and the anxiety that she experienced," she said.

Her father, also well-educated, "was always in my life," she said. "He was important emotionally, but not much of a financial assistance."

Fortunately, Harris-Perry said, she had a "ton of options" that a lot of people don't have.

She was able to get an education through grants instead of loans, affirmative-action programs, and scholarships set aside for people of color.

With those investments in her education, Harris-Perry earned an English degree from Wake Forest University and a doctorate in political science from Duke University.

She has taught at the University of Chicago and Princeton University before Tulane.

Still, even she needed the safety net of her mother and father after her divorce in 2005. She married James Perry in 2010 and lives with him, her mother and her daughter in New Orleans, commuting to New York on weekends for the show.

Harris-Perry said she also helps financially to support two sisters who live in poverty, one of whom was an accountant for the Navy before a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and eventually going blind.

Malcolm Ratchford, the new executive director of Community Action, will be a member of a "Nerdland"-style panel similar to ones led by Harris-Perry on her show. Other panelists will include Beth Mills, Urban County Government Commissioner of Social Services; Andrés Cruz, who publishes La Voz de Kentucky, a weekly bilingual newspaper covering Central Kentucky; and Lawrence Gilbert, a parent whose child attends Head Start.

"Poverty impacts the entire community," Ratchford said. "When you see break-ins and stealing copper, when you see teenage pregnancy and drug abuse, all that is created by poverty."

Sometimes poverty forces people to live in areas where there are food deserts and where access to good health care is limited. Those situations encourage generational poverty.

"I can give out 40 GEDs," he said, "but if that person doesn't get a job, it didn't really change their life."

And sometimes, illness, divorce or loss of employment can lead to poverty. Because of the economy, "we had people coming here who had never ever asked for help," Ratchford said. "That is situational poverty."

Harris-Perry said it is time we invest more attention, money and energy into helping the upward mobility of the poor.

"We need to talk about American freedom and how that is connected to resources," she said. "All of us could be poor tomorrow. I have a TV show and TV shows can be canceled.

"I recognize that it is always about options and blessings and doing the best we can," she said.

That is not only doing the best for ourselves, but the best we can do as a nation, as a neighbor, as human beings for those who need a hand up.


Melissa Harris-Perry

The Sixth Annual Poverty Forum's "A Night to Fight Back," hosted by the Community Action Council, features Melissa Harris-Perry, political science professor at Tulane University, and MSNBC host. The forum is sold out.

When: Aug. 8. 5:30 p.m. silent auction; 6:15 book signing; 7:30 p.m. program.

Where: The Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St.

Additional parking: Free parking will be available at the PNC Bank garage at the corner of Main Street and Elm Tree Lane/Rose Street. LexTran will shuttle guests from that corner to the Lyric beginning at 5:15 p.m.


Melissa Harris-Perry

10 a.m. Sat. and Sun., MSNBC