Lumen Scholar researches local grassroots community organizing through the new Poor People’s Campaign 

Lindsey Jordan ’19, and Honors Fellow, is among the recipients of the Lumen Prize, which provides selected students with a scholarship and celebrates their academic and creative accomplishments. 

Elon senior and Honors Fellow Lindsey Jordan has long been interested in service and equity. It’s a passion that has fueled her immersive research at Elon into how different approaches to community organizing can more effectively combat poverty.

Jordan, a sociology major minoring in poverty and social justice studies, is looking into the new Poor People’s Campaign, an effort that revives Martin Luther King Jr.’s original movement. The new Poor People’s campaign strives to address many of King’s original goals: systemic racism, poverty and militarism as well as expanding into LGBT rights, mass incarceration and environmental destruction. Through participant observation and interviews, Jordan is exploring how the campaign follows a model of grassroots community organizing in which those most impacted by social issues take the lead. She’s been working in partnership with the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice.

The new Poor People’s campaign kicked off in summer 2018 and Jordan followed the campaign for its 40 days of peaceful civil disobedience across the United States. For six weeks from mid-May to the end of June, Jordan traveled to a different state capital each week talking to and learning from the people and organizations participating in the campaign.

“It’s almost counterintuitive to think that when you’re immersed in that kind of work you would feel more hopeful because you’re always surrounded with the terrible things people are going through and they’re really significant hardships,” Jordan says. “The fact that these people are fighting and organizing, that is something that I miss a lot when I’m not around it.”

Through her studies, Jordan is attempting to provide a framework for the leadership of the new Poor People’s campaign. Past social movements have typically been informed by community organizer Saul Alinsky’s model, but Alinsky’s structure of leadership has been unable to produce momentum for today’s social issues, Jordan says.

“Saul Alinsky advocated for this kind of class of professional organizers. So there was this divide between people who were supposed to know what was going on politically and have the political strategy, versus the people they were helping,” Jordan says.

The new Poor People’s campaign takes a different approach, drawing knowledge from several sources such as intellectuals, community organizers and those affected by the issues the campaign is pursuing. Jordan explains in her research that solutions can be formed and put into action when individuals respect, pursue and combine these different sources of knowledge.

This movement also relies on theology, with a focus on human rights and dignity, which is different from progressive movements today that tend to embrace secularity.

As a recipient of the Lumen Prize, Jordan received a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate her academic endeavors. A new cohort of Lumen Scholars is selected in the spring of each year, with the Lumen Prize now carrying with it a $20,000 scholarship.

With the support of the Lumen Prize, Jordan was able to showcase her findings at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Canada this year and will be presenting at various locations this spring.

Jordan recently received the Undergraduate Student Award for Best Paper at the Southeast Commission for the Study of Religion conference. She will also have the opportunity to present her research at “Posters on the Hill”, a yearly undergraduate poster session on Capitol Hill organized by the Council on Undergraduate Research, in April.

Undergraduate research and study abroad opportunities drew Jordan to Elon. An Honors Fellow and Odyssey Scholar, she is also a student worker in the Office of Honors, National and International Fellowships, the Undergraduate Research Program, and Research on Global Engagement and is involved in a documentary film series within the Poverty and Social Justice program.

After completing her first year at Elon, Jordan followed her interests in poverty and social justice by interning with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a statewide grassroots organization. Her experience working with the group’s community organizing agency prompted her to redirect her academic focus. Originally a human service studies major, Jordan decided to switch to majoring in sociology and to minor in poverty and social justice studies while becoming more interested in work that addresses the roots of systemic social issues.

Jordan has worked with Professor of Religious Studies Toddie Peters, who has served as her mentor for her Lumen Prize project during the past three years. Jordan met Peters through Tom Mould, then the director of the Honors Fellows Program, at the end of her first year. Peters was a natural fit as a mentor, Jordan said. Although Jordan was unsure initially what to focus her research on, she found common ground with Peters over their interests and her project began to take shape.

After discussing potential research plans, Jordan enrolled in Peters’ wealth and poverty class, a travel-embedded course that gave her the opportunity to go to New York and meet with the Kairos Center. Peters encouraged Jordan to consider studying something similar to the Kairos Center’s focus, which is an approach to community organizing that relies upon those impacted by social issues to take leadership roles.

“I suggested to her, maybe you should think about studying Kairos because what they’re doing is really cutting-edge right now in terms of trying to provide a catalyst for helping to link together and build together a movement of movements that are led by people impacted by the issues, rather than sort of a top-down approach,” Peters says.

After her experience in the wealth and poverty class, Jordan interned with the Kairos Center between her sophomore and junior year.

Peters was the first person Jordan heard use the term “scholar activist” to describe herself and the work she did in the field of poverty and social justice. Scholar activism is the link between scholarship and grassroots groundwork, Jordan explains.

“When she first heard that term, she said that lightbulbs went off in her head, that that was exactly what she wanted to do and be, and so I think we had a really strong connection around that understanding of scholarship for the common good,” Peters says.

Peters also uses the term frequently while teaching, and it resonated deeply with Jordan, solidifying her potential career path. “It just really reframed my thinking about a lot of things, about what the place of research is for working with, rather than for historically marginalized populations,” Jordan says.

Scholar activism is embedded into Jordan’s research of the new Poor People’s campaign. “What’s coming out in my research is that there needn’t be a divide between academia and activism because both are really critical to informing one another,” Jordan says.

As a Lumen Scholar, Jordan has had the opportunity to transfer her own interests and knowledge into meaningful work. “It allowed me to go beyond just reading books. It allowed me to fully immerse myself with the work of the campaign,” Jordan says.

As a low-income student, the Lumen Prize also aided her financially. “An unpaid internship with Kairos is already something that wouldn’t have been accessible for me,” Jordan says. “It bridged some of those barriers in general because the Lumen Prize is interested in not just supporting your research but supporting you as a scholar.”

Planning ahead, Jordan eventually wants to earn her doctorate in social movements. For now, though, she is focusing on wrapping up her research and wants to have time to work with grassroots organizations so she could potentially bring that experience to a graduate-degree program.