A Historian Fighting Poverty from Africa to the U.S.

An Interview with Brad Paul

Brad Paul is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association (WISCAP). He has twenty years of local, national, and international experience developing partnerships and managing policy, education and research agendas related to issues of land, labor, housing and poverty reduction. Brad earned his PhD in History from UMass Amherst in 1999. His dissertation focused on 19th and 20th century U.S. labor, and comparative labor and industrialization in South Africa and the American South. Brad has long been active in national anti-poverty and homelessness policy and advocacy work, serving as both the Housing Policy Director and Director of Public Policy at the National Coalition for the Homeless and then as co-founder and Executive Director of the National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness (NPACH). His writings on housing, homelessness, human rights, and labor have appeared in Clearinghouse Review, Ms. Magazine, Shelter Force, International Union Rights, and the Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working Class History. He is also the primary author of the 2003 Bringing America Home Act, comprehensive federal anti-poverty legislation introduced in the 108th Congress. Prior to joining WISCAP, Brad worked in the field of international development for a number of organizations, including Technoserve Mozambique and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). He has previously served as Visiting Scholar in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Brad lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Brad Paul

As the executive director of the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association, you are involved in anti-poverty and homelessness policy and advocacy work. Can you share a bit about the challenges and the rewarding aspects of your work?

One in ten Wisconsinites live below the poverty line, and close to 40% of all households struggle to meet their basic needs. Last year, local school districts identified over 18,000 homeless kids in the state. Taken together, it shows just how fragile economic life can be for low-income families. Our challenge is to impress upon lawmakers, the private sector, and the public where they fit in and how they can make a difference. As an agency, we often struggle to secure the necessary support that allows us to pursue policy and programs that can make a real difference for people. The donor community understands how their dollars contribute to direct service, but less so of the equally critical need for public education and policy change. On the other hand, the rewards seem obvious. Last year, close to 250,000 low-income Wisconsinites received some form of assistance from our member agencies. Knowing that we have an important role to play in helping meet the emergency and longer-term economic needs of individuals and families with children is both daunting and immensely satisfying.

You earned a PhD in History from UMass Amherst. What drew you to labor history? How does your background as a historian inform what you do?

I suppose my own politics and world view entered the picture, but I mostly embraced labor history for the stories; the stories of working life and how people organize their time and make do within particular social and economic environments. In some respects, both my academic research and professional work has been organized around this question. Specifically, my involvement in anti-poverty causes has been strengthened by taking a historical perspective of people’s daily struggles and how they give meaning to their work. Most people I know and have met, whether from Mozambique, Malawi, Mobile, or Madison, share work as a defining feature in their lives, even as they hold complex and different histories.

Discovering the commonalities and differences is exciting, and worth the time to understand and pull together. History can help us do just that.

You worked for international development organizations in Mozambique to study labor and the on-the-ground impacts of international development projects. Your research was based on extensive oral history interviews which you conducted with farm and factory workers. What did you find most challenging about your research in Mozambique? Do you have any plans to make this collection of oral history interviews available to scholars who are interested in the labor history of Africa?

In my experience, within the world of international development there is a tendency to minimize the value of qualitative research in measuring a program’s effectiveness. Instead, most projects rely heavily on collecting quantitative data as measured against a set of pre-determined indicators. I believe historians can promote a different evaluation approach. Oral history and other forms of “on the ground” chronicling can tell us an equally important story about habits, customs, recreation, work and social life of farmers, workers, managers, and community members alike. As a labor historian, I have long been interested in issues of workplace organization, trade unions, and economic and social life. And, my work in Mozambique presented a good opportunity to pursue some of these themes in a variety of settings, including cashew factories, community maize mills, among soy farmers, chili growers, and in coconut and tree nurseries.  I was the research director of an NGO that provided services to smallholder farmers and rural wage earners. The NGO had a very gifted group of agricultural and business advisors, but often struggled when it came to a full understanding of a project’s influence on everyday life. There were consequences- mostly positive, but some negative- that often escaped the balance sheet. My emphasis of looking at work- something most everyone is engaged in at some level- hopefully gave us a fuller understanding of the communities in which we were operating. I would love to make our field notes and materials more broadly available to African labor historians and other researchers who study international anti-poverty efforts.

A UMass cafe started by friends of Brad Paul in Maputo, Mozambique, where Paul completed research and oral histories.

Do you see a connection between the local, national, and international works and research you have done in the past twenty years? Do you see a consistent theme in this work?

Yes, most definitely. My good friend, Dr. John Higginson, helped me a great deal in this regard. He taught me how to think comparatively and consider systems across time and place. I grew up in the South, but in my travels and work – from Africa to Wisconsin – I have encountered an ever-present story of struggle and resilience. For example, my work in the “cashew triangle” of Mozambique allowed me to learn about the lives of small farmers and factory workers. In helping tell their story, I discovered that wherever people come from they basically want the same thing; that is, what is best for their family. Similarly, in 2017, I completed a study of malt barley grower cooperatives in Ethiopia. The idea of the project was to better understand what happens when small farmers’ embrace commercialization. In this case, the cooperatives had contracts with a multi-national liquor company that was sourcing its barley from the region. My work was less concerned with the specific economic indicators, although these were terribly important, and more with how daily life was being adjusted to accommodate the time and material demands of market-based agriculture. One might argue that the current dairy crisis in Wisconsin is governed by similar dynamics, although in this case by what happens when the farm or company leaves town. Here, small family farms are closing at the rate of two a day, requiring rural communities to be reorganized along new lines. The resulting hardships are obvious, but perhaps not unprecedented. 

Given your academic background in History and decades of on-the-ground and policy-based work, what you think historians based in the academy should know about anti-poverty and homelessness policy?

Modern homelessness emerged in the early 1980s with the evisceration of the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budget and the dismantling of public housing. Regrettably, I can only observe that national homelessness policy over the last 20 years has failed miserably to reverse this terrible slide. Instead, motivated to show results, policy makers and large foundations have separated homelessness from the deep poverty that underlies it. As a result, homelessness has been “pathologized,” reduced to stereotypes of the “chronic” homeless while other populations who lack housing go ignored. So, while local communities strive to “end homelessness” we have all but guaranteed a cycle of mass homelessness by cutting affordable housing in general and shifting resources to support narrow sub-populations and bureaucratic “outcomes.” Historians can play an important corrective role, however, by providing the necessary scrutiny of these failures. They might start by asking ‘who has benefitted from such policies?’ and, more importantly, by identifying past successful federal supports such as those achieved through the New Deal and Great Society as well as the deep tradition of broad-based anti-poverty movements in this country.  

 — Interview by Mohammad Ataie

This post is part of an on-going series of Past@Present interviews exploring the diverse #CareersinHistory that UMass History Department alumni have pursued. In these posts, alumni reflect on current issues in their respective fields, as well as the ways in which their training as historians have prepared them for their work in the world.

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