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There is a lost photo that I’m trying to find of Senator Bernie Sanders from around 1997. In this picture, we are making a human graph of wealth inequality using ten chairs and ten people.
Bernie, playing the part of the richest 10 percent, is lying across seven of the ten chairs, depicting his ownership of over 70 percent of the nation’s wealth. Nine other people are wedged into the other three chairs, reflecting the 90 percent of the population holding the remaining 30 percent of the wealth. Everyone is laughing.
Bernie Sanders Interviews Chuck Collins on The Bernie Sanders Show.
At the time, Bernie was a mere Congressman, the only representative from Vermont in the House of Representatives. He had convened 30 leaders from across the state for a weekend retreat. The conference included organizers and activists engaged around tenant rights and women’s rights leaders as well as farmers and mobile home park residents.
They were low-income and working class leaders from around Vermont who probably weren’t in a position to give money to any candidate. This is in sharp contrast to “leadership” events I’ve witnessed from other members of Congress who are more often gathering with their wealthiest donors than their least well-off constituents.
What struck me about Bernie in that moment was how animated and energized he became by these grassroots leaders. He delighted in them and what they had to say. He wasn’t acting. He smiled and laughed and, I dare say, loved these people. These were the people he was accountable to. This is whom he was working for. Period.
That image came back to me during his presidential campaign. I knew who Bernie was accountable to. And because of that, I trusted him. And I think other people understood that too. He is frankly unimpressed by wealth and power, title or role. His head is not turned by wealth or fame.
There are few politicians that I can say that about. It’s reminiscent of UK Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in his community garden or photographing manhole covers. They cannot be bought.
I got to sit down with the Senator yesterday for a Facebook Live chat about the inequality crisis we are in. It felt familiar. We’ve been talking about wealth inequality together since 1982, when he was first elected Mayor of Burlington Vermont and I worked to help create the Burlington Community Land Trust for affordable housing. I’ve been on his radio show over the years –and done other events.
After all this time, I was honored to say to him publicly, “Thank you Senator, for keeping these issues of inequality at the center of our public conversation –and inspiring hope we can reverse these grotesque inequalities.”
Chuck Collins directs the Program on Inequality at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is co-editor of Inequality.org and the author of Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good.