Maureen Taylor: Champion of the poor

Maureen Taylor has spent her life advocating and fighting for the rights of the poor. Her passion put her in the national spotlight when she took on WDIV-TV reporter Hank Winchester during an MSNBC interview about the Detroit water shutoff crisis. Many saw her actions as heroic.

“It was true Maureen,” said local activist and community organizer Mike Shane of Moratorium Now! a grass-roots organization working to prevent mortgage foreclosures and utility shutoffs. “(The news segment and Taylor’s comments) gave the issue more prominence, which it needed.”

Shane said the interview illustrated Taylor’s determination and willingness to “go to the mat for poor and working people. She’s a good advocate for people.”

As state chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Taylor works nonstop from her office on the fourth floor of downtown Detroit’s Central United Methodist Church to help struggling individuals and families negotiate with Metro Detroit agencies. Many of those she helps are people who are working mainly in low-paying jobs that don’t cover most of their basic bills.

For 30 years, Taylor has been a voice for the voiceless. She began her career on the front lines of protest marches and rallies to protect welfare benefits for residents during Gov. John Engler’s administration. Most recently she led efforts to prevent the state from tossing 41,000 people off the state’s welfare rolls, and last year she conducted protests over the water shutoffs in Detroit.

Taylor, who attributes many of the city’s problems to a sluggish economy that is starting to rebound, said she always wanted to be a “change agent.”

“I need to be able to make a change,” said Taylor. “I have to do something.”

Her passion for the poor began at a young age. Reared in an economically comfortable home in Detroit, a 12-year-old Taylor was struck by the abject poverty she saw during a cross-country trip with her family to Disneyland in California. Young children, most of whom were under the age of 10, were selling turquoise on the side of the road or picking vegetables.

“This question about social justice meant something to me. I thought ‘there’s something wrong,’ ” Taylor said. “I knew it and I saw it.”

A trained social worker with a master’s degree in social work, Taylor also studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

“At the Union Theological Seminary, the coursework was around the fundamental components of why poverty exists. It stressed the relationship between welfare assistance and employment as a bridge between the two contradictory yet dependent polls,” she said. “I learned the history of poverty, the theory of ‘surplus value’ as a component of the existing system, and what role it played in the structure of the American economy. I am a poverty scholar.”

Taylor has been praised for working with corporations, such as DTE, to implement programs to assist the area’s poor. As a result, DTE now provides a representative at Taylor’s office to help individuals and families come up with more affordable utility payments to avoid shutoffs.

Rodney Cole, DTE’s manager of regional relations for Wayne County, said Taylor has been instrumental in helping the utility company assist customers in need.

“She has the history and context with this city,” Cole said. “I have appreciated her ability and willingness to partner (with DTE ).”

Taylor says she doesn’t let those who show up at the Michigan Welfare Rights office leave without some solution to their problems.

“I try to find ways (to help),” Taylor said. “Clients don’t leave here or my desk until there is a plan to alleviate whatever is wrong.”

Oralandar Brand-Williams

Maureen Taylor

Occupation: State chair, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Marygrove College; master’s degree, Wayne State University

Family: One son

Why honored: She is the first recipient of the Angelo B. Henderson Community Commitment Award for being a frontline advocate for economically challenged individuals and families.