Everyone who seeks to advance social and economic justice in the South is gearing up for a monumental year. Major elections and the census will determine government policies and resource allocations for years to come. Advocates will spend much of the year educating their communities about the importance of both. Achieving representative levels of participation will strain organizations’ time and resources, as trusted local leaders urge their neighbors to stand up and be counted. While none of this will be easy, our grantee partners are diving into this watershed year with significant momentum. Even in notoriously difficult policy environments, they continue to achieve remarkable successes, from criminal justice reform to voting rights, immigrant protection and economic opportunity. Here are just a few:
Organizers with New Virginia Majority knocked on more than 500,000 doors to talk to voters about issues ranging from healthcare to voting rights and more. Voters turned out in record numbers for an off-year and flipped the state legislature, electing representatives invested in a more inclusive and just democracy for working class people, people of color, immigrants, women and young people. While NVM had some electoral wins in 2019, they remain focused on long-term systemic change, as reflected in their ten-year policy agenda. This community-centered agenda includes reenfranchising formerly incarcerated people, ending cash bail, and driver’s licenses for all regardless of immigration status.
The shift stands to open new opportunities for the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis and its allies to advance their policy agenda, including driver’s licenses for all, a higher minimum wage, increased funding for education, expanded voting rights and a refundable Earned Income Tax Credit. The election results also make it possible for Medicaid expansion to address Virginia’s health care disparities.
North Carolinians have greater access to the ballot, thanks in large part to the work of Democracy North Carolina. Through research, strategic communications, litigation and other strategies, they helped preserve same-day registration, restored the last Saturday of early voting, and established Sunday voting in 28 counties (and counting). Dem NC and fellow MRBF partner Southern Coalition for Social Justice were part of the litigation against the voter ID law blocked by a federal judge in December. The organization also settled a lawsuit to force the Division of Motor Vehicles to comply with the National Voter Registration Act and increase registrations for people obtaining or renewing their licenses online. Dem NC also helped defeat legislation that would have mandated voter purges on the basis of jury excusal citizenship data. And as part of its efforts to reach young people, Dem NC launched a podcast series called “Built By Us” in June.
"Black, Latinx, Vietnamese and indigenous people in Louisiana have finally been seeing real progress on the issues they care about, and they’re ready for more."
Louisiana’s civic engagement network was able to turn out historic numbers of voters of color in 2019’s statewide elections. The Louisiana Power Coalition for Equity and Justice and its partners – including Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), Louisiana Budget Project and Black Voters Matter made more than 1.1 million voter contact attempts (door knocks, phone calls and texts). People of color across the state stood up and made sure they were counted. “We are not here for one issue or one election,” says Ashley Shelton, Executive Director of Power. “We are here to build a movement. Black, Latinx, Vietnamese and indigenous people in Louisiana have finally been seeing some real progress on the issues they care about, and they’re ready for more.”
Defendants who can’t afford fines and fees will no longer have their driver’s licenses suspended, thanks in part to advocacy by the Power Coalition. The bill garnered strong bipartisan support, with the Senate voting 20-11 in favor, and the House passing it by a margin of 87-12. The governor signed the measure in June and it took effect in August.
VOTE partnered with Tulane University to run the Formerly Incarcerated Transitions Clinic, which provides formerly incarcerated people with quality healthcare after they come home. The clinic hired two full-time, formerly incarcerated community health workers to bridge the gap between needs and services. Thanks to the engagement of VOTE members and testimony before elected officials, the New Orleans City Planning Committee and City Council voted unanimously to decrease the number of people who can be locked up in Orleans Parish Prison. Councilmembers passed an ordinance lowering the cap from 1,438 beds to 1,250 people, despite the sheriff’s efforts to greatly expand the number of people his office could legally incarcerate. The ordinance also requires the closure of the Temporary Detention Center as soon as a permanent facility opens to house people with acute mental illness. And more criminal justice reforms pushed by VOTE took effect in 2019:
- As of January 1, all 12 jurors must agree to convict a defendant. Louisiana had been one of only two states allowing non-unanimous juries to convict, a policy rooted in white supremacy. VOTE and its partners, including the Power Coalition, worked with formerly incarcerated people, their families and communities to encourage voter participation in the 2018 referendum.
- As of March 1, many people with convictions are able to register and vote. VOTE members helped pass Act 636 at the state legislature.
Some 140,000 Kentuckians are now eligible to vote, thanks to the efforts of grassroots activists. The Kentucky Coalition was part of a network of more than 30 community groups who urged newly elected governor Andy Beshear to reinstate voting rights to people with nonviolent felony convictions. The coalition continues to push for a constitutional amendment re-enfranchising all who’ve served their time.
In Atlanta, Southerners on New Ground (SONG) was part of a coalition of grassroots and community organizations who built on the 2018 victory to end cash bail for non-violent offenses by successfully pushing to close the city jail, which is being repurposed into a center for equity. SONG participated in the third annual National Bail Out for Black Mamas, which brought home 67 caregivers across the South in time for Mothers Day. (Nationally, the initiative bailed out 123 caregivers in 27 cities.) The Durham chapter raised close to $50,000 and pushed the district attorney to recommend judges deprioritize the use of money bail. The chapter hopes to close the jail altogether. In 2020, SONG plans to launch a 501c4 arm to augment its powerbuilding work.
As children filed in to their first day of school in August, ICE raided several poultry processing plants in central Mississippi, arresting 680 people. That night, Southeast Immigrant Rights Network launched a hotline for affected families that continues to be a resource for the community. SEIRN arrived the next day to offer on-the-ground support and issued a call for help. Seventy-six immigrant rights organizers answered the call, and SEIRN coordinated food, lodging and travel for the volunteers for five weeks as they provided legal and humanitarian support as well as other services and resources. SEIRN held more than 50 meetings and trainings, and knocked on more than 700 doors to educate workers about their rights and the detention process. SEIRN continues to partner with other organizations on the ground to raise money, train leaders and support families.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta launched the Georgia Immigrant Rights Alliance, a statewide immigrant policy table that successfully blocked the majority of anti-immigration legislation introduced in the 2019 session. AAAJ-Atlanta saw several policy wins around voting rights. In partnership with the state civic engagement network ProGeorgia, AAAJA contested the “Exact Match” law, which severely disenfranchised minority and immigrant voters. Additionally, they worked with community partners to introduce a “Drivers License for All” bill that would expand access to driver’s licenses and ID cards for survivors of violence, transgender individuals, people affected by homelessness, formerly incarcerated people, senior citizens and immigrants of all statuses. AAAJA also conducted more than 60 free citizenship clinics across the state, saving more than $125,000 in fees for low-wealth clients. The organization helped nearly 500 people fight deportation, and helped release 13 people from detention. To ensure immigrants are counted in the 2020 census, AAAJA began a project to engage various ethnic associations, elder groups, churches and business associations across the state. AAAJA launched a website featuring resources in 18 languages and is implementing a multilingual social media campaign in partnership with other complete count member groups.
Some of our Appalachia partners, including Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, Kentucky Coalition, Appalachian Voices and Alliance for Appalachia helped win a temporary victory for coal miners suffering from lung diseases, their widows and their families, though advocates say it doesn’t go nearly far enough. About 150 coal miners and widows traveled to Washington in July to push Congress to restore the black lung excise tax to its longstanding rate before January 2019, when it was slashed in half, even though the fund is $4.3 billion in debt. The tax funds the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which provides benefits to more than 25,000 people, about 75 percent of all black-lung benefit claims. In December, Congress passed a one-year extension, so the tax expires at the end of the year. A bill is pending in the Senate to extend the tax to 2030. Cases of black lung disease, caused by the inhalation of dust particles in mines, have surged in recent years in Central Appalachia, even as coal production has slowed.
Women's Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN) pushed for the adoption of the South Carolina Lactation Support Act, which would require employers to provide reasonable time and space for employees to express breast milk at work. The bill builds on the South Carolina Pregnancy Accommodations Act, which WREN helped pass in 2018, by providing more people with the right to break time and private space to express milk in their workplaces. The bill passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 93-0 in March, and WREN is hopeful it will pass the Senate in 2020. WREN also supported a bill that would ensure that pregnant women who are incarcerated are not shackled or restrained during delivery. That bill passed the House with overwhelming support and will be considered by the Senate in 2020. WREN continues to press legislators to close the pay gap in South Carolina, where women earn 27 percent less than their male counterparts. “It’s not going to correct itself,” WREN CEO Ann Warner said. “We’re going to have to take some more decisive, bold action to do that.”
West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition worked closely with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy (WVCBP), the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and other allies to successfully champion a state complete count commission for the 2020 census. WVCBP also produced influential research and worked with key state and local partners to block a bill that would have taken Medicaid coverage away from people who are unable to meet a harsh work requirement. The Center produced several reports on the effects of work requirements and leveraged the strength of its partners to defeat the bill and save health coverage for as many as 112,000 West Virginians. The New York Times cited WVCBP’s research in an article examining the effects of work requirements. The Center also provided research and analysis about expanding Medicaid/CHIP coverage to pregnant women. The measure passed, adding coverage for women from 163 percent of the federal poverty level to 300 percent, making an estimated 500 to 900 uninsured, low-wealth women eligible. WVCBP also helped reverse a ban on SNAP benefits for people with drug convictions.
In January, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board rejected two industrial tax breaks for Exxon Mobil, thanks in large part to the organizing efforts of Together Louisiana and Together Baton Rouge. The exemptions would have cost the school system, which has a $30 million deficit and a teacher shortage, about $2.9 million over ten years. It was a rare defeat for the fossil fuel giant, which has received hundreds of exemptions. The vote caught the attention of the New York Times, which wrote: “It has been a David vs. Goliath story in the Louisiana capital, where a grass-roots coalition of black and white churches, activists and ordinary citizens have successfully clamored to democratize a system that used to dole out billions in property-tax breaks without giving the local school boards, city councils and other government entities that depend on those taxes any say in the matter.” The vote was possible because of a 2016 change in state law – urged by Together Louisiana – giving local governments authority to approve or deny tax breaks. The battle over this policy is ongoing.
The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy and its allies were able to thwart policies that would have harmed low- and moderate-income Kentuckians by:
- stripping health care, food assistance and other support from hundreds of thousands of people through reductions and burdensome work requirements
- transferring funding from public schools to private schools
- providing costly tax breaks to corporate investors with no requirement for job creation; and
- cutting unemployment insurance
KCEP halted these attacks by building a rapid and robust opposition, which included a letter signed by 50 state and local organizations and hundreds of phone calls and emails to committee members. KCEP and its partners also successfully advocated for workplace accommodations for pregnant women, as well as policies to offer people easier access to felony expungement.
Alabama Arise organized the Hunger Free Alabama Coalition to protect social safety net programs like TANF, SNAP and Medicaid from reductions and work requirements. One particularly devastating proposal would have put over 750,000 Alabamans who receive either SNAP, TANF or Medicaid at risk of losing their benefits. Arise worked with the coalition to respond strategically with detailed analysis of the proposals' harms, testimony at public hearings, and media coverage to stop the legislation.
Louisiana Budget Project and its partners thwarted a slew of costly tax breaks and protected a temporary half-cent sales tax increase, which has provided Louisiana with much-needed revenue and allowed lawmakers to invest $140 million in teacher pay and school funding increases. Teachers and support workers will receive $1,000 and $500 pay raises (respectively), school districts will receive a $39 million increase, early childhood education will receive $15 million in new funding, and the state’s public university scholarship program will be fully funded. LBP Executive Director Jan Moller said in a statement, “For the first time in nearly a decade, the legislature was able to have a debate about new investments in education—from public schools to early childhood and infrastructure—instead of fighting over which programs to cut.” LBP also secured a partial renewal of the state’s expiring sales tax. The legislature agreed on a revenue deal that reinstates 45 percent of the sales tax that was set to expire at the end of June and protects from funding cuts many vital public services. LBP led a coalition of 15 state and regional organizations in support of an EITC increase as part of a sales tax renewal.
“For the first time in nearly a decade, the legislature was able to have a debate about new investments in education instead of fighting over which programs to cut.”
Through the support of research conducted by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute and statewide education advocacy partners, Governor Brian Kemp committed to fully fund public schools for the first time since 2002. GBPI also helped ensure teachers and staff would receive the pay raises Kemp promised them on the campaign trail. Georgia’s 2020 budget passed with a $530 million funding increase for teacher and staff pay raises thanks in part to research from GBPI that successfully made the case for a larger (nearly $155 million) increase in school funding. This provided a $3,000 salary increase to all certified teachers and personnel—the largest pay raises for public school teachers in Georgia’s history. GBPI also helped defeat legislation that would have created something similar to a school voucher program. Last year, GBPI published an education report that pointed to transparency problems in Georgia’s existing voucher programs and that highlighted research showing voucher students do worse on math and reading exams than students in public schools.
The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation will celebrate its 15th anniversary in new headquarters. The Center announced in August it would partner with three other organizations to buy a 31,250 square-foot building in North Charleston, thanks to a $2.7 million grant from the Economic Development Administration. The former furniture store will be renovated to create the Opportunity Center, which will house all three nonprofits, a business incubator, entrepreneurial shared space and a job training center. The center will cut costs and generate revenue for all three organizations. The Center is enjoying a wave of national media focus on heirs’ property. It was featured in a New Yorker/ProPublica investigation that resulted in nearly $250,000 in donations. It is also featured on the PBS series America’s Forests with Chuck Leavell. Leavell is a keyboardist who’s played with the Allman Brothers and the Rolling Stones and has a passion for sustainable forestry. You can watch a preview of the series here.
In April, Wells Fargo awarded Mississippi-based community development financial institution Hope Enterprise Corporation $2.8 million to expand access to capital for entrepreneurs in the Deep South. And in June, Hope Credit Unionopened its second Alabama branch, in a Montgomery building donated by Regions Bank. Last year Hope received the Housing Visionary Award from the National Housing Conference and was featured in an NBC News report for its work to provide financial services in a banking desert in the Mississippi Delta.
In June, Appalshop unveiled a solar-powered performance pavilion that, along with solar panels on another building across the street, provides most of the organization’s energy. Appalshop built the new facility with financing from MRBF community development financial institution partner Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. Appalshop is also celebrating its 50th anniversary with a call for visual artists to design major public art installations around its grounds. Since getting its start as a program of the national War on Poverty, Appalshop has:
- trained hundreds of people in filmmaking and produced more than 200 documentaries reflecting the diversity of experience in the Appalachian Mountains and rural America
- prepared hundreds of young people in community-based media production
- produced more than 90 albums featuring the music and voices of Appalachia, ranging from traditional mountain masters to contemporary regional musicians
- created more than 60 original ensemble and intercultural plays, staging around 3,244 performances globally
We commend all our partners whose creativity, collaboration, passion and drive are creating a more equitable South that works better for all of us. If you have a success story you’d like to share, please send it our way.
- Democracy/Civic Engagement
- Economic Development
- Mission Investing