Louisiana's “Winning Side:” Powering Democracy through Civic Engagement

Ethan Hamblin
Network Officer, Louisiana and Appalachia

The winds of change are stirring strong through Louisiana thanks, in large part, to a network of grassroots organizers, community advocates and policy experts working to improve the quality of life for low-wealth people. Last month, our staff and board visited Louisiana to learn about current strategies and emerging opportunities. The visit was my first chance as a Network Officer to engage with local and state partners who have worked with elected leaders to claim a swath of recent victories that shift policy and support low-wealth people and communities.  

One success is an increase to the Earned Income Tax Credit from 3.5 to 5 percent, which will put $21 million each year back in the hands of low-wealth, working families.  The Louisiana Budget Project (LBP), which monitors and reports on how public policy affects low- to moderate-income families, was instrumental in the expansion process. LBP provides data and analysis to help the public understand fiscal policy and encourages people to be vocal about budget issues. “We try to put information in the hands of civic engagement organizations, so they have the tools to push info out to folks on the ground,” explains LBP Executive Director Jan Moller. 

Perkins, Moller, Shelton
Perry Perkins, Jan Moller, Ashley Shelton

These advocates have also effected changes to the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, which has historically stripped local governments of billions of corporate tax dollars – money that could go to things like public school projects. Together Louisiana, a statewide network of more than 250 religious congregations and civic organizations, pushed the reforms to return some power to local governing bodies in assessing and approving corporate tax exemptions. “We formed Together Louisiana hoping to form a people’s lobby,” says Lead Organizer Perry Perkins. “Our work is not just a presence at legislature every day, but also presence in members’ districts.” By remaining rooted in community and present in Baton Rouge, Together Louisiana is catalyzing large-scale change. 

Perhaps the most significant victory is the passage of the most comprehensive criminal justice reforms in state history, which allowed Louisiana to shed the distinction of highest incarceration rate in the country. The reforms are expected to decrease incarceration by 10 to 12 percent over the next decade, saving state taxpayers an estimated $262 million. There has already been a 20 percent decrease in the number of people imprisoned for nonviolent crimes and a 47 percent decrease in those sent to prison for drug possession, according to a new state report.

During our conversations, it became clear criminal justice reform remains a priority. A recent report from the Data Center draws a direct line from slavery to today’s cash bail system, which disproportionately affects low-wealth and black residents. As recently as 2016, individuals detained in the Orleans Justice Center were nearly four times as likely to be black than white. The report points out, this system extracts money from defendants and their families at multiple points, from making a phone call from jail to applying for a public defender or submitting to a drug test as a condition of pretrial release. Reforming the system will be an uphill battle, given that bail payments flow to the court, the sheriff, the district attorney, the public defender and bail bondsmen themselves. Charmel Gaulden, Vice President of Public Safety Grants at Baptist Community Ministries notes, “We have structurally set up a system that strips wealth and inherently creates a conflict of interest.” 

Norris Henderson, Anza Becnel
Norris Henderson, Anza Becnel

Louisiana also maintains a Jim Crow-era law allowing juries to convict people on felony charges without a unanimous vote, a statute established in an 1898 convention aimed at maintaining white supremacy. Due to organizing and advocacy across the state, Louisiana’s legislature voted to place a referendum on the ballot this November to repeal the provision. Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), a network of formerly incarcerated people and their allies, are educating folks across the state about the referendum. Since its founding in 2003, VOTE has centered the expertise of formerly incarcerated people in the political process, training members on their legal rights and using personal stories to drive the conversation around restoring rights. In May, after years of advocacy by VOTE and its partners, the state passed a law restoring the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people who have been out of prison for five years. After it takes effect in March 2019, the measure could re-enfranchise some 70,000 Louisianans. 

VOTE Executive Director Norris Henderson was wrongly convicted of a crime and served 27 years in prison. He has witnessed firsthand the injustices of the criminal justice system and is dedicated to getting people involved in the electoral process to shift systems and reclaim power for marginalized folks. After all, Henderson knows all too well what it’s like to be one. “People say, ‘You can’t fight City Hall.’ I fight them every day,” he notes during a panel discussion. “I wake up ready for the fight, working across the South trying to get rights restored, because as we know, as the South goes, so goes the nation.” As our region and country face overwhelming division and suppression, place-based strategies toward a more just and equitable democracy must remain grounded and shaped by the voices and lived experiences of people most affected by discrimination and disenfranchisement.

None of these victories would have been possible without strong and strategic civic participation, shepherded by these civic engagement organizations, each with a critical role to play. The Power Coalition is the “state table,” aligning strategy and deepening capacity for the nine members of the network. “There’s something beautiful about reclaiming power for ourselves and our communities,” says Executive Director Ashley Shelton. “At its core, it’s people standing up and saying, ‘I refuse to sit back and let this happen anymore.’ Once people realize what’s possible – moving the needle, actually changing systems – there’s something very simple yet magical about that spark.”

Now more than ever, that spark is needed. Next year, Louisianans will cast their votes for every seat in the state legislature. That’s right, all 39 senators and 105 representatives. Voters have the opportunity to defend recent gains and achieve more. The civic engagement infrastructure is primed to get out the vote, build alliances, align strategies and develop leaders dedicated to empowering low-wealth communities and people of color.

Gaulden, Jones, Daniels
Charmel Gaulden, Carmen Jones, Flozell Daniels Jr.

The work needs funders and allies with the resources and the will to fuel change. “We’re in a really important moment,” says Gaulden. “The work will happen with or without philanthropy, but philanthropy can superpower the work.” The solidarity, perseverance, and expertise of partners on the ground is expanding, and the right kind of support can help build a new narrative about what’s possible in the South.

This is about urgency. This is about necessity. This is about claiming power.

In this critical moment, Flozell Daniels Jr., President and CEO of the Foundation for Louisiana, has a clear message: “We are no longer interested in being on the right side. We have to be on the winning side.”




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