On May 20 Myeisha Hutchinson is giving up part of her Sunday off to join tens of thousands of American families throughout the country who plan to participate in the 2012 Equal Voice Online Convention.
At the convention, which will be broadcast over the Internet, families will determine, and then vote on the issues for a national platform by and for families.
In doing so, they are sending a powerful message to the president, decision-makers and the country that families will be heard in 2012.
“It’s time for people who have not had a voice, not had opportunities, to have a chance to speak up,” said Hutchinson, 28. “I grew up in a single-parent family, in a neighborhood where the playing field was never fair.
“I want people to know we are not going to stand for injustice, that everyone deserves quality and equality. That means child care, health care and safe neighborhoods. It is time for all Americans to truly thrive,” she said.
“You think poverty doesn’t have anything to do with you? Well, that can all change in a blink of an eye,” said Hutchinson, who lives with her mother and grandmother in the same house where she grew up, in Birmingham’s low-income Woodlawn neighborhood.
Hutchinson is right. According to a study by the Corporation for Economic Development, more than 40 percent of families would fall below the poverty line within three months if they lost their jobs or became ill and couldn’t work.
Nearly 49 million people in America struggle every day to meet the basic needs of their families. They are families that work hard, sometimes two or three jobs that pay the $7.25 minimum wage, and still can’t make ends meet.
Despite their numbers, poor and low-income families in America, their views and their voices, are routinely ignored by those who create the policies that affect their lives.
That’s about to change.
On May 20, Marguerite Casey Foundation and Equal Voice families throughout the country will come together online, in a live webcast, to determine their issues and concerns and vote on the 2012 Equal Voice for America’s Families National Family Platform.
Anyone with an Internet connection can join the convention at http://www.equalvoice2012.org/.
Some of the biggest in-person gatherings will be held in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, in Birmingham, Ala., and in Seattle, Wash. Those three gatherings will be webcast live.
Other large gatherings are planned in California, Illinois, Arizona, Mississippi, Georgia and Kentucky. Many more people will meet at coffee shops, community centers and in living rooms across the country.
During the event, participants anywhere in the country will be able to ask questions and discuss issues by using social media, including their own Facebook and Twitter accounts. Then, they will vote – by mobile-phone text messaging or online via Twitter or Poll Everywhere – on the issues most important to them.
Families will text their votes on issues on May 20 to contribute their voice in updating the 2012 National Family Platform.
“We’ve been consumed by the interests of politicians and corporations for too long. It’s time to find our voices and our power by coming together,” said Jeanette Taylor-Smith, a mother of five in Chicago who works as a parent organizer.
Equal Voice is a network of organizations and families around the country that are working to build a base of families to advocate in their own behalf for policy changes to improve the economic and social well-being of poor and low-income families.
In 2008, some 30,000 families participated in the yearlong Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign, which created – for the first time – a comprehensive platform of values and policy recommendations by and for low-income families.
That time, 65 town hall–style meetings were held in 12 states and 11 languages. Families distilled the vision of a better America into an actionable document: The Equal Voice for America’s Families National Family Platform.
The 2008 issues focused on child care, education, employment, criminal justice reform, immigration reform, housing, health care and safe communities. Some of the policy recommendations made in 2008 have been addressed, but many have not.
And four years ago, few could have imagined the nation’s looming economic crisis.
Even fewer could have anticipated the extent to which the government would bail out failing banks and prop up crumbling corporations, while ignoring families living without electricity or running water, or those without enough food or without health care for their children.
The recession brought record high unemployment, homes lost to foreclosure, blighted neighborhoods when banks refused to care for those homes, and bare shelves at food banks. It helped shift 10 million more people into poverty.
Over the last four years, grassroots organizations have used the Equal Voice national family platform to build civic engagement and to create strong networks in every corner of the country to push for policies that will improve the future for their children.
“Since 2008, many people have looked to the national family platform for information and inspiration,” said Kate Shuster, statewide coordinator for Alabama Organizing Project. She is expecting 300 people to meet at the B&A Warehouse in downtown Birmingham for the Equal Voice online convention.
“Families are joining the 2012 online convention to be part of something bigger than themselves,” she said.
The families’ determination is strengthened by the rhetoric of desperate candidates positioning for the 2012 elections. Candidates have used their podiums to insult struggling families and invoke false stereotypes without being challenged.
The truth is, poor families work, sometimes two or three different jobs. Immigrants pay taxes and often receive none of the benefits. More than half of low-income working families are headed by married couples, not single moms. And, poor people come in all colors, including white.
Families struggle because our policies and our system have failed them. They have the firsthand experience and insight into how public policy, attitudes and systems must change:
- In Florida, Reyna works 12-hour days taking care of another family’s children. She has leukemia, but no health insurance. She pays cash for her chemotherapy.
- In Seattle, Lisa lost her rental house when the landlord died. She and her son lived in her car at a highway rest stop while she saved her minimum-wage pay for first and last months’ rent and a cleaning deposit on an apartment.
- In Chicago, Quabeeny walked 20 blocks through gang-ridden neighborhoods to high school. Arriving late to his 7:30 a.m. class, he was locked out. He was expelled for tardiness.
- In Texas, Jose worked as a restaurant cook for 10 years, often working 70-hour weeks to support his family. He was never paid overtime. When he asked his boss to pay him the required overtime, he was fired.
Sarah White, 52, who worked for 17 years skinning catfish in a processing plant in Moorhead, Miss., plans to take part in the convention.
“We are poor; we don’t have ways to access a better a life,” she said. “We don’t have the security of stable housing or the ability to take our babies to the doctor when they are sick, all the things that are necessary for a family.”
She raised two children while working 10- and 12-hour shifts for minimum wage.
“We never got to go to meetings with our children’s school teachers; we couldn’t take time off,” White said. “I have been where I wondered where I was going to get a can of milk or a chicken to fry.”
Years of working in the refrigerated factory, standing in puddles of water on the concrete floor, ravaged her health. She has asthma, arthritis and diabetes. Now, as a workers’ rights organizer, she has helped win overtime pay, vacation days and health insurance for factory workers.
“You have to fight,” she said.
Families are fighting in Texas, where the Equal Voice network helped defeat nearly 100 anti-immigrant bills and is improving housing, health care and education in the Rio Grande Valley, where the annual income for most families is around $15,000.
Earlier this month, more than 350 Rio Grande Valley residents attended a candidate forum on a Tuesday morning, sending a clear message to politicians that they are organized and that they will vote.
On May 20, they will be joined by families in Chicago, where 100 young people recently gathered at an Equal Voice town hall meeting to talk about the stereotyping of youth and extreme zero-tolerance policies in schools that prevent students of color from graduating.
One young man, O’Sha Dancy, 16, lost his mother and baby sister four years ago while they were boarding a bus in a lightning storm. He was lost, ready to give up on school until he was offered a summer job at the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization that he says opened his eyes.
Now, an advocate for young people in his community, Dancy is taking part in the May 20 convention.
“One person isn’t going to get it done – it takes everyone. People united will never be defeated,” Dancy said.