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America’s Families Speak Out

Shattering stereotypes, overcoming cultural and language differences, and testing new technical skills, thousands of families, of all ages and ethnicities, gathered in person and online May 20 for the pioneering Equal Voice Online National Convention.

“We are here to address nothing less than the future of our country,” said Luz Vega-Marquis, president and CEO of Marguerite Casey Foundation, as she spoke to the families whom speakers quickly dubbed the “Equal Voice Nation.”

The event was hosted by Marguerite Casey Foundation and its grantee organizations.

As many as 15,000 people from 30 states and nine countries participated in the online convention – webcast live from Birmingham, Ala., McAllen, Texas, and Seattle to communities around the country – to identify the issues they want to include in the 2012 Equal Voice for America’s Families National Family Platform.

Votes are still coming in, but from the results of surveys and town hall meetings across the country before the event, education is the issue of most importance to the families.

They also tapped housing, jobs, child care, health care, immigration reform, transportation, criminal justice, environmental issues, food security and LGBT rights to include in the platform.

“The strength of the event was getting the voice of real people into the platform right from the beginning,” said Norma Rodriguez at the Center on Policy Initiatives.

More than half of the families who filled out the Equal Voice survey distributed by Marguerite Casey Foundation and its grantees before the event had household incomes of less than $25,000. Most had never been asked their opinion on the issues that most affect their lives.

Youth Use Social Media to Publicize Convention
Young people working with grassroots community-organizing groups were a critical element in the success of the Equal Voice Online National Convention.

Using social media – including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – the youth spread the word nationwide about the event and discussed the issues with peers around the country.

Some of the young people had never used social media and were trained specifically for the gathering. They took naturally to the new tools and plan to add them to their community-organizing arsenal.

“Youth have always been an important part of organizing,” said John-Michael Torres, who works with La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. “The unprecedented part is that we are now using the social media tools and the Internet here in the Valley. That kind of organizing is a big step forward, and we are going to continue it.”

Hundreds of tweets were received from all corners of the country, like the one from Latoiya in Indianola, Miss.: “If we stick together and hold firm to what we believe, then change will come.”

In the weeks before the event, messages like “Vote for Families,” “Every Issue Is a Family Issue,” and “All Families Deserve an Equal Voice” resonated. The Equal Voice Twitter social networking following grew to 3,110, and the people who “liked” the Equal Voice Facebook page reached 3,072. The total reach on the Equal Voice Facebook page for the week before the convention was more than 1.7 million.

Voting on Platform Issues From Around the Country
On the day of the convention, families gathered in offices, libraries, community centers, and church halls around the country to watch the live webcast – and to vote on platform issues.

Parents and grandparents were given a taste of technology as they cast their votes via cell phone and computer. For some, it was the first time they had had the opportunity to use a computer or to text on a cell phone.

Nearly 400 people gathered at the B&A Warehouse in Birmingham, Ala. Most of them understood well the national and state policies that keep working families trapped in poverty.

“Child care ranks as the third largest cost for families, right up there with housing and food,” said Sophia Bracy-Harris, executive director of FOCAL, the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama.

In McAllen, in South Texas, about 280 people gathered at the convention center, and another 60 participated from Brownsville.

“We live in a rich country, rich in resources and rich in possibilities,” said Mike Seifert, an Equal Voice network weaver in the Rio Grande Valley. “We do believe that no family should live in poverty. We do believe in prosperity and security, and in every person’s right to work in a well-paid job, to be healthy and educated and to live in a safe community.

“Public policies should promote everyone’s abilities to reach their fullest potential and advance a common good,” he said. “We believe that strong families make America stronger.”

In Greenville, Miss., 50 people gathered around a screen and prepared to vote. “This is the first time any national foundation has taken leadership to get people’s opinions on what is right for their community, and give them a chance to weigh in on solutions to improve their quality of life,” said Jaribu Hill, executive director of the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights.

When the online convention ended, the energized Greenville residents went door-to-door asking people who couldn’t attend the gathering to vote on the issues.

Families Will Be Heard
According to the U.S. Census, 49 million people live in poverty in the United States. One in five families struggles every day to meet the basic needs of food, shelter and health care.

Bringing thousands of those families together across distance, language, culture and technology wasn’t easy or tidy, but, clearly, families and organizers in some of the nation’s poorest communities are envisioning the power.

Marguerite Casey Foundation’s president and CEO Luz Vega-Marquis noted, “The convention was the first time many families had used social media to talk about their issues and to connect with each other across the country. It was a powerful experience for both families and organizers.”

From Seattle, Vega-Marquis urged the families participating in the platform convention: “Let’s not lose the momentum we built today. Let’s stay connected; let’s stay together.

“The genie is out of the bottle. Families will be heard in 2012.” 

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