With U.S. democracy facing challenges, families from throughout Arkansas met to discuss how they can work together to raise their voice and improve their communities.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — As the police chief of the small Mississippi Delta town of Eudora, here in this state, William El-Amin said he deals with families every day, especially teenagers. Most of the youth, he said, are not committing violent crimes.
“Most of the time we’re dealing with truancy, we’re dealing with fighting at school, we’re dealing with breaking and entering,” El-Amin told about 40 Arkansans who had gathered at a hotel to discuss civil rights and improving communities. “I am in the trenches, and I think by reforming the juvenile detention program, the juvenile incarceration program, I think we are going to start making dramatic change in the adult process.”
Dramatic change was the main goal for El-Amin and everyone spending their summer day in that conference room. The attendees were delegates of the Arkansas Citizens First Congress, a coalition of 68 mostly grassroots organizations from across the state who have joined together for progress and solutions in state policy. From June 8 to 10, they met at a hotel to develop and agree on a legislative platform that they would collectively lobby for when the state Legislature meets in January 2019.
El-Amin, who chairs the civil rights caucus and is a member of the rural Gould Organizing Project, said the Congress is one way to get more people engaged in civic affairs and the political process. “Getting more people involved and getting people motivated is the only way that we are going to be able to make any type of systemic change in Arkansas,” he said.
Delegates had four issue caucuses from which to choose: Economic justice, education, environment and civil rights, elections and government reform. Representatives of member organizations presented their proposed resolutions in each caucus.
Delegates voted on the resolutions, and the approved ones were presented to the entire Congress. At the conclusion of the assembly, attendees adopted new priorities for their official platform.
Doris Davis of Fayetteville also attended the civil rights caucus. She was part of a presentation by the League of Women Voters to elevate a resolution calling for online voter registration to the Citizens First Congress platform. This was her first time attending the event.
“I am here because I am so disillusioned with the process of democracy,” she said. “I feel like every day I wake up, and I’m hearing another assault of what should be our fundamental rights, and we’re not talking to one another. So, I’m not here on a partisan basis. I am here to stand up for people who don’t have a voice.”
During a group discussion about how to strengthen the Congress’s impact, Davis said there needs to be more of an effort to bring “Generation Z” – teenagers and young adults – into the fold. “There’s wisdom to come from us old folks, and there’s energy to come from those young folks, and together we can come up with some solutions,” she said. “But we have to do it together.”
Cultivating diversity of all kinds – geographic, racial, religious, gender – is one of the coalition’s key strategies, said Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Citizens First Congress and its parent organization, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.
“We get a lot of different perspectives, which I think makes our discussions deeper and more meaningful and the solutions we end up advocating for better,” he said. “But it also gives us a constituency base geographically spread across the state. So, we have members in a lot of legislative districts” who can lobby their state representatives.
“That’s really the power we have,” Kopsky said, adding that in its 20 years of existence, the coalition succeeded in many of its campaigns, including securing more funding for preschool and low-income children, improving the quality standards for teachers and instituting a state Agriculture Department.
It was this history of influencing change that inspired Pamela Westerman of Yellville, who founded the progressive advocacy group Buffalo River Indivisible, to participate in this year’s Congress. “We’re basically here to learn,” said Westernman. “We’re like grass, grass, grass, grass, grass, grassroots.”
“It is very conservative where we are and our representatives don’t in anyway represent the issues that we care about, so without a collective force behind us, I really feel like we are not getting anywhere,” she said, sharing her opinion. “They’re not really listening, and so we need help.”
Ibby Caputo is a multimedia journalist whose work has appeared in various outlets, including the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, The World, Slate, NPR and the Boston Globe Magazine. She is a 2018 Japan Center for International Exchange Fellow and 2014 MIT-Knight Science Journalism Fellow. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.
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