Equal Voice

National Organization Seeks to Be Voice of Poor Families

September 25, 2014

Brad Wong
By Brad Wong
Communications Manager

Equal Voice Action, a member-led organization of families and anyone who believes poverty should end, launched on Sept. 22, 2014. Organizers hope millions will join.

ATLANTA — Each day, the structural issues that keep more than 45 million Americans in poverty in the world’s most advanced democracy are present.

There are racial and class divisions illustrated by the fatal shooting in August of a Black man in Ferguson. Millions of adults have jobs but can’t scrape by because hourly wages fail to cover the monthly gap for housing, food and health care. And the sting of income inequality and the difference in pay, on average, for men and women is felt by the minute.

Environmental degradation and pollution are taking a toll on the Earth. Schools and the criminal justice system often fall short of helping families of all backgrounds make significant progress. People of color are working to strengthen their neighborhoods.

Ernest Johnson, a board member of Equal Voice Action, stands at the podium at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis on Sept. 22., 2014. The family-led advocacy organization, which was incubated by Marguerite Casey Foundation, officially launched. Equal Voice Action board and family advisory committee members, as well people who helped out, joined him on stage. Equal Voice Photo by Brad Wong

Immigration policy remains unresolved. Many have lost faith in elected leaders, knowing that deportations are high, families who only want a safe life remain in detention centers and excessive force by authorities is an issue. And health insurance for low-income families is out of reach for millions because many governors have philosophical differences with the Affordable Care Act.

Alone, these issues and others that have kept poverty on life support for a half century since President Lyndon Johnson’s sweeping declaration to end it can dwell deeply, putting dampening weight on working families, the low income and anyone, for that matter.

But instead of conceding defeat, grassroots activists, families and community leaders are emboldened. Hundreds say they’re ready to end this overall scourge by coalescing around a new enterprise – a multi-issue organization that centers on families having an “equal voice” in policy discussions, as well as democratic participation, respect and dignity.

It’s called Equal Voice Action.

On Sept. 22, about 425 people of all backgrounds and from throughout the country united in Atlanta to officially launch this member-led, national advocacy and lobbying organization made up of working families, those in poverty and anyone who supports positive change right now in U.S. history.

“People are ready,” Luz Vega-Marquis, president and CEO of Marguerite Casey Foundation (MCF), said.

The official launch occurred at MCF’s national gathering which focused on the “Power of Membership” and was held from Sept. 21 to Sept. 23 at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis. MCF incubated Equal Voice Action (EVA), which is a separate organization from the Seattle-based foundation.

In a Sept. 21 speech talking about EVA’s history, Vega-Marquis said she cried over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and reminded the audience of community advocates that kids – or “little kids,” as she put it – are in detention centers.

“It’s our collective responsibility to fight for the less fortunate,” she said. “What are we going to do about it?”

Later, emotion filled the voice of the woman who was born in Nicaragua and has worked in philanthropy in California. “We’re the richest country in the world, but we have kids failing schools,” she said.

“Not acceptable. Not acceptable.”

On Monday, Sept. 22, EVA board members echoed the same themes of purpose, timing, elevating voices of those in poverty and the need for a strong moral compass from the grassroots.

EVA Board Member Star Paschal Smith talked about living in poverty in Alabama, a state in which one in six people fall into that category. One in four kids in Alabama, she added, also is in poverty.

Lara Evans of Georgia, right, helps a man submit an application to be part of Equal Voice Action, a newly-launched, member-led group that will work on policy and poverty issues. Evans is a family advisory committee member for the organization. They were pictured on Sept. 22 at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis. Equal Voice Photo by Brad Wong

“As a woman, a mother, a human, I can no longer watch the dreams, the hopes, the aspirations of my children, our children be dictated by a group of people who do not know the pains of living day to day,” she said, alluding to many policymakers.

Ernest Johnson, a community advocate who works on criminal justice reform in Louisiana, talked about the need for people to amplify their voice, especially when it comes to policy decisions that directly affect the poor.

“Why are we here today? Why are we here today?” he said simply and directly to the audience, which included faith leaders, education activists, people of color, LGBT community advocates, immigration reform supporters, those who back affordable housing and Native Americans.

One big-picture answer was in an EVA brochure.

It noted that the number of people in poverty in the country has soared to more than 45 million in 2013, marking a nearly 22 percent increase from 2008 when it was 37 million. The first full year of the Great Recession was 2008. Officially, it ended in 2009.

Another answer could be heard in discussions at the hotel: People are tired of policies that perpetuate poverty and essentially hurt families, who are crucial to the country.

EVA – which shares the same philosophy with MCF that no family should live in poverty – is a separate organization in which people can apply for membership.

Its members can participate in lobbying and advocacy work on political and legislative levels, as compared to what they could do as part of a traditional nonprofit group which follows different guidelines.

EVA also has its own website. Members can participate in online forums, learn about and post job opportunities, housing information and other topics that affect daily and family life.

There also is a section to learn about community groups doing similar work in other parts of the country. Members also have voting rights to select which specific social policy issues EVA will embrace to advocate.

“I think we can make this work,” said Stewart Kwoh, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, which focuses on civil rights, legal services and community outreach.

Star Paschal Smith, an Equal Voice Action board member and family advisory board member, smiles on Sept. 22 at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, as a person uses an iPad to apply for the newly-formed, member-led group that will work to end poverty. Equal Voice Photo by Brad Wong

“People are hungry for real solutions,” Kwoh, who has worked on civil rights cases since the 1980s, added. “This can be a local, regional and national effort. We’re not only relying on Congress.”

Organizers hope that millions of people – and possibly at least 6 million individuals – will become members.

They point to AARP as one organization to emulate. That group has more than 37 million members and has made advances in helping retired people in the country, through what the group calls “collective purpose.”

At the MCF gathering in Atlanta, participants who study mass social movements in U.S. history say this is the first organizational effort of its kind for families to work together on multiple issues to end poverty.

Other social movements have swept across the country.

In the 1830s, abolitionists wanted an end to slavery, progressives sought solutions from 1890 to 1920 to societal ills, the New Deal centered around federal programs, Cesar Chavez stood up for a union for farmworkers and Martin Luther King Jr. brought forth the idea of a poor people’s movement.

Anti-war movements have sprouted up, as have organized pushes for equal rights for women and nuclear disarmament. In more recent years, the environmental movement gained momentum. The “Occupy Movement” made worldwide headlines and still resonates with the words, “1 percenter.”

In her talk on Sept. 21, Vega-Marquis referred to the big-picture work that Chavez and King wanted to accomplish. “We haven’t fulfilled those dreams,” she said. “We need to build a pathway to this endeavor.”

What is different with EVA, supporters say, is that it is starting with a formal structure and awareness from community groups that work daily in neighborhoods throughout the country. It also is receiving input from about a dozen family advisory committee members from different parts of the country.

In a sense, EVA is the product of when philanthropy and real life intersect.

It illustrates how addressing poverty can come from individuals, families and grassroots groups working with philanthropy and not just from statehouses, Congress, the White House or think tanks in Washington, D.C.

Luz Vega-Marquis

Luz Vega-Marquis, president and CEO of Marguerite Casey Foundation, says the time is right to launch Equal Voice Action. She is seen on Sept. 23 at the Atlanta Marriott Marriott on the last day of the foundation’s convening. The foundation served as an incubator for Equal Voice Action. The foundation will continue to give grants to community groups. Equal Voice Photo by Brad Wong

Arriving at this point, though, took years – and much discussion.

In 2002, MCF lacked the ability to launch EVA, Vega-Marquis said. Back then, the country was home to nearly 35 million people in poverty.

Working relationships needed time to develop. Trust had to be established. The foundation also mapped out its strategy in making grants.

In 2008, MCF and its partner community groups unveiled the “Equal Voice for Families” campaign and low-income families came together to issue a platform of policy concerns.

By 2012, thousands of working families met again in an online town hall and came up with a national family platform of 13 issues, including job training, health care, child care, youth empowerment, transportation, immigration, criminal justice reform and LGBT issues.

That platform called on leaders to take a comprehensive approach – instead of incremental ones – to find solutions to poverty and truly helping families.

Along the way, the foundation heard from tens of thousands of people in some of the poorest states in the country about topics that affect their lives.

“Remember this moment. In five years, in 10 years, you will see changes in America,” Vega-Marquis said in her speech a day before the official launch of EVA.

At one point on Sept. 21, as Vega-Marquis recounted this journey, she said that MCF would remain an institution that gives grants to community organizations. The audience applauded.

By the next day, at about 10 a.m., family advisory committee members working with EVA clutched iPads and asked meeting participants whether they’d like to apply to join. Fingers quickly danced across the glass screens of the iPads, as people answered the call.

Lara Evans, an Atlanta resident and family advisory committee member to EVA, leaned over a table, answering questions from Paul Burns, a staff member with Chicago-based Metropolitan Tenants Organization.

Burns submitted his application.

One issue that he is concerned about is the displacement of the disabled and poor in downtown Chicago by pricey real estate. Some downtown lofts, he said, can sell for more than $1 million – which means only the wealthy can afford to live in the central area.

“Designate some downtown housing for working families, the disabled and the poor,” he said.

The Marguerite Casey Foundation national gathering in Atlanta included cultural performers of diverse backgrounds during the opening dinner on Sept. 21. Equal Voice Photo by Brad Wong

Nearby, Norris Henderson, a board member with Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, extended his hand when he saw a Black youth.

“Excuse me, brother,” Henderson, who was volunteering with EVA outreach said.

“This is huge. This collective power is the only way we’re going to move anything in this country,” he said moments later.

As the rush to apply was happening on morning of Sept. 22, Fernando Tafoya, an attorney and consultant to EVA, watched the process unfold. “It’s happening,” he said.

At one point, Vega-Marquis made note of launching in 2014 and not before that: “We have a better chance of success.”

By the night of Sept. 22, the launch party for EVA was underway, kicked off by Kool & the Gang’s song, “Celebration.”

Beach balls dropped in the hotel ballroom. A few people hugged one another. Most, though, hit the dance floor and enjoyed the moment.

Besides, on the next day, the key ideas from this gathering would be present, yet again: That poverty needs to go, that people and families need to succeed and that the country and the economy would thrive if this scourge disappears.

In one sense, as EVA members and supporters realize, a major milestone was reached in Atlanta.

Much more work needs to be done, especially if millions of people are to become members and as EVA grows and matures.

But poor people and those who have devoted their lives to ending poverty say this type of work is worth doing. Besides, they would probably add, “What is the alternative?”

One difference for those who attended the gathering: A renewed emphasis and momentum had surfaced. And people who care about communities had injected hope back into a conversation that many say is hopeless.

As Vega-Marquis took a quick break in Atlanta from talking with meeting participants, she honed in on one lesson that she learned over the years leading up to this moment.

“Don’t forget the heart,” she said.


Brad Wong is assistant news editor for Equal Voice, which is published by Marguerite Casey Foundation. The top image shows Tinsa Hall-Morris (center), a Mississippi resident and family advisory committee member for Equal Voice Action (EVA), helping two people apply to be members of the new group. The photo was made on Sept. 22, 2014, the official launch date of EVA, at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis hotel. This story was updated since it was first published. 

2014 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper

National Organization Seeks to Be Voice of Poor Families