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Unleashing the Transformative Power of Star Paschal

New America Media, News Feature, Evan Milligan Posted: Aug 10, 2008

Editor's Note: In Alabama, a single mother struggles to help not just herself but those around her. But as someone who has never been involved in public life, or even voted, she doesn't know how. This is one in a series of portraits of families around the country who are involved in the Equal Voice for America's Families Campaign), a national initiative aimed at lifting the voices of working families and developing a national platform based on their concerns. New America Media's coverage of this issue is underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. Evan Milligan, of Montgomery, Alabama, works as a paralegal for the Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal representation for indigent defenders and prisoners.

MONTGOMERY, Ala.--Like so many moments of transformation, it started with a conversation with God.

Star PaschalStar Paschal had prayed for 2008 to be a breakthrough year for her. Newly divorced, suddenly the sole support of her three daughters at age 27, in December 2007 she asked for God's help for her family - but not only for her own family. She prayed for an opportunity to give back to her community.

In the course of her job as a property manager for an Alabama public housing project, Star met many families in trouble. She had seen single mothers caught in the trap of being unable to afford childcare to enable them to work. She had seen people winning good jobs, but then losing Food Stamps and finding themselves as hungry as before. She had seen people going without needed medical care or choosing between utility bills and food. The frustration of not being able to help them was building inside her.

Like many people, Star had not considered the role she and others could play in shaping the course of their lives, as well as their communities. The public realm was foreign to her. She had never voted. She had never joined a community organization. She had never spoken in a public meeting. The desire in her heart to have a wider impact was something she didn't know how to turn into action.

The transformative power of the millions of Star Paschals alive today would be staggering if unleashed. That's why it's important to note carefully what happened next in her story, and where the answer to her prayer came from.

The director of her children's day care center, Ethel White, had long encouraged Star, saying about her slow steady progress through community college, "Baby, just keep on doing it." When the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama (FOCAL) joined the Equal Voice for America's Families Campaign, sponsored by the Marguerite Casey Foundation, Ms. White, a longtime FOCAL board member, helped organize the campaigns first Alabama town hall meeting. In the weeks leading up to that gathering, Ms. White again encouraged Star, this time encouraging her to attend the meeting.

Star agreed to come, on the condition that she be allowed to listen without being forced to speak. But something happened that changed her mind, that caused her to jump up impulsively and share her pain. In a room full of hard-working Alabamans, the Executive Director of FOCAL, Sophia Bracy Harris, asked everyone to close their eyes. She said, "See your community five years from now, as you want it to be. Now ask yourself 'What am I willing to do to make my vision come true?'" To calm the self-conscious giggles that spread through the room, she said, "If we can't see it in our minds eye, we cannot bring about what God has ordained for us."

Star recognized this moment immediately as the one she had prayed for three months earlier. She watched as people like herself -- single mothers like herself, young adults like herself, African Americans like herself, tenants who knew the constant struggle she knew -- stood up before the microphone and described a community where everyone has health care, where jobs pay enough, where taxes aren't more than a family can afford, and where children thrive. She connected her own frustration with a greater sense of injustice. She suddenly heard all the stories in the room combine into one collective cry that the rest of the world seemed too unconcerned to hear.

Before she fully realized what she was doing, she found herself standing before the microphone. "I want to speak for those who are just stuck. This has been going on for too many years," she said. "It's time to stop just talking and start doing something. Parents come to me and just cry. I tell them there's nothing I can do because I don't make the rules. But here today, seeing my people coming together and supporting each other, speaking up against injustice, it makes me feel like we can set a better path for our children."

Eloquently and powerfully delivered, Star's words were received with excitement. When she reflected back upon the sense of community her grandmother described, when "everyone raised everyone's children," a heartfelt "mmm-hmm" ran through the crowd. People came up to her at the next break to tell her how inspired they were by what she said.

Describing the Town Hall Meeting afterwards, Star said, "I did not know I had it in me. For years I felt that no one understood. But these people had so much passion. You could hear in their voices that they were fed up. My heart was filled with joy, as these were my people. I feel a part of me has come alive, a part I did not know existed.

Star made a commitment to be a FOCAL Community Advisor, distributing the organization's literature, referring parents to them, and making herself available when the staff needs community voices. She is going to speak at the Equal Voice for America's Families regional convention in Birmingham on September 6. She has been reading about the November election, in particular studying the health care issues, attended a candidate debate, and yes, Star is registered to vote.

Most important of all, she now trusts that her voice can be a powerful force. Her prayer has been answered.

But what did it take to answer her prayer?

And what would it take to answer the millions of prayers spoken by people across the US, people who feel stuck in their economic hardships but desire to make an impact on their communities?

It took a mentor, a long-term trusting relationship with a community activist.

It took a campaign, an organized and funded effort to bring community members together and encourage them to raise their voices.

It took an invitation to envision a better future.

It took a shared analysis of the link between individual frustration and systemic flaws.

It took a group of peers, others willing to share similar struggles and risks together.

Most of all, it took her own willingness to get up, and give of herself.

Too often our churches and charities bring assistance to persons living in poverty without including these transformative elements. We give individuals food and shelter, prayer and a listening ear, but we sometimes forget about the power of community organizing for changes that will help many. If we make the mistake of focusing on someone's needs and forgetting about their gifts, we may leave their needs for purpose and for service unmet. Moments of self-discovery and opportunities for service are essential.

We can learn from the organizations that have perfected the art of empowerment, organizations that build mentoring, visioning, analysis and organizing into their work.

YouthBuild USA taps into the idealism of youth when it trains high-school drop-outs in construction skills to build affordable housing and community centers.

ACORN has registered hundreds of thousands of first-time voters. ACORN members living in low wealth communities are now intervening to prevent other members from losing their homes to foreclosures.

And the campaign that transformed Star Paschal's life, the Equal Voice Campaign for America's Families, has organized over 50 Town Hall Meetings like the one she attended, and will convene three gatherings around the United States in September to make sure that the voices of low-income families are heard before the November election.

Possibly such community organizations, many of them secular, may serve as the hands of God, helping to answer prayers like Star Paschal's by bringing people together and inviting them to discover the visions for their lives and communities -- the visions without which our people will perish.

Evan Milligan, of Montgomery, Alabama, received a BA in Religion at Birmingham Southern College and studied theology and development at the KwaZulu Natal-Pietermaritzburg Graduate School of Religion and Theology. He was led to social justice work through the teachings of Jesus.

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