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Defeat Does Not Speak into Their Spirit

'Equal Voice' Unveils Its National Family Platform

New America Media, News report//Video, Words: Khalil Abdullah//Photos: Al White//Video: Min Lee Posted: Sep 12, 2008

Editors Note: On Sept. 6, the Marguerite Casey Foundation's Equal Voice for America's Families Campaign culminated with as many as 16,000 family delegates attending conventions in three cities to mark the release of a National Family Platform, and to talk about issues they want to put on the national radar as the country prepares for the presidential election. NAM editor Khalil Abdullah joined the convention in Birmingham, which was simulcast in Los Angeles and Chicago, allowing him a window onto all three events. What he found was a movement in the making as families from around the county traveled great distances to be part of the release of a national family platform, and to make sure that their voices and the concerns of the communities they represented were heard in an election season that has so far largely ignored them. This is the first of a three-part report. Photographs are by Al White, Duck Hill, MS; video by Min Lee, an editor at YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia.

From his post on the sidewalk on Sept. 6, police Sgt. William Greathouse quietly watched the flow of buses discharge nearly 4,000 Americans of varying ethnic backgrounds in front of Birminghams convention center. Whether Native American, Latino, European American, African American or Asian American, they had come to demand, if only by their presence, the opportunity to lead lives with dignity, despite the harsh social and fiscal realities that have long beset low-income families in the United States.

VIDEO: Equal Voices Convention Los Angeles, Calif.

"Equal Voice, that says it all, said Greathouse approvingly, using the abbreviated name for Equal Voice for Americas Families, the more than one-year-long initiative organized and underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation (MCF).

The campaign is an ambitious effort to foster social change to benefit what MCF estimates to be 37 million Americans living at or below the poverty line, inclusive of 7.7 million families. During 60 town hall meetings held in 12 states, participants discussed issues like education, immigration, criminal justice and housing policies. Recommendations were presented in Chicago over the summer to delegates tasked with shaping a policy platform that drew from the pain, experience, wisdom and aspirations of those often ignored by policymakers.

birminghamDelegates watched intently as the convention
unfolded in three cities.

Six thousand people gathered at the Los Angeles Coliseum while, again in Chicago, another 4,000-plus were arriving at the Navy Pier convention facilities. Through the virtuosity of technology, the three cities were linked in real time, enabling attendees to hear speakers from each venue. We have come together to change the world! intoned an enthusiastic Luz Vega-Marquis, MCF president and CEO, from Birminghams podium to an appreciative live audience and from huge flat-screen panels to an equally vociferous throng in the other two cities. In addition to the nearly 15,000 three-city total, another 5,000 viewers logged onto a live Webcast of the proceedings. Vega-Marquis said that the campaign blossomed from the inspired vision of a group of MCF grantees to do something different than solely meet their individual organizations mandates.

It will be some time before an assessment can be made of the campaigns success. Ideally, the country would embrace the National Family Platform, printed and distributed with a detachable postcard to be mailed to the foundation. The card, with space for a name and address, reads: I support the adoption of a national platform that results in an integrated approach to dealing with the challenges families face. MCF anticipates receiving at least 10,000 cards and plans to forward copies to elected officials, including Congress and the next president-elect of the United States.

birminghamMarguerite Casey Foundation President and CEO Luz
Vega-Marquis (l) with Sophia Bracey-Harris, Federation
of Child Care Centers of Alabama.

In the short term, however, Vega-Marquiss intensity was to be matched by other speakers. Freeman Hrabowski ripped through a brief, adrenaline-fueled exhortation to those assembled, particularly the youth, to dream big. Punctuated by chants of Yes, we can! in homage to its Spanish equivalent, Si, se puede!, -- the mantra of Latino immigration reform activists -- Hrabowski, said, As a 12-year-old, 45 years ago I walked the streets of Birmingham to go to jail with Dr. Martin Luther King. Moments later, Hrabowski noted his achievement, one that would have been impossible to foresee in his youth: You can be standing here today as the chairman of the board of the Marguerite Casey Foundation!

The enthusiasm was contagious. Raksan Kasem-Houy, a Cambodian immigrant, spoke animatedly from Los Angeles about her recovery from home foreclosure and the need to reclaim communities from gang violence. Her composure wilted only momentarily as anguish edged into her voice when she recalled her brothers shooting death at the hands of a street gang.

birminghamEntire families traveled hundreds
of miles to attend the convention.

In Chicago, David Tolen shared his wish to return home to visit his mother whom he has not seen since he embarked for the United States 13 years ago. He said she was crying on the phone during their last conversation because she wants to see him before she loses her eyesight to diabetes. But the message he was intent on sharing was that he had learned that the greatest asset to attain social justice is the ability of organizing ourselves.

Star Paschal, a survivor of domestic violence whose three daughters -- Diamond, Day and Sky -- accompanied her, elicited cheers at her triumphant declaration: I have not allowed defeat to speak into my spirit! Paschal, who lives in Auburn, Ala., said, I am here today to represent myself and the countless number of people who have been forgotten. She issued notice to Congress, policymakers: we are a force to be reckoned with. That sentiment was reinforced by William C. Bell, President and CEO of Casey Family Programs. "He who believes in equal justice cannot rest until it comes," Bell said.

Twelve thousand keypads distributed at the conference provided the technical capacity to conduct polls on the various elements of the National Family Platform and to take measure of the composition of the audience. For instance, though 30 percent of attendees responded that they were not eligible to vote, a resounding 54 percent were. When added to the attendees' stated commitment to return home to educate others about the Equal Voice agenda, those numbers could constitute a potent expansion of grass-roots political activism.

Yet, there were responses that spoke to potential hurdles along the path towards building Equal Voice into a movement. The keypad tabulations announced that youth aged 18 or younger comprised 23 percent of the attendees. While Janis Kearney, a Little Rock, Ark.-based publisher who had been invited to travel to Birmingham with her sister Janetta, was happy to see so many young people, she observed that the female-to-male ratio should be of concern.

birminghamA National Family Platform was
released at the convention, along with
a detachable postcard to be mailed to
the foundation. MCF expects to get
at least 10,000 responses.

Approximately 70 percent of attendees were female, a statistic that challenges organizers to engage men more fully in a movement of "families" a term, and realm of responsibility, still traditionally associated with women.

Earlier on the day of the event, police Sgt. Greathouse had seen buses departing Birmingham to return evacuees who had fled New Orleans as Hurricane Gustav approached, and according to organizers, the storm had reduced the number of southeastern Equal Voice attendees.

There are many families dealing with storms in their lives, said Sophia Bracey-Harris, co-founder of the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama. Thank you very much for being here, she said, a gesture possibly best rejoined by a family delegate whose motive for joining the campaign was documented in The Journey So Far, a documentary about the Equal Voice campaign that was previewed at the three conventions.

I think if I stay home, she said, no one will listen to me.

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