50 Solutions: The SouthLouisiana’s Women With A Vision, Mississippi’s Black-Owned Land, and Morescroll down arrow

Photo by Mandy Van Deven, Foundation for a Just Society

Alabama

Immigrants Organize to Dismantle a Tough New Law

When Alabama’s House Bill 56 passed in 2011, it was touted as the nation’s harshest anti-immigrant law. The measure made it illegal for undocumented immigrants to seek work, obtain housing, or go to public colleges and universities. Many fled the state, achieving the law’s aim of forcing “self-deportation.” Others stayed, determined to defend their right to be in their homes.

“People now had a law that stood behind them to be more racist,” said Evelyn Servin, a banker who moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 12. Although she was documented, her mother and sister were not. And like many others in the state, she wanted to do something to take action in response to House Bill 56.

The first step was getting educated, says Servin, who arranged town hall meetings and door-knocking campaigns to educate people on their rights and how to communicate with each other. Activists met with congressional representatives, staged sit-ins, and worked with legal organizations to file lawsuits. Through these efforts, they successfully swayed many of the law’s proponents and, provision by provision, stripped it of its most aggressive points.

House Bill 56 may have been dismantled, but the effects it had on organizing the immigrant community stuck. A “leadership council,” of which Servin is a member, formed from 15 grassroots groups. “There was nothing really happening in the state to make us come together. Then HB 56 happened,” says Servin. “With it came a lot of energy and courage to fight.”

Arkansas

Former Inmates Guide the Way

When Zack Hudson was released from Arkansas’ Cummins Unit prison in 2011, he was determined to never go back. This was his second stint, and experience told him it wouldn’t be easy. “When you’re released from prison and put on parole, you’re not really given an instruction manual,” says Hudson. “You’re rushed through it so fast — your orientation — there’s a lot of small things that can trip you up.”

Arkansas leads the nation’s incarceration rate growth, and nearly half of the state’s prison population is incarcerated for violating parole or probation. What’s more, the state saw a 17.7 percent growth in its prison population when it strengthened its parole laws.

Hudson credits his success with his parole to the support of his family, but after witnessing his friends encounter similar hurdles, he knew he had to do something to help. He teamed up with four friends — also former convicts — to form a support group that would make the transition easier for Arkansas’ more than 21,000 parolees. “We want to show them the things we learned the hard way,” says Hudson.

Together, they founded HOPE (Helping Our People Excel), a weekly meeting that draws 35 to 40 people to a local church in Little Rock. Members share their struggles, offer job leads, and receive basic items like shampoo and clothes. They also talk about change: what they need to succeed and what parole policies make that difficult.

In April, members of HOPE joined forces with other grassroots groups to testify before the Arkansas Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force about flaws in the parole system.

The first victory: winning the right to congregate. HOPE petitioned the Department of Corrections to eliminate a rule that prevents felons from hanging out with each other. Eventually, HOPE was classified as a therapeutic group and can now officially help members overcome the obstacles to completing parole.

Delaware

Bringing Hope to Guatemalan Immigrants

In 1996, a group of nuns and community leaders in Georgetown decided to address the extreme difficulties faced by the county’s mostly Guatemalan immigrants, many of whom were moving to the state to work in the poultry industry. Together, they founded La Esperanza, a bilingual nonprofit to help Spanish-speaking families integrate into their communities. The organization provides services ranging from citizenship classes to pre- and postnatal care to emergency and long-term assistance for domestic violence victims.

Concepcion Vicente, who emigrated from Guatemala eight years ago, says La Esperanza serves as a center for her community and that the organization’s staff members will do whatever they can to help those in need, whether by supplying food or translating documents into Spanish. She stresses that for her and many others, La Esperanza provides exactly what its name promises: hope.

Florida

Tribal School Wins Right to Adapt Its Lessons

Everglade ecosystems, tribal language, and American history that predates Christopher Columbus are all part of a new curriculum at Miccosukee Indian School.

Last year, the school was granted a waiver allowing more flexibility from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements. The process took five years of appeals to the Department of Education and grew from a strong concern among tribal leaders that the standards of NCLB would not work for their 150-student school.

Principal Manuel Varela says the issue was twofold. On the technical side, NCLB’s focus on statewide tests wouldn’t accurately reflect students’ proficiency or the quality of education, and could undermine the community’s values. Miccosukee Indian School’s noncompulsory attendance — allowing students to fully participate in family and tribal activities — means the student population is constantly shifting and difficult to capture on standardized tests. On the cultural side, abiding by state standards would prevent the school from building curriculum for core subjects around the tribe’s culture, history, and geography. “It came down to an issue of sovereignty,” explains Varela. “We have a different reality as far as where we are and who the Miccosukee are.”

The new curriculum includes subjects specific to the tribe and implements an assessment system tailored to the needs of the students. Project-based portfolios allow students to show proficiency through other means, like art and technology. The school provides tutoring and support for students who miss school for family or cultural reasons. And the community focus helps build relationships between teachers and students, says Varela, which means they are better positioned to close the achievement gap that exists between Native and non-Native students.

Miccosukee Indian School was the first Native American school to receive a waiver from NCLB, and Varela says he has received requests from tribes around the country to help them develop their own curricula.

Georgia

Trans Community Demanded Better Treatment From Police

When police pulled over Juan Evans, a Trans man from the Atlanta suburb of East Point, for speeding in 2014, Evans says they called him “it” and “thing” and threatened him with a genital search. For Trans people nationwide, such harassment is not unusual. But in Georgia, Evans’ experience prompted change.

“Dear East Point Police, I will not give you my courage, I will not give you my dignity,” Evans said in a video he posted to YouTube days after the encounter. “I will not let you shame and humiliate me into submission.” Instead, Evans and a crowd of 50 people took their complaint to city hall.

The city listened: Working with local LGBT activists, East Point’s police department became one of the first in the nation to require officers to undergo training on Trans issues and on eliminating derogatory language. Officers were instructed to use the gender identity chosen by the individual as well as their chosen name. They also established protections for individuals who needed objects, such as wigs or prosthetics, to maintain their gender identity.

Evans died later that year of health complications. Project Q, an Atlanta LGBT news publication, praised Evans’ push for justice: “Juan was a freedom fighter who taught us again and again that ‘When We Fight, We Win!’”

Kentucky

Where Trees Beat the Heat, Neighbors Become Foresters

Photo by Amy Barber

Gardeners shop at Louisville Grows’ Seed and Starts Sale, where at a discounted price they can buy seed packets and small plants, like tomato, kale, and basil. Photo by Amy Barber

Louisville is what is known as an urban heat island — a metropolitan area that is significantly warmer than its surrounding areas. And because some parts of the city are up to 10 degrees higher than others, a 2012 study from Georgia Institute of Technology called it the fastest-warming city in the country.

Attempting to beat the heat, Louisville’s Office of Sustainability is encouraging businesses and individuals to switch to roofs that are light-colored or covered with vegetation. It’s also enlisting residents to plant trees and grass around their homes. The nonprofit group Louisville Grows has offered workshops to educate and encourage people to do this properly, training more than 170 residents as “citizen foresters.”

“It’s not some company being contracted to plant a tree,” says Natalie Reteneller, Louisville Grows’ director of urban forestry. “There’s real pride and ownership and camaraderie that comes when people are planting trees themselves.”

Louisiana

Women Who See Beyond PrisonsFor decades, Women With A Vision has given Black women what they need to get healthy and safe — and stay out of prison

Photo by Laura McTighe, Women With A Vision

Executive Director Deon Haywood sits with Women With A Vision staff: (left to right, front) Desiree Evans, Michelle Wiley, Mwende Katwiwa, Deon Haywood, (left to right, back) Raven Frederick, Nia Weeks, Dianne Jones. Photo by Laura McTighe, Women With A Vision

Forty-four-year-old Dianne Jones of New Orleans says she’s 30, and will always be 30. It’s not that she’s afraid of getting old, or lying about her age. Thirty is the number of years she was sentenced to serve at a Louisiana prison in 1993. It is also the number of years her 27-year-old son was sentenced to serve for armed robbery in 2006.

Zenobia Jeffries

Zenobia Jeffries is the racial justice associate editor at YES! Follow her on Twitter @ZenobiaJeffries.

“It’s like a pain that we thrive off of, because you know 30 years is something that I can’t believe. It’s a mark on me,” says Jones. “Once I had it, now my kid has it.”

Jones has been in and out of the Louisiana penal system since age 14, when she was arrested and sentenced to two years for stealing a car. The final straw came in January 2014, when she served a weeklong sentence for marijuana possession at Orleans Parish Prison, the city jail for New Orleans. The jail’s “tent city,” now torn down, was assembled in 2006 as a temporary holding facility for prisoners after Hurricane Katrina. “A week in hell” is how she describes her time in the leech-infested tent with about 200 other women.

When she was released at one o’clock in the morning, Jones says, she had determined that that would be her last time behind bars. “Imagine how scared I was, as a woman walking the streets like that by myself at that time.” Jones says she doesn’t want any other woman to be in that position. So for the next year and a half, she volunteered with groups that helped ex-offenders — mostly men — and worked to start her own program to help women transition back to regular life after prison. Then she came across Women With A Vision (WWAV).

“It’s a place where you can get whatever you need,” she says of the social justice nonprofit, which specializes in helping marginalized women of color. “And if they don’t have it, they can point you in the direction to somewhere that does.” WWAV staff estimates that the group has helped more than 120,000 women since its grassroots beginning nearly 30 years ago. Its work has focused mostly on “harm reduction” — reducing negative consequences of drug use — as well as improving awareness of health issues, but recently has expanded to decriminalizing sex workers. In the past five years, WWAV has helped to launch a legal campaign and diversion program to help sex workers caught up in the criminal justice system avoid jail.

Because the population of women in U.S. prisons has been increasing at a rate 50 percent higher than men since 1980, that work is increasingly needed. Only 5 percent of the world’s female population lives in the United States, yet it accounts for nearly 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated women. And the problem doesn’t affect everyone equally. The Racial Justice Improvement Project — an initiative of the American Bar Association in collaboration with WWAV — found that women arrested for sex work in New Orleans are predominantly people of color.

A Relentless Advocate

WWAV was established in 1989, when a small group of African American women in New Orleans teamed up to do something about the growing number of Black women with HIV. The founders, each with a background in either social work or public health, took to the streets to distribute literature to women who weren’t getting information about HIV/AIDS education and prevention. In their early years, they averaged roughly 5,000 encounters a year, distributing needles and condoms to women who were at high risk for infection.

While the group continued with their traditional outreach, their focus shifted to an antiquated state law that placed sex workers, most of them women, on the sex offenders list. The law harshly punished sex workers for what it called “unnatural carnal copulation,” which included oral sex. Being on the list made it nearly impossible for the women to get jobs, keep their homes, or take care of their children. WWAV helped to launch a campaign called the NO Justice Project to overturn that law. After a five-year struggle, they won their class-action lawsuit — filed with the Center for Constitutional Rights and Loyola University’s Law Clinic — and in 2013, more than 800 women were removed from the list.

The following year, the group shifted their focus again, this time to reforming the parish’s diversion program. The New Orleans district attorney’s office had run a diversion program for years. But that program had long been seen as racially biased, and lacked transparency. It was unclear what were the requirements or qualifications to enter the program, since they were based solely on the discretion of one individual from the DA’s office.

So WWAV, along with a team of community stakeholders including the DA’s office, collaborated with the Racial Justice Improvement Project to revamp it. They found evidence that African Americans, though the majority of the population in both the city and its jails, were less likely to go through diversion and avoid incarceration than their White counterparts.

They found evidence that African Americans, though the majority of the population in both the city and its jails, were less likely to go through diversion and avoid incarceration than their White counterparts.

“Think about that for a second,” says Salma Safiedine, director of the Racial Justice Improvement Project. “There were more African Americans that were being picked up for crimes. There were more African Americans who lived in the jurisdiction. Yet, there were more Whites in the diversion program. That just doesn’t make sense. So, that discretion wasn’t necessarily a good thing. And so what we wanted to do was target it.”

After that realization, WWAV partnered with the Racial Justice Improvement Project to create their own diversion program, Crossroads, for women facing misdemeanor prostitution and drug charges.

Women admitted into the program must attend a mandatory weekly in-person counseling session with a case manager at WWAV. After a certain number of weeks, the women and their case managers will meet with the DA’s office and try to get their cases dismissed. Since June 2014, when the pilot program was implemented, 155 women have been deemed eligible, with 80 of them completing the program successfully.

In the meantime, Jones continues to make a difference in the lives of the women who come looking for help. “Women can come [here] and feel safe, and not feel judged,” she says. But, more importantly, they can get what they need to help them stay out of jail. Jones had no computer skills before the training she received at WWAV. And now she’s studying for her high school equivalency exam so she can continue her education. On top of that, in July the organization hired her as an outreach worker.

“They said, ‘For all the work you do, somebody should be paying you.’”

Zenobia Jeffries

Zenobia Jeffries is the racial justice associate editor at YES! Follow her on Twitter @ZenobiaJeffries.

Maryland

Old-Fashioned Organizing Restored Voting Rights to Thousands

From the races for state office to the presidency, the stakes for this year’s elections were monumental. And thanks to the efforts of advocates and policymakers, 40,000 more Marylanders were allowed to cast ballots.

When Gov. Larry Hogan in February vetoed a law that would restore voting rights to people who’ve been released from prison and are serving additional terms of parole or probation, Unlock the Vote swung into action.

Some 25 groups focusing on issues of restorative justice and poverty make up the coalition, which lobbied state legislators to override the veto. The law expands voting rights to tens of thousands of ex-offenders, a group that is disproportionately African American and Latino.

“People with prior convictions who vote are much less likely to return to prison,” said Nicole Porter, The Sentencing Project’s director of advocacy.

Mississippi

A Black Vision for Community-Owned Urban Land

YES! Photo by James Trimarco

“We’ve always said that we want to make Jackson the greenest city in the world,” co-founder Kali Akuno said of Cooperation Jackson’s work combining economic and environmental sustainability. “We want to create a local example and magnify it through the political process.” YES! Photo by James Trimarco

After living in Cleveland and Chicago, Iya’falola H. Omobola says she had never seen anything like what she’s witnessed over the past several years in Jackson, Mississippi, where homes have been allowed to “deteriorate and just stay there.”

Unlike other cities that use the threat of taxes or demolition to clean up derelict properties, Jackson appeared to have a pattern of neglect, says Omobola. In response, Cooperation Jackson, a grassroots organization co-founded by Omobola, is working to thwart gentrification and subsequent displacement of residents by buying as much property as it can to make land and homes affordable.

Decay, abandonment, and plunging property values are pervasive in many U.S. urban centers that are predominantly African American, like Jackson. Meanwhile, nearly 20 percent of these neighborhoods with lower incomes and home values have experienced gentrification since 2000, according to Governing magazine. In cities such as Seattle, Portland, and Washington, D.C., those changes have pushed out many residents. Cooperation Jackson members are determined to prevent the same thing from happening in Jackson, where about 80 percent of the population is African American.

The group has established a community land trust as part of its Sustainable Communities Initiative, which includes building co-ops (three operate today), purchasing land, and building affordable housing on the west side of town. So far, Cooperation Jackson has purchased more than 20 parcels of land from the city for as little as $1 apiece. The land trust was part of former Mayor Chokwe Lumumba’s vision before he died in 2014; Omobola, Lumumba’s media director, and Kali Akuno, who also worked for Lumumba’s administration, formed Cooperation Jackson and opened the Chokwe Lumumba Center for Economic Democracy and Development.

The goal is to enable as many people as possible in Jackson to own their own resources, Omobola says. Now, the organization is focused on acquiring property within a 3-mile radius over the next two years. “We’re looking at creating self-sustainability,” she says.

North Carolina

Food Desert Neighborhood Built a $2 Million Co-op

When the local Winn-Dixie closed 18 years ago, Northeast Greensboro was left without a grocery store. The neighborhood became one of the city’s 17 food deserts, and those living in it were more susceptible to obesity and diabetes.

After the area failed to attract large chain stores, a group of neighbors spent four years establishing their own store: Renaissance Community Co-op.

“When the spark was lit that we can do this for ourselves, that’s what resonated with a lot of the community members,” said James Lamar Gibson, a co-op volunteer who grew up in Greensboro.

With help from the Fund for Democratic Communities, neighbors raised more than $2 million from foundations, the city, and grassroots projects. They also pre-sold owner-memberships. This fall, neighbors will be able to buy fresh food at a local store — one that they own.

South Carolina

Fixing Up Houses to Keep Families in the Community

In 2003, the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood of North Charleston had the highest concentration of childhood poverty in the state, and 85 percent of all homes were rentals. An after-school program sponsored by community development corporation Metanoia recognized that students were constantly moving around and falling behind in school.

“We knew we couldn’t really care about the kids in the neighborhood without getting involved in housing work,” says Bill Stanfield, the program’s director.

With the help of a grant, Metanoia started buying and fixing houses, and helped local families secure and pay their mortgages.

Residents began to have a stake in their community as they revived blighted land, took care of their properties, and looked out for each other. Over the course of four years, crime in the neighborhood went down 23 percent.

Tennessee

Teens Win a Bike-Friendly Neighborhood

Photo by Gabriela Aguirre-Iriarte

Oasis Bike Workshop participants learn how to straighten a wheel. Youth build their own bikes from the frame up, learn to do maintenance, and traverse the city’s greenways as they learn safe riding skills. Photo by Gabriela Aguirre-Iriarte

North Nashville was once a “mobility desert”: A highway dissected the neighborhood, and public transportation left many areas without service. For young people, the burden was especially heavy.

“When you get dropped off of the school bus, you’re pretty much confined to your neighborhood,” says Dan Furbish, who runs Oasis Bike Workshop, which provides students with bicycles and mentoring. He finds that many kids have not visited parks just two miles from their homes.

To make the case for better neighborhood mobility, Furbish’s class of middle and high school students mapped their movements around North Nashville, tracking the spaces they visited most and the barriers that kept them from getting around, such as the lack of crosswalks and paths. They developed suggestions for connecting North Nashville to the rest of the city, eventually sharing their findings with urban planners.

After meeting with the class, city planners incorporated a new bicycle lane along Rosa L. Parks Boulevard. Although the lane stretched only two miles, it created a bicycle route across the interstate, connecting North Nashville to downtown.

Virginia

Families Act Keeps Kids in Classrooms, Not Courtrooms

Eunice Haigler has put nine grandchildren through the school system of Spotsylvania County, about 60 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. In the old days, she’d get a call from the principal’s office when they misbehaved. The administration knew that “if you call Grandma, that’s it — and they wouldn’t see that behavior again,” she said.

But by the time her grandson reached middle school, Haigler knew things had changed. His school was patrolled by “resource officers” — police who work in schools to protect against threats, but also to discipline kids. Tearing a leaf off a plant became a property destruction charge; refusing to take off a hoodie when asked became a disorderly conduct charge. Eventually, her grandson ended up in court.

“We’re not talking about kids who are bringing a knife to school,” said Haigler. “It is making little criminals out of our children.”

Virginia leads the nation in sending students — especially minority and special needs kids — to court. According to U.S. Department of Education data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity, Virginia refers students to law enforcement at nearly three times the national rate. Thousands of complaints are filed against children and teens each year. In the Spotsylvania school district, Black children receive 36 percent of out-of-school suspensions, though they make up only 18.3 percent of the student population. Referring children to law enforcement increases the odds of future incarceration.

Haigler, a volunteer with Virginia Organizing (VO), a grassroots organization, started knocking on doors with her fellow members, meeting parent after parent who shared concerns about policing children. Together, they made it a larger focus of VO.

Today, Haigler is proud of the headway they’ve made in Spotsylvania, including dialogue with the district’s superintendent on the issue’s significance. Virginia Organizing is pushing for an agreement between county schools and police departments that will better define — and limit — the disciplinary roles of officers.

Ladelle McWhorter, a VO board member, said building these relationships is a remarkable achievement — accomplished by people like Haigler: “It really originated with parents.”

West Virginia

From Energy to Tourist Attraction: A New Use for Coal

Photo by Catherine V. Moore

Visitors at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum’s grand opening in 2015 view the “Coal Camp Life” exhibit, which sets the context for the conditions under which miners and their families in southern West Virginia lived in the lead-up to the mine wars. Photo by Catherine V. Moore

Visitors to the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum see authentic rifles and bullet casings used in the Battle of Blair Mountain, learn about the history of the term “redneck,” and view a reimagining of the Paint Creek-Cabin Strike of 1912. But this homage to the history and culture of coal mining — often overlooked in other parts of the United States — serves another purpose too: increasing revenue in a post-coal economy.

In the early 1920s, when miners fought coal operators for the right to unionize in the West Virginia mine wars, local economies were heavily dependent on coal. But since then, the number of mining jobs has decreased considerably. Between 1950 and 2011, coal mining jobs in West Virginia fell from nearly 120,000 to about 25,000.

In the face of this decline, coal-dependent communities have had to find alternative ways to rebuild their economies. For Matewan — site of the Matewan Massacre of 1920 — that meant developing tourism by turning the state’s rich history into an attraction.

In May 2015, the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum was born. Supporters call it an example of “heritage tourism” — the celebration of a city’s colorful past through authentic places and artifacts.

“People are so moved when they come through because there’s really not another place you can go and see this history and, in some cases, experience this history,” said museum board member Catherine Moore.

The museum offers several interactive exhibits to engage visitors, more than 500 of whom attended during opening weekend. “There’s a wide range of people who come,” said Moore. “We wanted to tell the stories of the mine wars from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.”