An unlikely experiment in grassroots democracy begun 20 years ago in Arkansas today boasts a rich track record of profound improvements to the state’s agriculture, civil rights, education, economic, education, election, environmental and health laws. The Arkansas Citizens First Congress meets again this weekend to elect a People’s Agenda for the coming legislative session, and Saturday night we are having a party to honor some of the strongest community advocates in the state.
At its founding, few thought the effort to build a powerful statewide coalition of community and social justice groups would succeed. They said we could not overcome the state’s history of moneyed domination, or our state’s deep divisions on race, geography and class. Despite the challenges, our members have created a model of how to build community power across a range of diversity that stands unique in the nation.
I was lucky enough to be hired by Brownie Ledbetter as an organizer at the Arkansas Public Policy Panel in 1996. We were still unsure how to pull the coalition together or even what to call it. Brownie just called it the Big Hoobie Doo.
We engaged a broad cross-section of Arkansas leaders to figure it out. Bill Becker and other labor leaders formed part of the core planning team that also included civil rights leaders, environmentalists, faith leaders, education and health advocates and community activists and developers. It was a coalition of people who were frustrated that voices were not being heard — those of the vast majority of Arkansans.
We held big, unruly planning meetings over a couple of years. Our leaders had to suspend their disbelief and trust one another to create something that would benefit everyone. They relied on stories and building genuine relationships with one another as they developed a structure and process for developing a common agenda to move the state forward in a way that is uniquely Arkansan.
It’s often messy and a little chaotic, but the improvements for Arkansas are incredible. Creating a state Department of Agriculture to help farmers. Expanding voting hours, Saturday voting, training poll workers and expanding election monitoring. Protecting our drinking water and natural resources. Protecting workers from wage theft and expanding the minimum wage. Criminal justice reforms, like mental health diversion programs, expanding drug courts and finding alternatives for nonviolent offenders. Protecting victims of domestic violence. Education reforms, like quality pre-K and help for low-income and special-needs kids. Increasing energy efficiency and opportunities for renewable energy while protecting consumers. Expanding access to health care.
Equally important are the bad ideas our members have helped stop. Fighting legislation that targets immigrants, or dismantles public schools, or legalizes discrimination, or guts protections for your drinking water, or limits the public’s right to vote and know what their elected officials are up to.
We have done none of this alone. That’s the point. Our member groups work together with allies to press for change. Our biggest source of influence is the thousands of Arkansas we’ve informed about how proposed laws will impact them. There are few things more persuasive to a lawmaker than an informed constituent in his or her district who is organizing with others. We are one of the few groups that reads nearly all of the 3,000-plus bills that get filed each legislative session and we educate the public about what impact they could have.
While the Arkansas Citizens First Congress advocates, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel complements it by training leaders on how to be powerful advocates for their communities and issues.
A critical part of our strategy is raising grassroots dollars from Arkansans to pay for the advocacy efforts of the coalition. We would not exist without their commitment and generosity. This Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel, 925 S. University Ave., we are holding our Dragon Slayer Banquet to celebrate Arkansas leaders and the incredible progress they are making to improve our state. Our keynote speaker is the amazing Glenn Harris of Race Forward, who will speak about the importance of placing racial equity at the center of social change. We are celebrating a host of awesome leaders; find details on them and buy tickets at arpanel.org/events. Tickets are $75 will directly fuel the advocacy power of Arkansas grassroots advocates.
I hope you can join us to celebrate 20 years of progress, and the leaders who are paving the way into the future! Your voice matters, and by working together we can build the power we need to continue transforming our state for the better.
Bill Kopsky is executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.