Thursday, January 19, 2012

The State of Our Valley

President Obama spoke to the national community last night in his State of the Nation address. The Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network welcomes this yearly accounting, as it offers the country a sense of the leadership that our nation's president intends to employ over the coming year.
 The state of the families who live in the Rio Grande Valley illustrate clearly the inequality that has become a part of our nation's social reality. Our families work longer hours for less pay, and pay higher tax rates than any other region in the country. We have, as a region, invested more people in the nation's Armed Forces than anywhere else in the nation, and yet our veterans continue to lack the medical care that they have been promised over and again. We have the highest number of uninsured people in the USA, have no public hospital, and yet are charged some of the highest rates for medical care in America. We are the youngest region in the nation and yet our schools are vastly, and, unfairly, underfunded. We are a culturally-diverse area--an international region--that suffers, in extraordinary ways--from our nation's fears that our borders may not be secure, with a border wall that blights our landscape, policing policies such as secure communities that threaten the necessary trust between residents and their police officers, and young people whose hopes are squandered by political bickering over the Dream Act.
The Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network began work on our National Family Platform that we adopted during the 2008 presidential campaign. Over the past three years, the Network has been committed to increasing the influence of our families upon those elected and appointed public servants who are charged with overseeing the wellbeing of our region.
The Network is delighted with the growth it has seen over this short time, as our constituents now number nearly 30,000 residents of the Rio Grande Valley. Our six working groups have, in different ways, achieved important goals, most important amongst those being the increasing number of colonia and working family members who participate in our projects.
The core member organizations—ARISE (A Resource in Sharing Equality), LUPE (La Union del Pueblo Entero), the Texas Organizing Project, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, the South Texas Adult Resource and Training Center (START Center), Proyecto Azteca, Proyecto Libertad, IDRA (Intercultural Development Research Association), the Brownsville Community Health Center (Mano a Mano) and Proyecto Juan Diego remain committed to this process, and are grateful to the generous and creative support of the Marguerite Casey Foundation in these efforts.
In our State of the Valley report, we offer the following snapshots of our work.
Jobs and Economic Security:  Given that the Rio Grande Valley has the lowest paid workers of any region in the nation and a high incidence of wage theft, this working group established “Fuerza del Valle,” a project designed to educate, empower and unite workers. Fuerza meets twice a week, once in Hidalgo County and once in Cameron County, creating a space in which workers can come with their complaints and questions to find information and, if required, advocacy and legal support. Tens of thousands of dollars have already been recovered for workers whose employers had not paid for their work. A May 1st rally highlighted the efforts of Fuerza, and now the project has an acting director. South Texas Civil Rights Project is the fiscal sponsor for Fuerza,

Education: Numerous town hall meetings clearly established a nearly universal anguish that both parents and educators suffer over the condition of Valley schools. Roughly half of all ninth graders drop out before graduation. In an effort to grant parents greater access to the schools, a number of independent, state accredited Parent Teacher Associations have been formed in both Hidalgo and Cameron counties. These independent PTA’s have gained unprecedented access for parents to their children’s school administrators. The Network also employed a number of means to educate families on the dangers of HB1, a law that encourages schools to place certain high school students into a tracking system that would leave these young people, upon graduation, without sufficient credits for college admittance.  The dismal educational situation in the Valley has been exacerbated by the cuts to school funding enacted by the 2011 legislative session, budget decisions which reduced funding to Valley school districts in an inequitable and brutal manner, to Valley school districts. In response to this, the Education working group is promoting its “ya basta; our schools deserve the same as the rest of schools in Texas” campaign to the 2012 campaign season.
Health Care: The Network became engaged in the national health care debate, actively educating and involving our membership in the discussion. After the bill was signed into law, the working group held  numerous workshops on the subsequent legislative changes in health care both nationally and state wide.  Sensitive to the looming (and already present) diabetes epidemic in our region, the Network has collaborated with area public health entities on different initiatives, including the promotion of a revision of  SNAP (food assistance program) so as to provide incentives for healthier eating.  The working group is currently educating our constituents on the new managed Medicaid/Medicare programs, and helping with CHIP enrollment. We are closely watching the changes to county policies that affect the way indigent care is managed, and we continue to work to bring community health advocates together in monthly meetings. 
Housing: Hurricane Dolly struck the Valley in 2008, leaving behind a swath of devastation and highlighting the region’s deficient flood control infrastructure.  Those who live in colonia neighborhoods suffered the most from the storm’s flooding. In many cases, even after three months, residents had several feet of flood waters on their property. The working group created a housing coalition which established an alliance of a number of local entities. This coalition, including community development corporations and other organizations, forged relationships with the members of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council and local County governments. The coalition aimed to assure that colonia residents’ needs for adequate drainage and housing be addressed with the hurricane disaster relief monies.  After a series of meetings, the coalition was able to get money for direct drainage infrastructure in their colonias and have had their neighborhoods listed in the needs assessment targeted areas for the relief outreach efforts. We worked with the LRGVDC and County governments on the Fair Housing Assessment Standards for Texas (FHAST), the Analysis of Impediments, and the Needs Assessment. Colonia residents also hosted meetings of the LRGVDC in three colonias in Hidalgo, Cameron, and Willacy Counties so they could be included in the EDA Regional Planning Grant. Most importantly, an Equal Voice Council of Colonias has begun so that colonia residents can be a recognizable entity when it comes to regional planning. 
Immigration: During the 2011 session of the Texas legislature, eighty-five ant-immigrant bills were introduced into the Texas legislature. The immigration working group organized a coalition of churches, small businesses, community-based organizations, police departments, veterans, cities and small businesses to present a united front against the legislation. The group sent over 400 constituents to Austin and, in conjunction with other organizations, successfully blocked all the anti-immigrant legislation. Dream Act activists were sought out and enlisted in this effort, and support for their particular efforts were offered. The working group has diligently worked to mitigate the effects of “Secure Communities” a federal program designed to force local police departments to do federal immigration enforcement. The group is a member of the Southern Border Communities’ Coalition, participating in a border-wide effort at the documentation of abuses by authorities.  Membership in the Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance’s executive committee has kept our voice and experience at the forefront of state efforts to demand comprehensive immigration reform—and to promote policies that assure the protection of our residents’ human rights. 

Civic Participation: The Equal Voice Network recognizes that civic engagement is the underpinning for all of our efforts. It is only when our families are welcomed at the table of the decision makers that effective changes in policy can be achieved. To that end, we continue to engage and educate our constituents on civic engagement. The Network rallied during the 2010 election season and raised voter participation more than 10% over the 2006 election.  The different member organizations have put in place their plans for engaging citizens in the 2012 campaign, and the working group is organizing a series of efforts to work on voter registration, voter education, and a nonpartisan get out the vote effort. A calendar of events for the spring, summer and fall has been prepared with events that include  educational rallies to inform our constituents about the different roles of elected officials, how a precinct caucus works, and why it is so important for them to vote.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Civic Engagement, 2012

In eleven short months, the nation will choose a president, Texans will decide who will lead the state, and Valley residents will elect those we feel can be held responsible for local political office.

The Equal Voice Network, a coalition of nine community-based organizations with more than 30,000 constituents, has already been preparing an extensive civic engagement project for the Valley. Called “Mi Voto es Mi Voz,” this will be the second such effort by the Equal Voice Network. In 2010 network membership realized a ten per cent increase over 2006 numbers in its ten target precincts.

“In a democracy, all election cycles are important, but for the Equal Voice family, this season merits special attention. The sinful use of anti-immigrant prejudice by politicians, and our government’s preference for military spending over and against the immediate needs of our families clearly tells us that the politicians are not paying attention to the heart and soul of this country. An election gives us an opportunity to speak up, and believe me, we intend to be heard,” said Michael Seifert, the Network Coordinator.

The Equal Voice Network will focus in on twenty-four areas of Hidalgo and Cameron County, with a preference for the Pharr, San Juan, Alamo and Mission areas, as well as neighborhoods in San Benito and Brownsville. The voices of the primarily low-income residents of these precincts are particularly important in the local, state, and national dialogue on jobs, the economy, and immigration.

"Casting a ballot is one of the most important things we do as citizens and as neighbors. It is our way of saying ‘Here we are. We count.’ So the Equal Voice Network and LUPE is going to do its best to make sure that every last one of our members understands that and takes part in the get out the vote effort,” said Daniel Diaz, a community organizer from LUPE who works in the Mercedes area.

As non-profits, the Network members take care to follow the federal law on civic engagement, avoiding partisan politics, while, at the same time, investing large amounts of time and energy in encouraging people not only to vote, but also to become intimately involved in the entire process. The Network sees civic engagement as a way of being faithful to the missions of the different member organizations, be they involved in housing, health care, or education.

“It makes no sense for the START Center (San Benito) to work so hard to prepare our young people for good jobs if our elected leaders are paying no attention whatsoever to this need. A vote is a “shout out” and we are dedicated to getting our youth to shout out loud and long,” said Ron Rogers, START Center Board President.

With Congress in gridlock and the economy inspiring fear, many cynics may dismiss civic engagement as a useless exercise on behalf of unresponsive politicians.  Equal Voice members, on the other hand, have seen first hand the results of successful get out the vote campaigns in the past.

“As a mother and as a member of one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Valley, I have seen what happens when a community votes,” said Lupita Sanchez, from Cameron Park, near Brownsville. “For years we suffered all sorts of humiliation—no roads, no police patrols, no mail delivery. And then we learned how to get out the vote, we got involved, and now Cameron Park is a place I am proud to live in.”

The Equal Voice Network is planning a number of activities and events throughout the year, including candidates’ forums, debates, and voter registration drives.

Members of the Equal Voice Network include: ARISE – A Resource in Service Equality (Alamo); BCHC – Brownsville Community Health Center (Brownsville);  Casa de Proyecto Libertad (Harlingen); La Unión del Pueblo Entero LUPE (San Juan); Proyecto Azteca (San Juan); Proyecto Juan Diego (Cameron Park/Brownsville);  START Center- South Texas Adult Resource and Training Center (San Benito); and the Texas Organizing Project.