WCP: Getting Over in the Heart of Dixie

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Alabama may be known for its conservative politics, but the state has a wealth of working-class and progressive organizing taking place. In this week’s Working-Class Perspective, Helen Diana Eidson describes the growth and achievements of Alabama Arise, a coalition of congregations and community groups fighting for public services, fairer taxation, tenant rights, and criminal justice reform.

“Yes, Alabama has a multitude of serious problems, but it also has plenty of assets. Alabama’s 132,000 miles of rivers and streams, along with its geology and warm climate, nurture the highest level of biodiversity east of the Mississippi. Our culinary diversity embraces many barbeque creations, including a unique white sauce that produces the best chicken and pork you ever put in your mouth. Forrest Gump numbers among hundreds of famous Alabamians. Music artists the world over travel here to achieve the “Muscle Shoals Sound.” Mardi Gras originated in Mobile (1703), not New Orleans (1730s).

Along with all this, Alabama the Beautiful is home to several social justice organizations. Montgomery is ground zero for much of the key work of civil rights groups, and it is also the birthplace of Morris Dees’ Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Both work tirelessly to end racial injustice by tracking and prosecuting hate groups and by remedying inequities in the justice system, respectively.

In addition, diverse comrades in Alabama, including Southern Scots-Irish “Crackers” like me and working-class Black Belt Blacks, are uniting to fight economic oppression. One focal point for our efforts is another state asset: Alabama Arise, a nonprofit, non-partisan grassroots coalition of congregations, community organizations, and individuals. Arise consists of Alabama Arise, a 501 (c)(4) advocacy organization formed in 1988 and Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, a 501 (c)(3) research and organizing group founded in 1994. Arise defines its mission as “promoting state policies that improve the lives of low-income people.”

Through policy analysis, statewide organizing, and citizen advocacy, Arise envisions an Alabama where all people have resources to reach their full potential, people participate actively in their own governance, and the state government promotes the common good and respect for each person’s humanity.

Kimble Forrister became Executive Director of Alabama Arise in 1991, when the organization had 60 member groups and a mailing list of 170 donors. Now the membership rolls have grown to 150 groups and 1,094 donors, as well as over 5,000 Facebook likes and some 2,400 Twitter followers. Early on, Arise worked on tax reform and welfare issues. In the early 1990s, Alabama provided the nation’s lowest monthly welfare benefit for a mother of two at $118, but Forrister recalls that Arise lobbied state lawmakers to raise the amount to $215. Later, Arise worked to raise the income tax threshold for a family of four from $4,600 to $12,600, and their efforts led to the first tenants’ rights law.

As Arise grew, Forrister reallocated its staff and funding to provide balance between organizing and advocacy initiatives. Currently, Arise employs two policy analysts, two organizers, a communications director, a development director, and an executive director. Members prioritize issues at annual meetings, which draw about 250 people – attendance that has more than tripled from 80 over the past decade. Staff have used listening sessions with low-income clients to identify key elements of welfare reform. Those sessions revealed that in order to transition from welfare to work, people needed “jobs, child care, and transportation.” In addition, clients pointed out the need for second chances for those released from prison. Based on these conversations, Arise focused on restoring SNAP (food stamps/Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) and TANF (welfare/Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) benefits to ex-felons, as well as narrowing the list of crimes that denied them the franchise.”

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The Working-Class Perspectives blog (new window) is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-17 academic years, John Russo, and Georgetown University English professor, Sherry Linkon. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 44 posts that were read over 128,000 times by readers in 189 countries.