April 07, 2020

Organizing in place?

In an ordinary year, a lot of AFSC’s work in West Virginia revolves around the state’s legislative session, when we advocate with partners and community members on issues affecting low-income and working families. The session lasts 60 days from early January to early March. After that, we usually catch our breath a bit before gearing up for the next round.

This isn’t an ordinary year.

It now seems like an eon since the legislative session ended at midnight on March 7. And, while we made a lot of progress in working for economic justice, those wins have since been eclipsed in our memories as we face the COVID-19 pandemic. And there hasn’t been a lot of breath catching.

So how do you respond to a pandemic in a poor and rural state when you’re sheltering in place? We’re still trying to figure that out, but here’s what we’ve come up with so far. In the past few weeks, AFSC has worked with partners and community members to:

Call for immediate action to strengthen safety net programs. Along with allies, we reached out to government officials to streamline and remove barriers to accessing benefits such as SNAP food assistance, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance. Several of the recommendations have already been implemented, including ending waiting periods, work requirements, time limits, and eligibility redeterminations for these critical assistance programs during the outbreak. Earlier on, AFSC joined several other groups in a joint letter to Gov. Jim Justice making several immediate and longer term policy recommendations.

Reduce crowding in correctional institutions as a humanitarian and public health measure. In the legislative session, we joined with community members and partners in winning passage of several bills to reduce mass incarceration in our state. We built on this success to advocate for the early release of incarcerated people who did not pose a serious threat to public safety (see this press release and joint letter from a wide range of organizations, including some unusual allies, such as Americans for Prosperity).

As of a week ago at least 616 people have been released from jails, in addition to 70 held on technical violations and around 70 furloughed to their homes from work release centers. Those numbers have doubtless gone up in the meantime. The West Virginia Supreme Court has also issued guidelines to judges and magistrates to release people in jail who are awaiting trial.

Feed people—especially kids! Child nutrition has been an AFSC priority in West Virginia as far back as 1922. Our programs have worked to expand free school breakfasts and lunches statewide, but what happens when school is cancelled indefinitely? Ironically, a bill we supported to address this issue didn’t pass during the session.

With schools closed and stay-at-home orders in place, many children and seniors were at risk of going hungry. When the crisis hit, Liz Brunello of AFSC’s Appalachian Center for Equality (ACE) program teamed up with ally Jenny Anderson of Our Future WV to create a Facebook group called WV Food ER to provide information and identify needs, volunteers, and resources. The group now has over 3,100 members.

This quickly led to the creation of Rapid Response WV, made of several organizations and individuals around the state. The website allows people to donate, request assistance, or learn about volunteer opportunities and is organizing both the purchase and delivery of food products and hygienic necessities.

Thanks to the generosity of donors, this effort had helped more than 200 families and had over 260 volunteers by the end of last week. Demand for this kind of assistance is only going to increase. The One Foundation, a key funder of AFSC's WV programs, has recently dedicated $20,000 to this effort.

Call for accountability. Along with direct food assistance, AFSC and allies in the WV Food for All coalition have called on the governor to issue another executive order requiring county boards of education to come up with comprehensive food delivery systems for the duration of the crisis.

Unfortunately, it seems that we’re still in the early phase of this crisis. While we don’t know what the future will require of us, we know it will involve a combination of direct assistance and advocacy, organizing, and agitation at multiple levels.

In any unjust system, there will always be a need for direct assistance and acts of compassion. However, these are no substitutes for justice, for the right of all people to a decent standard of living.

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