Columns » Autumn Tolbert

A heart in this house

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Since Election Day, I have been at a loss as to how to direct my energy. I am spinning in circles. Do I call Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman to beg them not to repeal the Affordable Care Act so my friends and family members don't lose insurance coverage? Is my time better spent emailing state legislators to express my concern about taking control away from our colleges and universities by mandating guns on campus? Do I try to get answers from my senator and representative as to why they directed taxpayer money out of their own district to a religious institution? Is attending a march on a Saturday the best use of my time? Should we all show up on a weekday instead when our legislators can see our might and resolve in person?

I sense this same helplessness and confusion from many of my friends. As of now, I choose to let my brothers and sisters in so-called "blue" states push back against our president-elect and his hootenanny of fear and incompetence. I choose to focus my attention here at home in Arkansas. We are less than two weeks into the 91st General Assembly and too many legislators see this as a time to push an extreme agenda, one that causes many of us to question the hearts and morals of those legislators.

"Is there a heart in this house?" This is the question posed by Rev. Dr. William Barber II as he concluded his speech to the Democratic National Convention in July. "Is there a heart in America? Is there somebody that has a heart for the poor, and a heart for the vulnerable?"

I ask the same about the Arkansas General Assembly. Is there a heart in the house for those Arkansans who need our help and support? Is there a heart for families like mine who are able to remain in their homes because of unemployment benefits (they kept us afloat when my husband was laid off during my first pregnancy)? Is there a heart for the addicts who need treatment instead of incarceration? Is there a heart for our children and teachers in our public schools? Or is there only room in their hearts for Ecclesia College and school choice and tax-free weekends for guns? Tweeting out Bible verses and attending prayer breakfasts and moving heaven and earth to try to get a Ten Commandments monument on the state Capitol grounds are not actions that allow us to see into our legislators' hearts. Votes on bills do.

We watch as some of our legislators work to prevent food stamp recipients from enjoying the same food as everyone else. The same legislators receive a healthy per diem of our tax dollars to spend as they wish while those on food stamps struggle. We wait for the inevitable "bathroom bill" that proposes to fix a problem that doesn't exist by putting members of the LGBTQ community in real danger and jeopardizes our tourism and convention economy. We watch as those who claim to be pro-life ignore the evidence that policies such as affordable birth control, paid parental leave and comprehensive sex education reduce abortions.

There are bright spots from both parties. Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock), in a move that furthers the important process of decriminalizing poverty, filed a bill to end the practice of suspending driver's licenses for failing to pay as ordered. Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) has again put forth a family leave bill that helps our public servants. Let's not forget Governor Hutchinson's support of continuing the Arkansas Works Medicaid expansion that saves lives and jobs by providing needed preventative care and keeps open our rural hospitals. These are policies that reflect the morals and values that should be in our hearts. These are policies that will help our state and our citizens.

I think this is how we move forward. We take cues from Rev. Barber and the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, where activists peacefully protest actions by the state legislature each Monday. Those of us who believe in moral policies such as criminal justice reform and equal rights and health care for all should use those as our North Star. We call out and stand up to those legislators, regardless of party, when they promote injustice and inequality. And we celebrate those, regardless of party, when their hearts are open to helping all Arkansans. And we do as Rev. Barber instructed: "Stand up. Vote together. Organize together." Regardless of party.

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