- UNBOWED: Members of Gould Citizens Advisory Council at their first meeting after being banned from meeting by the Gould City Council in 2011.
In the town of Gould just two years ago, most who surveyed the scene would conclude that the government was broken. Years of mismanagement in the town of 1,300, about 30 miles southeast of Pine Bluff, had led to a city bankruptcy and crippling IRS debt. Two of the City Council members were holding office illegally, and many citizens had lost faith in the democratic process. Irregularities at the ballot box included candidates and candidate family members literally looking over voters' ballots at the polls.
Things came to a head when the City Council passed an ordinance banning a civic group, the Gould Citizens Advisory Council (GCAC), from meeting in the city. Working with help from allies across the state, the GCAC fought back and eventually got the unconstitutional ordinance repealed and the ineligible City Council members removed. The GCAC ran its own slate of candidates for the city council, and they won in a landslide last November.
"It shows the power of the community getting together," Curtis Mangrum, the GCAC chair said.
This success story of local grassroots citizen advocacy was made possible in part by the community-organizing work of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, a non-profit social-justice organization in the state that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. (A celebration willbe held at Philander Smith College on Saturday evening, June 15. Tickets are available via the panel's website.) The GCAC is one of many groups in Arkansas that have been nurtured and supported by the panel, which has been one of the state's strongest voices for progressive causes both locally and at the state legislature.
"For so long, we really were not engaged," Mangrum said. "With the help of the panel, we became educated on the political process. We didn't know the power that we had."
The panel's roots are humble — it began in 1963 when a diverse group of mothers of school-age children began travelling the state as the Panel of American Women. They held public discussions on desegregation and multiculturalism.
The guiding principles of the panel's work today can be seen in those early efforts, Executive Director Bill Kopsky said. Often facing hostile audiences, the women didn't try to preach a political message; they focused on telling their personal stories and taking people's questions seriously no matter where they came from.
"It's a lot easier to misunderstand someone who you don't know," Kopsky said. "So a big part of our strategy is to build relationships across lines of diversity."
In the 1970s, under the direction of Brownie Ledbetter, the panel began to implement programming in public schools and eventually broadened its focus beyond education to other justice and equity issues in state policy. (It changed its name to the Arkansas Public Policy Panel in 1987.) Its major focus by the 1980s was an effort at progressive tax reform. The panel received a grant to study the tax system in the state and it was brought on as a policy advisory arm of then-Gov. Bill Clinton's commission on tax reform. But when the tax-reform effort collapsed under resistance from the business community, it "led to some soul searching on the panel," Kopsky said. "The analysis was that we'd clearly demonstrated how wrong the tax system and other issues were. But being right is not always enough. What Arkansas really needed was more people involved in the process to move the kind of fairness and equity issues that we care about."
The panel began to transition from policy research toward a focus on community organizing and coalition building. These form the two main tracks of the panel's work today: local organizing and advocating for progressive change in the state legislature via a broad statewide coalition known as the Citizens First Congress.
On the local track, the panel has evolved from focusing on particular issues to a "place-based model" that aims to empower sustainable local community groups that are engaged with the political process and involved in local government.
"Our organizing model is getting as many people around the table as possible from all parts of the community," Organizing Director Bernadette Devone said. "We want a shared vision in that community, and then we begin to help them develop leadership skills through a strategic planning process where they are working together to come up with an action plan. The main goal in that process is to allow people to develop their voice, become more engaged and civic-minded, and to begin to start addressing the issues that are plaguing their cities."
The panel offers resources and training, support staff, and access to a network of allies across the state, but Devone and Kopsky stressed that the process is driven from the ground up in the communities they work in.
"Our organizers, we are not the leaders, we are the people that assist the local leaders in getting things done," Devone said. "We come in and educate them about the political process. Once we've done that, we stand back and let it roll."
"The panel helped us get organized," said Joe Britton, chair of the Concerned Citizens of Monticello, which formed several years ago with help from the panel. "Our elected officials were making decisions on our behalf without consulting us." CCM members organized the first open candidate forums the community had ever had, started a newsletter, and began attending local city council and school board meetings. Britton has already seen a change. Their representatives in local government are "more responsive to us," he said. "It's different when you go as one person, but when you go as a collective group, it makes them pay attention."
Groups like CCM and GCAC in Gould aren't just working for change locally, they're also active at the state General Assembly during the legislative session. "Once we get people involved at the local level, the next step is to go to the Capitol and work to get some bills and legislation passed that benefits our community," GCAC chair Curtis Mangrum said. GCAC was a key driver in getting laws passed to double the number of statewide election monitors and mandate training for all poll workers.
The panel started the Citizens First Congress 15 years ago to work on progressive issues at the state legislature. The coalition now includes more than 50 advocacy groups, both local organizations like those in Monticello and Gould as well as larger statewide groups like the Arkansas Education Association. Prior to each legislative session, representatives from member groups meet to choose an agenda focusing on key priorities and pool resources during the session to advance that agenda.
"The beauty of the Congress is getting folks that are stepping outside of their individual interests and seeing the connection and realization that their issues are my issues and my issues are their issues," CFC Co-Chair Mark Robertson said. Robertson's focus is energy efficiency, and he helped educate members in the southeastern part of the state on energy issues at a regional caucus meeting in the Delta. Having advocates from all over the state, and from groups normally focused on other issues, was key to the CFC's success in getting energy-efficiency bills passed this session, he said. "From an elected official's perspective, any time they can see a broad base of support or opposition on an issue coming from a diverse group, that adds a lot of credibility and clout."
Interns from the panel read every bill during the session, both to help the CFC take positions and form action plans, but also to take a watchdog role during the session. "Part of our goal is to share that information with the public through Facebook, through our website, through email," Kopsky said, noting that thousands of bills are filed over the course of several months and it's nearly impossible to follow for citizens at home. "We want to make it easier for the public to be involved." That means keeping people engaged through bulletins during the session and a post-session scorecard, and also bringing hundreds of people to the Capitol to participate in the state political process for the first time each session.
Through trial and error, the panel's strategy has changed a lot in the last 50 years, but "a commitment to diverse folks working together to make this state better is still paramount," Kopsky said. He acknowledges the challenges for a progressive group working in an increasingly conservative state but notes that the panel has a long history of tenacity. "I think this past legislative session just confirmed to us more than ever that having engaged grassroots community folks is the only way you can make progress in this political climate," he said. "We're going to continue to deepen and expand."