Celebrating a Good Year: VOTE’S Top 10 Wins of 2019

This was a big year for VOTE, from our large-scale policy wins, to the personal wins from each of our members. In 2019, we saw yet again that our organization is powered by the perseverance, hope, and vision of hundreds of members, dozens of partner organizations, and about 20 staffers. Here’s what this unstoppable cohort of changemakers considers to be our top 10 wins of this year: 

1. Our loved ones came home 

Several VOTE members or their loved ones got out of prison this year. Some of them had been locked up for more than 40 years. “I’m blessed,” says VOTE member Cornell Hood who recently came home after doing many years of a life sentence. “Being able to be free and work a stable job [is] my win.”

2. We improved our health

Getting healthy was many of our members’ top win this year. “I’m thankful to be alive and free,” says one VOTE member. We know a healthy body and mind are necessary to do this work. That’s why we partner with Tulane University to run the Formerly Incarcerated Transitions (FIT) Clinic, which provides formerly incarcerated people with quality healthcare after they come home. We’re proud to say that in the past year we’ve hired two full-time, formerly incarcerated community health workers who will be bridging the gap between FIP medical needs and the services available!

3. We had policy wins

Every fall, we work to elect the right people so that our policy proposals get into the right hands. This year we had some notable wins, like “taking a bite out of the habitual offender [three-strikes] statute,” as one VOTE member described it. We’ll come back stronger next year, with the goal of taking two or more bigger bites. Another win was the enactment of a unanimous jury requirement for sentencing someone who’s being charged with a felony, which began on the 1st of January. “I felt this win personally,” shares member Darlene Jones, who sat on a jury that ended up convicting someone for murder with only 10 out of 12 votes. She felt that “the prosecution hadn’t even proven the case.” Non-unanimous jury convictions like the one that Darlene witnessed are no longer possible as of January 1, 2019. People still awaiting trial on arrests that happened before Jan. 1 and those already incarcerated on split juries do not get the benefits of this newfound justice. In other words, our fight to make the unanimous jury law retroactive still continues. 

4. We voted for the first time!

Thanks to our legislative victory last year, Act 636 went into effect on March 1 of this year. This meant that this year was the first time many people with convictions were able to register and then vote! Voting as FIP marks the restoration of one of our core civil rights. “My high moment was the fact that I was able to vote for the very first time,” says VOTE member Donald Arbuthnot. “That blew me away.

5. Then we got out the vote

In addition to voting for the first time, countless members of the VOTE family also joined forces in canvassing, registering, and poll monitoring to make sure Louisianans voted in the fall elections. “It was a win to see young people from 21 to 23 as well as older people ages 50 and up getting involved,” one VOTE member says. “Age didn’t matter. The one goal was to get people out to vote. It’s important.” As a result, we re-elected many candidates who we believe are best suited to push justice reform with us in 2020 and beyond!

6. We re-discovered our power  

As we dove into our get out the vote efforts, many VOTE members also gained a deeper understanding of what political power means, including what seats are elected, how each position works for us, and how we can hold them to what they promise to do for our communities. As our fearless leader Norris Henderson says, “I vote because I understand the accountability that comes with it.” This year, more members than ever before alsotestified in front of elected officials, whether in the chambers of New Orleans City Council or in halls of the Louisiana State Capitol. “I spoke in front of both the City Planning Committee and the City Council for the first time to voice my opposition to the expansion of Orleans Parish Prison,” says our member Lauren Nguyen. “VOTE was the reason for that.” Elected officials are listening more intently than ever, too, and it shows. As one example, both the City Planning Committee and City Council voted unanimously to decrease the number of people allowed to be locked up in OPP. As one VOTE member reminds us, this year we earned an official nickname among legislators: the blue shirts.

Social movements can’t happen in silos. That’s why almost everything we do is with at least one partner organization that shares our values and visions. Our members are the weavers between partner organizations, strengthening the fabric of our entire movement. For example, VOTE member Wan Qi Kong participated in the 9th Annual NOLA to Angola bike ride this fall. “Completing the ride deepened my commitment to justice reform work,” she says. “It was a beautiful and moving experience.” Other members have brought new partnerships into our fold by running a toy drive for children with incarcerated parents and starting a prison ministry called Abolition Apostles–a few of many examples. 

8. We grew

Our statewide network has more members now than we’ve ever had before. “I learned about VOTE this past summer from a friend and made it my mission to get more involved,” a New Orleans member told us. Another said that they felt inspired to come back after many years away. In addition to the growth of our main chapter in New Orleans, we’ve seen the same in our three other chapters in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Shreveport. In the new year and beyond, we’re committed to developing these three other chapters, and one way we’ve already done that is by hiring four more full-time organizers. Additionally, our partner organization Voters Organized to Educate, which can lobby, endorse candidates, and get closer to political issues in the movement, hired its first full-time staff. We’re excited to work with all of the growing branches in our ever-expanding tree!

9. We deepened friendships

Our organization was started by several friends who had the shared experience of being incarcerated and were committed to changing their fate. Relationships are what keep this movement united, and we’re proud to be the reasons that many VOTE members became fast friends. “I was able to meet new friends this year who share the same passion as myself–fighting for justice,” says one VOTE member. These friendships remind us that what we’re building is a movement based on love.

10. We committed to gaining more wins

One VOTE member had a poignant message for us to remember as we celebrate this past year. “I’m waiting to receive my win,” he says, reminding us that there’s always more work to do, and more wins to be had. As we move into 2020 and beyond, these truths will echo in our ears. 

These wins prove that VOTE is on the up and up. And they would not have been possible without the continued support of our community. Please consider us in your year-end giving. Make a donation here. Just like our wins, no donation is too big or small.

Victory! Directly Impacted People in New Orleans Win America’s Most Progressive Public Housing Policy After Four Years of Organizing

New Orleans, the conviction capital of America, has just created the nation’s most progressive, and least discriminatory, public housing and Section 8 admissions policy. It is revolutionary. The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) has heard from the people for several years, including back-to-back hearings of standing-room-only crowds. We held a 24-hour vigil prior to the second hearing, which ended with the HANO board vote. The vigil sent a message to all housing providers: this is the right direction for our community, and we won’t stand for anything less.

Discrimination based on convictions, rather than race, have entered all parts of our lives since launching the Drug War nearly 50 years ago. Just last week came the revelation from President Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, that the Drug War was always a lie- it was merely a way to target and criminalize Black people and people on the Left. It has worked perfectly. By “disrupting communities,” political power is neutralized.

The vigil organized by Stand With Dignity and VOTE successfully brought together a few hundred people for teachings and story circles, including people from the Latin@ and Middle Eastern communities, to discuss gentrification, immigration, and criminalization. Those of us who spent the night in tents, cars, or staying up all night were awakened before dawn to the swarm of media angling to get their morning story.

The new policy takes into account the nature and date of each applicant’s convictions, and a three-member panel will review someone’s entire circumstances only when necessary. In such a highly impacted city, this affects tens of thousands of families. We pushed for additional amendments to the policy, pointing out that there should be one HANO-controlled board, the policy should explicitly allow people to keep their Section 8 voucher while having additional family members reviewed, creating stronger data reporting, and inserting mandatory language to control the private developers. For the most part, we got what we fought for.

Prior to the roughly 25 people testifying in support of the strongest policy we can get, the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance presented HANO with a 10 year plan for the city. The plan’s thick shiny book was presented to each board member (including myself, as I contributed a small part regarding vast housing discrimination against our highly-criminalized New Orleans residents). The plan calls for passage of the HANO policy, among many other housing objectives, as this issue is now squarely on the front burner. It was a short but perfect introduction to the “strict” three-minute limit testimonies we were all prepared to share.

When VOTE Executive Director Norris Henderson later asked the entire board to turn to the GNOHA plan, page 70, most had not taken the book out of the package. “I’ll wait,” he said calmly. He then referred to the “Case Study” of The First 72+. Norris is a founder of this reentry housing, run for us, by us, without any city funding. A week before, we said they should be embarrassed and ashamed for a government pointing to our housing program without funding it. It is time to stop giving funds to those with a “Not In My Back Yard” attitude. The reality is, the backyard needing affordable housing is bigger than the one that doesn’t. 

People with criminal records will finally be able to re-join their families’ leases at public housing sites. Section 8 voucher recipients, who make up most of the city’s assisted housing, can add family members with criminal convictions to their HANO voucher. The private landlords and developers who contract with HANO are now on the spot, as HANO board chairman Greg Bernal basically said they should implement the policy within thirty days or prepare for a fight. The policy calls on them to provide a “legal justification” why they are not implementing the screening procedures. Those who decline may end up finding activists’ tents on their own front lawns.

This four-year battle for a fair policy showcased who is affirmatively furthering fair housing in New Orleans. I never once heard from nor saw a staffer from the Office of Housing and Urban Development. Although HUD is a member of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, publicly stated how people with records are not automatically denied public housing, and issued a public memo reminding public housing authorities that arrest records alone are not evidence of wrongdoing… they did nothing “affirmative” in this process. In fact, HANO is submitting this policy for approval to HUD. Considering the public nature of this struggle, and our attempts to engage HUD’s national support, it is incomprehensible to believe they were not monitoring the situation. Acting “affirmatively” means to positively pick a side, and to “further” fair housing is to make it more fair than the status quo.

Criminal convictions have been used as a proxy for race for decades. And until predominantly White college campuses, ground zero for drug use, are policed as heavily as predominantly non-White public housing- a criminal conviction lacks fundamental fairness. Urban high schools, where there are more police than counselors, are policed more heavily than college campuses; and this is all a choice of resources.

We choose to have a homelessness subsidy in the form of cages. We choose to fund mental health, addiction services, and unemployment with the same thing: cages. We can’t pretend that we lack the funds for proper solutions to our problems.

Research shows that people with convictions who have stable housing are much less likely to be re-arrested. This stability provides an opportunity to work on other challenges in our lives, like finding work and raising our kids, and not be living desperately from pillar to post. HANO finally gets it, but our entire city must create a revolutionary budget. Because, while HANO may require new applicants, regardless of their history, to wait 10 years to access affordable housing, Orleans Parish Prison will make you wait about 10 minutes.

Public officials mentioning rehabilitation, recidivism or reentry need to be reminded of specific legal barriers encountered by people convicted of crimes, regardless of severity. Officials need to publicly explain why they will not remove the barriers, such as 389 different employment restrictions in Louisiana, and support successful recovery from a criminal conviction. Whereas most of these restrictions came out of the Drug War, and most disproportionately impact communities of Color, public officials should have two generations of data showing how these restrictions have built a stronger and healthier New Orleans… or admit they have been a total failure.

New Orleans is our home too, and we are all trying to find ways to make it better. In 2013, VOTE released a comprehensive report, “Communities, Evictions, and Criminal Convictions,” in an attempt to kickstart this conversation and move this initial policy piece impacting 80 million Americans, and their families.

Our report may be just a bunch of words, along with our press releases, blog posts, model policies, and flyers…yet behind those words is the struggle of people simply trying to live. None of those people were more powerful than a man we met at the vigil. He was homeless. We ate together, watched a film, and shared in the story circle. When he testified before the board, and tried explaining his hardship, he couldn’t get his own bunch of words out. The tears he shed spoke volumes, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed how someone stopped his three-minute clock to give him time to regain composure. He never did, but he didn’t need to. His very presence spoke the truth.

We look forward to other cities taking the lead of New Orleans, until the time when the leadership of HUD can bear witness to the truth we live day after day. It is a federal program, and is subject to one sweeping federal solution.