By George Hohmann
CHARLESTON — Editor’s note: The following article is part of the West Virginia Press Association’s series on the “Our Children, Our Future” Coalition. Journalist George Hohmann is following the coalition’s efforts, providing reports from its organizational meetings this month through its attempts to have impactful legislation passed during the 2014 session of the West Virginia legislative session.
Organizers of a grassroots campaign to improve kids’ health and fight child poverty in West Virginia through a statewide call to action hope to build momentum this week and help set the agenda for the next session of the Legislature.
Started last year by kids’ health and anti-poverty advocates, the campaign — now operating under the banner “Our Children, Our Future” — is a loose coalition of groups including unions, chambers of commerce, faith groups, lawmakers, and kids and families themselves.
The “Our Children, Our Future” coalition won five victories or partial victories in the Legislature earlier this year, said Stephen Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Coalition for Healthy Kids and Families.
Smith’s Healthy Kids and Families Coalition was created in 1998 to push the Legislature to create the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP, in West Virginia. That effort succeeded. “West Virginia is seventh in the country in terms of enrollment,” he said.
“About one-and-a-half years ago, our board said, ‘On the one hand, poor kids in West Virginia have health care and that’s great. But on the other hand, in almost every other way, poor kids are worse off than when we started 14 years ago.
“As we were having that conversation internally, other organizations were having similar conversations about ‘What would it look like if we had a statewide campaign that was explicitly not about one issue or area but was tackling the problem of child poverty more broadly? What would that look like, how would you do it, who would be a part of it?’
“We don’t care about political affiliation. As long as you’re willing to work and you care about having a state where kids don’t grow up in poverty, come and learn how to make policy and win policy. This is especially for students, families and teachers — people who care about the issues. Come get the skills.”
Smith said his organization and a dozen other groups agreed a year ago to work only on issues considered winnable and impactful. They also agreed that “rather than spending lots of time in meetings, we would spend our time building the campaign” by bringing affected kids and families into the coalition and by reaching out to unlikely allies.
When it comes to policy, “you can’t work in public health without looking at poverty,” Smith said. “We had our first meeting in July last year. We voted on the ‘Our Children, Our Future’ name in December. Until then it was the child poverty campaign.”
A series of meetings around the state last year produced a list of 94 issues, which were narrowed to 17. Smith said issues were picked that were specific and winnable, had a co-chair and had a commitment to build a team of stakeholders. The team had to include affected families, allies, advocates and at least one policymaker.
Five issues made the cut: Expand Medicaid to more working families; protect and increase funding for efforts to prevent family violence; stop proposed cuts in child care benefits; promote healthy foods in schools; and pass legislation to address prison overcrowding.
There were some outright victories, like Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s decision to expand Medicaid. Others, like prison reform, were partial victories. Smith said the “Our Children, Our Future” campaign doesn’t claim sole credit for any of the victories, but did focus on those five issues.
“After having a little bit of success we thought, ‘The worst that could happen is we could say we have some wins and everybody go home,’” Smith said. “But we decided we wanted to build on that momentum. That’s how the idea of a policy symposium came up.”
In May it was decided, “Let’s open the door to all of the people we talked to, look at all of those issues we had discarded, and say to folks, ‘We’re putting out an application. If you can get together a concrete proposal, if you can agree to bring a team of stakeholders together who commit to coming Sept. 24, if you will write a report, then we’ll reserve a spot for you at the symposium and help with food,” Smith said. “What we’re committing to is to set the table.
“We hoped to get five or seven applications,” he said. But 20 were received and 18 met the criteria and will be the issues on center stage at a Sept. 24 symposium in Charleston. The issues range from foster care reform to removing soft drinks from the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
“One of the exciting things about this campaign is, in doing these community meetings, there’s a tension that’s prevalent,” Smith said. “On the one hand, people are convinced it is very hard to get things done because they’ve seen the way people butt heads and there isn’t progress and they’ve watched the jobs leave and they’ve watched the community associations crumble. There is a lot to be angry and frustrated about in the state right now.
“On the other hand, West Virginians are incredibly resilient and creative and have been making it work for so long that when an opportunity like this comes along … I mean, who are we? We’re a new campaign — a few groups working together. The Healthy Kids and Families Coalition is made up of organizations but the ‘Our Kids, Our Future’ campaign is a loose network. Yet this opportunity of ‘Yes, I can be a part of something that has an impact and where I’m going to have the opportunity to express real ideas and do real things, and not just talk about it’ is empowering.”
On Sept. 25 — the day after the symposium — the policy proposals will be presented to the state Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty.
Workshops designed to help people learn how to develop policies are scheduled Wednesday at the Dream Center in Beckley and Friday at the Conference Center in Bridgeport.
“From the beginning there was a strong emphasis that this not be a Charleston-only thing,” Smith said. “The Charleston symposium is happening because that’s where the Legislature is.”
Smith described the Beckley and Bridgeport workshops as Democracy in Action 101.
Both workshops will be from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. “The morning will be two hours of policy advocacy and policy development, led by people who have a lot of experience working in the Legislature or on the campaign,” Smith said. “Over lunch, half of these folks will get up and say, ‘Here’s what we’re thinking about working on.’ In the afternoon you’ll have a chance to drill down into one area and talk about what the message is, whom we should reach out to.”
Toward the end of each workshop Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, the Senate majority leader and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty, is scheduled “to talk about his experience as a lawmaker working with advocates,” Smith said.
The workshops are free but registration is required. To register visit the West Virginia Community Development Hub online at www.wvhub.org/events-and-opportunities.
To attend the symposium in September, contact Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or Alyson Clements at email@example.com.