In honor of #GivingTuesday on November 29th, the Schott Foundation has reached out to some of our grantee partners to get the low-down on what they do, who they’re doing it for, and the challenges that they handle like rockstars every day.
The Schott Foundation has partnered with Southern Echo to support them in their efforts to engage African American parents and students in rural Mississippi in advocacy for school discipline reform policies, while also advancing alternative, community-based programs.
Today, we’re talking to Romona Taylor Williams, Director, Resource Development.
WHO: Southern Echo
WHERE: Jackson, Mississippi
WHAT: Parent/youth organizing
THEIR FICTIONAL CHARACTER OF CHOICE: The one and only Luke Cage, Marvel hero.
SF: Tell us about the organization – how did it get started, and why?
RTW: Southern Echo is a 26-year old civil rights and social justice organization that specializes in applied research, adult and youth grassroots leadership development, organizing, training and technical assistance. Over the years, we have been very successful in moving equitable and inclusive public policies around traditional public education, expanding democracy, economic opportunities, environmental justice and juvenile justice reforms. Our primary goal is to improve the quality of life of African Americans, poor and low-wealth children, families and communities throughout Mississippi and the Southern Region. We live in a state where racism, oppression and suppression are deeply ingrained in the culture, affecting every aspect of life. Institutional and systemic racism continues to serve as the root cause of barriers that impede families and communities from realizing their full potential.
Historically and currently, Southern Echo has placed education and its intergenerational community-organizing model as the fulcrum for advancing education and racial equity in Mississippi. We believe that education is the key to creating a pathway out of poverty for children and families. Thus, we have been working to create a first-rate quality public education system in Mississippi since our inception. Quality education tends to yield a higher quality of life for children, individuals and families; it is the driving force of active participation and engagement of community people in the political, educational, environmental and economic systems.
A special emphasis for Echo is the active inclusion of young people, as part of its inter-generational model of community organizing. Young people are less dependent upon the past, have the least fear of change, and the best potential for creating a broad vision for a fair and just society. Bringing youth and older people together in the same training and work spaces ensures that younger people become part of the evolving leadership process. When older leadership cannot carry on any more, next generation leaders are already in place, with the knowledge, experience and commitment to sustain the work.
The development of new, accountable leadership and organizations to empower the community depends on the transformation of individuals who do the organizing work, and transformation of the communities in which they work.
What are the main objectives of Southern Echo?
Our main objective is to empower African-American, low-wealth and poor communities with the necessary tools and skills needed to impact public policy at every level of government – local, state and national – in order to make the political, educational, economic and environmental systems accountable to the needs and interests of communities.
What are your core activities?
At the core of Southern Echo’s services are applied research, organizing, intergenerational leadership development, technical assistance and training.
What challenges do you face?
Institutional and structural barriers render vulnerable communities powerless. Across the board, structural racism is prevalent in education, economic opportunities, the environment and in political power structures. For example, the 2010 redistricting process was painfully felt in 2015, resulting in a conservative super majority in the House, Senate and the Governorship. Subsequently, the 2016 legislative session proved to be brutal towards vulnerable children, families and communities. The legislative leadership introduced and passed several bills that undermined traditional public education, voting rights, public health, Medicaid expansion and LGBTQ rights.
Resourcing our organizational and programmatic budgets presents a major challenge at this time – to continue our existing program of work and highly-anticipated demand and expansion of our work, given the outcomes of the 2016 legislative and the presidential elections. We need more on-the-ground organizing and base-building work to impact public policy – locally, statewide and federally.
How would you describe the people you serve? What is important to them?
Our constituency is primarily made up of low-income African American women, and 40% of our people served are under the age of 25. We also work with immigrants, formerly-incarcerated folks and English language-learners.
What’s important to them is a first-rate and quality education for their children, thriving communities and opportunities that lead to pathways out of poverty.
Romona, what do you love most about this work?
The most fulfilling part of our work is assisting and watching African American, low wealth and communities of color become the architects of public policy versus the objects of policies that impact their daily lives.
Tell me how Southern Echo compares to Luke Cage.
Luke depicts the challenges Southern Echo faces in our quest for racial equity and justice in Mississippi, the South, the country and the world. His confrontation with institutional and systemic racism in the judicial and penal system is very much a real-life experience for African-American males today. Luke was used in a scientific experiment gone bad, and he was empowered with superhuman powers that he uses for good. Southern Echo uses the exceptional powers of its staff, volunteers, funders and donors to fight for good – to empower communities of color to impact systems and move the needle toward justice.
Our work to dismantle institutional and systemic racism in education, especially for fair and just funding, will lead to education policies that create healthy schools and communities for all Mississippi children regardless of their zip codes.
#GivingTuesday is a chance for all to support incredible work happening around the country. Don’t forget to keep Southern Echo in mind on November 29th!