In 1993 a group of Arkansas grassroots, religious and labor leaders got together to strategize how they could more effectively move positive reforms through our often resistant legislature. The leaders were frustrated that big business interests worked together to win favors and block reforms, while community and worker interests were isolated and often defeated.
The leaders, convened by Brownie Ledbetter, developed the blueprint for the modern Arkansas Public Policy Panel: Organize people to improve their communities and build a powerful statewide coalition. They knew we had to get more people involved, especially from low-income and marginalized communities. And they knew we needed to work together like never before to overcome the barriers that stopped progress in Arkansas for so long.
I was hired by Brownie in 1996, 20 years ago, to help organize community groups and bring the coalition together. The Arkansas Citizens First Congress (CFC) met formally for the first time in 1998, on the roof of the Park Hotel in Hot Springs with over 100 delegates from member organizations. They came from all corners of the state and across a wide diversity of issues and backgrounds.
A lot of people thought we were crazy and no one was sure it would work, but as we meet this weekend for our 12th convention we have a powerful track record of transforming laws to benefit Arkansans: Multiple election reforms including mandatory poll worker training, more election monitors, extended early voting hours and Saturday voting; laws protecting clean water and addressing climate change; extra resources to boost education for children in poverty and expanded access to pre-K; an Arkansas Department of Agriculture to help family farmers; funding for domestic violence programs; and making quality health care more accessible and affordable. We also helped stop attacks on consumers, the environment, public education and civil rights more times than we can count.
The remarkable thing about this (partial) list of accomplishments is that each one started with someone saying, “There ought to be a law.” They developed their ideas in their community groups. Delegates of those groups introduced their ideas to one another at the CFC coalition, where they debated and elected a set of priorities. Then they used their collective strengths to convince lawmakers to pass those priorities. Democracy as it should be.
Our biggest accomplishment is that thousands of Arkansans have engaged in shaping Arkansas’s future. We train groups on how the process works and help them develop strategies on the issues they care about. We help people come to the Capitol to talk to their lawmakers and attend committee hearings where most of the hard decisions are made. Their work makes our communities and state stronger.
It’s not always easy. Our members sometimes have powerful but principled disagreements. We are up against the ever-increasing influence of big-money special interests. We’ve seen common sense laws fail, like hate crimes legislation meant to deter terrorism that intimidates a whole community of people like the Orlando shooting. The political culture in Arkansas is corroding.
But we have proven that grassroots Arkansans can win meaningful reforms when they work together.
We are a powerful coalition because we know the most important thing about our coming together is that we stick together. A lot of incredible leaders have given their talents, time and money to help the CFC become an enduring voice for grassroots progress in Arkansas. We haven’t passed a single thing by ourselves. Each success has a broad range of people and organizations working together to get it done. Our greatest strength is a network of people across the state who care about one another and are willing to take action on each other’s behalf.
This Saturday, in the middle of our convention at the Arkansas 4-H Center, we will take a break to present our Dragon Slayer Awards to some of the incredible leaders making Arkansas a better place. We’ll honor longtime election and environmental leader Barry Haas; Paul Kelly, a pillar for those in need at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families; Our House, the groundbreaking program for the homeless; FORGE, the microeconomic developers in the Ozarks; Concerned Citizens of Prescott, a group working toward improving public schools; Robert McAfee, who is leading the fight against carbon pollution; Concerned Citizens of Huttig, a group overcoming barriers to fair elections; and Concerned Citizens of the Monticello Area, a group that is bringing the community together. I hope you can join us.
Bill Kopsky is executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.