Giving Black Women in Mississippi the Power to Create Change
From the fight against slavery to the civil rights movement, Black women have long been a powerful presence in Mississippi, leading the fight for change and equality. The Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable works to engage that key constituency through voter registration, a focus on building transformational leadership and support for issues that impact that state’s Black women, such as equal pay and Medicaid expansion. Spotlight spoke with MBWR Executive Director Cassandra Welchlin about the group’s current priorities, its role in helping Mississippians during the COVID-19 pandemic and its ambitions for the future. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Can we start by talking about the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable and the role the organization plays?
We are an intergenerational network of Black women and girls who work to increase voter participation through civic engagement, and we champion public policies that impact the economic security of Black women and girls’ lives and our communities, and we focus on the development of transformational leaders. We are one of 12 affiliates of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, most of which are based in the South.
We have four programs of work, that includes our policy advocacy focused on addressing issues that impact Mississippi Women’s Economic Security Initiative. The second program is our civic engagement work, under which we have our Power of the Sister Vote and Black Youth Vote projects. These projects work to increase civic engagement and voter participation through education and activation. We have a very specific niche, in that we focus on infrequent Black women voters, to target, educate and get them back out to the polls. Our third focus area is our transformational leadership development program. We understand the work that we do must be informed by women and we want to give them the tools that they need, so they can go out and be the leaders that they need to be, and also help us advocate for the necessities they need to be economically secure. Our last program of work is community outreach and rapid response. When catastrophic things happen in our communities, we are there to help provide real, hands-on support.
Why don’t we start with the last one—I’d imagine the past two years have been a very busy time. How have you been helping during the pandemic?
We’ve been doing a lot during the pandemic. A lot of our rapid response work has really focused on helping communities, particularly women, with child care and transportation. We understand that this pandemic has wreaked havoc on women and their families because they are losing jobs, or they fall right in that gap where they make too much to qualify for child care assistance or their hours decreased so that they don’t make enough to pay for quality child care programs. MSBWR, therefore, steps in to provide child care assistance by partnering with child care centers across the state. This allowed moms to go back to work or go look for a job. We also understood that children were not in school during the pandemic and that presented new challenges. To help lift that burden, child care centers needed to open up their doors to school-aged children, so their parents could go to work. MSBWR partnered with them to provide that.
Through our national coalition, we also provided transportation vouchers from Lyft to families. We gave them out to the community, particularly to moms who were pregnant who needed to get to their doctor’s appointments. Without this support, they wouldn’t have had transportation. During the 2021 winter storm that happened in Mississippi and Texas, some families were without water for weeks and some even for over a month. We were able to leverage dollars to support those families through providing water and groceries. We launched a campaign called Quarters Because We Care and we gave families an opportunity to go to the laundromat and wash their clothes because they didn’t have water. Those key things—transportation, child care, laundry services for families— were just so important and much needed in our communities and across the state.
How much of an impact did the expanded Child Tax Credit have on the families you work with—and how big a deal has it been that it’s now not available?
The Child tax Credit was a tremendous help to families. The economic downturn really shocked women’s pocketbooks and, and we actually have a Power of the Pocketbook campaign where we elevate awareness regarding how women do more with less in their pocketbooks. But when the pandemic occurred, families lost so much, so many wages, and they were behind on rent. And for many of these women, they were not only caring for their children, but they were caring for their parents as well. The tax credit provided relief for families. It allowed them to catch up on bills and prevented eviction and homelessness. It allowed them to even just have a little peace of mind where they can just go take their families out to dinner, to provide some joy for the children. has a right to experience joy. I feel like we’re going back to the same situations where families are going to be behind. Families didn’t even have $1,000 saved up for emergencies. And when we talk about the state of Mississippi, where we have 20% of Mississippians living in poverty and 49% of Mississippi’s workforce are women but yet we’re two-thirds of the minimum wage earners, our pocketbooks matter, our pocketbooks matter to our kitchen tables. Those added dollars are significant to ensure the household keeps going and that the budget is met at the end of the year.
Tell me what your policy priorities are at the moment. I know equal pay is a big one but tell me what else you are working on.
We are working on equal pay, and we look at equal pay as wages. The other priority for us has been expanding Medicaid to moms 12 months postpartum. That’s really important, particularly as Mississippi has one of the highest maternal mortality rates among Black women. It is really important that we have Medicaid expansion for those pregnant moms so that we can lower the mortality rate and we can have healthy babies and healthy moms.
One of the other things that we have been focused on this legislative session of course has been around all the redistricting work. We’ve been partnering with other organizations, to make sure citizens are educated about what redrawn electoral maps mean. Very simply, it means access to the voting booth. Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable wants to shift power at the voting booth and at the policy table. They go hand in hand because our policy table needs to reflect our family’s kitchen tables. The other focus has been the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. MSBWR is working to make sure those monies get to the places that they’re supposed to get to and that there’s some accountability around it.
The most heated fight right now has definitely been equal pay. It is moving in the legislature, and we are quite concerned about the two bills (SB2451 and HB770) that are moving right now in the legislature. The equal pay bills that we advocated for did not make it out of committee. harmful equal pay bills are now moving and we are quite concerned because nothing is equal about them and we know they would hurt all women, but particularly Black women and Brown women in the state of Mississippi.
And on the Medicaid issue, is there legislation currently proposed to address that?
There’s been a couple of pieces of legislation on this, but (state) Senator (Kevin) Blackwell, has passed a bill out of his committee that would expand Medicaid 12 months postpartum for pregnant moms. And that should come up for a vote in the next couple of weeks. This would be huge for Mississippi, because as you know, we have been unsuccessfully trying to expand Medicaid and so we didn’t want to have any reference of the word expansion in this legislation to give it a better chance of moving forward. We are really seeing some movement and we’re urging our network to call their legislators and tell them this would be a very important bill. We think that this could be a door opener to have a larger conversation, to make sure that all Mississippians who fall into that coverage gap are covered. We just think it would be really huge for the state of Mississippi, particularly given that we have such a high poverty rate among children and adults here in the state.
And my sense is that on the larger question of Medicaid expansion, that’s still an uphill battle?
It absolutely is an uphill battle for the state. Hospitals in Mississippi are suffering tremendously. We have emergency rooms that are closing and that’s a concern for communities that really are dependent on those small hospitals. It’s impacting emergency services such as ambulances coming to rescue families when they are in distress. And I believe this is a moral issue. No one should have to die prematurely when there is a solution, and the solution definitely is to expand Medicaid. We’re talking about people’s lives; we’re talking about how those lives are connected to their community and to families. In the state of Mississippi where we say, “In God, We Trust,” well, the Bible talks about taking care of the least of those. We are not walking the walk or being faithful to that commandment. There are so many benefits to expanding Medicaid in the state of Mississippi.
I also wanted to ask you about voter registration. There’s been a huge amount of national focus on what happened in Georgia in 2020 and Stacey Abrams’ work there, but isn’t Mississippi another place where the African American vote, particularly among women, is potentially a real sleeping giant that could change things?
Absolutely. People definitely ask us, what did the Georgia vote mean? We are different than Georgia and some of these other states because we don’t even have early voting. We don’t have mail drop-off boxes; we don’t have some of those things that these other states have. Mississippi is very antiquated in our approach to voting. We are forced to use the voter suppression processes, which include absentee voting. We work daily to protect the right to vote while we work to increase access to the ballot box.
Despite the challenges, it was encouraging to just see the voter turnout in these places in 2020 and it just encouraged us to keep doing what we have always been doing. Black women in Mississippi have the highest voter turnout in the country during presidential elections, but what we want to do is make sure that happens at every election, because we know it’s not just the presidential election that matters. It is every election to the school board, for mayor, for judges. Our work has been to educate, to let folks know what elections are happening, why it’s important, and then working closely with some of our other partners such as One Voice and Mississippi Votes who really work to make sure that returning citizens have a right to vote as well. Black women have been so important in Mississippi since we got the right to vote, and we want to keep that up and make sure we dismantle the barriers that exist when it comes to having access. Voting is at the heart of our democracy. Policy is the work of our democracy, to make sure that the heart of our democracy, which is around the access to vote, is intact, is strong, and is strengthened.