Lifting Up The Voices of Marginalized Communities in Mississippi
Many native Mississippians leave the state to seek opportunities elsewhere. But Nsombi Lambright-Haynes, executive director of One Voice Mississippi, decided to stay to try to make her home state a better place. One Voice works to represent the needs of marginalized communities in the state on issues that range from pushing for Medicaid expansion and equal pay provisions to voter education and outreach. Lambright-Haynes is one of many advocates in the state currently calling for urgent solutions for the water supply issue in Jackson, the state capital, as well as reforms to Mississippi’s TANF program in light of an ongoing financial scandal. She spoke with Spotlight recently; the transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Why don’t we start with an overview of the work you are doing with One Voice?
We are a leadership development and civic engagement organization, and our main mission is to lift the voices of traditionally marginalized communities in Mississippi. That’s a pretty broad mission, to be sure, so more specifically, we work around budget and policy issues that affect Mississippians who have low-income levels. We most recently joined in a coalition with a bunch of other advocacy organizations to address the TANF scandal in Mississippi, and we issued a report about TANF in Mississippi and its impact on Mississippians and how close to 90 percent of individuals who have applied for those benefits have been turned down in our state. Over the years, a lot of our work has started to focus on looking at those policies that keep people in that cycle of poverty in Mississippi and undermine the wellbeing of families.
I want to come back to the TANF scandal, but I’m guessing you’ve also been part of the movement in the state to push for Medicaid expansion and equal pay?
Absolutely. And we support one of our partners, the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, who really led that initiative to support equal pay in Mississippi. We were not happy with what came out of that process, in which we felt working families were really slighted. Around the country, people thought that we had a victory just because of the name of the bill. But the minute you started reading it, you knew that this was not something that was supportive of families.
How long have you been at this work?
I’ve been at One Voice for 10 years and doing this work in general for over 20 years.
And are you a native Mississippian?
I am, I was born here in Jackson.
As someone who spent some time there, it’s sometimes it’s difficult to explain to people why people like you stay, given how difficult it is to advocate for and to create the sort of change that you want. How do you answer that question?
One of the main reasons I stayed here was because of family. Most of my family is here and so my history and legacy are rooted here. I chose to stay here and raise a son here and I wouldn’t second guess that decision, even now looking back on all of the trials and tribulations of living here. The other reason why I chose to stay was because of the hope of making Mississippi better and being part of that change. When I graduated from college, Jackson had elected its first Black mayor and we also had a majority Black city council and I just a lot of hope and promise for the future. What I didn’t understand at the time was some of the socio-economic things that were happening at the same time—the declining infrastructure, the white flight into the suburbs. Now, 30 years later, I’m seeing the impact of that and, I really still want to be a part of using that wisdom that I’ve gained to try to make a difference.
Are there areas as you look into the immediate future where you see hope for progress? You have this massive TANF scandal in the state—does it give you hope that the attention that program is getting could lead to reforms and improvements? It sounds like the legislature at least is looking at putting more controls on how that money is allocated.
I’m hoping that at least that happens, but I’m also hoping that a new system for tracking applicants is developed. That’s one of the things that we requested in our recommendations because of the sharp decline in applicants over the years. And we know why people are not applying. It’s just too difficult. We’re also hoping that any changes can trickle down our systems for childcare vouchers and SNAP benefits. We know a lot of families that are having some of the same difficulties with those programs as they are with TANF in terms of the recertification and getting all the paperwork together to become eligible and stay eligible.
Did the expanded Child Tax Credit have a real impact on the families you are working with?
It did, though we had of course hoped it would be extended.
What about Medicaid expansion? Do you see anything happening there anytime soon?
I think that once we reinstate our ballot initiative process in Mississippi, that’s probably going to be the best way for us to get Medicaid expansion here. A couple of years ago, our ballot initiative process was taken away from us as a result of a lawsuit and our legislature could have fixed it by just changing the language in the law from five congressional districts to four congressional districts. They didn’t do that, so I don’t know what’s going to happen now. We may have to challenge it legally.
And my understanding is that given some of the polling that’s been done, if Medicaid expansion were to come up, it looks like it at least would have a chance to pass, correct?
Absolutely. It would pass overwhelmingly, because we have so many communities that are without adequate healthcare, where people have to drive more than 50 miles to get to a hospital.
And that’s probably only become worse as a result of the pandemic.
Absolutely. And people are interested in things like telehealth and all of those things which we could have more of at affordable prices with Medicaid expansion.
And what about equal pay? Are you folks going to take another run at that in the next legislative session?
We’re definitely going to. Our partners are definitely gearing up for another fight and we’re definitely going to support them in it.
You mentioned the infrastructure in Jackson and obviously that now has become a big national story. Are you more hopeful now that the federal government has become more involved? The EPA has launched an investigation.
Yes. I’m hopeful that with the EPA funding and other federal funding, we can at least get our plant back in order. For our overall water system now, it’s going to take a lot more money to really fix some of the other infrastructure problems that are happening in Jackson. It’s going to be a long haul, but I’m confident that if we can make sure that we if we stay on track with these repairs and make sure that our state doesn’t hinder our progress, we can really make it happen.
Finally, tell us about your criminal justice work.
Rights restoration for individuals with felony convictions is a big part of our work, along with looking at individuals in the Mississippi Delta that are, that receive electricity from electric co-ops.
Tell me more about that
Several years ago, we started getting complaints through our civic engagement work about really high energy bills in some of these rural communities. People were complaining about $600, $700 energy bills. And through just a little investigation, we found out that in these places that have electric co-ops, many of these folks are actually member owners of these co-ops — but didn’t know what that meant. In doing that research, we found out that a member owner really has a lot of rights, such as helping set rates and making recommendations on how profits should be spent.
We decided to implement a campaign to educate people on their role as member owners. And so far, we have one person who has been appointed to their electric co-op board, and we’ve continued to support them and educate them to help them hold their board accountable.