Spotlight Exclusives

Mississippi Center for Justice Works to Keep Hope Alive

Vangela M. Wade Vangela M. Wade, posted on

Challenges continue to mount for the residents of Jackson, Ms., from an ongoing water crisis to thus-far unsuccessful efforts to convince state lawmakers to expand Medicaid services for a city — and state — facing a potential health emergency because of shuttering hospitals. The Mississippi Center for Justice is a crucial advocate on each of those issues as a public interest law firm with a long history of fighting for equity and equality. MCJ CEO and President Vangela Wade spoke with Spotlight recently about the Center’s busy agenda for 2023; the transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Vangela, we’re here to talk about the Center, but having just seen this new bill passed out of the state House, I think we have to quickly start there. (Editor’s note: The Mississippi House of Representatives passed a bill on Feb. 7 that would create a separate judicial system and police force within the city of Jackson that would be appointed by all-white state officials.)

Every time you think that we are rising above our history, the pathologies of Mississippi, something like this occurs. If passed, HB 1020 will set us back, in my opinion.

I have to say that when I saw the Mississippi Today story, I did a double-take. I had to go back and read it again, as I thought I had misunderstood the headline.

HB 1020 is on its way to the Senate, and we are still determining if it will come out of that body and if it does, in what form. However, MCJ is keeping hope alive that there will be reasonable leadership in the Senate that might make some adjustments or amendments that can make this at least digestible by the Jackson community.

Well, thank you again for taking the time to talk with us. Why don’t we start with a general overview of the Center if you don’t mind?

Thank you for asking that. Over the last three years, during my leadership of MCJ, I have often been asked what MCJ does, especially since it seems like we cover so many areas of equity and justice across Mississippi. At its core and from its origin, MCJ is a public interest law firm that focuses on advocacy, direct service, direct legal service, and impact litigation across health, economic justice, fair housing, and property impact litigation, as well as voting rights, redistricting, criminal justice, reproductive rights, and just discrimination across the board. We also have an education project and, of course, healthcare or health law as well.

I think what is unique about MCJ is that while we have those core areas of focus, we stand ready to pivot and lean in where needed in the event of a manmade or natural disaster. That was exemplified in 2005 during Katrina when MCJ stepped in to help thousands of people who had lost homes or had severe damage to homes and could not get repairs because the state refused to distribute the money equitably. We stood in that gap, not only with a lawsuit but also by bringing our staff and thousands of other pro bono attorneys and paralegals from all over the country to help residents and homeowners deal with a wide range of property and ownership issues. And then again, during the BP spill, when there were hundreds of thousands of folks who had lost property and businesses and needed to file claims and get access to the funds that were available, MCJ stood in that gap as well. So, you know, we stand ready.

That’s a broad portfolio. What brought you to MCJ? Are you a native Mississippian?

I am from northeast Mississippi. I grew up in Verona on my grandfather’s farm. When I graduated from high school, I went off and said I’d never return, but I went from the East Coast to the West Coast and back to the East Coast and then came back to Mississippi to go to the University of Mississippi Law School. In 1996, immediately following law school, I came to Jackson to clerk with the Mississippi Court of Appeals, and I’ve been in this area ever since.

What are the major issues on your radar screen at the moment?

Well, of course, as we just talked about, we are focused on House Bill 1020, which has now moved over to the Senate. We’re also watching the legislature’s action toward Medicaid expansion and expanding postpartum care for women beyond 60 days to a full year. We’re continuing our economic justice focus by giving low-income people alternatives to payday lenders through our New Roots Credit Partnership program. We’re also working to help with re-entry for those persons with felony convictions on their record that will close the door to many economic, education, and housing opportunities. In the past year, we may have done close to 200 expungement petitions, which has an economic impact, not only on individuals and families but on communities when people can have a clean slate.

And what’s your outlook on Medicaid? Do you think there’s a possibility of the legislature doing anything, at least in terms of postpartum?

Well, in terms of postpartum, we understand that Senate Bill 2212 to expand postpartum coverage up to 12 months for Medicaid recipients passed the Senate yesterday and will now go to the House. The House bill didn’t come out of committee, so we are keeping our hopes alive that the Senate bill may be something that the House can adjust or live with. We know last year we waited with bated breath thinking that it would pass and that women across Mississippi had friends in the legislature that would consider their health and well-being as well as that of their children. But clearly, that didn’t pan out. But we are keeping hope alive that this year there will be reasonable minds and hearts in the legislature.

In terms of Medicaid expansion, recent polls have shown that a majority of Mississippians would vote for it if it came up as a referendum. But the referendum process remains unclear, right?

Well, at this point, we don’t have an actual referendum process, as it was struck down in 2021. So, that’s one issue in and of itself. At this point, we’re waiting for the legislature to expand Medicaid to those who are basically the working poor. And what we know is that close to 200,000 Mississippians are without healthcare. And these are people that are working, these are people who are your caregivers, who are working in low-wage restaurant jobs. These are people who are the barbers, the hair stylists, people who are self-employed, who are working every day, but either can’t afford healthcare or are having to make decisions about whether to pay healthcare premiums or put food on the table or gas in the car to get to the job.

It’s placing people in a real predicament, and what happens is that people then use emergency rooms as their primary healthcare. Expanding Medicaid would strengthen Mississippi’s healthcare infrastructure for everyone, and you wouldn’t have the debt incurred by low-income people trying to access healthcare in emergency rooms. That impacts hospitals, and the bottom line is that we see rural hospitals closing, leaving healthcare deserts. Expanding Medicaid would help to close those gaps and create jobs.


What about the ongoing water crisis in Jackson? What role are you playing there?

We have joined a Title VI lawsuit against the state, so those things, like the EPA investigation, take time. But more importantly, what we’ve looked to do as an organization is to look at not only the short-term needs of our community regarding getting consistently clean water but the long-term. And in doing that, we are in conversations with one of our community partners over in southwest Jackson to create alternative clean water sources, such as a reverse osmosis system in a community center that would serve not only that community center but also the people within a community when the water is not drinkable. So when there is a boil water alert, they can come to the community center with their water receptacles and fill them and use them.

That will also give the community an alternative to these plastic bottles of water, which will be an environmental issue, especially in a city with no real recycling options. And it would give that community help for its elderly residents and those who are disabled or sick and need immediate and consistent water supplies.

And finally, back to where we started, I know this just happened, but what is the general strategy in addressing this bill that just came out of the House? Is advocating in the Senate the main focus right now?

It is — advocating, educating, and outreach to lawmakers and our business community here in the metro Jackson area, particularly those in that Capitol Complex Improvement District. People must look at the issues and concerns from the perspective of the entire Jackson community, not just those folks included in that carved-out, exclusive area. Of course, on the other side of this, if this is signed into law and contains issues that we think are unconstitutional or discriminatory, then the next step is what lawyers do.


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