It’s not by chance that Cassandra Welchlin leads an organization focused on advocating for the needs of Black women. The social worker, organizer and now executive director of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable (MS BWR), learned the relationship between power and choice at an early age.
Welchlin is the daughter of a single mother who earned a little over $2 an hour cleaning office buildings in downtown Jackson. Her mother couldn’t afford child care, so Welchlin hid in a utility closet as her mom worked. It was in that closet where Welchlin said she learned her ABCs.
“My mother worked across the street from the state Capitol where mostly white male legislators had the power to write a bill into law to increase her wages,” said Welchlin. “I saw that struggle and developed empathy. I may not have known the words to describe it back then, but I understood that this was about women’s economic security and Black women having dignity in their work.”
Today, she leads a group that works to shift power at the voting booth and at the policy table by advocating for policies and leaders that will improve opportunities for Black women and girls to make the best choices for their families and communities. Its work to advance women’s economic security, increase voter participation and support Black women in leadership has earned the nonprofit a $600,000 Vote Your Voice (VYV) grant over three years to support its operations.
The Southern Poverty Law Center initiative, conducted in partnership with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, supports local, grassroots organizations that are committed to strengthening democracy and voting rights in communities of color in the Deep South. The SPLC has pledged $100 million in grants over the next decade to support organizations in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.
“We can’t overstate how critical this work is,” said Robin Brule, the SPLC’s Vote Your Voice program officer. “We’re working with groups on the ground that are place-based and incredibly knowledgeable about their own communities, that have built strong, trusted relationships. They’re working to remove discriminatory barriers to the ballot and are committed to expanding civic engagement and participation, operating, unfortunately, with very few resources to ensure every voter has a voice.”
SHE NEEDED HELP
The need for this work in Mississippi is undeniable.
Black women in the state who work full-time, year-round earn 57 cents for every dollar white men make, while part-time, part-year workers earn only 51 cents, according to data from the National Women’s Law Center. Child care remains a significant barrier to economic advancement, particularly for single mothers in a state where almost 50% of children are raised in single-parent households – among the highest share in the nation.
Access to adequate health and reproductive care is also a major challenge for many women and families, as the state has for years refused to expand Medicaid coverage for low-wage earning people. Also, last year, when the federal government ended the COVID-19 public health emergency, the state started purging beneficiaries from its rolls.
Monique Harvin came to MS BWR after the birth of her fifth child. Despite having undergone a surgical procedure to prevent future pregnancies, doctors told Harvin she had a tubular pregnancy, a potentially life-threatening condition for mother and baby.
“It was stressful – emotionally, spiritually, and on my body,” said Harvin. “It was hard for me to accept.”
After a difficult pregnancy, and the delivery of a healthy baby, Harvin’s mental health swiftly declined. She felt tired and depressed. Her children’s father worked out of town, leaving her to juggle four young children, a newborn and other responsibilities. She needed help.
Yet Harvin said she couldn’t access any substantial postpartum services through Medicaid because she no longer qualified during a short period following her child’s birth. Before March of last year, Mississippi women could receive only two months of postpartum Medicaid care.
In a passing conversation, a co-worker told Harvin that MS BWR might be interested in hearing her story and could possibly offer some help. Harvin reached out, and she joined what would become a series of meetings and conversations about Black and Latinx women’s struggles seeking quality health care in the state.
“I felt immediately like, ‘Monique, you’re not alone,’” Harvin said. “I got a chance to get it out, to express my concerns, my thoughts, my feelings. Something that had once caused me trauma, depression and anxiety, I could be open about it in a safe environment. Not only sharing but hearing other women’s stories and making connections really helped me to overcome those barriers.”
The initiative, Mississippi Voices Project, which addresses access to health care for Black and Latinx women, is just one of the ways MS BWR aims to translate the individual needs and stories of women into political action. The organization also runs a program, called Quarters Because We Care Project, that provides laundry services to low-income families throughout the year.
“We leverage that as an opportunity to do all the work that we do,” said Welchlin. “We do voter registration in the laundromat. My mother is also a retired teacher. She conducts school in the laundromat. While the moms are washing, she takes their babies and reads with them.”
WE ARE THE PEOPLE
The nonprofit also provides rent and utility support to mothers in need, while offering training opportunities for women interested in political leadership and youth civic engagement.
Khloe Robinson is a 10th grader who became involved with MS BWR when her mother brought her along to some community cleanup events the group held around Jackson. She’s now part of a youth leadership team that works to help young people understand the power of voting and ensure that when they’re old enough to cast a ballot, they’re motivated to head to the polls.
“We see a lot of politicians who don’t really represent us, that’s why making sure Black people get out and vote is so important,” said Robinson. “Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable is really focused on making Jackson a better place. They really try to get into the community and inform people about what we can do to make this city better.”
The SPLC grant will help MS BWR expand its existing work outside of the Jackson metro area, to conduct surveys and polling, and to continue voting rights and youth engagement work year-round. One of the group’s aims is to increase participation in down-ballot elections that have a pronounced impact on local communities.
“We are thrilled about this grant,” Welchlin said. “So often, small nonprofits don’t get the recognition, don’t get the dollars. Yet we’re the ones that are closest to the people. We are the people; our families are the people. So, this is personal. We still haven’t gotten to where we want to, but we’ve grown so much. This means a lot.”
Here’s a look at Mississippi’s other Vote Your Voice grant recipients and how they plan to use this funding to strengthen democracy:
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE FUND – GRANT AMOUNT: $300,000
The Children’s Defense Fund works to level the playing field for all children by advocating for policies that improve their lives and by creating community partnerships and programs to empower children and their families – with a particular focus on the needs of children in families with low incomes, children of color and children with disabilities. Through this $300,000 grant, the organization aims to boost civic engagement, voter education, registration and mobilization among young people, returning citizens, individuals purged from voter rolls and sporadic voters by hosting community workshops and forums; door-to-door canvassing; a targeted issued-based communications campaign; and digital engagement.
MISSISSIPPI CENTER FOR REENTRY – GRANT AMOUNT: $50,000
The Mississippi Center for Reentry provides life skills and job training, GED education, career planning and job placement assistance to formerly incarcerated people to assist them in reentering society. Since 2022, the group has provided voter education and held registration drives in Mississippi prisons, educating more than 400 individuals and assisting more than 150 currently incarcerated people in completing voter registration applications. Through this grant, the organization aims to increase civic engagement among formerly incarcerated Mississippians of color in nonmetro areas and to advocate for policy change within the corrections system.
MISSISSIPPI STATE CONFERENCE NAACP – GRANT AMOUNT: $495,000
The Mississippi State Conference NAACP is a chapter of the historic civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Since 1909, its mission has been to eliminate racial discrimination and ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of all people. Since 2012, the Mississippi State Conference NAACP has registered more than 50,000 new voters. With this grant, it seeks to increase the voting participation rates of Black people throughout the state by increasing knowledge and awareness on issues impacting the community such as health care access and Medicaid expansion, minimum wage, and criminal justice reform.
PARENTS’ CAMPAIGN RESEARCH AND EDUCATION FUND – GRANT AMOUNT: $330,000
The Parents’ Campaign Research and Education Fund is an alliance of moms, dads, grandparents, teachers, community leaders and citizens who advocate for Mississippi’s public school students. The organization provides objective research and analysis of public education policies and legislation to state leaders, policymakers and the public. With this SPLC grant, the organization aims to mobilize Mississippi public school supporters in critical elections and to engage and coach local advocates to become agents of civic change who can directly influence leaders and institutions that determine the quality of their children’s education and economic and civic opportunities. The group will be particularly focused on engaging communities of color, rural communities, young and single parents, and low-wealth households.
WE MUST VOTE – GRANT AMOUNT: $150,000
We Must Vote is a voter mobilization organization created to help people understand the power of their vote by providing education, registration and transportation assistance to underserved communities and people who have rarely or never voted. Over the last several years, it has registered more than 21,000 voters and assisted 255 formerly incarcerated people in restoring their voting rights. With the grant, We Must Vote aims to increase voter turnout among Black citizens in rural communities who have limited access to resources, through targeted campaigns, door-to-door canvassing and voting rights restoration efforts.
ONE VOICE – GRANT AMOUNT: $400,000
One Voice is a nonprofit working to democratize public policy in Mississippi. The organization advocates for the representation of historically silenced communities in spaces of power and works with communities to increase their awareness and capacity to create change and build power. With this SPLC grant, One Voice will work to expand voting rights in the state, push back against voter suppression laws and increase civic engagement among young Latinx voters in rural areas.
MISSISSIPPI VOTES – GRANT AMOUNT: $500,000
Mississippi Votes is a youth-led intergenerational organization invested in moving Mississippi forward through outreach that empowers young people, encourages civic engagement and educates communities on voting rights through place-based grassroots organizing. Through this grant, Mississippi Votes will increase its voter registration activities among low-propensity Black and Latinx voters, host youth policy summits, increase its field operations and door-knocking initiatives, and continue to advocate for electoral transparency in state politics.