Thank you for joining us to celebrate the Virginia Organizing Project's 15th Anniversary. A lot can happen in 15 years and sometimes looking back can be dizzying! In 1994, I headed to Virginia to meet with concerned residents who were interested in organizing their communities. After working as a community organizer in Kentucky for 14 years, I began to realize that just across the border, many Virginians were ready to speak out and take action in their communities. They just needed the resources to do so.
The Virginia Organizing Project started with the simple goal of bringing people with similar problems together in order to find practical solutions. As simple as this goal was, the politics of power can intercede in ways too extensive to list. When I look back at the accomplishments of the last 15 years, I am proud of what we have achieved together but I am also reminded that long-term change is hard. Every battle has been hard fought. Providing a living wage to all workers is a common sense idea that has taken years to implement in many communities across the state — and the fight continues. Making sure that a black man standing trial in Lee County has a jury that represents his peers should be a given, but it is a battle we were fighting in 1998, not 1958! Seeing to it that every man, woman and child has access to affordable health care has been a goal for the last 80 years!
After two years of tea parties and town halls, we are finally just starting the process of change. And thanks to our Attorney General, change in Virginia just got that much harder. These hard fought battles over the last 15 years have led me to understand one thing: common sense and decency are not always the foremost doctrine of those who have power over our lives. We must come together and ensure that elected officials, corporations, the criminal justice system, school boards, zoning commissions and our financial institutions are accountable to the people. Always.
That is why today is not about celebrating an organization; it is about celebrating an idea. This idea was inspired by thousands of people across Virginia who got together and did the unthinkable: they got involved and spoke out together, challenging power structures along the way. They renamed bridges, fought for fair wages, pushed for non-discrimination policies, registered voters and demanded to be heard.
Over the last 15 years the Virginia Organizing Project has involved thousands of new people in the political and legislative process, whether it be testifying at the General Assembly, speaking out at local government public comment periods or going to Washington to lobby members of Congress. Since our start in 1995, the Virginia Organizing Project has grown into a large organization with over 90 employees. Besides our 17 chapters, we also have a “Joint Plan of Work” with 47 groups that operate under our umbrella, ranging from Advancing Green Chemistry to the Virginia Forest Watch.
Despite this growth, VOP has stayed true to its roots. We recognize that people coming together and speaking out is the only path towards long-term change. This idea is present in everything we do. Despite the fact that long-term change is hard, I appreciate that you have chosen the hard road with us. It would be that much harder and a lot less fun without your support. I look forward to the next 15 years as we organize together to bring real people together to fight for real change.
Take care, Joe Szakos