Secretary Karen Downing is a native of the Eastern Shore and its public schools. She went to Norfolk State University and then returned home in 1990 and got involved in service to the community.
When Virginia Organizing began to form a new chapter on the Shore in 2016, Karen got involved right away. She was concerned about many challenges that residents of the area face such as poverty, lack of access to health care, and education injustice. She has participated in Medicaid expansion rallies, visits to legislators in the district and in Richmond, and she has spoken to the Accomack School Board on several occasions as a leader of her chapter.
Karen has worked on several of the chapter’s campaigns, including: health care, school-to-prison pipeline, Medicaid expansion, recruitment and retention of qualified teachers of color and universal coverage of broadband for the Eastern Shore. The Eastern Shore is an economically disadvantaged area and there are many disparities and inequities in the communities. The first time Karen spoke to the school board, she discussed the need for better sensitivity and cultural awareness among teachers so that they know how to address differences among students.
The chapter has been successful with several campaigns, but change, especially lasting change, takes time. Modified recruitment strategies, better salaries, affordable housing, and community support are needed to attract and retain teachers to the area. Karen’s vision is of a “student-to-teacher pipeline,” which would recruit children in the schools to get education degrees and bring them home to the Eastern Shore to teach in the community.
Karen likes a number of the strategies that set Virginia Organizing apart from other groups. “We choose a specific target and campaign and take decisive action,” she says, describing the Medicaid expansion celebration with Senator Lynwood Lewis as one example of the chapter’s successful relationship building. She also appreciates the importance of canvassing directly affected people, listening to their views, and recruiting them to join the chapter’s campaign.