From Denise Smith, Founding Board Member
I am an 11th generation (on my mother’s side) Appalachian woman. My ex-husband, a former coal miner, was injured on the railroad and we lost everything we had acquired. Listening to lawyers argue over which employer was responsible for his bad health, and hitting a wall of a lack of resources to take care of him and our family, helped me realize that the system was set up against folks like us, and that we were not alone. As a result, I became active in what would become Virginia Organizing.
I remember the scene so clearly, it seems just like yesterday. It was August 19, 1995, and I was sitting in a room with nine other members of the first Organizing Committee of Virginia Organizing.
We had come together to try to figure out how to build a strong grassroots organization that would raise the voices of people directly affected by racism, poverty, discrimination, unaffordable housing, and more. We wanted people to learn democratic and leadership skills so they could be the ones deciding how to improve our communities. People like me.
We had a focus, but we needed to figure out how to build a lasting organization.
At that point, no multi-racial statewide group had survived because there were always racial tensions. So we decided that race would be a key part of our organizing approach and that we would hold Dismantling Racism workshops so people could learn from their own experiences, have a better understanding of racism, and decide powerful strategies on how to take effective action.
We believed in experimenting, trying new approaches, learning from groups in other states what might work in Virginia, and focusing on our own leadership development. We realized that we needed to continue to learn and grow as we helped others do the same!
We also knew that we had to build relationships across the barriers that had been set up between us, and that we needed to include parts of the state that were traditionally neglected or excluded by statewide groups.
One of the main things I remember contributing to that initial conversation is that I wanted us to be FOR something, not against everything. This is how our Statement of Beliefs was laid out, starting with “We believe that all people should be treated fairly and with dignity in all aspects of life…” It isn’t a list of problems, but rather a framework for what we are striving for, what we dream Virginia can be.
We came up with a powerful model for organizing in Virginia, and it has worked!
So here we are, celebrating our 25th year, staying true to our roots: Real people, real change. It’s not a quick organizing model, it’s not flashy — it’s good, hard work that our organizers and grassroots leaders are committed to doing to make the systemic changes we need.
We are building new relationships every day through our 16 chapters across the Commonwealth. We’ve done more than 140 Dismantling Racism workshops. More than 49,000 people have attended our leadership skills building sessions and we have had more than 600 student interns.
I’m proud of our long list of accomplishments. I am proud of the ever-growing number of people who have learned important leadership skills and have more meaningful lives because they know they can be part of an organization that is focused on building grassroots power and changing lives. People struggling every day with the same things I was, and still am, struggling with.
Growing diverse citizen leaders, who learn to use their voice, under a powerful statement of beliefs, is like throwing a rock into a still pond and the waves go out far and wide! With Virginia Organizing, there are many of those and we’re still growing. Here’s to the next 25 years…
Please send your donation today to keep the organizing going. Many people across Virginia will benefit.
Virginia Organizing State Governing Board
P.S. I hope that in this, our 25th anniversary year, you will invest in our vision and help us expand to more communities in Virginia. Thank you for giving whatever you can!