The following is a transcript of a speech delivered by Evelyn Dortch as part of the Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington DC in 2006.
My name is Evelyn Dortch and I am the founder and Executive Director of Direct Action Welfare Group, better known as DAWG. We are the only welfare rights group in West Virginia and the only organization in the state ran by poor people for poor people dealing with poor people’s issues. West Virginia is the only state located entirely within the Appalachian Region. Many people have referred to Appalachia as America’s “third world”. West Virginia is historically poor, but West Virginia also has a long history of organizing for change.
The state was born out of struggles and forged its existence amidst the infamous coal wars and marches lead by Mother Jones. West Virginia is a land settled by Irish, German, and Italian immigrants and ex slaves looking for freedom. West Virginia has a rich history of union organizing and overcoming power struggles. West Virginia also has a long history of poverty. The first family to ever receive food stamps in the United States was in Welch, West Virginia.
Poverty is a way of life for many in West Virginia. Over half the children in the state receive free or reduced school lunches. 21% of families with children under 18 live below the poverty line, with 36% of them headed by females. I am one of that 36%. I am a former welfare mother, a college graduate, a domestic violence survivor, and a soon to be first time Grandmother. I have four children ages 22 to 17 and right before leaving to come here, I found out my 22 year old is expecting. I am excited but I am also worried about what kind of world this child is entering…… A world where working families are falling farther and farther behind and parents are forced to work 2 and sometimes 3 jobs just to feed their children… A world where more and more money is spent on national security while families are losing their financial security……. A world where many families are just one paycheck or one illness away from homelessness. This is not the world I want my grandchild being born into and I’m sure neither do you. That is why we have to fight to ensure that all children are born into a better world. That all children have health care and food and a place to live. We have to believe that the world can change and we have to do everything possible to realize this.
When I started organizing mothers on welfare it wasn’t to create an organization or a job for myself. As a matter of fact most of the time we barely have enough money to cover our organizing efforts let alone salary. I’m definitely not in this to get rich; I’m in this to create a better life for us and our children. DAWG grew out of a group of 7 welfare moms who were just trying to figure out the changes brought about by welfare reform. As we learned the new rules we shared the information we learned with other welfare moms. We started out just trying to figure out how to survive. Several of us were in college and the new rules meant that we had to quit school or lose our welfare checks. We knew that wasn’t right, so when we heard that one of our state legislators had introduced a bill that would ensure that welfare moms could go to college and still receive benefits…. we mobilized.
We emailed, phoned, and visited our legislators and told them our stories of how education really was the way to get off of welfare and out of poverty for good. To our surprise they listened and in 2000 a bill was passed in West Virginia that made sure people on welfare could attend college and still be able to take care of their children. That is also the year I graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work. West Virginia was one of the first of a handful of states that passed laws to ensure people on welfare could receive an education… and still is.
Because of our work around education and welfare we were invited to a national conference in Washington DC to present our story…. While there, we joined a group of people for dinner. At the end of dinner, a man who had been part of the group, approached us and said if we wanted to turn what we were doing into an organization, he would give us a grant for $25,000 to start. And as they say the rest is history.
We returned home and met with the other women and began learning how to become an organization. At the time, I was working for a United Methodist Mission Project who took us under their wing, providing us office space, use of the phones, and moral support. While in Washington we had also met people running welfare rights organizations all over the United States. They helped us by providing copies of bylaws and policies and lots of advice during our learning process.
Around this time the Charleston Gazette did a feature article on me and how I was organizing welfare moms. A prominent, local, tax attorney saw the article and volunteered to help us with the 501(c) 3 process. In 2002 we became incorporated in the state of West Virginia and on April 15, 2003…tax day… we received our 501(c) 3 status from the IRS.
In October 2003, we provided 35 shirts from families in West Virginia and 4 from India for the National Shirt off Our Back Day in Washington DC. We then hosted the national tour of the Shirt off Our Back Project during the West Virginia legislative session in February 2004. The entire second floor of the West Virginia state capital was draped with shirts carrying the stories of families who were hurt by spending cuts.
Also in the fall of 2003, we were invited to participate in discussions that lead to the formation of a Citizen Advisory Committee on Children and Families for the Governor of West Virginia. In the spring of 2004, I was appointed to serve on this newly formed committee along with other representatives from across the state including family representatives. I have since left the committee.
In May 2004, DAWG launched our first statewide campaign in response to drastic cuts announced by the WV Department of Health and Human Resources. Cuts to programs including child care, transportation, school clothing vouchers, and a 25% cut in monthly welfare checks, as well as, totally eliminating several programs for families on welfare. We organized 2 rallies on the Capitol steps… one of which was broadcast live on the noon news statewide. We held a school clothing giveaway, a teach-in, and circulated sign on letters.
We had over 600 employees of the Department of Health and Human Services call in and let the governor know that if childcare was cut they would have to quit their jobs. They, themselves received childcare assistance and working families were going to be the first ones eliminated from the program. Due to our efforts, we were able to eliminate the cuts to childcare and to restore the full amount to clothing vouchers and to double that amount the following year. We were also able to persuade the state to restore money for transportation and several other programs that were on the chopping block. In total, we were able to restore over $8 million in cuts.
However, we weren’t able to stop the 25% cuts to welfare checks.
We didn’t do this alone; we had the help of churches, child care centers, social service organizations and other nonprofit groups throughout the state. But we did lead the charge and we were the group to first step up and say…… we have to stop this. Not only did we succeed in stopping some of the cuts, we also succeeded in busting some of the stereotypes our new found partners had, with regard to people in poverty. ……………An interesting note about the campaign.
The governor kept refusing to meet with us to discuss the cuts so…. Rev. Sparks with the WV Council of Churches arranged for the Bishops to meet with the governor. Before the meeting we met with the Bishops to brief them on what was happening and what we wanted to see happen.
We now have a running joke with Rev Sparks. He says ….when the Bishops want to know what’s really going on, he sends them to DAWG.
In 2005, most of our organizing efforts were spent on trying to save programs and battling Budget cuts on the federal level. We also joined the Let Justice Roll Campaign and started organizing around minimum wage issues.
In 2006, we continued to organize around minimum wage issues and Budget Cuts just trying to save programs that families needed. We also began our current work organizing around the terrible changes in our State’s Medicaid program.
In addition to our larger organizing efforts, DAWG also has many accomplishments that some would view as small. But we view them as our biggest. … In just 8 years, we have grown from 7 welfare moms meeting in the projects…………. to a statewide organization with over 600 members in 54 of our 55 counties. We have helped countless families apply for benefits, find housing, childcare, and access education. We have helped even more learn about there rights as recipients of these services. We have provided training and support for people to become leaders in their communities. And most important ……we have become a voice that is heard in our state. We have stood up and demanded that they listen to us…… and sometimes they do. ……why just the other week, we were invited to New York, to be part of an international Symposium on World Religions and Poverty……
We have had many of our greatest successes with the help of partner organizations and religious groups. We have been supported by the American Friends Service Committee, The Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, the Jewish Temple, the Presbyterian Synod, the Catholic Diocese, and the WV Council of Churches. The churches have been there…. to open the doors of the governor’s office and the state legislature for us and to stand beside us and support us during our efforts. Currently we are working on health care, welfare, housing, and living wage issues and the churches are right there beside us. That is why I am very proud to be speaking to you today. Without the help of our local church organizations,… especially that United Methodist Mission Project that held our hand when we first started,….
I wouldn’t be here today.
Recently, I spoke in New York at Union Theological Seminar, about our work with congregations and how congregations could do more to support poverty work. It brought me to thinking about how churches often have holiday giveaways for the poor and think that is the way to serve the poor. But it’s not enough to just give toys at Christmas and food baskets at Thanksgiving.
You have to look at the root causes of why people are poor and mobilize your congregations to take action. You have to ask WHY…..why is that person poor,…. why is that person homeless,…… why does our country let children go to bed hungry? Then you need to ask that person who is hungry or poor what they need. You need to stop and ask that homeless person you pass on your way to church on Sunday what do they truly need. You need to ask what society needs to do to make sure everyone has enough to eat,… a job that pays a living wage,…. and a decent home. You might be surprised at what you learn.
We poor people know what we need and what changes need to be made. What we need from you is support, not just monetary support which does help, but support in the form of action. We need you to take a stand and let everyone know that we will not sit by in this land of plenty and watch families live on the streets. Let your representatives know, that if they do not support living wages, decent housing, and health care for everyone that you will not support them in the next election.
Throughout history, organizations have been formed to help the poor but they have not done a very good job in asking the poor what help they needed. Too many organizations take a paternalistic approach to help, deciding what is best for “those people” and what “they” need to improve “their” lives. In order for the needs of families living in poverty to be truly addressed, the needs and the ways of addressing these needs must come from us.
In this critical election year, it is important that the voice of the people be heard. For far too long our voices have not been heard on issues that affect our lives. We have to speak out. We are the people that they are representing and if they are not representing our needs then they shouldn’t be in office.
It is time to take a stand. To stand with organizations like DAWG and create a movement to end poverty in America. As the great Martin Luther King jr said “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. …..The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty.” Its time to abolish poverty. Its time for us to unite to create a poor people’s movement in America.
I’m going to close with this thought……..if you give a man a fish….you fed him for a day….. teach a man to fish….. you feed him for a lifetime……but ….. what if the government controls access to the lake…….. and only provides fishing polls to the wealthy?