The Danville chapter, formed in November 2010, has been hard at work creating a local jobs campaign for Southside Virginia. In an area with the highest unemployment rates in the state, residents are tired of sitting on the sidelines and want to get involved in the fight to bring well-paying jobs to Danville and the surrounding areas. In addition to the local jobs campaign, the chapter is working on a variety of state and national issues, from state-level tax reform and health care implementation to national campaigns around Social Security and unemployment benefits.
Through regular chapter meetings, in-depth research and community outreach, members are engaging new people and building a strong local chapter. And if you live in the area, we'd love to have you involved!
Danville has been working hard on several projects, including immigration reform, health care, and other issues. The Danville Chapter hosted a team of students from the Branch Out program at the College of William and Mary who spent their entire Spring Break learning about community organizing in Southside Virginia. In the six days they spent in Danville, the students knocked on over 2,400 doors, generated 465 calls to Senator Warner about protecting Social Security and identified 203 potential new chapter members!
Together with the Martinsville-Henry County Chapter, the Danville Chapter co-hosted a Restoration of Rights Workshop on March 16 at the Martinsville Virginia Organizing Building. Ami Shah from the Advancement Project helped leaders think abou the history of voter disenfranchisement in Virginia, the current process of rights restoration and how we can work together to encourage our elected officials to create an automatic process for the restoration of voting rights. Everyone left with a new understanding of the issue and concrete ways to help change their communities.
Keep up the good work, Danville!
By Denice Thibodea
Danville City Council chambers erupted into applause near the end of its Tuesday night meeting with Virginia Organizing members and supporters signaling their approval of the unanimous vote to “ban the box.”
Ban the box is a nationwide initiative to make it fairer for ex-offenders to find jobs by asking employers to remove the box applicants must check on job application forms if they have a criminal record.
Nik Belanger, the local community organizer for Virginia Organizing, said the group decided to spearhead their efforts by getting municipal governments to remove that box from application form.
“It gives them an equal chance of getting the jobs they’re qualified for,” Belanger said after the meeting.
Many job applicants are haunted by a long-ago misstep that excludes them from job consideration for the rest of their lives, and many companies simply will not consider anyone with a criminal record for employment, no matter how long ago or how minor the charges were, he said.
By removing the box on the application — even if a criminal background check will be done before hire — ex-offenders have an opportunity to meet and talk with the employer and to present their qualifications, instead of feeling like their application will just be tossed in the trash.
City Manager Joe King said that some departments — like the police department, which simply cannot hire anyone to be a police office if they have a criminal background — will still have to do up-front background checks.
“We want to be able to tell them early on that they are not qualified,” King said.
Other departments, however, will now wait until they are ready to offer a job to an applicant to run a background check. Should an applicant show a criminal record, department heads could then decide if an applicant’s qualifications outweigh their criminal records.
Belanger said Danville is the eighth municipality in Virginia to approve the initiative, joining Richmond, Petersburg, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Fredericksburg and Charlottesville.
For Belanger, the work is not yet done. He said he plans to approach the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors to adopt the initiative next.
Published by the Danville Register and Bee
By Marty Jackson
I am a returning citizen, a Danville native with felony convictions on my criminal record. When I was younger, I made mistakes and I paid my debt to society. When I came out of prison, I needed to find a job and I needed to make sure that I wouldn’t make the same mistakes again; I was determined not to go back.
I was fortunate to find God and a job, and now I am on my way to getting all my rights back, including my right to vote. Not everyone that comes out of prison has the same opportunity. Some people are unable to find work and fall back into criminal behavior because it is all they have. I believe that all former felons can be reformed if we believe in ourselves, believe in something bigger than ourselves and put in the work. There are also ways our city can help us.
Last week, I spoke out at a Danville City Council meeting to encourage our elected leaders to "ban the box." On city job applications, there is a question that asks if you have ever been convicted of a crime other than a minor traffic violation.
For people like me, having to mark that box meant you were almost always excluded from an interview and a chance to explain yourself, even if you otherwise qualify for the job. When I first returned home after incarceration, I applied for every job I could find. Consistently, without an interview, my applications were ignored — from fast food restaurants to the city of Danville, and everything in between. I had to leave Danville to find work, driving more than three hours round-trip to and from a job in Salem. Despite living in Danville and paying taxes here, I couldn’t find a job here in the city I love.
The Danville Chapter of Virginia Organizing is asking City Council to ban that question from city job applications and allow more returning citizens to have a fair shot at a job and a chance to start over again — right here in Danville.
To be clear, banning the box does not mean that criminal history will be entirely ignored. City staff will still be able to ask about relevant convictions for sensitive positions and perform background checks. Banning the box means an opportunity for people to have a second chance and the potential for employment, which will decrease recidivism. Certainly individuals will have to put in effort, but banning the box will make that effort more likely to succeed.
Private employers are not affected by "Ban the Box." The initiative will include only city jobs and city job applications. The city of Danville will be making a strong statement in favor of rehabilitation, but it would not mean that private employers must follow along, although we hope that many will.
Right now, we have an opportunity to make Danville a place where people get second chances. I know I needed one and I know there are many people out there like me who are just hoping to contribute to our community. If we ban the box, we are supporting families and communities by keeping people out of prison and in their homes. Returning citizens could be working, paying taxes and making purchases to better our economy instead of being denied an opportunity to find a job — or worse — committing crimes and returning to prison.
I am honored to be one of the voices speaking out for the "Ban the Box" campaign. Several cities in Virginia have already made this move and I am optimistic that Danville will be next. I feel incredibly blessed to live in Danville at this moment, on the cusp of our city being the leader in the Southside Virginia in assisting former felons reintegrating into our society. It took a lot of effort on my part to get where I am, and I want to make sure that others have an even better shot at staying out of prison and making contributions to our community.
This is an attainable goal for Danville and I am confident our City Council will do the right thing. Thank you to those city councilors who spoke strongly in support of this vision for the city. All of us at Virginia Organizing are looking forward to celebrating this step forward with you! Let’s Ban the Box for good!
Jackson is a resident of Danville, leader in the local chapter of Virginia Organizing and one of the organizers of the local Ban the Box campaign. He spoke at the Danville City Council meeting on June 3.
By John R. Crane
Organizations are urging Danville’s government to get rid of questions on its job applications about applicants’ criminal history.
Virginia Organizing has launched a “Ban the Box” campaign and — along with another organization, Virginia Cares — asked Danville City Council to remove the question from the city government’s job applications during its meeting Tuesday night.
Mayor Sherman Saunders told the Danville Register & Bee that City Council will likely vote on whether to make the change. Council members discussed the request during its work session after the meeting.
“The city is considering it,” Saunders said Wednesday. “At some point, I anticipate it will come up for a vote.”
The question targeted by Virginia Organizing is:
“Except for minor traffic violations, have you been convicted of any violation of law, and/or are you currently charged with a violation of law? (Your criminal history will be checked. Falsification of an employment application is grounds for immediate disqualification or dismissal. A conviction does not automatically disqualify you as an applicant.)”
Anita Royston, board member of Virginia Cares, a group working with Virginia Organizing on the “Ban the Box” campaign, said removing the question from application forms would give convicted felons released from prison an opportunity to get their foot in the door for a job.
“Once they’ve paid their debt to society, the city should provide them the opportunity to rebuild their lives and take care of their families, pay their bills,” Royston said.
Virginia Cares helps felons — or “returning citizens,” as Royston called them — repair their lives as they readjust to society.
Several cities across the commonwealth have already scrapped the question from their job applications, including Richmond, Petersburg, Newport News, Norfolk and Portsmouth, according to Virginia Organizing. Under the ordinances and administrative changes, the city can ask about relevant convictions for sensitive positions but not ask the broad question on all applications.
Sara Weller, Danville’s director of human resources, said the city has asked the question on its application or at least as long as she has worked for the city — seven years.
“We ask that because we have some positions in the city we cannot hire convicted felons for,” Weller said.
The query helps the city eliminate applicants not eligible for certain positions, Weller said.
“We have to be mindful because we have a lot of positions where the employees come in contact with citizens,” she said.
Some city jobs involve the employee entering residents’ homes or backyards, working with children, handling finances and working in parks, Weller said.
“Some citizens or customers are not going to be comfortable with convicted felons in certain roles,” Weller said.
The city has hired felons, she said. Some positions, such as those in maintenance, may be more lenient when it comes to the question of hiring them. The type of crime is also considered, Weller said.
“We have to be mindful of what the conviction is for any position,” Weller said. A drug-related offense committed in one’s youth may not be as much of a hindrance as embezzlement, child molestation or other serious crime.
The city’s process of elimination for applicants would be less efficient if the question were removed from the applications, Weller said. Human resources would not have the ability to exclude those candidates convicted of crimes, she said. The city would learn of convictions through the job interview process.
During the City Council meeting Tuesday night, one “Ban the Box” supporter pointed out that convicted felons can have the right to vote for council members, but cannot work for them. Royston said it’s important to give them a chance to make their case if they interview for a job, especially if the city wants to lower its poverty rate.
The question can be an obstacle for those applicants and some give up as a result, Royston said.
“Why try if you know the answer is ‘no,’?” she said.
Saunders said the majority of City Council members agree it’s a matter of concern.
“We should take the request seriously and make the decision,” Saunders said.
During Spring Break, students from William & Mary joined the Danville Chapter to learn about grassroots organizing. Below is a series of reflections from one of those students. Great work!We started off the day meeting with our community partner, a local chapter of a community organizing agency, about canvasing in order to develop goals based on the needs of community members. We learned that communities in the area do not have very many “political resources,” and that legislators and campaign organizers do not commonly go there looking for votes or trying to listen to their concerns. This organization tries to give them a voice.
We spent the day canvassing in a middle class neighborhood, where people were not that motivated to get involved. It was a little discouraging. Most of the people were not home, but the people that I did talk to were skeptical. They treated me like I often treat someone at my door: sometimes I don’t answer the door nor do I give the person the time of day. I lost morale throughout the day, expecting each door to be another, “not home” or uninterested person. That was until I came to one woman’s door. She was born in the community, but had lived in Richmond for five years before she returned to care for her mother. I spoke with her for about 15 minutes about the changes she would like to see and how this community is so under-resourced compared to other cities in Virginia. She told me about how she really believed in the power of numbers and how individual voices can really be heard by legislators; that it’s not hopeless. She had called Bill Clinton once when she didn’t like something that he was doing and they called her back and discussed her opinions with her. That gave her a lot of hope and respect for our democratic system. She wanted to help spread the word that the individual voice was valuable. It made me realize that this individual power applies to me as well. I can’t expect every door and every person to be interested in our causes, but my work in recruiting this woman, even if she the only committer person I interacted with for the day, she may end up making a huge difference within the organization and its community.
We continued canvasing in another, lower-income neighborhood. When we got there, there was a very noticeable difference between the quality of those houses and the quality of houses we had visited thus far. As we knocked on doors, the people yelled through the door “Who is it?!” at every single house. One woman even sent her son upstairs to stick his head out the window and ask me who I was and why I was there. Almost everyone I spoke to mentioned problems with crime, violence, drugs, and gangs, which I did not hear in any other neighborhood. The first door I knocked on, I asked what her biggest concerns in her community were, and she just responded, “This town sucks, baby, there’s nothing anyone can do about it,” and shut the door. The sense of hopelessness was unparalleled in any other community. At another house, we asked a woman what issues were most important to her regarding the community. The woman initially answered, “Oh, I don’t know.” But, I had a sense that she had more to say, and I was right. The conversation turned around so much that when we asked her if we could take her contact information to get in touch with her about meetings, she said, “You know I’ll be there, baby!” She spoke to us for about 15 minutes about how she thought minimum wage needs to be raised. For a long time she had been collecting unemployment checks, but now she was working a full time job and was making less money than before. It was almost unaffordable for her to work her job. This is an issue that I had learned about in a Sociology class at William and Mary, but seeing someone who stated this fact from her own experience instead of just having people so distant from the issue—college students and professors who mathematically and statistically figure out that this is an issue or know from reading research—made the issue very real. The conversation showed me a lot about how much I have learned from this experience as well, I had become a very confident canvasser and was open to talking to everyone who answered the door.
It’s going to be very weird going back to school and “the regular world.” I feel like this is my life now and I don’t want to leave! We have spent all day every day for several days focusing on how we can support this organization through recruiting members by canvassing, and it has made me have a greater appreciation for everything in my life. I always have been a little bit bothered by people who are exorbitant, excessive, and wasteful with their consumption and when the have the money choose to carelessly spend it on useless and unnecessary things. I think that that feeling will be even stronger now, at least when I first get back. I want to help other people realize how little money and material “things” matter to happiness, and how many important things we can use our money for. Even if you have a lot of it, being careful and efficient with your money is a valuable skill. My experiences canvassing have been unlike any other volunteer or service I have ever experienced, and I honestly think it is exactly what I was missing. As a pre-med student, I have spent a lot of time in healthcare settings such as hospitals. However, canvassing allows you to visit a person at their home and a snippet of what their lives and days are like instead of seeing them in a very narrow sphere like when they are in a hospital. Visiting individuals in their homes and hearing the concerns that affect their entire lives gives me a much broader picture of the struggle that people are going through in various communities. This will make me see the bigger picture from now on whenever I am working with a patient in the hospital. I will be more aware of the issues that affect their lives. It will also serve to humanize the patient, which is very difficult for many doctors due to the nature of their work, but something I believe to be very important if you are truly going to improve the health of the individual for the long-term. We cannot be afraid to discuss these issues and fight for change in all aspects of peoples’ lives. I’ve been fortunate, because when I was younger growing up in Florida, there were very wealthy people in my community and many programs to fund art camps, theater camps, nature camps, and anything else you could imagine. A site leader noted that in larger cities, programs can attract grant money to pay for those that cannot afford them. What is the solution in a smaller town like this? I think this is part of the larger problem, and hopefully all of the people who are concerned about this issue will be able to come together to find a solution along with the organization’s help. The divide between high-income and low-income individuals in this community makes me very sad. The problem is much bigger than any small solution, but raising awareness and everyone taking the time to exit the narrow sphere that they live in and becoming aware of the perspective of others in their own community is one of the most valuable assets a person can have. This trip has confirmed for me that I want to be a doctor serving underserved populations and become an active member of my community. I want to stay aware and involved in improving the lives of everyone in the community in which I end up living, as well as the country and the world. I have also realized that staying too focused on a strictly pre-med curriculum can be especially damaging, so I want to keep reading news sources to stay in touch with social problems. I hope to take a greater breadth of social science courses, especially economics and possibly government. Being able to see the big picture and not getting caught up in the tiny scientific facets of a disease is so important and will make me an infinitely better doctor and person.
January 16, 2013
More and more groups are coming out in support of expanding Medicaid in Virignia. Below is a statement from PATHS (Piedmont Access to Health Services, Inc.) CEO Kay Crane about the expansion and what that would mean for people in Virginia. Here is Kay's statement:
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the health reform law (Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act) transformed what was a federal guarantee of expanded Medicaid eligibility for adults to a state option. It is now up to each state to determine whether it will participate in the expansion. Gov. Bob McDonnell has said he isn't willing to support expansion of Medicaid in Virginia because he isn't certain the federal government could uphold its pledge to cover 100 percent of the costs for the first three years. But the notion that the federal government might fail to honor its obligation would also provide the governor with reason to reject federal money for roads or K-12 education. (He hasn't.)The reality is that if Virginia expands Medicaid eligibility to increase coverage, the federal government has agreed to pay 100 percent of the costs through 2016. The feds would gradually phase down their coverage to 90 percent in 2021.
One thing that is certain: Hospitals, community health centers and people with private insurance will cover the extra costs if Medicaid is not expanded.
The reason for the loss is simple. Federal funds designed to offset the providers' costs for caring for uninsured patients are set to be reduced because Obamacare essentially substitutes Medicaid coverage for those subsidies. If more patients are covered by Medicaid, there is less need for payments to subsidize treatment of the uninsured.
This will be a very important decision in Virginia, because our current Medicaid eligibility level is one of the lowest in the country (30% FPL for parents and 80% FPL for the aged, blind and disabled). As a result, an estimated 420,000 uninsured Virginians would become insured under the Medicaid expansion.
There seem to be misconceptions about those who would become eligible for coverage under the Medicaid expansion. Too often, people think in terms of the negative welfare stereotypes. This creates hostility and opposition to providing the coverage that so many of our patients need. There are many adults who have worked hard and find themselves either laid off from their job and disabled who do not have insurance. Having access to Medicaid would benefit this population.
In our health centers we have many patients whose lives would be made so much better if they qualified for Medicaid. One patient that comes to mind is a 59 year old woman that I know. She and her husband worked at Dan River all their lives. When Dan River, closed they lost their jobs and their health insurance. Her husband was older and qualified for Medicare, but she did not.
Unfortunately, and tragically, she was diagnosed with throat cancer and did not qualify for Medicaid because even though they lived on her husband’s fixed social security income, they did own their home. Tragically, she chose not to have treatment for her cancer for one simple reason - she did not want to leave her husband with huge medical bills that would put him in danger of losing the home they had worked so hard to pay for.
By the time she found her way to our health center, she was in the final stages of this cancer. All we could do was arrange for Hospice and palliative care to help with the pain and allow her to die with dignity.
She passed away in June.
Left behind, is a grief stricken family, who wondered - why did it have to be this way?
In a country where we spend more on health care than any other country in the free world, why are our friends, family, and neighbors having to make these difficult decisions?
As the General Assembly convenes there will be many issues before them. None of those issues will be as important as Medicaid expansion – their decisions on Medicaid will have a direct impact on lives of thousands of individuals just like this woman – lives that could be saved.
December 5, 2012
Over 40 members of Virginia Organizing--from the Danville, Martinsville-Henry County and Charlottesville chapters--protested Congressman Robert Hurt's support of the Bush Tax Cuts for the top 2%. Several members occupied Rep. Hurt's office for a couple hours after the protest but left without a response from the Congressman.
Call his Danville office and tell them what you think: 434-791-2596! Ask him to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest two percent and protect Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare!
Check out the video by clicking here.