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Jim Rowan was the President of the Oklahoma Sponsoring Committee that later became VOICE. He is a long-time attorney with a focus in defending people facing the death penalty.
Voices Organized in Civic Engagement (VOICE) got its start February 12, 2012. On that day twelve hundred and three people met together at the First Christian Church on NW 36th Street and Walker in Oklahoma City for the founding convention.
Long before this auspicious beginning, people in metro churches and parishes were expressing their concern for the plight of families. I participated in a “Just Faith” group at Our Lady’s Cathedral of Perpetual Help in Oklahoma City. Twelve members of the parish met every week for thirty weeks to discuss problems facing families in America. We read and discussed books dealing with social justice themes. Toward the end of the thirty weeks, Kris King met with our group and identified herself as a community organizer affiliated the Industrial Areas Foundation. She described her vision for a civic organization in Oklahoma City that would address the problems facing families. It appeared our prayers had been answered. Here was a concrete solution. We now had a plan to solve some of the glaring issues placing downward pressure on families in Oklahoma.
Over the next several weeks, Kris met with leaders in parishes, churches and other civic groups throughout Oklahoma City. I was asked, along with Father Tim Luschen and Lance Schmitz, to attend a two week training session at St. Mary’s Catholic University in Santa Monica, California. Seventy-five participants from all over the country met at this Catholic University overlooking Santa Monica. On the next mountain over was the beautiful Getty Art Museum. We learned that we would become a part of organizations in various cities across the country that would begin by listening to families. The fundamental building block of our organization which we named the Oklahoma Sponsoring Committee was a house meeting. A house meeting was designed to discover the problems facing families in our parish. There were rules. No more than eight participants per meeting. Each meeting would last precisely one hour. Each of the participants in the meeting were asked the question, “What problem or problems do you deal with on a daily basis that has the most adverse effect on your family?“ No one was allowed to pontificate on what was wrong with America or the world in general.
During the course of the training each of the participants met individually with as many other participants as they could in the space of two weeks. I met with many Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and Protestants from all over the country. We were all asked to describe what led us to become concerned with issues facing families and what motivated us to take two weeks out of our lives to train to be a leader. The answers were as varied as the participants but a pervasive theme seemed to emerge. There seemed to be a universal feeling that the middle class was being hollowed out. Institutions such as churches were less able to buffer the effects of larger economic forces which put downward pressure on families. People were losing control of the forces that shaped their lives. We all desired to find ways to give voice to the common man.
At the end of our two week training, we got to not only observe but to participate in a massive meeting. Several VOICE-like organizations throughout the greater Los Angeles area met in a large auditorium. The Mayor of Los Angeles and the Superintendent of the Los Angeles School System attended. In addition, politicians and candidates for city, state, and county offices were present.
The organization and more importantly the people they represented had identified three issues that demanded concrete solutions. Children were dropping out of high school at alarming rate and turning to gangs which plagued many Los Angeles communities. The organizers had identified the major cause of students dropping out of high school: If a student could not pass Algebra I or did not do well in this introductory course, he or she was almost sure to drop out of high school. The organizations demanded and received a commitment from the Superintendent of Los Angeles Public Schools to institute a pilot program in five high schools where extra teachers and mentors would be assigned to Algebra I courses. Every student in each of these classes was compelled to be engaged in learning Algebra. No student was allowed to simply put his head on his desk and disengage from the class. The results were astounding. Drop-out rates in these high schools dramatically decreased and the program was expanded to other high schools.
The second problem became the national banking scandal. People were enticed into buying homes they couldn’t afford by predatory banks that made huge profits off the sales and resultant mortgages. When the bubble broke, people were being kicked out of their homes in record numbers. The epicenter of the crisis was Los Angeles. When people were forced out of their homes, there was no one who could afford to buy the abandoned homes. Whole neighborhoods became blighted with boarded up homes which led to more people to abandon once thriving neighborhoods. The City Council of Los Angeles and the Mayor stepped up to put pressure on banks to slow the foreclosure rates. I don’t remember all the ins and outs of the solution but the net result was fewer families were driven from their homes because they couldn’t make their monthly payments.
When I returned from the two week training, I was asked to be the President of the Oklahoma Sponsoring Committee as we prepared to become VOICE. The next three years were filled with meetings as we tried to recruit enough institutions to form a viable organization Trying to organize the Oklahoma Sponsoring Committee which became VOICE in February 2012 was not always smooth sailing. In meeting after meeting, we explained to prospective churches the process we would use to affect change. First, there would be individual house meetings to identify problems. Then, each parish would be asked which of the problems they identified should be raised up to the organization. Once a finite number of problems were identified, committees were selected to study the problem and find out who were the ultimate decision makers who could affect a solution. These decision makers would then be interviewed to determine their attitudes and amenability to working with us toward a solution.
Ultimately, the power brokers and decision makers would be invited to a large assembly to publicly voice their support for solutions to problems we identified, or if they opposed us to express the reasons for their opposition. Usually we as an organization would study a problem well enough to discover a viable solution that most of the power brokers would support. No process could be more democratic.
Opponents were suspicious of this organization that originated in Chicago, Illinois in 1940 and wanted to know who this Saul Alinsky was anyway. Opponents went to the then Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma and asked him to disapprove of the new organization. The Archbishop did not denounce the Oklahoma Sponsoring Committee and left it up to individual parishes to decide whether or not to become member institutions of the Sponsoring Committee. There were some raucous meetings in some parishes and some parish priests simply refrained from joining. Similar discussions were had in other denominations and civic groups. In the end twenty churches, synagogues and parishes joined with a few schools and formed VOICE.
In the six years VOICE has been in operation, none of the dire predictions have come to fruition. Many positive results have been obtained such as lowering the Oklahoma Gas & Electric rate increase that would have raised the utility bills of every resident of Oklahoma City. We have decreased the number on high-stakes tests in our public schools. We have lifted up and began real efforts to reduce the reliance on fines and fees in our criminal justice system that keep people trapped. VOICE stands at the forefront of many issues and hopes to continue for years to come.
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