We the People: Working Together recently held its first 2017 Monthly Community Meeting – Let’s Discuss Healthcare. In these meetings, we focus on issues that community members identify and develop plans of action. We ground ourselves in real life experiences and build bridges to the policy realm by making research accessible and political leaders reachable. We transform power by utilizing understandable education.
The population of Swannanoa, North Carolina is roughly 5,000 people. When you drive through the old streets, you can see where the Beacon Blanket Factory used to stand. A warped wire fence outlines the empty lot like parentheses, an old reference to tell the story of the town’s history. Around the town, the houses are brightly decorated with flowers sprouting out of the sunken brick facades. An occasional dog barks, or ventures out through a boarded up porch to run up and meet us.
Next to the only park and playground in town, the library stands as it has for 65 years. We arrived on Saturday with a donated quiche, two gallons of sweet tea, and a couple of pizzas to feed however many community members could attend the meeting on healthcare. With Swannanoa, you never know if you’ll get four people or ten families to participate in a meeting.
Nine of us gathered in the little brightly painted cinder block room in the library. Sharing lunch and stories, we began with who we are and why we’ve gathered together. In the introductions, two women realize they live in the same neighborhood. One currently lives on the street where the other was born. One man and woman realize they work for the same grocery store in different departments. I realize I went to school with one of the young men. Laughter breaks out when we find our patterns and commonalities, and just like that, we become a collective.
We move on to introduce the idea that healthcare applies to all of us. We firmly state that it’s a nonpartisan issue for us, and that no matter which side of the aisle you sit on, you’ve got to bring all your health and sickness with you to the discussion. We heard both criticism and support of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). One woman stated it saved her life in response to another saying the “whole thing is a mess.” Folks listen to each other, call each other by name, when only an hour or so before they were strangers. I was touched by how personal everyone was with their sharing. More than half of us disclosed our pre-existing conditions that might now risk our ability to obtain coverage, several people discussed parents dying and leaving behind medical bills, and one person discussed what it’s like to be on disability. We agreed that everyone should be able to get the medicines and services that can save their life.
After we created community and shared challenges with healthcare and access to medical services, we introduced some facts. We put together an interactive activity where folks guessed who most is at risk from the repeal of the ACA. We talked about why the majority of people (82%) at risk are working families. We talked about how just over half of those at risk are white people, and why the room assumed whites would account for a lesser percentage of those at risk to be uninsured.
We invited community members to participate in a game where we acted out why the state of North Carolina refused to accept federal money to support the ACA. We set up each community member as a character—the Federal Government, the State Legislature, The People of North Carolina, etc. We acted out how one of our representatives, Senator Richard Burr, voted to dismantle the law. We asked ourselves, “how does this help us?” and “what could that money, our tax dollars, have been spent on if we had accepted it?”
With the energy of our own knowledge, and some statistics, we created our action steps. We presented some sample scripts for phone calls and letters to let our legislature know how we feel about the changes they’re making to our healthcare. We gathered together around the phones, taking turns calling and sharing our stories. Because we called on a Saturday, we left messages. We talked as we drafted letters together on beautiful, different pieces of stationary, sure to catch the eye of staffers in Senator Burr’s office. We talked about other ways to make a difference through visits when he’s in his office, addressing the committees that make decisions about healthcare, about calling regularly and about what it means to be at a point of political transition.
We closed our meeting by asking each participant to name someone they can invite to the next gathering and something that brings them hope. As a part of our monthly commitment, we set up our meeting on March 23rd to focus on education, since this was another huge topic of interest. The cycle continues, building broader and broader as we bring in our friends and neighbors to each next meeting.
Lia Kaz currently serves as the North Carolina Community Organizer for Spirit in Action’s We the People: Working Together (WtP) project. Through the WtP project she organizes in low-income, rural communities across Buncombe County to empower civic engagement. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work and won the Alton J. Pfaff Award from Warren Wilson College, which recognized her as the graduating student who most exemplifies the triad of Academics, Work, and Service. She currently lives in Asheville with some great roommates, and a perfect dog named Mona.