America's Tomorrow: Equity Is the Superior Growth Model< Back to All Newsletters
October 9, 2015
Bringing Community Voice to Policymaking: A Conversation with Summit Speaker Maya Rockeymoore
By Courtney Hutchison
As Equity Summit 2015 approaches, America’s Tomorrow will showcase the work of a few of the 100-plus speakers and presenters featured at the Summit — inspiring equity leaders who are using innovative approaches to build an inclusive, thriving U.S. economy.
Maya Rockeymoore, president and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, has dedicated her career to promoting policies that work for low-income communities and communities of color — from expanding Social Security to securing access to health care. As part of our summit speaker series, America’s Tomorrow asked her what it takes to create effective policy change for a more equitable economy.
With the recent talk of yet another government shutdown, national policy change can feel hopeless at times. Can you provide an example of successful policy advocacy at work?
Several years ago there was talk of cutting Social Security. But no one was talking about the issue from the perspective of those who relied most heavily on Social Security — particularly people of color [who are less likely than White Americans to have pensions or retirement savings and thus rely more heavily on Social Security benefits]. With the nation’s demographics shifting so dramatically, we thought it was especially important for policymakers to understand that any changes made to Social Security today would have the most impact on people of color tomorrow. And so we pulled together groups of experts from community-based organizations who were intimately familiar with the experiences of Asian Americans, Native Americans, African Americas, Latinos, and women. We went through a multifaceted, several-month process of learning from each other, understanding the differences that were unique to each of these communities and their commonalities in terms of their experiences with income insecurity and the Social Security system. We then articulated these commonalities and differences and developed a common strategy for strengthening Social Security in a way that would be important for communities of color. We released a report on Capitol Hill to policymakers and their staff, the content of which informed several bills in Congress to expand Social Security. If we wouldn’t have done it, those voices would likely have not been heard. Our organization has done this in a number of different ways ranging from health to education to economic security over time.
What’s your secret to effective policy change?
My organization believes we have to come at policy the way people live their lives, and they don’t live in siloes — they live in an integrated fashion. So we come at policy through the lens of intersectionality: race, class, gender, and nationality. We think that policymakers, their staff, and others who are interested in making lives better for marginalized populations, need to improve our policymaking process to understand these intersectional dynamics. Also we think it’s critically important that the voices of those who are supposed to benefit from public policy are heard in the policymaking process. We do a lot of engagement and consensus-building to lift up the voices of those who are most often not heard and to makes sure that their perspectives, experiences, and specific statistics that describe their lives, are heard in that process.
Policy change is a slow process because you’re waiting for your policy window, when all the stars align: public sentiment is where it needs to be, political will is where it needs to be, and you have the right actors in place to do the right things. But while you’re waiting for that window, there’s ongoing work we do to educate policymakers on the issues, educate the public, and engaging the media so that you can help make those stars align.
Can you give an example of how strategic policy advocacy can have an impact on issues of economic inequality in the nation?
It’s important to point out that race and ethnicity matter when it comes to wealth in this nation. We cannot forget this in our larger conversation on economic inequality. My firm co-directs the Closing the Racial Wealth Gap Initiative with the Insight Center for Community and Economy Development. Over the years, we have done a number of things to advocate for stronger economic policies, including engaging policymakers on the hill, op-ed writing, and amplifying the voices of color through the Experts of Color Network. Last year we released a report called Beyond Broke, in collaboration with Duke University, and we were able to work together to generate and synthesize data to make the case that African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans were all decimated by the twin crises of the housing market crash and global recession. Through that report we were able to highlight how poverty is lived differently by people of color and we took that work before an audience of more than 70 members of Congress. After that, we saw a shift in the way that members of Congress talk about economic insecurity. They no longer talk only about income, but we were able to impress on them that you have to talk about wages and wealth, adding an asset-building agenda to our existing income security agenda. Since then, we’ve had members of Congress continuing to ask us for advice on their economic security bills and we’re leveraging the expertise of the Experts of Color Network to inform these policymaking processes, and bring voices that represent communities of color at the table during congressional hearings.
Why are you excited about the Summit?
I seek to give my knowledge, expertise, and passion about issues of economic inequality to attendees so they feel inspired to include the agenda in their work. Or if they have, they’ll get additional insight to strengthen their work in dynamic ways.
Worker Ownership Behind Bars: The World’s First Co-op Run Entirely by Prisoners
Roberto Luis Rodriguez Rosario with his book, Corazon Libre, Cuerpo Confinado.
By David Bacon
It was a cooperative in Puerto Rico's Guayama prison that changed his life. Growing up, Roberto Luis Rodriguez Rosario was surrounded by violence, and lived most of his pre-teen years in foster homes. "By the time I was a teenager, I was filled with anger," he remembers. "I became a rebel, and lost my way in drugs and alcohol. I stopped going to school at 14, and began getting arrested at 15. By the time I was 17 I was doing things that could get you locked up for life. Then, when I was 19, I saw what a disaster my life had become."
There were arrest warrants out for him, and Rodriguez made what he calls the most important decision of his life. He turned himself in. His sentences totaled 125 years, and even served concurrently, they still added up to 35 years behind bars. "But I began to work on my life," he reflected. When he was transferred from a maximum-security institution to the medium security prison in Guayama, Puerto Rico, he joined a worker-owned co-operative run entirely by the inmates.
"I was looking for tools to help me work on my problems,” said Rodriquez. “I thought at first [the co-op] was just a way to reduce my sentence, but once I got involved, and started practicing the principles of co-operativism, I realized it was making a big change in my life."
The co-op, started in 2003, has helped dozens of inmates reduce their sentences and return to their communities. Of the 50 co-op members who have been released from prison in the past ten years, including Rodriguez, only two have gone back to prison, and one of them is again out on parole. The recidivism rate elsewhere in Puerto Rican prisons is over 50 percent per year according to Lymarie Nieves Plaza, director of marketing at a local credit union. Today, the co-op has 40 active members, in a prison with a population of roughly 300. And cooperative projects have sprung up in three other prisons throughout Puerto Rico, where they plan to make everything from children’s clothing to renewable energy products.
“These are jobs that are much better than the slave labor the prison itself offers,” said Jessica Gordon Nembhard, professor of community justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, where she studies how cooperatives can empower communities of color, prisoners, and returning citizens (read our interview with her about her latest book Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice). “There are many benefits from co-ops that extend beyond their market value. They promote leadership development, financial education and literacy, high level social skills, and collective decision-making that extend beyond the operations of the co-op.”
The culture of cooperatives and democratic decision-making has had a big impact on the lives of many prisoners, Rodriguez explains, and cites his own history. The co-op meetings are run democratically, and every member has a voice. That creates the basis for trust in each other. "I can have an opinion in a meeting, but the members decide everything," said Nieves who has been working as a co-op educator and marketer with the prison co-ops.
“The co-op provides a different point of view,” said Gordon Nembhard. “It's not ‘me against the world’. It’s the co-op and my fellow members working and thinking together. They can now afford to pay for the things they need and help to support their families even though they are in prison. That is transformational.”
Changing laws and changing lives
Creating the co-op took several years and a change in the law. In 2000, a small group of prisoners in the Guayama state prison began to create craft items in an art therapy program. Some combined clay figures of Don Quixote or of saints, on a carved wooden base, holding a brightly painted Puerto Rican flag. Some inmates were leather workers, and made portfolios, belts, hats, and sandals. Others carved boats, or made pencil portraits.
None could be sold outside the prison, however. One of the inmates, Hector Quiñones Andino, began to investigate how prisoners might organize themselves so that their work might find a market. He looked at two possibilities. One was to form a corporation. "But they didn't like that idea much," Rodriguez says, "because it focused too much on individual profit." Quiñones found a book about cooperatives, and that provided another alternative. So he asked for an orientation from the Co-operative League of Puerto Rico, according to Rodriguez.
Discovering that they faced a legal prohibition from participating in cooperatives because of their criminal history, Quiñones and fellow prisoners in the art program wrote a letter to the governor at the time, Sila Maria Calderon, asking her to modify the law. She was moved by their story, met with some of the prisoners, and in 2003 she worked with the legislature to amend the law.
The co-op they established, the Cooperativa de Servicios ARIGOS, was the first co-op ever organized exclusively by prisoners themselves, with a board of directors made up solely of inmates. To become a member, a prisoner has to buy a $20 share, and inmates without the money up-front can work off the cost in about two months. After that, each co-op member has a voice in meetings, and one vote.
Most of the craftwork is sold in assemblies or public events organized by other cooperatives or associations. Inmates themselves can go to present their work, but they must pay for transportation and the prison guards who accompany them. They have recently expanded their work to include a nursery growing cucumbers, bell peppers and tomatoes used in the food eaten by inmates.
Rodriguez is not much of an artist, he says, so he became the co-op's secretary, responsible for keeping the books and seeking new markets. Of the money received in sales, 15 percent goes to the prison for the cost of the space and services, and 10 percent is invested by the co-op in capital expenses. The other 75 percent is divided among the co-op members. "For us, this is so much better than working for the prison itself, where they only pay $25 for 160 hours you work in a month," he explains.
The co-op has to defend its existence to the prison, often in strict economic terms. Rodriguez smiles at the way they have been able to meet objections that the co-op costs the prison money. "We showed that the prison was getting $10,000-$15,000 from its share of our sales," he recalls. "That made them much more interested in supporting us."
After serving just over 14 years of his sentence, Rodriguez was released on parole, which he completed a year ago. Life outside, however, has been challenging. Rodriguez would like to start a co-op for ex-co-op members, but it's difficult to get people together, and parole restrictions bar socializing among ex-inmates, a law they hope to change soon. Rodriguez recently released a book on his experience, entitled Corazon Libre, Cuerpo Confinado (Free Heart, Confined Body).
"We've learned how to run a business, and some former inmates now have their own small businesses outside as a result,” said Rodriguez. “If you can change the way people think in prison, you can do anything. It is a model for social change."