Change from the ground up thanks to Arkansas Public Policy Panel 

Group celebrates its 50th anniversary.

click to enlarge UNBOWED: Members of Gould Citizens Advisory Council at their first meeting after being banned from meeting by the Gould City Council in 2011. image
  • UNBOWED: Members of Gould Citizens Advisory Council at their first meeting after being banned from meeting by the Gould City Council in 2011.

In the town of Gould just two years ago, most who surveyed the scene would conclude that the government was broken. Years of mismanagement in the town of 1,300, about 30 miles southeast of Pine Bluff, had led to a city bankruptcy and crippling IRS debt. Two of the City Council members were holding office illegally, and many citizens had lost faith in the democratic process. Irregularities at the ballot box included candidates and candidate family members literally looking over voters' ballots at the polls.

Things came to a head when the City Council passed an ordinance banning a civic group, the Gould Citizens Advisory Council (GCAC), from meeting in the city. Working with help from allies across the state, the GCAC fought back and eventually got the unconstitutional ordinance repealed and the ineligible City Council members removed. The GCAC ran its own slate of candidates for the city council, and they won in a landslide last November.

"It shows the power of the community getting together," Curtis Mangrum, the GCAC chair said.

This success story of local grassroots citizen advocacy was made possible in part by the community-organizing work of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, a non-profit social-justice organization in the state that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. (A celebration willbe held at Philander Smith College on Saturday evening, June 15. Tickets are available via the panel's website.) The GCAC is one of many groups in Arkansas that have been nurtured and supported by the panel, which has been one of the state's strongest voices for progressive causes both locally and at the state legislature.

"For so long, we really were not engaged," Mangrum said. "With the help of the panel, we became educated on the political process. We didn't know the power that we had."

The panel's roots are humble — it began in 1963 when a diverse group of mothers of school-age children began travelling the state as the Panel of American Women. They held public discussions on desegregation and multiculturalism.

The guiding principles of the panel's work today can be seen in those early efforts, Executive Director Bill Kopsky said. Often facing hostile audiences, the women didn't try to preach a political message; they focused on telling their personal stories and taking people's questions seriously no matter where they came from.

"It's a lot easier to misunderstand someone who you don't know," Kopsky said. "So a big part of our strategy is to build relationships across lines of diversity."

In the 1970s, under the direction of Brownie Ledbetter, the panel began to implement programming in public schools and eventually broadened its focus beyond education to other justice and equity issues in state policy. (It changed its name to the Arkansas Public Policy Panel in 1987.) Its major focus by the 1980s was an effort at progressive tax reform. The panel received a grant to study the tax system in the state and it was brought on as a policy advisory arm of then-Gov. Bill Clinton's commission on tax reform. But when the tax-reform effort collapsed under resistance from the business community, it "led to some soul searching on the panel," Kopsky said. "The analysis was that we'd clearly demonstrated how wrong the tax system and other issues were. But being right is not always enough. What Arkansas really needed was more people involved in the process to move the kind of fairness and equity issues that we care about."

The panel began to transition from policy research toward a focus on community organizing and coalition building. These form the two main tracks of the panel's work today: local organizing and advocating for progressive change in the state legislature via a broad statewide coalition known as the Citizens First Congress.

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