Gamaliel affiliate Quad Cities Interfaith, along with the other Gamaliel affiliates in Illinois and Iowa—Faith Coalition for the Common Good, Gamaliel of Metro Chicago, United Congregations of Metro East, and Johnson County Interfaith Caucus—organized and hosted a presidential candidates forum, “The People’s Caucus: Vote Truth to Power.” The forum, attended by more than 500 grassroots leaders and covered by at least 22 major media outlets, was held on Sunday, January 12, 2020, at North High School in Davenport, Iowa.
Leaders from Gamaliel affiliates in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Missouri—WISDOM, EXPO, Metropolitan Congregations United, and Asamblea de Derechos Civiles—also joined Gamaliel of Illinois and Iowa for this non-partisan event that included presidential candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Joe Walsh, and Rep. John Delaney.
Rev. Dr. John C. Welch, vice-president of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and chair of the Gamaliel Board of Directors, moderated this historic discussion with candidates around issues like criminal justice reform, education equity, school to prison pipeline, immigration reform, the refugee crisis at the border, climate crisis, and more. In keeping with the mission, vision, and values of Gamaliel, ordinary people stood face-to-face on the stage with the candidates, raising questions about the issues that have impacted their lives and demanding the transformation of systems that have for too long perpetuated racial and economic inequity.
The stories that grassroots leaders shared before asking questions of the candidates were particularly compelling and provided a framework for the importance of the issues being addressed. In all, at least a dozen leaders directed tough questions around critical issues to the candidates.
For example, Amber Alexander, a Springfield resident, single mother of two children, and chair of Faith Coalition’s Education Task Force, shared her testimony and asked Rep. Joe Walsh to commit that if elected he would agree to implement a federal policy that establishes restorative justice practices for all schools receiving public funding. Punitive discipline practices like out-of-school suspension have been linked to the growth of the school to prison pipeline, especially for young people of color.
Candidates and participants also heard testimony from Charlie Gentry, a young leader from Metropolitan Congregations United in St. Louis, Missouri, with a conviction history who had experienced significant challenges as he attempted to re-enter and re-establish himself in the community. He asked Sen. Sanders that if elected he would take action to close the gap on disenfranchisement by incentivizing states to adopt policies from the First Step Act, such as easing mandatory minimums in sentencing or utilizing the Good Credit system, as well as expand the First Step Act to include a Second Step (Act) which would focus on the reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals in society, by nationally banning the box for employment and housing. The Senator replied that he would do “everything he could to end the discrimination that people who have been incarcerated face,” and, in a moving moment, Sen. Sanders actually reached out to embrace Charlie.
In interviews with the media following each section of the forum, it was clear that leaders understood the importance of what they were doing and the power of their own stories to impact decision-makers and public policy. “This is why we invest so much of our resources in training ordinary people, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color,” said Ana Garcia-Ashley, Executive Director of Gamaliel. “They must be at the tables of power to influence the decisions that shape their lives and their communities. They can do extraordinary things.”
Gamaliel of Illinois and Iowa committed to continuing the conversations with presidential and other candidates for office. A second candidate’s forum will be held in March. “We the People: Vote Truth to Power,” will be hosted by United Congregations of Metro East, with the support of the other Gamaliel affiliates in Illinois and Iowa, on March 8, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. at Macedonia Baptist Church, 1423 E. Broadway, East St. Louis, Illinois. Presidential candidates Joe Walsh and John Delaney made commitments at “The People’s Forum” to attend. Sen. Sanders was unable to commit to March 8 but did commit to traveling to East St. Louis—a part of the state to which presidential candidates rarely, if ever, travel (the last was President Clinton)—to meet with grassroots leaders.
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