As founder of the Family Independence Initiative, I believe that one of the most important things we do is reveal the power of community and collective action in some of America’s poorest communities. We know from our work with families across the U.S.—as well as from historical successes of poor and immigrant communities throughout our nation’s history—that self-organized groups are able to take initiative, set their own priorities, and find solutions to many of the challenges that confront them. The groups we work with are tackling issues ranging from youth empowerment to immigrant and LGBTQ rights, from improving their children’s access to education to increasing civic engagement.
This is why we’ve created the Torchlight Prize, a national, annual prize that recognizes and invests in self-organized groups of families, friends, and neighbors that are taking action to strengthen their communities. Since its inception in 2012, the Torchlight Prize has awarded $10,000 prizes to up to four grassroots groups per year. The winning groups improve their communities by working together. And their stories are certainly inspiring.
For example, one of our 2013 awardees includes a group called Camp Congo Square in New Orleans. It started in 2006 when a group of parents—all New Orleans residents—came together to collectively respond to the large number of families who were uprooted in their city after Hurricane Katrina. The group saw an opportunity to help children deal with the trauma of that experience, while instilling a deep sense of their heritage so that they could someday help to rebuild their city. They created a summer camp centered on the history of Congo Square—a historical place within New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong Park where enslaved people and, before them, Native Americans, gathered. The camp utilizes reading, writing, math, and open discussion to explore art, while also building knowledge and respect for different values, views, and beliefs of people throughout history.
Camp Congo Square was formed by a group of New Orleans parents to help children deal with the trauma of Hurricane Katrina and to honor their heritage.
Another 2013 awardee is Somos Tuskaloosa, a group of Latino immigrants, clergy, and community members in Alabama who rallied in response to two major events that hit the Tuscaloosa immigrant community on the same day in 2011: a devastating tornado destroyed 7,200 homes and businesses; and an anti-immigration bill (Alabama HB56) was passed that is largely considered the most regressive immigration law in the country. Somos Tuskaloosa provided the supports that Latino families needed to rebuild their lives—including services to keep the community informed about the latest legal developments—through leadership development training, “know your rights” workshops, and legal clinics. The group has also made use of funding from the University of Alabama to develop an adult educational program that will help immigrant parents navigate the local school system and mitigate the negative effects the law has on children who are now required to prove their immigration status in order to receive education.
Somos Tuskaloosa, a group of Latino immigrants, clergy, and community members who self-organized after a 2011 tornado devastated their town on the same day that Alabama HB56—largely considered the most regressive immigration law in the country—was passed.
Yet another inspiring 2013 Torchlight Prize awardee is VietUnity, created in 2004 to support Vietnamese youth, workers, and families in Oakland, California. The vision of VietUnity is to bring Vietnamese American organizers together to share experiences, their work, and skills to better organize communities against oppressive systems, such as racism and imperialism. Through alliance building, education, organizing, and collective action, VietUnity brings Vietnamese-identified people together to work on local issues that community members have identified as most important to their daily lives, including the need for affordable housing, education support, and employment opportunities, and issues related to gang and domestic violence.
VietUnity is an Oakland-based group that uses alliance building, education, organizing, and collective action to bring Vietnamese-identified people together to promote justice within the Vietnamese American community.
Today, I would like to extend an invitation to the TalkPoverty community: Help us recognize the next set of Torchlight Prize winners. Visit our website to submit a nomination. Whether you are a member of a group, or just familiar with a group’s work, anyone can submit a nomination. The deadline for submissions is 11:59 PM PT on July 11, 2014. Winners will be announced in September.
Please help us recognize and reward groups from all corners of the United States that are demonstrating the ability to solve problems in their communities with ingenuity, creativity and ambition. The efforts of these groups represent a key and sustainable route to social and economic mobility in our country.