Speaking for Ourselves on the Trail

The 2004 election will be a referendum on the nation’s economy, and the Democratic presidential primaries should be focused on which of President George W. Bush’s would-be challengers have the right approach for fixing it.

When the Democrats travel to South Carolina this week to court voters for the seven-state primaries on February 3, they will be reminded that from the perspective of millions of American families poverty is on the rise and opportunity is in decline.

On January 30, presidential candidates will come face-to-face with thousands of community leaders and activists gathered by the Center for Community Change, a nearly 30-year-old group that assists grassroots groups nationwide work to address critical social and economic challenges, in Columbia, South Carolina.

The gathering has issued a call for a people’s agenda for economic justice––real jobs with dignity, comprehensive and affordable healthcare, improved educational opportunities and safe, healthy communities. The common sense platform could become the Democrats’ version of the Contract with America, but is also an agenda that could unify all Americans around the bread and butter issues that are visible and important in direct ways.

Six of the seven Democratic candidates––confirmation from Vermont’s former Gov. Howard Dean is expected soon––have agreed to participate in a 90-minute dialogue with American families moderated by Tom Joyner, a nationally syndicated radio personality particularly popular in African American communities in the South. The event will take place before a crowd of 3,000 and will be broadcast live on a major South Carolina NBC affiliate, as well as MSNBC and C-SPAN, and begins at 11 a.m. on Friday.

Instead of TV talking heads, policy wonks, academics, or celebrities, low-income people will directly dialogue with the Democratic presidential candidates at the debate and if the candidates are wise, they will use the opportunity to highlight their commitment to providing HIV prevention, treatment and services, healthcare, housing, sane immigration policies–– exactly the sort of specifics voters have been waiting for.

The New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN) will be among seven groups from the city to participate in the Center for Community Change gathering. Other groups participating, from New York and nationwide, will include Families United for Racial & Economic Equality, Mothers on the Move, Community Voices Heard, Make the Road by Walking and the Northwest Bronx Community Clergy Coalition. We will drive 13 hours to South Carolina because we know how important it is for struggling and low-income families and people to speak out for themselves.

Louie Jones, a NYCAHN leader, will be on stage to ask the presidential candidates about their stand on healthcare, particularly when it comes to HIV-positive individuals in the United States. “There are 791 low-income people living with HIV/AIDS who are forced to wait on lists for access to their lifesaving medications, and in NYC alone, there are over 3,000 homeless people living with AIDS who are waiting for an average of three years for their housing,” Jones said as he prepared to head to South Carolina. “Our next leader needs to be a leader in the fight against AIDS and we will be asking them about their positions directly.”

NYCAHN has also been encouraging our members and allies to sign on to www.aidsvote.org to further encourage the presidential candidates to lead in the fight against AIDS. Reform is only possible in this country when people take history into their own hands and demand that our would-be leaders take action. The knowledge, strength, and leadership of people living in poverty are essential to any effort to set us on a path to restore access to the American Dream for everyone.

When the candidates leave South Carolina, some of the activists gathered for the conference will stick around to register voters in low-income communities in and around Columbia. This will kick off the group’s engagement in a $15 million national mobilization effort by hundreds of grassroots groups and their allies to activate several million new and infrequent voters in 18 states in 2004.

NYCAHN will be registering homeless people living with HIV/AIDS, including former felons, here in New York. Both of these groups are frequently purged from voting rolls and we will be working on a campaign to ensure that their vote is counted and their voice is heard.

For more information about the Center for Community Change, visit communitychange.org. For more information about NYCAHN, call 917 517 5302 or e-mail

Jennifer Flynn, the group’s co-director, at flynn@nycahn.org.

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