VOICES OF RESISTANCE: Centering the needs of Black women in Mississippi

As the leader of the Mississippi Women's Economic Security Initiative, Cassandra Welchlin helps organize some of the state's most vulnerable residents to push for policies that meet their needs. (Photo courtesy of Cassandra Welchlin.)

As a child growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, Cassandra Welchlin witnessed the struggles her mother endured working as a maid. She also learned the importance of serving those in need from her foster grandmother, who instilled in her the importance of taking care of the community's elderly and disadvantaged. Welchlin took those lessons with her to Jackson State University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in social work in 1997, and to Brandeis University, where she received a graduate degree in sustainable international development in 2005.

Now a licensed social worker, Welchlin works for the Mississippi Low Income Childcare Initiative (MLICCI), which champions affordable child care for low-income working parents. In 2014 she cofounded the Mississippi Women's Economic Security Initiative as a project of the MLICCI to promote policies that improve the economic well-being of women and their families. This past legislative session, the groups played a major role in pushing the state legislature to pass a law making it easier for domestic violence victims to get a divorce.

We recently spoke with Welchlin by phone about her work for our ongoing "Voices of Resistance" series, which aims to draw insight and inspiration from the South's deep history of struggle for social change and to learn from a new generation of Southern leaders working in today's volatile political climate. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity. If you have ideas for other Southern change makers to feature in the series, please contact Rebekah Barber at rebekah@southernstudies.org.

Tell me about yourself and how you became engaged in advocacy work.

I want to start off by saying I'm my mother's story and my mother is my story. It was through her work that I learned about justice, and it was through my grandmother that I learned about service. And it was those two things that propelled me into this work of what I call my destiny.

My mother and her five siblings were raised in foster care. Her mother contracted tuberculosis in Mississippi, which at the time wasn't treating Black folks for that disease in a quality kind of way. Their father was working on the railroad and was away from home. Their mother's sister was caring for them but was very abusive to them. Their father found out about it and said, "I gotta get my kids to a safe place."

I'm not sure how it all happened; I believe there is a God that really structures and moves people to places where they need to be. Somehow my mother's father got in contact with this incredible woman, Gwendolyn Loper, who was the first Black social worker in the state of Mississippi. And their grandmother had a meeting with this social worker and said, "They need some care and I will only give them to you if you will guarantee they can all stay together."

[Loper] somehow found this foster care mother, Eva Thompson, who took in all six of these children, ranging from 3 years old all the way up to 8 years old. And she was already in her late 40s, early 50s, but she took in all six of these kids, and she raised them as her own.

They were still able to see their dad and their mother on occasion, but their mother ended up going to New York to get better treatment, and she was murdered. And so they never reunited with their mother. They stayed in that foster care home, and Eva Thompson became their mother. She never adopted them, but they stayed with her and she stayed with them up until her death when she was 84 years old.

And so she raised not only them but she also raised us as her grandkids, and I'm the first grandchild. And as a result of that, I learned from her — I was around her all the time. Eva Thompson, who I know as my grandmother, was like the caretaker of the community. There were elders in the neighborhood who didn't have families, so she would cook food for all of us and for them as well. And it was my job to take the food to the elders who didn't have families. That's when I began to learn what service was in a very real way.

Every day she would fix a pot of cornbread with a meal, and it was my job to take it to the senior citizens in the neighborhood. And I was just 9 years old. And that really began to teach me that life was bigger than me, and it began to really teach me compassion. I had a lot of empathy for families and people who had less than what I had. And I had less than many, but I had a whole lot of love around.

And my mother and her siblings, up until their old age, they lived together. They put their resources together. They raised each other's children, and so we all lived together.

My mother and her siblings were all low-wage workers. And so as a young child I would go with my mother to her work. She was a maid at one of the state agencies. I didn't know why I would go to work with my mother — I just thought that was the normal thing to do. But what I realize is that my mom didn't have enough money to pay for child care, so she had to take me with her. She would hide me in the maid closet with her co-worker while she would go out and perform her duties. And when she couldn't take me to work with her, I would go to work with my aunt, who was a maid at one of the local hotels here. My mom was only making $2.15 [an hour] and was on public assistance and just didn't have enough money to take me to child care.

I vividly remember seeing her struggle because she was a low-wage worker who just didn't have enough money to send me to child care. She had to do what she needed to do to make sure I was safe.

And so these things really propelled me and compelled me to want to make life better for other women who have children. These things propelled me to fight for these women to have higher wages so they don't have to choose between the family and children they love and the necessity of having a job. And from my grandmother I learned the importance of having compassion for people who need extra help. I decided that I wanted to be able to change things so no other mom would have to go through what my mother went through.

What are you engaged in right now to make the lives of women and children better?

I went into the field of social work — I'm a licensed social worker. I started doing direct service work helping families with children with serious emotional disorders and realized that there were policies in place that were continually dragging my families through a system that wasn't working for them. I began to understand how policies were really impacting them and yielding them powerless to change anything. I began to want to work at the macro level of policy systems to change that, but I didn't want to leave the people that I wanted to change the system for — and I didn't want to do it for them. So I employed community organizing as a way to still be a part of their lives and to do education with them, and to help them actualize their own vision, and to bring them to the policymaking table so that they would be able to hold their elected officials accountable and be a part of the implementation of the policies.

For the last six years I have been working with the Mississippi Low Income Childcare Initiative, and I cofounded the Mississippi Women's Economic Security Initiative because we realized that women needed a policy agenda that was responsive to their needs. We began to have these town hall meetings all across the state to hear from women about what they need to be economically secure. We heard these incredible stories of resilience and power. We also met with young women on college campuses to hear about what was important to them.

For us, it was about really doing this at the intersections of race and gender. Because you can't do work in the South without having a race analysis — you just can't. But oftentimes you can do this work without having a gender analysis. It was important that we center women, and particularly Black women. Because, if we can be very honest, [those] who are living in poverty in the state of Mississippi are women and girls, and the majority of those are Black women, and women who are single.

Part of what I do is build alliances with these women so that I can understand what their issues are and help educate them about how the process works. How does a bill become a law? What are the regulations around some of these policies? What are some of the things that we can begin to change? Because once the policies change, they have to hold these agencies and elected officials accountable to implement them. So we don't want to just go make the policies if they're not informed about how to maintain or strengthen them.

I also build relationships, allyships, with legislators and policymakers so that they can take on these agendas. I've spoken before the legislative body, several committees of the Democratic Caucus and the Black Caucus. I have also spoken to our conservative policymakers on this issue. As a result of that, many of these legislators have coauthored legislation that is responsive to the women's policy agenda. This past session I was able to build a bipartisan coalition on pay equity. That was really amazing, and it brought a lot of people to the table. Now we have mayors at the table, we have local journalists at the table who have taken this issue on and have done some intensive research that we have been able to use as an advocacy tool.

We're hoping this next legislative session to get an equal pay bill for the state of Mississippi, because Mississippi and Alabama are the only two states that do not have an equal pay law on the books.

In a state like Mississippi with such a deep history of racism and sexism, what are some of the challenges that you have faced and how have you overcome them?

Mississippi definitely has a very racist history but also a sexist history — a history where there has been a lot of racial violence but also sexual violence against women, particularly women of color. And religion, which is just so important to the culture here, has been used to justify the attitude that folks in power feel towards women, people of color, and poor people. They have used religion to justify so many of these injustices.

That's why it's so important that we are very intentional about putting forth this campaign. We needed to be able to begin to have conversations around these attitudes toward women and the culture that we live in that has justified so much of this racialized and sexualized violence. We have been very intentional about speaking truth to power around those things. Like I said, you have to talk about race in the South — there's just no way around it. So we are very intentional about talking about race as well as gender.

For instance, this past legislative session we worked with the domestic violence coalition to push for a divorce law that would grant women a divorce based on the grounds of domestic violence. The chairman of the committee did not want to bring the bill out of committee to be voted on. His ideology was that he did not want to break up families. We know that this mentality comes from this religious background that teaches families should stay together no matter what — even if you're getting the crap beat out of you and even if you die, you stay in that home. That comes from religion. When the legislation passed, it was the first major change to the state's divorce law in over 40 years.

One of the things we have been able to do is lift up those kind of issues and those attitudes and begin to pinpoint where that comes from. We interrogate this mentality and speak truth to power — that this mentality is not OK. Even God doesn't want you to stay in a place where you're going to be abused and harmed.

We activated our network with the domestic violence coalition and got our women to start making calls and posting things on social media to say, "This is unacceptable, women were not made to be abused." We were able to use the network that we have built to respond to that kind of foolishness and dangerous ideology.

Given that we are living in this conservative environment, we have learned a lot about where we can partner. We have been able to use what conservatives say is important to them to develop strategies to move our agenda. We were able to find commonalities even though we are on different sides of the political spectrum. We could all agree that we were getting robbed on our day jobs. So we built a bipartisan coalition because we were all being affected one way or the other.

In Mississippi, everything is very relational. So I'm very intentional about building relationships. You have to build relationships because that's another way we can find commonality. Those Republican conservative men also have a wife, a mother. So there are places we can all agree on. Relationships are key. I tell people, "If you're going to come to the South, you better be prepared to sit on the front porch and drink some sweet tea with your neighbor."

In this work, what gives you hope?

What gives me hope is knowing that, historically, I have seen my forefathers and my foremothers in the social justice arena who have bent the arc of justice and have won some incredible things such as the Voting Rights Act. Black women have always been at the forefront of that.

I have seen the fruits of Fannie Lou Hamer. I have seen  the fruits of Dr. L.C. Dorsey. I have seen the fruits of Hollis Watkins. So I know it's possible to bend the arc of justice because I've seen it. I know that it's long-term, not short-term, work. And if you don't have hope, you can't move anything.

Another thing that gives me hope is that I'm raising three little children, and I want to make the world better for them. They are children of faith and they have hope, so I live in that.