AFSC West Virginia Fall 2023 Recap

By Lida Shepherd

Autumn greetings transitioned rapidly to wintertime greetings as the days get shorter and colder here in West Virginia (brrrr!). Wherever this message finds you, we hope that you are healthy and in hopeful spirits (the state of the world notwithstanding). Please read on for updates from AFSC staff in West Virginia, and some upcoming events in the months to come!

Leading for Justice Conference

The Leading for Justice conference in Wheeling earlier this month brought together people from around the state who are challenging the current paradigm of retribution and punishment in many different ways: through art, policy change, research, yoga, restorative justice, and working directly with those who are homeless, incarcerated, or who are walking the perilous road of reentry.

One participant wrote, “My favorite part of the conference was the incorporation of the people who have been affected by these unjust practices firsthand. The perspectives and storytelling from formerly incarcerated folks made me feel so many emotions, but most importantly ready to get to work. We should always allow the people with lived experience to lead the charge, as no one knows the ins and outs better than they do. This was an amazing display of that.”

A beautiful addition to the conference was a youth track led by Nem Murimi and Liz Brunello with AFSC’s Appalachian Center for Equality, along with the incredible Sarah Brown. Together 18 young people participated in scavenger hunts, played games in the FUNRAISER, and learned about various professions by hearing from Rachel Rubin with the Kanawha County Defenders Office; Amy Jo Hutchinson with Rattle the Windows; Keigan Aabel Brown with Marshall University; and Brandon Williams with Mountain State Justice.

A huge highlight was the presentation they gave about their vision for ending the school to prison pipeline. Here are some of their bright ideas:

Poster that says 'Let the children speak'

Videos and additional photos from the conference coming soon, with thanks to videographer Corey Zinn. We are so thankful to our partners at the WV Center on Budget and Policy, as well as our supporters at the Just Trust for being an integral part of this conference!

Poster that says 'Joint resolution' with bullet points
Picture of a poster that visualizes a youth's approach to restorative justice

Second Look Convening – New Orleans, LA

Immediately following the Leading for Justice conference, a contingent of advocates from West Virginia flew to New Orleans for the Families Against Mandatory Minimums FAMM’s Second Look Convening. AFSC’s Kenny Matthews has this to say about the experience and what comes next:

Sitting on Bourbon Street most people look at the clubs, bars, and other night life attractions. But for a special group of individuals the Royal Sonesta was the hot bed of laughs, innovation, and collaboration. People from all walks of life came together for a common cause: The Successful Integration of Second Chance Legislation. Lawmakers, formerly incarcerated people, family members, and policy professionals convened to help get thousands of those incarcerated on long sentences the opportunity to get released.

In the U.S. carceral system, men and women are being subjected to sentences that just about erases their chance of being released back into society. Several organizations shared their wins, losses, and hopes. Policy ranging from compassionate release to judicial review were discussed. It was two days and three nights of power, hope, and compassion! Leaving New Orleans, you couldn’t help but be energized with a renewed vigor to see change happen at home.

To those in custody of the West Virginia Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that feel their case is hopeless or no one is listening, keep the faith! We hear you. We see you. We will keep fighting!

Devon Unger, Jonathon Spence, Amber Blankenship, Star Hogan, Beverly Sharp, Kenny Matthews and Delegate Joey Garcia at the FAMM conference

WV contingent at FAMM conference pictured here: Devon Unger, Jonathon Spence, Amber Blankenship, Star Hogan, Beverly Sharp, Kenny Matthews and Delegate Joey Garcia

Updates from AFSC's Appalachian Center for Equality

AFSC’s Appalachian Center for Equality (ACE) is excited to announce the awards of mini-grants to support the work of three teams from the Summer Policy Institute! One team from Morgantown is using their grant to host an event to support the Appalachian Prison Book Project, as well as “address the current state of West Virginia prisons, engage community members, and redirect funds to inmates throughout West Virginia.” The second team will continue advocacy for enhanced funding for affordable housing in the state. The third team will be advancing reproductive justice through improved access to menstrual products in northern West Virginia.

In addition to $500 mini-grants, the three teams will also receive coaching over the next several months to support their advocacy efforts.

In collaboration with Voices of Hunger, ACE recently launched "Seeding Sparks for the Right to Food" and are soliciting proposals for projects that advance the Right to Food in local communities. Applications are being accepted until January 8th.

AFSC’s ACE program also had their first two all-staff meetings with a new Boone County Mentor, Elizabeth Butcher. As part of the expansion process with two new staff this year, they all completed the Clifton Strengths 34 assessments and shared Top 5 strengths with each other, which will lay a strong foundation in self-awareness, leadership, and thriving as a connected and caring team. Additionally Program Director Nem Murimi created a new ACE Training Resource as a tool to continue to learn, build, and grow together.

Celebrating a Union Victory

Although it was from a distance, AFSC stood in solidarity with striking United Auto Workers in Detroit, and we felt overjoyed at their historic win for autoworkers and their families. Due to UAW’s tenacity and temerity, the “big three” automakers voted to ratify new record contracts which include a 25% increase in base wages. We feel a sense of pride given that we as West Virginians can claim former UAW president Walter Reuther as one of our own. Read more about that here.

A Win for Feeding Kids

For over 100 years, AFSC in West Virginia has been involved in one way or another in efforts to reduce child hunger. Most recently, AFSC along with partners around the state helped generate hundreds of public comments to the USDA to support lowering the threshold of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) in the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. They heard our call! As a result, 3,000 more school districts around the country will be able to provide free breakfast and lunch to all their students. Read more here.

Winter Is... Here

As we brace ourselves for winter, we also brace ourselves for a fight against both state and federal policy changes that would leave many West Virginians out in the cold. Given the $750 million hole in the state budget created by tax cuts that largely benefit the wealthiest West Virginians, we fear that the State Legislature will be looking for ways to cut vital public goods and services serving low-income people. The legislature convenes on January 10th so please be on the lookout for action alerts and ways to communicate to your lawmaker that no West Virginian can afford to lose their healthcare or access to food through programs like SNAP.

Also I am sure you have heard the coldhearted talk in Congress about cutting federal spending on social services. We were relieved that Congress voted earlier this month to avoid a government shutdown, however equally worried that the unusual two-tier spending bill they approved is setting us up for budget showdowns in the months to come. We will continue to hold the line on a federal budget that centers human needs: including access to quality childcare, expanding the child tax credit, and passing a Farm Bill that reduces hunger and mitigates the harms of climate change. Special shout out to Community Change for helping support our work to expand and protect the social safety net.

Restorative Justice on the Move in West Virginia

To mark International Week of Restorative Justice, AFSC co-hosted last week a webinar with the fledging (and flying!) WV Restorative Justice Project. The Honorable Judge Michael Aloi welcomed everyone and we heard from people around the state who are using restorative justice approaches in schools, recovery homes, drug courts, communities and more. You can watch the video here!

We also announced a restorative justice conference for June 15-16, 2024 at Wesleyan University. If you are interested in submitting a proposal to present at the conference, you may submit one here.

Mark your calendars for these upcoming events!

  • Monday, Dec. 11th at 12:00 PM: Leading for Justice Press Conference (Little Rotunda East)
  • Friday, Jan. 26th: Hunger Free Day (WV State Capitol)
  • Saturday, Jan. 27th: Food for All Day (WV School Service Personnel Building, Charleston)
  • Monday, Feb. 5th: Recovery and Reentry Day (WV State Capitol)
  • Wednesday, Feb. 7th: Black Policy Day (WV State Capitol)
  • Thursday, Feb 8th: Compassion Calls Us Day (WV State Capitol) and Faith and Food Training (Trinity Lutheran Church)

A last word on finding hope

In Howard Zinn's autobiography You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, he says, “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”

There is so much horror and cruelty unfolding in the world right now, and a terrifying slide towards fascism. In more hopeful moments, I seek out the myriad displays of people's cunning, fortitude, and compassion. This sounds corny but a lot of laughter and hope can be found in our struggle together for the common good. Or a walk in the wintry woods often does the trick too.

Thank you for reading and as always, please feel free to be in touch!

Lida Shepherd
WV Economic Justice Program Director