Oxfam partners and community leaders share stories from their organizing work in the Deep South
Black History Month is a time to celebrate and recognize the contributions Black Americans have made in shaping our movements, culture, and ways of living. This month, Oxfam is sharing the stories of Black women activists who are fighting for a more equal future and carrying forward the legacies of the Black Mississippian leaders who came before them, like Fannie Lou Hamer, Myrlie Evers-Williams, and Unita Blackwell. Oxfam America has deep roots in the Gulf Coast with more than 15 years of supporting disaster recovery and building pathways out of poverty—so we are highlighting the work of our partners and other community leaders in Mississippi.
We can all learn from the women profiled here how to take inspiration from the movements of the past and take that spirit forward to organize for social change and the liberation of all peoples. You can also listen to these stories in their own voices on our podcast, Voices of Change, which will release one episode per week for Black History Month.
Cassandra Welchlin, Co-Convener and Leader Organizer, Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable
Cassandra Welchlin's passion for transforming policy stems from her own childhood. Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, she accompanied her mother on shifts to the building where she worked as a maid, playing in the closet while her mother—who earned about $2.13 a day—cleaned. Welchlin says that was her first lesson in equity: "No mom should have to leave their kid in the utility closet while she goes out and works."
Welchlin began her career as a social worker. Her job was to ensure the children she supported were successful in school. After digging into clients' backgrounds and talking to their mothers—women who were lacking economic security, child and health care—she realized that her clients wouldn't be able to thrive if the system continued to function as it always had.
She took a job as a policy director at the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative (MLICCI), where she organized low-income women—many of whom were Black women. "There was no agenda in the state of Mississippi that was comprehensive for women," says Welchlin. "So, we began to have conversations about what would it look like to put together a policy agenda in the state of Mississippi that's just focused on women and women's economic security."
She and MLICCI Executive Director Carol Burnett hosted roundtables around the state, asking participants one question: What do you need to be economically secure? That launched the Women's Economic Security Initiative, co-founded by Welchlin and Burnett, and led to the establishment of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable. "We went to the legislature and said: ‘Since you won't recognize us, and we know our legislature is majority men and majority white, y'all not going to be thinking about us the way we think about our family. We're going to put together our own policy agenda’," says Welchlin.
They did just that, introducing legislation for equal pay for equal work, increased wages, Medicaid expansion, paid leave, sick leave, pregnancy accommodations, and as a result of these efforts, the city of Jackson, Mississippi, was designated a pay equity city in 2019.
Maisie Brown, Student Activist, ACLU of Mississippi intern
For Maisie Brown, activism started with an eight-grade Algebra assignment. Her class was asked to redesign the Mississippi state flag. That made Brown ask, “Why are we designing a new flag? What's wrong with the old one?”
At the time, the Mississippi state flag featured a Confederate flag as part of its design, and the more Brown thought about it, the more concerned she became about the message it was sending. "Flying [the flag] over our state buildings and over schools little Black children are walking into... It was racist, and I found it really disrespectful for the Blackest state in the nation."
Brown wrote an opinion piece for her local paper, a move that propelled her to the national stage—leading a protest in Washington, D.C. She also gave a TEDxJackson talk on the importance of the social media generation in the fight for equality. While she has helped build momentum for change by mobilizing people via social media, Brown is quick to note that the work to change the Mississippi state flag had been going on for years.
In 2020, after graduating high school, Brown co-organized Jackson’s Black Lives Matter protest, the largest protest in Mississippi since the Civil Rights Movement. With public awareness growing, Brown—who is now a student at Jackson State University and an advocacy intern at the ACLU of Mississippi—says that it became apparent the state flag had to change. "Number one on our list of demands was removal of the Confederate flag from our state flag," she says. In January 2021, the state of Mississippi adopted a new flag with the design of a magnolia surrounded by 20 stars, one five-point gold star, and the words "In God We Trust."
"Changing the state flag was really important not only for us," says Brown, "but for all the people who helped make it possible over the years, who've been fighting this issue far before I was even born."
Nsombi Lambright-Haynes, Executive Director, One Voice
Nsombi Lambright-Haynes sees her place in the continuum of Mississippi's legacy of Black women organizers. "We have a very rich legacy of Black women taking the lead organizing inside of their communities and holding public office," she says.
Her own journey began on the campus of Tougaloo College, a historically Black college in Jackson, which served as a safe haven for activists during the Civil Rights Movement. There, she witnessed history in the making from the changemakers themselves. "I learned to make connections between the Civil Rights Movement and some of the crises that we're still facing today, such as the public education system, voting rights, and environmental justice," she says.
She applied those lessons throughout her non-profit career, which includes leading the ACLU branch in Mississippi. Lambright-Haynes is currently the director of One Voice, a statewide leadership development and policy advocacy organization that builds leadership to address structural oppressions that show up in institutions and processes like the public education system, voting, and the criminal justice system. One Voice has had a standing campaign to increase voting in Mississippi, one of the few states that doesn't have early voting or online voter registration.
"It's very important for all of us to be involved in social justice and in our communities in some sort of way," says Lambright-Haynes, a recipient of the Fannie Lou Hamer Humanitarian Award. "We've seen the last several years of civil unrest around the country … This is not the time to sit back and watch what's happening and say, well, that's not my problem. It's everybody's problem. We need all hands on deck."
Rukia Lumumba, executive director of People’s Advocacy Institute and co-director of the Electoral Justice Project of the Movement of Black Lives
The daughter of Jackson's late Mayor Chokwe Lumumba and community activist Nubia Lumumba, Rukia Lumumba was raised to be an agent of change. Lumumba—who has been engaged with organizing since high school—founded the People's Advocacy Institute (PAI), an incubator for transformative justice in the South.
"As a Black woman organizer, I've had to challenge myself to be in the forefront, to no longer be in the background, doing all of the work that makes the people out front look good," says Lumumba.
That's exactly what she's doing at PAI, an organization that equips people who are most impacted by systemic violence with the tools to disrupt the criminal and juvenile punishment systems and create a new system founded in human justice, re-education, restitution, restoration, and individual and collective healing. It also operates the Mississippi Bail Fund Collective, the state's only bail fund, provides legal support to help people who are incarcerated and serving life sentences, and campaigns to release elderly women who are incarcerated in Mississippi.
"As Black women, we are constantly moving in a way where we organize in our homes and in our communities in a way where we allow and accept the feedback and the collective strength of everyone involved," says Lumumba. "We engage in the deep listening that is core to organizing, and then [engage in] action to help move it forward."