“Our Voices” brings advocacy to Silver Spring

Akieal WIlliams and Jarret Smith talk with interns from OVM before the meetingAkieal WIlliams and Jarret Smith talk with interns from OVM before the meeting. PHOTO BY CAROLYN KOMATSOULIS   It’s going to be an uphill battle for Our Voices Matter, a group hoping to promote civic engagement in Silver Spring and inspire activism for local issues.

The group began after Will Jawando ran for state delegate in 2014 and realized that the people in the Long Branch neighborhood where he grew up didn’t feel like their vote mattered.

“‛Why are you asking for my vote? My voice doesn’t matter,’” John Randall, OVM’s director of operations, said about what Jawando heard while canvassing. “I think people were just feeling a sense of powerlessness,” said Randall.

According to Randall, the group passed out 1000 flyers advertising their community forum on Saturday, but the turnout was far below that number. Six people showed up, providing an intimate look into what really bothers people in the Long Branch neighborhood.

“I’m most concerned about education, specifically the new immigrants,” said Anica Ackah. “Have to have them be exposed to job opportunities. They’re stuck in the same kinds of jobs.” “Long Branch trail, a lot of graffiti with MS-13,” said Akieal Williams. “At night, people turn back.”

Akieal said that there were men drinking and harassing people, and that although the police are sometimes there, he wants the police there more often.Victoria Nelson discusses a framework for advocacyVictoria Nelson discusses a framework for advocacy. PHOTO BY CAROLYN KOMATSOULIS   

The group voted on the top two issues that they cared about most and came up with a top three: employment and education for immigrants (four votes), affordable housing (five votes), and the achievement gap (six votes).

Our Voices Matter is planning to have another meeting in a few weeks to choose one of those issues and run an advocacy campaign. They are also planning a project in four to-be-determined Montgomery County schools.

“Pre-K for all is an issue that I think people feel makes a difference in whether or not their kids can overcome the achievement gap,” said Randall. “We are working on a project here trying to address the achievement gap by organizing parents and school officials in four schools in MoCo,”

Although all they did at the meeting was line up the issues in which they hope to encourage advocacy, some of the attendees are optimistic about the group and its goals.

“My coming here today is the first step. I am coming here to learn, to educate, to change things,” said Ackah.

Her daughter, Andrea Golli, felt similarly.

“It gave me other perspectives on other issues that I didn’t know existed,” she said. “Like the housing. I used to think that everyone has to have a good job and get paid well in order to have a house. Some people can’t have these opportunities, everyone (should) be able to live in a house, provide their family, not just rich people”

 Randall says that in the past, they have tried to work in small ways to encourage local citizens. “One of the things that I have done is we were talking about health care and people said ‘health care is an issue that is way above me and I don’t have anything intelligent to say,’” said Randall. “‛How many have gone to [the] emergency room?’” he asked the group. “Hands went up.” “‛How many people have questioned a procedure?’” he also asked them. “Hands went up.”

“You have the perspective of the customer and that’s an important perspective that policy makers don’t have,” he says he told the group. “We talked about the policies being discussed, (and) people find out that people do have an opinion.”

However, as Jarret Smith pointed out, it’s not enough for people to have an opinion.

“You need them to take action,” said Smith about trying to get people to advocate for issues. “It’s tough. It could take years before you get change.


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