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Congratulations, VOICE, on your work
In the Virginia General Assembly this year!

Throughout the General Assembly session that ended in early March, teams of VOICE leaders went to Richmond to speak with Cabinet members and our state senators and delegates to help move our key issues.

In addition, VOICE leaders responded when key state political leaders asked us to mobilize our people power to move on our shared budget interests. VOICE leaders acted -- and acted strategically.

Currently, around 50% of VA General Assembly leadership comes from Northern Virginia—including appropriation chairs, the House Speaker, and the House and Senate Majority Leaders. VOICE leaders representing congregations in those key districts put together congregational-wide plans to generate hundreds of calls and emails to their representatives to let them know:

“We understand that there are many competing priorities; as you debate what actions you will take, we ask you to keep in mind that the issues VOICE cares about came out of a 2-year campaign that involved over 500 Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders from our 50+ VOICE member institutions, who talked with more than 6,000 NOVA residents face-to-face.”

VOICE — You and your message got results! Congratulations! 

VOICE’s Criminal Justice organizing achieved a trio of major victories this session:

1) Public Defender Office in Prince William County

The issue: Through listening sessions and research actions, VOICE leaders learned that Prince William relies solely upon low-paid, court-appointed counsel to provide representation to indigent defendants, a system rife with serious flaws.

VOICE acted: VOICE led the fight for the historic creation of Prince William’s first-ever Public Defender office, which will lead to more equitable treatment for the poorest residents in Virginia’s only county that is majority people of color. Prince William is the second-largest jurisdiction in Virginia and the only jurisdiction in Northern Virginia and the largest locality without a Public Defender office. Like all of VOICE’s issues, the lack of adequate legal representation was cited as a concern again and again in listening sessions. Then, in October, VOICE mobilized 600 Prince William leaders for an assembly with local elected officials to kick off support for the Public Defender office.  

VOICE held dozens of meetings with key decision-makers within the General Assembly, including Gov. Northam, to secure the needed $5.4 million in the budget to fund the office.  The bill to create the Public Defender office was sponsored and championed by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy and Sen. Scott Surovell, received critical support from Del. Luke Torian, the chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, and was listed as a top criminal justice priority by Gov. Northam. 

2) Driver's Licenses 

The issue: Over the past two years, VOICE has helped spearhead a campaign to eliminate Virginia’s draconian practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court debt. In 2018, 627,000 Virginians were denied the right to drive to work, pick up their children from school, or take an elderly parent to a doctor’s appointment, simply because, being poor (and as is often the case a person of color), they were unable to pay their court debt. 

VOICE acted: In October of 2018, VOICE convened 1,400 of its members to ask Gov. Northam to help end this practice. Specifically, VOICE asked Gov. Northam to allocate money in his budget to replace revenue lost from reinstatement fees, roughly $9 million per year, which in the past had been a significant roadblock to passage of legislation that would have ended the practice of suspension altogether. In December of 2018, Gov. Northam followed through on his commitment to VOICE and allocated the needed funding in his budget.    

Because the legislation to undo this practice failed in committee in 2019, Gov. Northam and a bipartisan group of legislators worked to get it passed as a budget amendment, giving it the force of law for one year. Since that time, tens of thousands of Virginians have had their driving privileges restored, including many members in our congregations.

This year, with overwhelming bipartisan support, legislation passed to make the change permanent.

3) Felony Larceny 

The issue: Over the past two years, VOICE led a successful campaign to quadruple the threshold for felony larceny (theft) from one of the lowest rates in the country in 2018, $250, to $1,000 this year. For decades, thousands of Virginians have been impacted by the unconscionably low rate, which punishes people with lifetime felonies for often-minor property crimes. 

VOICE acted: VOICE played a major role in urging Gov. Northam to make increasing the threshold one his top criminal justice priorities this year, and we sent teams of leaders to Richmond to meet with dozens of members of the General Assembly to help ensure its passage.

In early March, Gov. Northam signed into law the increase to $1,000. 


The issue: For years, VOICE has fought to ensure that communities that have lived here for decades can continue to afford to do so and that our communities continue to be welcoming to new low-income families.  

VOICE acted: At our fall 2018 action, VOICE leaders called on Gov. Northam to commit to put money in the state budget for affordable housing. Since then, funding for affordable housing has been increased from less than $5 million a year to $73 million over the next two years, $60 million of which will be directed into the Housing Trust Fund. 



The issue: In 2018, over 1,400 VOICE leaders called on Gov. Northam to act with VOICE to address the growing mental health challenges among Virginia’s youth. Specifically, VOICE asked that Gov. Northam ensure that $90 million in new monies in his budget fund staffing needed to lower the student-to-counselor ratio in Virginia elementary schools from 500:1 to 250:1. 

  • In 2019, VOICE secured a downpayment of $12.5 million towards the $90 million needed to raise the school counselor-to-student ratio to 1:250. Gov. Northam committed the full $90M over three years in his budget.
  • In 2020, VOICE helped win $46.1 million, which moves the ratio to one counselor for every 325 students in K-12 schools in fiscal year ‘22.

VOICE celebrates the new monies -- and we still have work to do on this to get us to where we need to be. 

PRE-K Funding: VOICE for years has worked for more money for pre-K classes and has been successful in Prince William County. This year, with urging from VOICE, the General Assembly allocated $88 million in new monies to expand pre-K access to 3- and 4 year-old children.


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Housing Affordability:  On April 3, four powerful VOICE speakers, joined by 36 VOICE Arlington leaders, made compelling cases to the county board of supervisors for affordable-housing funding in next year's Arlington County budget. One speaker, a resident who has worked with Arlington Public Schools for 21 years, testified that despite holding a second job she spends more than 60% of her income on rent.

On April 21, the Arlington County Board of Supervisors approved an FY 2019 budget that adds $600,000 to the AHIF affordable housing trust fund, bringing the fund’s total to $14.3 million. This is lower than the $15 million VOICE and others had asked for but higher than the amount proposed in a year of numerous budget cuts, so Arlington VOICE leaders view this as a victory over the odds.

At the same April 21 meeting, the board voted unanimously to approve a new committed-affordable development site plan — despite some neighborhood opposition — for a mix of townhomes and apartments that the Wesley Housing Development Corp. will build, just off of Rte. 50, creating 97 new units and preserving another 63 units, all affordable.


VOICE demands school system provide more support for immigrant students

Seventy VOICE Arlington leaders turned out with allies on a night with torrential rain in late May to demand the Arlington school system provide greater support for immigrant and refugee students.

The size of the turnout made an impression. Reid Goldstein, now the School Board Chair, twice noted the number in his comments.

Several School Board members underscored the need to act now. School Board member Nancy Van Doren told the Superintendent she would look for changes to volunteer forms sooner rather than later to ensure APS is not discouraging parent participation by asking for unnecessary personally identifying information.

At the instigation of VOICE and its ally, The Dream Project, the Superintendent last year appointed a working group to study how well the school system has been meeting the needs of immigrant and refugee students.

The recommendations presented by the working group at the School Board meeting ranged from clarifying what documents the school system will need students' caretakers to present if their parents are detained to providing greater mental health support and  adapting the curriculum to better reflect the contributions of immigrants and refugees.

Next Steps: We will continue to organize to hold APS accountable for making key changes early in the school year.


VOICE gets attention with mayoral candidate forum, get-out-the-vote campaign

At the candidate evening in May, mayoral candidates committed to work with VOICE Alexandria on

  •     Working to enforce the affordable housing parameters set in the Housing Master Plan;
  •     Strengthening Resolution 830 to ensure preservation of public housing in the city;
  •     Ensuring a culture in public housing that encourages resident participation in the decision making of public housing;
  •     Increasing equity in public schools around suspension rates;
  •     Researching city contractors and sub-contractors to ensure that all people who work in the city can live in the city.

VOICE and the Resident Association of ARHA also conducted a non-partisan campaign to get out the vote in public housing during the primary election.  
This was part of a larger campaign in which VOICE and the ARHA Resident Association are organizing in solidarity to demand respect for public housing residents in Alexandria. With the constant threat of redevelopment taking place at the ARHA properties in Old Town (such as Samuel Madden and Andrew Adkins) many families do not know if/when they will be forced out of the city. Additionally, residents also endure nagging maintenance problems such as gas and water leaks, chronic plumbing issues, and infestations of rodents.   

On one weekend alone, GOTV teams knocked on 1,062 doors in an ARHA-wide Get Out the Vote effort to increase voter turnout of ARHA residents, primarily in the Charles Houston, LaDrey and City Hall Precincts.

Among their other accomplishments:

--  Collected over 1,437 voter pledge cards from ARHA residents and community members who committed to vote on issues that impact public and affordable housing –  more than 400% of the difference determining the 2015 mayoral primary and larger than 10% of the entire 2015 mayoral primary electorate;

--  Completed a voter registration drive of ARHA resident;

--  Mobilized for Election Day to knock on hundreds of ARHA doors, offer rides to the polls for ARHA residents, and make hundreds of phone calls to residents of public housing who  committed to vote.



Honoring Muslim and Jewish Holidays:  Confirming last year’s victory with the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) in obtaining a commitment to protect Muslim and Jewish students from being academically penalized when they miss school due to religious obligations, Muslim parents in Fairfax just received emails from FCPS, written in Arabic as well as English, explaining that if their kids need to fast during Ramadan (May 15 - June 14) they now have a choice: They can either have their SOL tests rescheduled or ask for an early-morning exam time so kids can take the test while their energy level is still high. Our Muslim VOICE parents see this as a sign the school system has gained a new level of awareness.

Organizing with Latino Herndon parents to make sure kids can safely get to school: An action team meeting was held in Herndon with over 40 parents from Hutchison Elementary and VOICE leaders from Floris UMC, Northern VA Hebrew Congregation, Trinity Presbyterian & St. Mary's Episcopal. Many spoke up about safety issues near the school, particularly a dangerous traffic intersection where two parents have already been hit by a car.

Listening to students: VOICE’s Schools Team conducted listening sessions with Fairfax high school students. A listening session focused on youth was held at the Reston Regional Library, led by VOICE leaders from Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation (NVHC). The nine youths from grades 8 through 11 who participated were all members of the library’s Teen Advisory Board. The issue they raised was concern over safety in the wake of the Parkland school shooting and what appears to them to be inadequate safeguards, especially at the elementary schools, and insufficient training for teachers and counselors on this.

Listening to principals: VOICE’s Schools Team conducted a listening session with 70+ Fairfax County principals on April 19. A team of VOICE Muslim and Jewish leaders worked with the principals in two different breakout sessions at an FCPS Principals’ Event. The purpose was twofold: to continue ensuring that Muslim and Jewish holidays are honored in FCPS, and to identify talented principals and build relationships with them to find allies in our larger schools-organizing effort. 

Research action on public transit loss: VOICE leaders from Vienna Baptist Church and Emmaus United Church of Christ partnered with parents and the PTA of Cunningham Park Elementary School to assess public transportation needs after the loss of the 2T Metrobus route last June. The face-to-face surveys and conversations conducted with 41 parents indicate that the loss of the 2T bus has seriously disrupted the lives of residents and families. More than 30 of the parents expressed interest in helping to organize an effort to restore bus service.