Coping with the day-to-day realities of a year like no other, Cassandra Welchlin, a community organizer, has worked to get single mothers the childcare they need, assisted foster care youths in accessing free Lyft rides and aided seniors with free food deliveries. With the presidential election around the corner, Welchlin’s work is focused on local and systemic change. “We don’t want anyone in office leading us that demeans our people,” she said. “A change has to come.”
The mom-of-three wears many hats in her Jackson, Mississippi, community. She’s an OG on her neighborhood association board (more than 15 years of service), the commissioner for the city of Jackson’s planning and zoning board and spends her 9-5 time serving as the executive director and co-convener of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable.
In The Black Ballot‘s first installment of NewsOne’s Keeping It Local series profiling local government officials’ activities surrounding the upcoming election, Welchlin discusses her on-the-ground efforts to create change and galvanize voting power in her hometown.
NewsOne: You work on several important community-led initiatives. Tell us about your roles.
Cassandra Welchlin: I’m on the local planning board and help ensure the businesses that come into the city are within specific regulations. By doing this, we also prevent overcrowding of the land and avoid any undue concentration of the population. So for instance, if a business wants to come into our city, we have to make sure their building is the proper height among other things, and make sure if it’s a liquor business, for example, it does not get placed within so many feet of a church or a school.
I’m also the secretary for my neighborhood association. I do many things, from organizing community events to rallying the community together. So, if there’s a crime happening, I usually get on the phone, text everyone to alert them. For instance, we recently had two murders in our neighborhood, and it was pretty gruesome. I reached out to the community, asking things like, “What have you seen?” And, then getting people together to say, “Let’s put together some kind of plan so that we can try to stop this,” or start a phone campaign. We started calling the mayor’s office asking them to board up abandoned buildings in our area. With all the uncertainties of the pandemic, I also coordinated with churches and food pantries to deliver food to our seniors.
NewsOne: You already do so much in your community when it comes to daily quality of life service, but your job at Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable really delves into politics and policy. Why is that important?
Cassandra Welchlin: So, at the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, where I’m the state lead, we’re an intergeneration network of Black women and girls working to increase the civic participation and voter engagement of Black women and girls. We push for equitable public policies that impact Black women and girls’ lives in Mississippi.
Since the pandemic, we’ve been able to use our COVID response emergency fund to support those single moms and others in need. For example, we’ve partnered with Black-owned childcare centers and paid for some moms’ childcare services. We also partnered with Lyft, through our National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, who gave us vouchers that we were able to pass down to those in need, like foster care youths. Some of them were living on campus before COVID. During the height of it, they were kicked out and found themselves displaced and without much. So, the vouchers helped them, say, go on job interviews or go to work while they were staying at churches or a place that was stable for the time being.
NewsOne: As the presidential election gets closer, what matters most in your community?
Cassandra Welchlin: We have a unique opportunity to elect people who believe and have the same values. People who care about the issues we care about: Black maternal health, healthcare, safety net programs, equal pay, paid leave and pregnancy accommodations, to name a few. And, we also have an opportunity to now have a Black female on the state Supreme Court in Mississippi, and that is huge.
I also think this momentum we’re in right now will allow us to turn out more people at the voting booth. At the same time, though, what’s also at stake is our vote because there’s been a lot of maneuvering to suppress our vote. And so we’ve been doing a lot of education and collaboration to make sure that people across the state really have useful information and that we are training community leaders and giving resources to communities so that they can make sure that people get to the polls. We are also making sure to train and educate what I call a new era of foot soldiers—our young people. We want to educate them and equip them to be leaders to understand the issues and help turn out their age group at the polls and speak to the issues and galvanize their communities to be a part of this movement.
NewsOne: Do you think a new season of leadership will positively impact your community?
Cassandra Welchlin: No doubt about it. People here see what the current administration is doing, and it’s sickening because it goes against the values of what we in the community teach our children. But what we’re also seeing in the community is the impact of having a Black woman VP candidate—seeing someone who looks like them running for the highest office is incredible.
People are really paying attention because the policies coming down impact their kitchen tables. For instance, unemployment insurance has been cut or some of their food stamps were cut, so there’s a renewed energy like, “No, we can’t live like this.” So for us community leaders, it’s about connecting the dots to the people and to the policies and saying, who you elect, make laws. And those laws impact your household and how much food you can put on your tables.
NewsOne: What are some changes you are advocating for right now?
Cassandra Welchlin: The central one right now is equal pay. Mississippi is the only state in the country without that law. And we are working at the local level to push for that (which would then help us push it at the state level). We’re working with mayors across the state to educate them about why equal pay is important, and how they can take the lead and introduce ordinances and legislation around equal pay and become an equal pay committed city.
There are 20,000 Black mamas and Black women in Mississippi that are uninsured, and that’s why I’m also pushing for pregnancy accommodations, boosting childcare supports and Medicaid expansion. We need insurance benefits to be expanded and also include 12 months’ postpartum support for pregnant women. We want pregnant workers to be taken care of because we want healthy mamas and babies. When these mothers have their babies, usually, their Medicaid is cut off. But we know that after a mother gives birth, those are some of the most critical times of their life.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.