An evening of fellowship and remembrance

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On Saturday, friends and family of Modjeska Monteith Simkins gathered to honor her life and legacy on what would have been her 115th birthday. They shared stories about Modjeska, and students of the school talked about what they learned. It was a moving and inspiring evening.

Proceeds from the benefit will go to the SC Progressive Network‘s new Modjeska School. The future of the school looks bright. Plans are under development to raise funds to purchase the building next to the Modjeska Simkins House, where the Network has its offices. We have outgrown the meeting space of the House, and need a place to hold classes.

We will keep members informed as the project develops. To make a donation to the school, click here.

For more photos from Saturday’s party, see our photo album.

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As SC prepares to replace aging voting machines, the SC Progressive Network advocates for low-tech devices

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SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey addressed the Joint Legislative Committee on Voting System Research on Nov. 10 at a meeting to talk about replacing the state’s aging voting machines. (His testimony begins at 2:13 in this clip.)

The five Senators and five House members on the committee invited State Election Commission Director Marci Andino to make a presentation about the acquisition of new voting machines. She was hired in 2003, not long before she spent the state’s $34 million federal grant to buy new voting machines. Ours was the first state to spend its Help America Vote Act (HAVA) money that was allocated after the 2000 “hanging chad” drama that resulted in the George Bush presidency.

In 2003, the Network testified before the SEC board (Andino’s bosses) while its members deliberated whether to buy more than 10,000 of the machines at $3,000 apiece. We presented expert witnesses who testified that the proposed machines were not certified by the federal Election Assistance Commission, that the software to run them is secret, and the devices don’t produce a voter-verifiable paper record necessary for a recount.

Against that advice, South Carolina bought the machines, and Andino remains a loyal consumer of the paperless, secret-software, touch-screen devices we have been using since 2004.

Andino told the committee that she was going ahead with writing the Request for Proposals for the new voting system, and expected to have the bid let by the end of the year. Committee Chair Sen. Ronnie Cromer (R-Lexington) pointed out that the committee wouldn’t have their report on what kind of system SC should buy until after the first of the year.

Andino told the committee that the state procurement code put her in charge of writing specifications for investing $40 million in a new voting system. Murmurs in the audience suggested that she might regret telling legislators that they couldn’t tell her what to do.

Comments from legislators – especially the Republicans – supported the type of system that the Network has for years been advocating: a publicly owned system that doesn’t rely on secret codes for security, but relies on a voter-verified paper ballot. It is a simple system that can use an off-the-shelf computer or tablet to run software that lets the voter touch (or talk) to the screen and print a paper ballot. The voter reviews the ballot to verify that it’s marked correctly, then deposits the ballot in a scanner that counts the vote before the voter leaves the precinct.

This low-tech system will cost about half of what Andino is prepared to spend on a proprietary one, and it doesn’t require specially trained company technicians. The state could teach students in our 17 tech schools to maintain our publicly owned system.

The Network will be educating the public and our members on this issue, and asking them to lobby their legislators to purchase a more transparent, reliable and fiscally sound voting system.

SC progressives map strategy for 2016

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Grassroots activists from across the state met Oct. 23-25 at the SC Progressive Network‘s annual fall retreat at Penn Center in St. Helena, near Beaufort. It was a full weekend of networking, organizing, and mapping plans for the coming legislative session – and beyond.

Saturday morning was spent on Network business: reports from the 11 member groups present and updates from our chapters (Charleston, Columbia, Rock Hill and Spartanburg). The body also approved a bylaws change to establish caucuses within the Network so members can organize around issues and specific constituencies. At Penn, participants caucused on racial justice, women’s rights, and young people. They will identify and promote their own priorities, set their own meeting schedules and develop their own leadership.

Graham Duncan and Meeghan Kane, who taught portions the summer session of the Network’s Modjeska Simkins School, led a short course on the people’s history of South Carolina. Brett Bursey talked about the history of Network, and its precursor GROW.

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The afternoon was given over to a strategy discussion for 2016, centered on a four-pronged approach to: educate, agitate, legislate, and litigate. Reps. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (Orangeburg) and Joe Neal (Richland) – members of the newly formed SC Progressive Legislative Caucus – led a session on the state of voting rights. They were joined by George Eppsteiner, staff attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

The main consideration for shaping our strategy about voting rights is recognizing that the system has been rigged by partisan gerrymandering. As the dominant Republican Party has been allowed by the US Justice Dept. to draw legislative districts that create majority-black and white districts, the winners will be chosen in primaries that fewer than 10% of the citizens decide. Accordingly, the Network’s strategy includes grassroots education and agitation around the nation’s least-competitive elections. This educational effort will reflect legislative proposals to restore democracy through creating competitive political districts and other voting methods. These efforts will be capped off by possible litigation challenging the rigged nature of elections.

That session segued into a facilitated discussion on this state’s most insidious problem – institutional racism – and practical ways the Network can address systemic oppression in South Carolina. The panel included Kevin Alexander Gray, Rep. David Mack, and Laura Cahue of Somos SC.

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Participants then broke into work groups, joining issue caucuses or attending workshops on the Network’s Missing Voter Project (led by Kyle Criminger) and Racial Profiling Project (led by Kevin Gray). The Racial Justice caucus and the Immigrant Rights caucus joined the discussion around the Network’s Racial Profiling Project as a “shovel ready” tool to organize against racial injustice anywhere in the state. Laura Cahue reported that Latinos are being targeted by police in traffic stops that often result in jail and deportation. Rep. Neal wants the Network to help coordinate racial profiling complaints from Latino communities to the SC Progressive Legislative Caucus.

Network Caucus contacts:

In the evening, everyone gathered at picnic tables under giant oaks to dine on Gullah Grub’s fried fish and fixin’s, then went inside Frissell Hall to sing along with the fabulous Dave Lippman.

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On Sunday morning, caucus representatives gave reports on their work and next steps. Among other Network business, it was decided to postpone elections for Network officers until our annual spring meeting.

Rep. Cobb-Hunter offered a legislative forecast for 2016, which was followed by discussion on bills we will introduce and promote.

After lunch, the SC Progressive Voter Coalition (SC ProVote), the electoral arm of the Network, met to discuss GOTV priorities and involvement in upcoming state and local races. They were later joined by progressive activist and tax reform expert Mike Fanning, who is running for state Senate (Dist. 17: Chester, Fairfield and York). After a rousing presentation, he earned the group’s endorsement.

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Before adjourning, the body rejected a resolution to support a presidential candidate, as that would break with the Network’s state-based strategic model.

Our thanks to everyone who made time for a very long, but ultimately productive weekend. We will keep you posted about progress with the emerging caucuses and Network chapters.

For information on joining a caucus or creating a Network chapter in your area, or to schedule a Missing Voter Project or Racial Profiling Project training for you or your organization, call our office at 803-808-3384 or email network@scpronet.com.

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See more snapshots from the weekend at Penn Center in our photo album.

Network members and allies return to historic Penn Center for fall retreat

Don’t miss the most important progressive gathering of the year Oct. 23-25! Get away to the Lowcountry for a weekend with friends and allies to talk politics, build alliances, sharpen strategies, and recharge our batteries.

Join grassroots activists from across the state at historic Penn Center – where the SC Progressive Network was born 19 years ago – for a weekend of fellowship, networking and mapping strategy. Sadly, this may be the last chance you can experience Penn as an activist, as the site is under new management that is working to turn it into a charter school.

The weekend will include enough structure to be focused and productive, but with enough free time built in so participants can caucus, get to know each other, or explore the area on their own. Come for a day or the whole weekend. We promise you will leave more energized and motivated than when you arrived.

At our last visit to Penn in 2013, US Sen. Bernie Sanders – not yet a candidate – electrified a packed hall with a message about building a movement fueled by progressive values. Our focus this year will be the participants themselves, who will take a hands-on and strategic approach to advancing key legislation and Network projects in the coming year.

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We will look back at the past year to see what it can teach us, from our Healthy Democracy Road Show through the aftermath of the massacre in Charleston and the renewed furor over the Confederate flag, through the launch of our organizing institute, the Modjeska Simkins School. We’ll deconstruct the year as grassroots activists, and use it to inform our work going forward.

Orangeburg Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter will introduce us to the newly formed SC Legislative Progressive Caucus, which she and her legislative partners say will fill a need not being met by the current Democratic or Black Caucuses. She will talk about why she launched the new caucus and what it hopes to do when the lawmakers return to Columbia in January.

We will look ahead to the coming legislative session to map priorities and refine strategies. We will continue our work on Medicaid expansion, which will be even more complicated this year as a coalition is pushing a plan to privatize funding. The Network thinks it is the wrong approach.

The Network will offer workshops on two of its ongoing projects – Racial Profiling Campaign and the Missing Voter Project. Graduates of the Modjeska School will run the sessions, using updated tool kits and strategies.

The retreat will feature lots of down time so people can network with others working in their region or interest area.

On Saturday evening, American troubadour Dave Lippman will offer some comic relief with parodies and a sing-along. We’ll also open up the mic to anyone who wants to share stories about life in the trenches and what motivates them as activists.

The weekend kicks off Friday evening, for people who want to arrive early. Check-in between 5-9pm in Hampton Hall. Registration begins at 9am Saturday morning, and the event wraps on Sunday afternoon. Carpools and scholarships are available.

Spread the word! RSVP/Share on Facebook.

See our photo album from our past retreats at Penn.

PROGRAM

9am: Registration/room assignments

Welcome, introductions and housekeeping

Brief reports from member organizations

Chapters: The Network has chapters in Charleston, Columbia, Rock Hill, and in the Upstate. Horry is under development. We will discuss structure, strategy and regional leadership development.

Modjeska Simkins School – short course. We’ll offer a condensed class to teach participants a short people’s history of South Carolina. This will include a look at the SC Progressive Network’s own history, which has been remarkable given our radical agenda and paltry funding.

SC Progressive Network year debrief:

  • Healthy Democracy Road Show
  • Marriage equality victories
  • Network Voter Registration Offices Survey
  • Modjeska Simkins School
  • Confederate flag rallies
  • Days of Grace

Caucuses – breakout sessions. Additional caucuses may be proposed by participants.

  • New Legacy Project (youth group)
  • Women’s health
  • Black Lives Matter and Racial Justice
  • Peace and anti-death penalty movement
  • Labor
  • Immigrant rights

Legislative forecast for 2016: discussion led by Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter

Communications: What’s new, best practices, boosting our statewide visibility. One-on-one social media sessions available throughout the weekend for anyone wanting to set up an account or ask questions about Twitter or Facebook.

Project workshops:

Saturday evening: fish fry, open mic tales from the trenches. Singalong and satire by Dave Lippman.

Sunday: Workshops and caucus reports.

SC Progressive Voter Coalition (SC ProVote) discussion. The electoral arm of the Network will map strategy.

RETREAT PACKAGES

The full weekend package: Friday check-in between 5-9pm, through Sunday 3pm, all meals and shared bedroom: $175. Private bedroom, add $35 per night.

Saturday – Sunday package: includes registration, lunch, fish fry, Saturday night shared bedroom, Sunday breakfast and lunch: $125

Saturday registration only, no meals: $10
Saturday registration; lunch: $30
Saturday registration, lunch; fish fry: $45

Sunday registration only: $10
Sunday lunch and registration: $20

We have a limited number of rooms on campus at Penn, so book early. Private rooms are available at the nearby Quality Inn. Click here to make reservations for the conference and/or lodging.

Inaugural class graduates from the Network’s Modjeska Simkins School

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The students who graduated Aug. 24 from the Modjeska School’s summer session were a diverse mix: gay and straight, retired and collegiate, blue-collar, union and professional, black, Latino and white. The youngest was 2nd-grader Rose Duncan, daughter of guest lecturer Graham Duncan, and the eldest student was Eunice “Tootsie” Holland, who will turn 84 in December.

What they shared was an intense, three-month session that covered a South Carolina people’s history. The massacre at the Emanuel Church in Charleston took place just two days after we talked in class about Denmark Vesey’s 1822 slave rebellion. It was Vesey’s church that was again the chosen target of a violent racist attack. We added an extra class to talk about the tragedy, Sen. Clementa Pinckney – an ally of the SC Progressive Network – and the political maneuvering around the Confederate flag. Pressure from GOP candidates on the campaign trail forced Gov. Nikki Haley to call for the flag to come down. It was a stunning example to see how history is made, and remade.

The summer session covered South Carolina history as well as our own, teaching how the Network was created 19 years ago, and tracing its genealogy from the Grass Roots Organizing Workshop (GROW). Students also learned basic civics and organizing strategies. “You’re never too old to learn new things,” said Andy Sidden, pastor at Garden of Grace Church, “and, boy, did I!”

The school is a work in progress. “It was a privilege to have been a guinea pig for the noble experiment,” said Kyle Criminger. “We learned so much, so many stories that I had never heard. And it put the popular movement in historical context, and clarified our strategy and tactics.”

Course material will be revisited, repackaged, culled, expanded and posted to be accessible and user-friendly for students and the public. We are in the process of recording oral histories on key topics by South Carolina social justice movers and shakers, as well as uploading clips from the summer classes to share on the web site. Our goal is to see that the Modjeska School’s organizer training gets spread across the state by training up a corps of teachers and by also having on-line classes.

Students will carry what they’ve learned into the real world, starting immediately. They have signed up for at least one Network project, and will be working with other activists to expand and create Network initiatives. They are:

  • Medicaid expansion. South Caorlina is on track to privatize Medicaid funding, a really bad idea that’s driven by for-profit health care and anti-government ideologues. We will update our campaign for this new reality in 2016.
  • Racial profiling. Using the toolkit the Network created years ago, with a law we wrote to support it, we will teach community activists how to hold law enforcement accountable for its practices during traffic stops.
  • Missing Voter Project. The Network will continue its work on voting rights and targeting under-served communities to engage them and register them to vote.
  • Clean elections. Also called publicly financed, or voter-owned elections, this is the reform that can make all other reform possible. We will continue the work that Sen. Clementa Pinckney held dear, reducing the influence of money in politics.

Duncan said, “These last three months with the school have been incredible, and I feel fortunate and honored to have been included in helping develop a curriculum for the classes. Seeing a group of people come together to discuss how we can use lessons from South Carolina history to inform and influence our current efforts to organize in an attempt to enact more progressive policies gives me real hope for the future.”

Thank you to guest teachers Graham Duncan, Dr. Ed Madden, Dr. Hoyt Wheeler, Dr. Tom Terrill, Kevin Gray, Rep. Joseph Neal, and Meeghan Kane.

And congratulations to the graduates!

See more photos in our class album.

For more about the school, call 803-808-3384 or email network@scpronet.com.

Not all Medicaid expansion plans are created equal. Know the facts.

1When the legislature returns in January, expect a new round of debate over Medicaid expansion. Do not be fooled by a plan that would take those federal funds and privatize them.

“They’re allowing states (Arkansas was the first) to take the billion-plus dollars and privatize it,” explains SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey.

“They put it into a cabinet agency – in South Carolina Nikki Haley appoints the head of the Health and Human Services – and they would then subsidize insurance for poor people by buying them an insurance policy with a private company like Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

It’s a really bad idea. It’s a bad idea financially. It’s a bad idea from a medical standpoint. It’s just actually obscene making that type of money off of our tax dollars by ripping off poor people, privatizing poverty.”

Marking 50 years of the Voting Rights Act

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On the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the SC Progressive Network held a press conference to mark the occasion and to talk about the work undone. Speakers included Brett Bursey, Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, and Jesse Jackson.

In his remarks, Rev. Jackson announced Rainbow/PUSH’s plan to hold a conference Aug. 28 in Columbia to further voting rights, among other issues. The Network has agreed to collaborate.

Rep. Cobb-Hunter took the Black Caucus and the Democratic Party to task for blowing a chance last legislative session to map a meaningful redistricting plan.

SC LGBT pioneer Harriet Hancock discovers she’s kin to another pioneer, Modjeska Monteith Simkins

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Columbia natives Harriet Hancock and Modjeska Monteith Simkins share more than a passion for civil rights. They share a family tree rooted in the same Midlands soil.

Harriet discovered the connection after reading about Modjeska’s family history in the SC Progressive Network’s booklet Modjeska Monteith Simkins: A South Carolina Revolutionary.

“She was an activist. I’m an activist,” she said. “It’s all about civil rights, no matter whether it’s about race or sexual orientation or transgender issues. It’s all the same. What a great thing it is that we come from the same bloodline.”

Listen to her remarkable story.

Don’t sanitize history; learn from it

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The monument to racist Gov. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman on the State House grounds.

Since the Confederate flag has come down, there is some public sentiment that the state now must remove monuments erected to racist state leaders. The SC Progressive Network does not subscribe to that idea. Network Director Brett Bursey issued this statement:

“The tragedy in Charleston is a teachable moment, and a chance to talk honestly about the racist nature of our heritage. Removing monuments to white supremacists like Calhoun, Hampton, Simms or Tillman will not change the past, nor will it help future generations understand and change the institutionalized racism they inherit.

White supremacy is deeply woven into our history. It was, in fact, at the core of the state and nation’s founding. We support telling the truth about our former ‘heroes’ with additional plaques that explain their role in using race and class oppression to retain wealth and power.

If Ben Tillman is erased from our present history, we will not fully understand why and how our state ranks so consistently low on quality of life charts.”

The Network is in the process of creating a walking tour of the State House grounds, a people’s guide to its monuments. The project will launch this fall.

Brett Bursey began his life-long career as a progressive activist in 1968 as the SC State Traveler for the Southern Student Organizing Committee. He founded the Grass Roots Organizing Workshop (GROW) in 1975. GROW organized the SC Progressive Network in 1995.