Conversation Partners

Q&A with Juanita Lewis, Community Voices Heard

Community Voices Heard (CVH) was founded in 1994 and is the largest Black-led, member-driven, grassroots, principally women of color and low-income families organization in New York State. Back around this time last year, we first began working with CVH with the release of our Rockefeller holiday coffee, where $1 of each bag sold went to support their work building power to secure racial, social, and economic justice for all New Yorkers. This year, we’re thrilled to share we’ll be partnering up again on an upcoming coffee—more on that soon!—but in the meantime, we wanted to take this Giving Tuesday as an opportunity to sit down with CVH executive director Juanita O. Lewis for a look at the group’s history, current projects like Follow Black Women, and their vision for an equitable future.

Looking for more ways to support Community Voices Heard? Please consider making a donation here.

Q: Can you walk us through the formation of Community Voices Heard? Where did it begin and how has it evolved since its formation?

A: Community Voices Heard (CVH) was founded in 1994 in response to the Clinton-era changes to welfare. Many of these families were forced to participate in the Welfare to Work program in order to receive public assistance. There were very few grouops organizing those on public assistance to make policy changes to address systemic issues. From the early leaders who were fed up with the exploitative work requirements imposed on welfare recipients by federal and local government to those who have, and currently drive, a broader agenda to secure a just social safety net, family-sustaining jobs, and access to them as well as truly affordable housing, and thriving communities—throughout the organization’s evolution, encouraging participatory democracy of the most marginalized has remained critical to CVH’S  mission. CVH has not only expanded its issue focus but its reach with chapters in New York City, Westchester County, Orange County,  and Dutchess County.

Q: Where does CVH Power come in? So often we speak about the challenges but you all are an action-based group, can you share your successes with us?

A: In 2012, members and allies of CVH decided that a seat at the table was not sufficient if its occupant did not wield enough power to enact the radical policy change necessary to center communities of color state-wide. Thus, CVH Power! was established as a political entity that would intentionally change the structure of New York’s political landscape. At CVH Power, we seek out, politically educate, train, and endorse candidates of color; we also support persons that ideologically align, support, and further our mission to advance low-income communities of color across New York State. In 2021, we ran our largest political program, where we endorsed 20 people total in NYC and Yonkers.  We reached over 100,000 voters between face to face conversations, phone banking, and texting. 17 of the 20 candidates won their races. We are excited to build a co-governing agenda focused on racial, social, and economic justice with this cohort of officials.

Q: We’re living in a time that’s both quite complex and unique… but also reminiscent of a historical holding pattern when it comes to social justice. What are your thoughts on where we are right now and how we can break out of the pitfalls of the past?

A: The impacts of Trump, the COVID-19 pandemic, and Black Lives Matter uprisings have renewed an interest in organizing and lifting up the voices and experiences of those who are impacted by these issues. There is also more interest in scrutinizing structures to explore what reforms are needed to yield more equitable outcomes. It is more evident than ever that we need to continue building grassroots leadership that creates and leads a progressive agenda. 

Q: Is there anything related to Community Voices Heard that you’re most passionate about, see yourself as being the most uniquely capable to accomplish, or that you’re most looking forward to working on in the near future? What initially drew you into the work at CVH?

A: I came to CVH almost 13 years ago because of the member-led vision and mission. Members take on roles identifying campaigns, building strategy, and taking action.  It is wonderful to see the transformation of members as they take on these roles.  I am looking forward to holding our statewide member campaign sessions in person, continuing to build our Follow Black Women project, and leading trainings through our Ella Baker School for Organizing.

Q: Lastly, since we are a coffee company, and we are attempting to connect our immediate communities with our larger, global coffee community — do you have anything to share about the power of women everywhere?

A: In 1977, Barbara Smith and the Black feminist visionaries of the Combahee River Collective observed, “Until Black women are free, none of us are free.” The Black women of the Combahee River Collective remind us: it is racial justice that will bring us all democracy. American democracy, as it turns out, is on the side of freedom and racial justice only because Black people—and Black women, in particular—have organized to make it so, locally and nationally.

To support the work of Community Voices Heard, please consider making a donation here.

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