Over 50 Western North Carolina women and a handful of men voted access to health care and economic self-sufficiency as the major legislative priorities that need to be addressed in the 2015 legislative session.
“We are not in position to change people, but we are in a position to change our environment,” said Sen. Terry Van Duyn.
The mid-November forum — which assembles every other year before the state General Assembly — was held at the YWCA of Asheville and hosted by North Carolina Women United, a coalition of progressive organizations and individuals working toward political, social and economic equality of women in North Carolina.
Van Duyn, along with Rep. Susan Fisher, lauded Buncombe County for its role in advancing women’s equality during the 2014 General Assembly and called on the crowd of individuals, officials and representatives from area advocacy and nonprofit groups to rebuild a safety net for families that will resonate with men, women and children across the state.
“We need to bottle what we did and take it to the rest of the state,” Fisher said. “We have still much, much work to do.”
It doesn’t have to be a partisan issue, both state legislators said. All women and families have similar needs: employment, affordable childcare, education. They pointed to the need for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to provide equal pay for equal work, family and medical leave and raising the minimum wage.
“What we all need to remember as we go through this process today is that when women succeed, we all succeed,” Fisher said.
Beth Mazka, YWCA of Asheville CEO, said that in a recent YWCA USA national survey, 80 percent of women across political, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds agreed on 80 percent of the issues.
Susan Fischer, 51, has spent over 20 years as a registered nurse at Mission Hospital. She attended the forum to learn more about what women can do to gain better access to health care.
“In light of [the state] not expanding Medicaid, I know the plight local hospital is facing,” she said. “ In order for a community to thrive, it needs to be healthy.”
Last year, North Carolina decided against accepting federal dollars to expand Medicaid to 500,000 uninsured individuals. Cate Hendon, a women’s health advocate with the Women & Children Safety Initiative at MAHEC, said she sees the negative impacts of this decision every day.
“People come sicker and more desperate than patients with insurance,” she said. “At MAHEC the expansion would give us $1 million extra in our budget.”
YWCA of Asheville recently lost $50,000 in funding to support childcare for low-income women — a service Mazka said is not offered elsewhere in the state.
Lee Coleman, 29, was one of a few men who, with his wife Stacey, attended the Assembly. Coleman said he came to educate himself in order to fight for equality, social justice, health services and education.
“Women play a crucial role on these fronts,” he said. “As they are both the leaders for change and the most underrepresented voice in politics.
Civic participation and equality and violence against women were the other two issues that were ranked highly. Women in North Carolina make up 54 percent of voters but are less likely to vote in midterm elections, according to Lizzi Shimer, vice president of the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County. When women hold political positions, the rights of women and children are advanced, she said.
Buncombe County Commissioner Holly Jones, Helpmate Executive Director April Burgess-Johnson and Angelica Wind, executive director of Our Voice, spoke to the group about the importance of garnering support for ending domestic and sexual violence. Burgess-Johnson said Helpmate has experienced a 91 percent increase in calls to its crisis line.
“We can’t balance our budget on the backs of the most vulnerable people in our community,” Burgess-Johnson said. “When we talk about domestic violence, it’s not right versus left or blue versus red. It doesn’t matter what lense you look at it from, this impacts all of us.
Jones said Buncombe’s six-pronged Comprehensive Plan to End Domestic Violence is a step in the right direction and wanted to show attendees what is working and the importance of funding for legislation that would support the plan.
One in four women and one in six men will be impacted by domestic or sexual violence at some point during their lives, Wind said, calling for funding to continue services for survivors.
“When there are victim services, victims of domestic and sexual violence are more apt to leave the situation,” she said.
At the close of the forum, organizers said they would prepare a report of the priorities identified to send to Raleigh. Fisher said she believes it will take several sessions to regain the balance she would like to see in the legislature, but she is committed to working toward that.
Van Duyn echoed this message and told attendees that North Carolina is not a dead horse.
“The message from Buncombe County is we’re going to do it,” she said. “North Carolina is mobilizing. I see that every day. Nothing stays the same. We have to make sure as it changes it changes in our favor.”