McDonough County Fish Fry

President Heather McMeekan’s Remarks at the Aug 26 McDonough County Democrats Annual Fish Fry Fundraiser at the Macomb VFW

My joy at being with so many of you tonight is tinged with more than a little sorrow and grief for all the people who should be here tonight, yet aren’t, through no fault of their own. Some have passed away, but others were forced to leave our community because of the jobs lost forever at WIU. Indeed, many of the jobs targeted for elimination were OUR people, liberal democrats. Or their partners. Or their children. And their absence is deeply felt in our community.

Since our last fish fry, many businesses have closed, their services degraded or lost to our community. The ALEC-driven Republican austerity has starved our regional economy, leaving many of our community members struggling to put food on the table and clothing on their children’s backs.

Democratic Representatives and Senators all across the state have been using the recess to hold job fairs, back-to-school fairs, health fairs, property tax appeal seminars, college affordability assistance fairs, clothing and food drives, Fair Tax Town Halls, and many other helpful support and enrichment programs we NEVER receive, because our voters keep voting for Republicans who don’t do any of these things for our people, preferring to toe the ALEC “starve our services” line. 

Yet there is hope for renewal and progress. This spring, we elected our FIRST black alderwoman-at-large with Tammie Leigh Brown-Edwards winning her race. And got our first black Democratic power couple with the election of Stirling Edwards, her husband, to serve on our Park Board! We also elected an amazing woman, Emily Sutton, to our local school board, though we lost her to an even bigger oppportunity to help our communities when she was appointed to be a judge, and you’ll get to hear from her this evening as well. There is no challenge we can’t meet with good, hard-working people in positions of power and authority.

As our McDonough Democrats know, our county party has a “no issue” stance in our by-laws and by local tradition. After last November’s election, some of us who were frustrated at the prospect of more years of absent constituent services from our Republicans in leadership organized around a simple idea. “Allyship FIRST.”

Wow, has THAT led to some interesting challenges, discussions, and activities. Even better, it has given us the profoundly moving privilege of connecting with many diverse, wonderful human beings under our Democratic Big Tent!!!

In early January, we hand-delivered community letters about WIU’s impending layoffs to then Governor-Elect JB Pritzker. Later that month, we convened our very first official meeting of the Democratic Women of McDonough County with 23 initial members, and got to work.

It was our intent to organize the first 6 months quietly behind the scenes. When WIU’s former administration and BOT announced they intended to go ahead ANYWAY with their layoffs despite Governor Pritzker’s election, we held community meetings along with University Professionals of Illinois, WIU’s Faculty Union, to try to stop the layoffs. We were unsuccessful, but we did show up.

Our organizational dynamics from the ground up were designed to accommodate the very real challenges of organizing rural diverse women and allies already leading very complex, busy lives, often in the midst of great personal hardship & struggle. Many of our members are the primary caregivers of their children, and/or their parents. Many live below the poverty line, and could not be here tonight because even $20 for a ticket during a back-to-school month is beyond their household budget.

Our flexible, trauma-informed, asynchonyous, online organizing style accommodates our members’ energy, schedules, and responsibilities. As a small org with few resources – and even fewer Democrats in leadership positions around here to mentor us – our group is having to break new ground as we simultaneously build, use our progressive voices to challenge authority, and provide services as needed, all the while confronting the challenges our members bring before us and push us to take action on. This allows us to be efficient, responsive to developing issues, and provides opportunities to grow our members’s networks, skills, and storytelling abilities.

We provide training and education to our members and the general public, and mentor & sponsor young democratic women from WIU and Macomb High School, providing opportunities to meet with legislators and connect with other democratic organizations around the state.

But not without a cost. Many of our members have been banned from teaching Sunday School, kicked out of their churches, ostracized at family gatherings, bullied online and in person, had their jobs threatened, their integrity questioned, their co-workers turn their backs on them, and been asked to disavow themselves. All for the sin of being in or associated with our Democratic Women’s org. We have members who have to hide their association or risk divorce, challenges to custody of their children, even loss of their home. I am deeply honored and proud to lead an organization filled with so many caring humans willing to allow themselves to be subjected to such trauma in the hopes we can advance a progressive agenda and bloom our own blue wave someday here in West Central Illinois!

And what a whirlwind of organizing this past 7 months has been! We’ve rapidly grown to almost 90 members strong, with over 25 advisors, mentors, and issue experts from around the state. We became an official affiliate of the Statewide Organization, Illinois Democratic Women, through which we are also affiliated with the National Federation of Democratic Women. We’ve grown to become the SECOND LARGEST county Democratic Women’s organization in the ENTIRE STATE!!! 

With eight active social media teams trained in messaging, rapid response, evidence collection, troll takedowns, reporting of dangerous online content, connecting those in need to resources, and vetting info for accuracy, we’ve even had two separate unique “memes” go viral, one in-state with over 33 thousand views, and another which went viral nationwide with over 1.2 MILLION views to that image, all organic, unpaid reach.

Our Animal Welfare Coalition addresses the education of pet owners and community members as to the intersections between animal abuse and neglect and human interactions.

Our Labor Coalition boasts a membership with leaders and members in labor unions across the state, serving as a local networking hub for working people operating in the area seeking to connect with them for wisdom and support.

Our PrideFest committee held the first ever community PrideFest in Chandler Park this April. Despite a cold, wet, windy day, over 480 wonderful human beings from all over west central Illinois came out for a day filled with friendship, acceptance, love, and joy. But know we had to protect many attendees there from being discovered and put at risk of very real harm. 

Members of the clergy enjoyed one day in our county where they didn’t have to hide from their own flocks; members of churches came with their own family members who must live in hiding or risk bullying, banishment or worse if discovered. Our committee also sent an allyship sheet cake to WIU’s Unity Drag Show, in honor of their years of standing up for the LGBTQIA community and we hope to support them in their valuable work.

Our Mental Health Coalition held a free “juvenile mental health first aid” training & is holding one for adults this fall. They also provided multicultural coloring pages and mental health info brochures for Juneteenth, and for all our tabling opportunities.

Our Women’s Health Task Force stood up in the cold rain for the passage of the Reproductive Healthcare Act, organized a professional clothing drive for Juneteenth, and holds a quarterly diaper and period product drive, addressing poverty issues affecting women and girls.

In our “Racial Justice Coalition,” our black members, WIU alumni, allies, and mentors have generously shared their experiences (and their patience with us white women) while we’ve been learning how to deal with our #WhiteFragility. We acknowledge that our internalized white supremacy, which we all have, makes even discussing race issues difficult for us.

We’ve learned that our segregated personal bubbles must be integrated so we can learn to use our privilege to help our black community members receive witness, validation for their long-standing struggles, and support in the form of white allies who can speak their truth to white people in power – and be far more likely to be heard, whether or not they agree with what we say.

Alarmed at the rise in anecdotal accounts of racist micro-aggressions and targeting of our community members, we urgently call on all people of good will in our communities to begin speaking to our neighbors and community leaders about racism. We are facing a terrible scenario this upcoming 2020 campaign season in that we may very well be facing a Republican Party rapidly being pushed into becoming a White Nationalist party. We must be ready to resist such a grim perversion of our democracy at all levels.

We hope to work together with our elected and appointed officials to address structural racism, which is the longstanding legacy of every community in our nation. We put out a letter to the editor a few weeks ago calling on our local and state GOP to distance themselves from their party’s racism at the federal and state level. So far, there has been no public response from the local Republicans.

I am very proud of our work in this community, and of our organization’s members and allies. We hope we can all come together and bloom a blue wave in 2020, but WE NEED CANDIDATES!!! If you would like to run, please let our party know! We know we must work hard every month to win races in 2020. We’re profoundly grateful for all our Democrats at all levels working together during these troubled times.

Thank you for all you do.

Heather McMeekan, M.S., is the Founder and President of the Democratic Women of McDonough County. She serves as a Democratic Precinct Committee Chair for the McDonough County Democratic Central Committee. She serves on the board for the Obama Legacy Initiative, as an Advisory Council member for SheVotesIL, and serves as the Digital Media Director for Illinois Democratic Women. She is quoted in the book, “Digital Civil War” by Peter Daou.

#twill #BlackLivesMatter #Macomb #IL #ILPolitics #Illinois #BlueWave2020 #IDW #UniteBlue