Joyce Hamilton Henry closed the doors for good at 44 Capitol Ave. Friday. The executive director of DemocracyWorks, the Hartford-based statewide nonprofit, had fought for the past decade to empower the disenfranchised in voting and civic affairs.
Now DemocracyWorks is out of work.
Funding dried up for this agency that spoke up for the poor, women, minorities and young people. Even considering the competitive environment of nonprofits, that's disappointing.
"It's a great loss," said George Demetrion, director of program operations for Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford. "Democracy is very fragile in our country. We're consumers before we're citizens. And one of their core objectives is to remind us that we're citizens. There are not many forums where citizens can get together and explore critical issues - and they facilitated that. They had a rare niche in our society."
I remember in 1999 visiting Miles Rapoport, who along with his DemocracyWorks co-founder Carolyn Gabel, a feminist activist, was excited about its prospects. Rapoport had lost a Democratic congressional primary to John Larson. Rapoport also had stepped down from his job as secretary of the state. He was out of work.
DemocracyWorks would give him a new platform to espouse his vision of social justice and economic empowerment. Henry, who had been at the agency almost since its inception, succeeded Gabel as executive director in 2003.
The group, along with others, successfully pushed for restoration of voting rights to ex-offenders, helped to remove disincentives to voter registration, conducted forums on voter rights and the new electronic voting machines and administered programs to encourage youth voter participation. DemocracyWorks also highlighted immigration issues and challenged the state to provide more minority representation on municipal and state boards and commissions.
Looking out for those on the outside is a labor of love for those who make a living through grass-roots organizations. "It's going to hit me on Monday, when I realize I don't have to get up and go to work," said Henry, who was paid a salary of $75,000 and managed a $350,000 budget and two other staffers.
"There's still not a lot of support for issues like this, where we're trying to engage people and encourage people to have a voice," she said. "I enjoy the work. I see that it makes a difference. I like to see people empowered and informed. And the bottom line in what we do is we're teaching people to fish, giving individuals information and tools to be able to be advocates and have the capacity to make changes occur at the local and state levels."
Henry, who also teaches immigration issues, sociology and African American studies at the University of Hartford, earned her doctorate in social policy this summer from Brandeis University. So, Dr. Henry is going to be just fine. Who'll fill DemocracyWorks' distinct niche remains unclear.
The agency relied heavily on individual donors. In recent years foundations have preferred giving money to national organizations, while corporations have always been skittish about funding advocacy groups. On Oct. 6, the DemocracyWorks board of directors decided to shut it down.
"It's a tough fund-raising climate now," said Rapoport, now president of a New York-based research and public policy center - Demos - devoted to democracy and economic justice. "That was its main problem. But it had a good run."
And in being true to its mission, DemocracyWorks was on the job.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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