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Since last Martin Luther King, Jr. Day when we sponsored a community-wide forum on “Weighing the Scales of Justice” in Berrien County, our forum was recognized by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) as we were named the 2004 Bennett Award winners. We used our prize money of $500 to support a new voter registration and Get Out The Vote initiative in Benton Harbor, MI, a 96% African-American community.

We recruited a community Task Force and together created the Voters Involved in America (VIA) organization for the purpose of increasing the voter participation in a community that had only 37% voter turn-out in 2000 and historically abysmal turnouts in local elections. Along with the $500 from the Bennett award, we applied and received a grant from the UUA’s Social Responsibility Fund in the amount of $2000. We did further fund-raising, signed a joint-effort agreement with the national ACORN program, Project Vote, and went to work.

From this effort, we “guesstimate” that we registered over 1600 new voters. In addition, we were able to distribute an educational brochure, produce and hang over one-hundred 4' x 2' red, white and blue signs on utility poles throughout the city of Benton Harbor, and support and staff a phone bank which became active the weekend before the election and throughout the day on November 2nd.

This was an incredible learning experience for us and the community, and has laid the foundation for continued involvement of the Fellowship in Benton Harbor, as well as an increase in citizen involvement in the revitalization of the city. This MLK Day, VIA is developing a program to build on the newly registered voter base by continuing voter education efforts, increase voter turnout at local elections, and let Benton Harbor announce to the county, state and country: “We are a Voting Community!” We at Community Outreach & Social Action (CO/SA) are very proud to be part of a religious community that supports and works for a democracy that encourages total citizen involvement.

Report by Emily Bettencourt, Chair, Berrien Unitarian Universalist Fellowship’s Community Outreach & Social Action Committee

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