Voter Engagement at Community Health Centers: Continuing the Legacy of Freedom Summer

Fifty years ago, during Freedom Summer, Dr. Jack Geiger traveled to Mississippi as a field coordinator for the Medical Committee for Human Rights. Following directly from that experience, Dr. Geiger and Count Gibson, whom he met that summer, started the first federally funded health centers. They were, indeed the Fathers of the Health Center Movement.

In 2014, as America observes the 50th anniversary of that Freedom Summer and health centers prepare to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the creation of the Community Health Center Program next year, the more than 1200 health centers in existence today have the chance to continue the legacy begun during Freedom Summer that connects Community Health Centers directly to the work to empower the communities they serve through the right to vote.

In 2012, blog post, Dr. Geiger spoke directly to the connection between voting and community health centers:

“Voting Rights—and Freedom Summer, in Mississippi in 1964—was a pathway to the creation of community health centers, for it brought to Mississippi, through the Medical Committee for Human Rights, so many of the people who would go on to create Community Health Centers. “ After telling a personal story of the power of civic engagement in Mississippi, Dr. Geiger closed by offering his slogan for Community Health Centers: “Voting is good for your health! Register Now! We can help!” Yes, we did. And yes, we can. “

Following Dr. Geiger’s admonition, over 200 health centers registered over 25,000 voters in 2012. An analysis of that effort showed that voters registered or reminded to vote by a health center turned out in number substantially higher than others in their demographic groups.  This is not news to many health centers because they have been encouraging and supporting their staff, patients and communities to vote for years.  Yet many health centers remain fearful of assisting their patients in registering to vote in the current politically charged environment.  This is a legitimate fear, but not one that should not deter health centers from continuing the work that helped give them birth.  Health centers can legally conduct voter engagement activities as long as they are done in an entirely non-partisan manner, consistent with the IRS guidelines. Our goal at Community Health Vote  is to help health centers and any other safety net health care provider, to do just that.

There remain many people who dispute the idea that empowering patients to vote is a part of the health center mission. If you believe Dr. Geiger and others who have been around the health center movement since its early years, not only is voter engagement a part of the mission, it is part of the very DNA of every health center that grew from that Freedom Summer 50 years ago. Just as health centers provide care to any patient who walks in the door, they should provide assistance to anyone who wants to register to vote or update their registration.

As you observe Freedom Summer and reflect on the legacy of America’s Health Centers since then, I urge you to do more than reflect. I urge you to reconnect to the fabric of the movement that began in 1964. Commit to empowering your patients and your community by offering non-partisan voter registration assistance to everyone at your health center. For information on how you can do it or help getting started, email me at mwetherhorn@communityhealthvote.net

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