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Val Benavidez: As politicians mess around, we organize!

“The Texas Freedom Network, and every one of you in this room, have been doing our part to piss off the Religious Right,” Val Benavidez said at FFRF’s national convention. (Photo by Chris Line)

This was the speech (edited for space) given by Val Benavidez on Oct. 28, 2022, at FFRF’s national convention in San Antonio. (To watch the speech, go to ffrf.us/convention-2022.) She was introduced by Cheryl Kolbe, an FFRF board member.

Cheryl Kolbe: The Texas Freedom Network (TFN) was founded in 1995 by Cecile Richards after Richards became aware how the state Board of Education was being hijacked by the Religious Right. So, we are very pleased to have here today Texas Freedom Network’s current president and executive director, Val Benavidez.

She became president in November 2020 and was previously the Texas Freedom Network’s chief program officer. Val has worked for numerous nonprofit advocacy organizations including the Texas Immigrant and Refugee Coalition, League of Young Voters, Generational Alliance, as well as serving as executive director of ProTex: Network for a Progressive Texas. 

Please give a warm welcome to Val Benavidez, who is the embodiment of FFRF’s convention theme, “DO Mess with Texas,” 

By Val Benavidez

Hello. I am proud to be in a room with you all, because you are like-minded people who believe that we can be the change that we need to see in this world. We are the people who push our states and our nation to uphold their promise, and that this promise is that we can be the best version of a democracy that we can be.

Here in Texas, our last Democratic governor, our beloved Ann Richards, left the stage in 1995. Texas Freedom Network was founded that same year by her daughter, Cecile Richards, and for the last 27 years, Texas Freedom Network has been fighting for our shared beliefs in equality and social justice and pushing back against the far right’s weaponization of faith in Texas.

The Texas Freedom Network, and every one of you in this room, have been doing our part to piss off the Religious Right ever since then. They would like us to stop, and we will not. Instead, we will all be relentless.

So, how did we get here? Since 1994, a wave of religious extremism has washed over Texas politics, creating the false narrative that we’re a deeply red state. In many ways, what we are is a non-voting and a non-civically engaged state, and that is by design. It is by design of voter suppression. 

People outside of Texas, and, sadly, far too many people living here, have been inundated with this lie that we all hold the same conservative values. Perhaps the most devastating lie is that we all believe in one religion and we should be governed by Christianity. The result has been the injection of the Religious Right’s extreme, unpopular agenda into every corner of our lives.

This agenda is in our science lessons, social studies curriculums, the hallways of our public schools where they’ve been forced to now hang donated “In God We Trust” signs, public libraries, doctor’s offices, kids’ sports teams, public bathrooms. We see their influence literally everywhere in this state.

Under the guise of religion, conservatives and far-right Christian nationalists have used their power to strip us of our freedoms, including the religious freedoms they so often claim, while spewing cruelty and hate speech. The radical right and religious extremists have been attempting to control Texas for decades. TFN was created to fight back against this very thing.

I truly believe that Ann Richards did her part to piss off the far right, because, since then, radical extremists have been attempting to control the state. In 1995, Cecile Richards attended her first Texas State Board of Education meeting. As the daughter of the last Democratic governor and a progressive in her own right, Cecile was no stranger to the radical right’s censorship. 

One month later, she founded a group to be a counter to the Religious Right in the state, to be a place where Texans could organize and show what the vast majority of us do believe in.

Texas Freedom Network

Almost three decades later, TFN is still that counter to the far right in Texas, but we have become so much more. For almost 30 years, we have been this watchdog organization in Texas. Our work seeks to bring together faith leaders, young people and communities of color in support of a broad progressive agenda in Texas.

With roots as an educational advocacy organization, our reach has grown to encompass organizing on a broad range of issues, from textbook censorship and book banning to LGBTQA+ equality, reproductive freedom, criminal justice reform and voting rights.

We ensure that progressive voices, especially the voices of young people, people of color and progressive people of faith are leading our movement. Through political endorsements, legislative organizing and testimony, robust voter registration drives and grassroots organizing, we are at the forefront of the issues impacting Texans today. Our work is actively reshaping the political landscape of a new Texas that is younger, incredibly diverse and more progressive. We’re making sure that all Texans are represented, from the school board to the state Capitol.

Texas Rising is our youth organizing program that’s geared toward young Texans of color, and that was one of my earlier initiatives at TFN. That initiative was really important to me, because growing up here, going to the University of Texas, I learned what a profound change in my trajectory occurred because of that work. Before that, I was going to go into science work and then, after that, I was going to be an organizer and work for political organizations. Prior to becoming the head of the organization, I served as TFN’s chief program officer, and I’ve worked for numerous nonprofit advocacy organizations, including the Texas Immigrant and Refugee Coalition, the League of Young Voters, and ProTex: Network for Progressive Texans. 

Each of those experiences brought back and has driven my passion for this work, and as I’ve seen the immense cruelty and constant assaults at the hands of the right wing in Texas, these are the types of organizing efforts and the people and the community that show me the opposite of that, that bring me back, just like you all here do, that what we are what we are fighting for.

I was born in Austin, but raised in the small town of Kerrville. I’m a fourth-generation Mexican American. My family were farm workers, railroad builders, shop keepers, members of the military and, most of all, they were civically engaged. I grew up seeing a newspaper cutout of Ann Richards’ victory on our fridge. These were things that I saw, so I grew up with that and I learned from my family. My grandparents would make me call their congressperson for them. I would have to be a part of them hosting back backyard fajita plate fundraisers. And that’s where I learned how my voice and vote were powerful.

We at the Texas Freedom Network, and I’m sure everyone in this room, find ourselves in a political moment where the far right’s influence over our daily lives feels stronger than ever, despite society’s increasingly less religious population. We know that 60 percent of Texas voters support access to abortion and do not see abortion as a religious issue. Yet our freedoms over our own bodies and futures have been taken away from us, against the will of the people. What is our reaction to what politicians are doing? Go ahead, mess with Texas. While you do that, we will organize.

How has our work evolved to meet this moment?

As we engaged in educational advocacy and fought the barrage of censorship from religious extremism at the State Board of Education, we saw how education was just one piece of the Religious Right’s assault on our democracy and our freedoms. When we began to expand our focus to a wider slate of progressive issues, it became overwhelmingly clear that the beginning of grassroots organizing that we have done is the fundamental piece to keep winning and to move forward.

Whether we’re lending our leadership abilities to creating new coalitions or building connections with Texans across the state, we know by investing in communities, we uplift the voices that need to be heard and stir progressive change.

Texas Rising

Our deep focus on organizing and expansion of issues has led to the creation of three focus areas of our work: Texas Freedom Network, which is the umbrella, Just Texas and Texas Rising. 

Texas Rising is an organizing project recognizing and uplifting young people of color who are continuously impacted by the draconian laws that Texas politicians are pushing today. The program runs robust voter registration drives, endorses chosen candidates, candidates that are chosen by the student leaders, and empowers the next generation of activists to lead our movement.

Through our student chapter model, we’re touching college campuses across the state, and the power of young people’s voices in our state’s democracy is growing every year. Every electoral cycle, young people in Texas have record youth voter turnout. Every cycle. 

Right now, Texans under the age of 30 make up 43 percent of the population of this state, and soon they will be one-third of all eligible voters. This [2022] election cycle, we’ve registered about 15,000 young Texans this year. Collectively, since we started this program several cycles ago, about 100,000 in total.

Texas Rising has also engaged in local advocacy across the state, fighting for climate justice, advocating for decriminalization policies, demanding that district attorneys not prosecute people for accessing health care, including abortion, and so much more. They are truly an inspiration.

Just Texas

In a room where we are talking about being free from religion, I’m going to talk a little bit about religion. What I want to talk about is Just Texas. It was founded in 2013, the same year as Wendy Davis did the 13-hour filibuster to prevent a vote on a restrictive abortion vote. We had thousands of people in our Statehouse that night when Wendy was speaking, and many of those folks were clergy that TFN had brought in to testify. Via our project, TFN has built connections with clergy and faith communities that are dedicated to social justice. The Just Texas team in 2016 created a process to educate congregations on the need to speak about abortion access and reproductive freedom to destigmatizing shame.

We’re particularly proud of how Just Texas brings people of faith and non-faith together to combat the harmful narrative that all religious people support censorship and oppression. All religions are welcome and we fight to destigmatize abortion, lift up LGBTQ equality and uphold other progressive values that have been demonized by the Religious Right.

Texas Rising and Just Texas live under the complete umbrella that is the Texas Freedom Network. While we now work on abortion advocacy, criminal justice reform, climate justice, LGBTQ equality and so much more, education is still one of the cornerstones of our bold work to defend democracy. 

This year was no exception. Through our Teach the Truth campaign, we spent countless hours empowering communities to take action for public education. We recruited Texans from all walks of life to testify at the SBOE. We advocated tirelessly for more inclusive social studies standards, pushing against the narrative of CRT, and next year  — this will be no shock to you all in the room — we will have our hands full monitoring science textbooks. We will follow the review process. We will make sure that there is adherence to the standards. We have fought — as many of you remember from about a decade ago — a very hard fight for many, many years in the battle over creationism and evolution. 

However, we are now dealing with a board that has just elected, and will elect, at least three more very, very conservative Republicans.

The battle is far from over, but I know that activists and coalition members who have been our partners in these trenches for decades will never stop fighting.

I am now going to show you all a video from the Texas Freedom Network.

[Video begins]  

“For many of us, this year, 2021, held promise. To breathe a little easier, for more stability, and time to move forward. But the constant crusades of disinformation over the pandemic, vaccines and elections, it has been anything but a sense of calm. In Texas, we’ve seen the ugliest, never-ending legislative session in our history. Our state leadership exploited the Covid crisis and a deadly winter storm, adding cover to appeal to the ugliest impulse of their base and eroding the very fabric and foundation of our democracy. Despite all that, the Texas Freedom Network continues our unwavering commitment to fighting back. For more than 26 years, we have been on the front lines for change, for equality, for social justice. 

“These are the moments that fortify, the sparks of hope that will remind us that Texas and Texans deserve better. We are resolved to continue to work for a better future. These moments serve as paving stones for the road ahead, whether it’s our young Texas Rising leaders, our Just Texas clergy or the powerful network of grassroots activists and allies, we are forging a different path forward. At the Texas Freedom Network, we fully understand the challenges that we are facing and we are determined to persist and push back.”

[Video ends]  

Texas Republicans and the Religious Right are terrified of us, and for good reason. We know dogs bark the loudest when you’re closest to the door. 

The tactics used by those in power and the Religious Right in our state are just bids for power and control. It’s their fearful response to a world that is becoming more liberal and accepting of all religious and nonreligious views every day. But we’ve seen time and time again that our mission to build and deepen our base is working, and even during what can feel like dark political moments in Texas history, our communities are embracing progressive values and our grassroots organizing is yielding results, cycle over cycle. And as we continue to close this electoral gap in Texas, we’re excited about what this election brings and what we’ll see.

Roe v. Wade overturned

In June, a day came that we had seen on the horizon for years: Roe v. Wade was overturned. And while our devastation to that is still very palpable, powerful local advocacy has been happening in Texas as we fight for reproductive rights in a post-Roe world. Several Texas cities have held city council meetings to hear from the public and vote on a slate of policies geared toward decriminalizing abortion.

Texas Freedom Network and Texas Rising have been on the ground, speaking, mobilizing and advocating for the passage of these pro-choice city resolutions. In El Paso, and in Austin, and while supporting fellow advocates in Dallas and San Antonio, each of these cities has ultimately passed their resolutions.

Young people are mobilizing for criminal justice reform. Through this whole process, what we found is that if we can elect progressive champions into district attorney positions, they can definitely help with decriminalizing and making certain offenses less of a criminal offense. Those are the solutions that we’ve been focusing on. Last year, our organizing was instrumental in San Marcus, Texas. It was the first city in Texas to implement an ordinance that requires police to issue citations instead of arresting people for certain low-level nonviolent crimes, such as marijuana possession. In Austin, our activist work helped stop Proposition A, which would have increased the city’s police presence while gutting funding from the EMS and also from the firefighters.

In addition to that, some vital work we do is democracy from the ground up. What I mean by that is that voting is not easy in Texas, and neither is voter registration.  As we saw in our last legislative session, our leaders were determined to make it even more difficult this time around as our numbers continue to grow. That’s part of that — when the dogs are barking, we’re closest to the door.

What we’ve done there is form a coalition to advocate pro-voter reforms at the local level. The very things that we saw in the bill that they ultimately passed and took out were the reforms that we had passed. And now we’re doing it again. We are a very creative bunch of individuals in Texas and there are lots of ways to increase access to voting, so by doing this work, our campaigns have successfully implemented more than 10 of the reforms that we proposed in various counties, benefiting more than 50 percent of the state’s population. Some of those wins include things like gaining community input about planned locations for polling places in El Paso County, mailing postage-paid vote-by-mail applications to voters in Harris County who were over 65, and making sure poll workers have things to protect themselves during the pandemic. We continue to advocate across the state and in some cases, most recently, we have been able to have county elections administrators support more polling locations in different areas.

Another big area is protecting our planet and communities from the climate crisis. Climate change is here, and we’re fighting against harmful policies and speaking out against politicians who put profits over people. In Corpus Christi, we’re educating community members against harmful dredging and we’re endorsing candidates for city council who will launch a city-wide climate action plan to mitigate impacts of climate change. 

In San Antonio, right here where we are today, our organizers are continuing efforts to hold the Spruce Coal Plant accountable for its role in the lives that were ultimately lost during winter storm Uri and the environmental damage that it continues to cause to this community. We’ve demanded that the company finally commit to seek equitable energy solutions that would make it possible to shut down this dangerous plant by 2030. 

And speaking of winter storm Uri, we are doing what we can to ensure that Texans’ lives are not lost again because of an inadequate power grid and an inept railroad commission. We are proud to support a full slate of candidates and endorsements up and down the ballot, and we are out there, knocking on doors, making phone calls, sending those text messages and running lots of digital ads. These are busy weeks, but we are doing everything that we possibly can to make sure that we bring everyone to the polls.

There is one thing I will give Texas Republicans and the Religious Right — and only one thing: They have a good reason to be terrified of us, because we are powerful. They see our progress and our hunger for a better Texas, and, in response, they use cheap political tricks to infect Texans with fear and hate, creating distractions and sowing division, and they are distracting us, and as they distract us, they attack our freedoms and they continue to dismantle and undermine this democracy. It is easy to feel like we are surviving through unprecedented dark times, but being in this work and fighting alongside activists like you, who value genuine religious freedom, I cannot help but see all of our slivers of light.

Right-wing politicians can keep messing with us, but we are ready. We will keep organizing. It is the people of our movement, you, who will create the change we need, and together, I will be right with you, and we will be relentless in defending democracy for all Texans!

Thank you.