One step after another.
Sometimes the journey took years. But Kimble Forrister’s goal was to make things better for Alabama’s poor. And in the process, make things better for all of us.
He spent 27 years as executive director of Alabama Arise, a statewide organization headquartered in Montgomery that brings together faith groups as well as community, civic and nonprofit groups to help low-income people.
Most of the work is done in the Alabama Legislature, through education and working for people who can sometimes be overlooked. Forrister retired from Arise in 2018. He is credited with making Arise what it is today: an effective defense organization. He was the first full-time staff member, and his impact is felt to this day.
For community advocacy work that has given ordinary Alabamians a voice in the halls of power, Forrister is Montgomery Advertiser’s Community Hero for March. The Community Hero program, sponsored by the University of the South, celebrates the good works of extraordinary people in and around Montgomery.
“It grew out of an organizing effort of Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Alabama Council on Human Relations in Auburn,” Forrister said. “They were working on utility issues. They had tried to influence the Public Service Commission (Alabama). And they decided they would have a better effect in the Legislative Assembly, because it is easier for voters to influence the Legislative Assembly.
The PSC is the state agency that regulates utilities.
Thirty-two congregations and organizations pooled their resources to hire a part-time lobbyist. Three years later, they hired Forrister. He worked in a one-person office in the Bell Building at the time. His vision was to grow Arise to include a team of policy analysts, who studied issues affecting low-income people, and organizers, who would build support across the state.
By the time he retired, there was a staff of 14.
“We had learned how to build support for issues in the Legislative Assembly and leverage community advocacy for policy change,” Forrister said.
And unfortunately, in Alabama, there is a lot of work to be done.
Forrister’s influence is still felt today, especially at this time of year when the Legislative Assembly is in session, said John Knight, a former longtime Montgomery state representative.
“Arise fills a void and it’s very important what they do,” Knight said. “Big corporations and the wealthy can hire lobbyists, they have the funding and the capacity. Arise ensures that a large portion of Alabama’s population, a population that can easily be overlooked or fall through the cracks, has a seat at the table.
“Kimble built this over decades of working with everyone. And his work is paying off to this day.
A life of service seemed to come naturally to Forrister, who grew up in Nashville the son of a pastor. His path remained close to his father, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. He served as program director for ShilohNYC, a Christian youth service organization in New York City. He was also the Southeast organizer of Bread for the World, a Christian group fighting hunger in America and abroad.
He came to Montgomery from Washington DC
One of Arise’s early successes was the adoption of tenants’ rights.
“When we started, there was no tenant protection,” Forrister said. “Thus, a sleep merchant could operate without constraints. But now we have a good, strong landlord-tenant law.
Arise went a tried and tested method, working with a wide range of lawmakers and officials. Knight, the former Rep. and Democrat, was a force in pushing through the effort. He had the support of then-Republican Governor Bob Riley.
“What Kimble did is what he always did,” Knight said. “He built a diverse coalition, across party lines. It took hard work for several years. But he was still there. We worked together and succeeded in raising the income tax threshold to $12,600. That made us second lowest in the country, but it was progress.
“I would like to see the federal poverty line raised. We haven’t been able to do that, but there’s still work to be done.
Always one more step in the journey.
Arise has worked to regulate payday loan shops, which Forrister says prey on low-income residents by charging exorbitant interest rates. Another issue is the removal of the state sales tax levied on groceries.
Rep. Mike Holmes, R-Wetumpka, has lobbied the issue in the House for several years. No one can question Holmes’ deep conservative beliefs. But true to Arise’s track record…people with different opinions are starting to pull in the same direction.
“I haven’t worked as long as Representative Knight worked,” Holmes said of the sales tax abolition. “But I’ve worked there for the eight or more years I’ve been here. We hope to see some action this year. My bill is a very simple bill, I think it’s three pages. In fact, I used the original invoice from the Knight rep as a template.
“We have raised more revenue in Alabama over the past two or three years, through various sources and funds, than we have ever raised. The working poor of Alabama have been hit hard by this pandemic. What better way to help them than a tax cut on basic necessities? »
Alabama is among 13 of 45 states with sales taxes, which levy some sales tax on grocery purchases, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Of these, only three, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Dakota, charge the full amount of state sales tax without offering some form of tax credit to offset the expense.
Reducing the sales tax on groceries would be a fiscal boon for all Alabamians, said Karlye Montgomery, who recently shopped in Prattville.
“I realize it would be a bigger help for low-income people,” she said. “But everyone does the grocery shopping. Everyone must eat. This seems like a no-brainer to me.
It’s easy to find supporters at the Statehouse for removing the sales tax on groceries. But sometimes they don’t show up when it’s time to vote. A major hurdle is how to replace these tax revenues. Removing the sales tax on groceries is estimated to leave a $400 million hole in the education budget, Forrister said.
The proposed solution is to remove the exemption from federal income tax payments.
“Most people at first glance say, ‘It makes sense not to impose a tax,’ Forrister said. “But when you ask who do you think gets the biggest deduction? People start thinking, “Oh yeah, millionaires get thousands of dollars in tax cuts, and I only get a few dollars in tax cuts.”
“So the rich would pay their fair share. I hope we can pass the elimination of the sales tax this year. But I still have hope. »
Just one more step and many more to come.
“Kimble’s impact on Alabama Arise during his 27 years of leadership cannot be overstated,” said Robyn Hyden, current executive director. “He helped build an organization that maintained a commitment to local leadership and listening to the community even when it wasn’t something many philanthropists really understood.
“Kimble was a humble leader who never did the work on his own, but instead focused on what we can all accomplish together. Nearly four years after his retirement, we remain committed to that same guy. leadership, and we now see many more of our national partners and funders beginning to truly understand and appreciate the model he helped develop and manage.”
When will the trip be over? How many more steps do you have to go through?
“We always hoped that Alabama could at least match the level of our surrounding states,” Forrister said. “You don’t want to be a starry-eyed idealist. But getting to the level of Mississippi and Tennessee doesn’t seem like too much to ask.