For many of our Voting Rights Watch community journalists, keeping an eye on voting rights was a natural extension of the activism in which they were already deeply engaged.
Individuals from our dedicated team participate with religious communities in Ohio, work to restore rights for former felons in Kentucky, help ensure that Native American youth everywhere have the access they need to claim a higher education, and then some.
In Texas, Undocubus rider Kemi Bello represents a community that cannot vote because of their immigration status. For Bello, the real work begins now that the election is over. “Now we continue working to bridge the gap between political promises and community accountability,” she says.
Her fellow community journalist Noni M. Grant, who works in Georgia, couldn’t agree more. As Grant explains, she wants to remain vigilant that her community continue the work to create the change she wants to see.
We Voted For a Leader… Now What?
We can all breathe a sigh of relief now that the 2012 presidential election cycle is over. In the months leading up to November 6, voters were bombarded with public service announcements, e-mails, text messages, phone calls, TV ads and billboards telling us to get out and vote. At the same time, we witnessed reinvigorated voter registration drives and strengthened Get Out the Vote campaigns, which seemed a necessary response to the voter suppression, intimidation, and disenfranchisement tactics employed around the country.
For many in the African-American community, these voter suppression tactics were an attempt to silence their already marginalized voices and reverse the gains made during the civil rights movement. While journaling in the field, I asked several elders why they felt it was important to vote in the most recent election. The unanimous response was, “Black folks have fought and died for the right to vote.” One elder went further and advised me that it was my “civic and racial duty” to vote.
While I appreciate the sentiment behind the elder’s mandate, I am increasingly concerned that conveying the Just Do It and You Gotta Vote mantras give us a false impression that voting alone is the key to solving our problems.
I am equally troubled at the suggestion that by electing the right kind of charismatic, bold, LBJ-Lincolnesque leader of leaders, we will somehow attain a post-oppression society. Looking back on the presidential debates, there was an inordinate amount of focus on leadership qualities being the determining factor in whether anything gets done in Washington.
Familiar tropes such as “he looked presidential” and “he was strong and steady” were the predominant commentaries from news anchors and media pundits. Even post-election analysis suggests that the people are looking for President Obama to deliver policy results and get things done.
However, the framing of our ability to get results as a function of leadership and execution is troubling. How will President Obama know that for African-Americans, the failure to address the drug war and mass incarceration renders any education and economic policy targeted to African Americans meaningless? How will he know that championing the DREAM Act without severe reductions in deportations is inadequate immigration policy? Do we really expect the Obama administration to just instinctively understand the nuances of our issues and tailor an agenda that addresses the complexities of our problems?
In these moments, I think a lot about organizers like Ella Baker, who cautioned us against depending so largely upon a leader. Her wise words proclaimed that “strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
I am also reminded of racial justice and labor movements in the past that showed us that communities can inform and set their own agenda, and through collective action, force political leaders to adopt the agenda as their own (War on Poverty anyone?).
History teaches us that social and economic justice movements are effective in challenging exploitative and oppressive systems. At the same time, these movements cultivate a model of democracy that promotes self-determination and reflects the vision of the community.
As we move beyond Election Day 2012, having voted and elected a leader, we have to ask ourselves, “Now what?” What will we as a community gain from the frenzied efforts to get us to vote? Will the needs of the poor, communities of color, immigrants, youth, and LGBT folks take center stage in future policy debates? If the groups that I have been covering in the South have anything to say about it, the answer is absolutely yes.
On November 7, 2012, organizations from all over the South assembled in Atlanta to kick off what they call “The People’s First 100 Days.” Anchored by the movement building organization Project South the People’s First 100 Days will mark a series of coordinated regional actions and community assemblies aimed at building a Southern Freedom Movement. A brainchild of the Southern Movement Assembly that took place in Lowndes County, Ala., in September 2012, the People’s First 100 seeks to highlight the struggle of southern organizations in their fight against poverty, racism, deportation, the lack of healthcare, threats to reproductive justice, crumbling education systems and rising violence.
When I first began chronicling these organizations at the Southern Movement Assembly, so many people cited failed political leadership and inaction for the lingering problems in their communities. But since then, these groups have refocused their energies and decided to take matters into their own hands. Starting on November 7, instead of waiting on politicians to act, they will set their own agenda for transformative change. Like so many social and economic justice movements before it, I suspect that this people’s movement will be the determining factor in whether anything gets done in our communities.
—Noni M. Grant
Allison Kilkenny writes about another community movement aimed at relieving burdened citizens of their debt.