As Election 2020 continues in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, community organizations, such as Woke Vote, remain committed to building power as part of a movement for justice and equity. Learn about its work with Black Americans.
When Kam Thigpen visited The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, she found the museum exhibits about slavery and lynching overwhelming. Thigpen turned to DeJuana Thompson, who started the nonprofit organization Woke Vote and stood nearby.
“I told DeJuana, ‘I’m very angry. I don’t know what to do with my anger,’” says Thigpen, a Black college student from Birmingham who works with the voting rights and outreach organization. “She said, ‘Use it to build your power.’”
As Election 2020 continues, Thigpen, Thompson and other Woke Vote supporters are tapping personal experiences and historical knowledge to build voting and grassroots power in Black communities.
“We’re not organizing on behalf of candidates or platforms,” Thompson says. “We’re organizing for our own liberation and power building. People respond to that so much stronger because it’s about their empowerment and not giving their power away.”
Woke Vote joins other nonprofit outreach organizations in talking to people in Black, Latinx, Native and Asian Pacific Islander communities about inclusion, centering race in discussions – particularly at the policy level – and why voting and year-round civic participation are needed in order for justice to flourish in America.
The NAVA (Native American Voters Alliance) Education Project, Voto Latino, Black Voters Matter, APIAVote (Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote) and Mi Familia Vota are among the many organizations that also are working to increase civic participation and voting. For Woke Vote, a nonprofit organization that began in Birmingham in 2017 when Alabama held a special U.S. Senate race that attracted a large African American voter turnout, the emphasis is on working in Black communities.
Woke Vote embraces a bottom-up approach to engage and register Black voters for year-round civic participation.
“It’s not just about voting,” Thompson says. “We talk about root issues. We ask people, ‘What are you seeing [in your community]?’ We bring them into the conversation, and we train them to be leaders of the work.”
Traditionally, she adds, voters organize around candidates and political parties. Candidates who win might stay in touch with Black voters to hear their ideas – or, similar to candidates who lose races, they might just disappear from the community when an election is over.
Since 2017, Woke Vote has grown to conduct organizing, outreach and training in 18 states, but its primary focus remains the U.S. South.
In 2019, the organization trained more than 1,000 people in outreach and civic participation work, collected 2,500 voter-registration cards and worked with nine Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). By the end of 2020, Woke Vote expects to have trained about 200 fellows.
Thompson adds that Woke Vote’s areas of focus – building relationships, developing new leaders and understanding community needs in the context of cultural competency and inclusion – apply to anyone who attends a training session.
Thigpen, who is studying political science, is applying the lessons she learned as a 2018 Woke Vote Fellow at her school, the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She helped launch the Woke Vote chapter on campus.
“We are telling people to watch the debates to see how the candidates act,” Thigpen says.
She is working with university administrators to secure a voting location on campus to make it easier for students to cast ballots. She also speaks with the campus community about voter suppression and legislation in the Alabama Legislature.
“If we register 30 people and one person says, ‘thank you for doing this,’ it’s worth it,” Thigpen says. “They will be using their voices.”
One of the most memorable Woke Vote moments Thigpen experienced was the summer of 2018, when she and other community organizers knocked on doors in Florida neighborhoods to talk with people about Amendment 4 and restoring the right to vote for returning citizens who have paid their societal debts for felony convictions.
She found those conversations and that collaborative work with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), which also is working on voting rights and civic participation, to be rewarding.
“I knew I was contributing to something,” she says. “We got to talk to the community to see what they felt. I felt like this is what my ancestors were doing. We were picking up where they left off.”
Picking up where past social justice advocates left off also means ensuring that Black Americans continue to be visible leaders who are heard by political candidates and elected officials in community and policy discussions nationwide.
“There can be no excuse to not engage us,” Thompson says. “If you’re not engaging with us, it’s intentional erasure of our existence. Ultimately, you’re saying you don’t see us, or you don’t value us. What we’re saying, if you see us and you value us, then you have to engage with us. That acknowledges that we exist.”
Brad Wong is communications manager for Marguerite Casey Foundation. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original Equal Voice content can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.
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