Photography by Willie J. Allen Jr. for Marguerite Casey Foundation

Inside MCF

Love Won: A Voting Rights Victory for Families

Desmond Meade Helps Lead the Way

April 24, 2019

Desmond Meade, a father and organizer, and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition received Marguerite Casey Foundation’s 2018 Patiño Moore Legacy Award. Learn how the Foundation worked with him on Florida Amendment 4 to expand voting rights.

Desmond Meade thought his meeting with Luz Vega-Marquis would last just five minutes.

That’s the picture that flashed through his mind after hearing that he would be speaking with the president and CEO of Marguerite Casey Foundation about how Floridians with felony convictions should regain the right to vote.

At the time, Meade was working out of his car and building a movement to restore suffrage for 1.4 million U.S. citizens in Florida. They had paid their debts to society by serving sentences related to their felonies. But the Florida Constitution banned them from voting for life – and the path for individuals to regain that democratic right was cumbersome.

Instead of just five minutes, the conversation stretched to a full hour. Meade talked about the need to organize around humanity and redemption. The sheer number of Floridians going home as returning citizens with no electoral voice – for their families and in their communities – caught Vega-Marquis’ attention.

“I care about people,” she said, recalling that meeting a few years ago. “Dignity for families is paramount.”

Given Marguerite Casey Foundation’s unwavering mission, Vega-Marquis knew quickly that Meade’s movement building effort and focus on multiracial, multigenerational and inclusive leadership were worth supporting.

In 2015, the Foundation gave the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) – the community organization started by Meade – a general operating grant of $200,000 to help this movement for equity flourish in Florida. The Foundation was an early supporter of FRRC.

Vega-Marquis has long believed that movement building succeeds through sizable, multiyear general support grants that give freedom to family-led community organizations. Families, she has said, are capable of finding solutions to challenges before them.

They weren’t votes based on hate. They were votes based on love, forgiveness and redemption
Desmond Meade, executive director of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC)

In February – following the historic Florida Amendment 4 voting rights victory in November 2018 and which started with Meade’s idea and an email listserv – he spent a day attending Marguerite Casey Foundation’s board meeting in the Orlando area to discuss movement building, democracy and families.

Meade, who serves as FRRC executive director, fulfilled his sentences for his felony convictions years ago. He was honored at the board meeting as a guest, a featured speaker, a Black man who helped overturn Jim Crow-era decisions and a returning citizen whose idea led to the largest expansion of U.S. voting rights since 1971.

He’s also a father. During a visit to Hope CommUnity Center in Apopka, north of Orlando, his daughter, Xcellence Glenn, participated on a youth leadership panel. She talked about her work at FRRC and with Black Youth Vote!, processing petitions and registering students in get-out-the-vote drives.

As she spoke, Meade pointed his smartphone at his daughter to record a special family moment.

Later, during a board discussion, he explained how Florida Amendment 4 won more than 5.1 million votes – or 64 percent of all ballots cast. “They weren’t votes based on hate. They were votes based on love, forgiveness and redemption,” he said.

“For a brief moment, Florida – and this country – got to see love winning the day.”

That evening, he stood behind a podium with Vega-Marquis and Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, Marguerite Casey Foundation’s board chair.

The Foundation honored Meade and FRRC with its Patiño Moore Legacy Award – which is rare, if not unique, in U.S. philanthropy. It specifically recognizes partnerships and progress in Black and Brown communities, as well as the idea of movement building that centers on families organizing to find solutions, especially in the face of poverty. The Award includes $150,000 for FRRC to advance its work.

When he was younger, Meade found inspiration for community organizing from recipients in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and from families in the state’s immigrant communities.

Florida Amendment 4 won support from communities of all backgrounds.

As Meade accepted the Award, his daughter used her smartphone to record another special family moment.

Later that evening, Meade returned home to spend time with his wife and other children.

His work organizing communities around the values of inclusion and redemption would continue, particularly in safeguarding what voters approved in November 2018.

In 2019, lawmakers in the Sunshine State approved legislation to require that fees, court costs and restitution be paid before U.S. citizens could cast ballots under the rights restored by Florida Amendment 4. As of early May, the bill was expected to go to the governor’s office for review. Supporters of Florida Amendment 4 compared it to a modern-day poll tax, arguing that it would suppress the vote.

Another focus of Meade and FRRC members: Ensuring that all returning citizens can register to vote before Election 2020. They also have talked about reforming Florida’s criminal justice system.

In February, Marguerite Casey Foundation approved an additional general support grant of $200,000 to FRRC to support its work.

“It’s hard to dream when you’re afraid to fail,” Meade said at the Foundation meeting. “…We were willing to color outside the lines.”

Observed Vega-Marquis: “The day’s discussion about the historic victory of Amendment 4 showed me, yet again, how families, communities and philanthropy are coming together to drive powerful positive change for the public good.”

Listen to Desmond Meade acceptance speech during the Patiño Moore Legacy Award ceremony.

Love Won: A Voting Rights Victory for Families