In one of the online grassroots activists groups I follow on Facebook, a discussion popped up this morning about “getting out the black vote.” It was sparked by an article “As Democrats Keep Chasing Trump Voter Waterfalls, Will They Ever Listen to Their Actual Base: Black People?” (The article is worth a read.)
As I read the comments in response to this article, I noted that the discussion was focused on doing “more GOTV in predominately black neighborhoods.” It was simply about votes, votes, votes.
In response to the commentary, I shared this:
“As someone who was an activist and later served in local government in a majority-minority community (Asbury Park, NJ) I would like to offer the following. A first step might be to not approach our minority communities as votes to be had by just doing more GOTV in black neighborhoods. We must ask ourselves a fundamental question - "Do we really care what is happening with black Americans?" If it wasn't for getting their votes, would we be talking about black communities and the issues they are facing day in and day out? Have we spent time in black communities working on social, economic, and racial justice issues hand in hand with the grassroots leaders in those communities? Votes come from commitment, long-term commitment, that is grounded in solidarity and shown in practice by consistent action with black Americans and on behalf of our shared values.
In short, don't think about getting votes first. Do what's right because it's the right thing to do, even if no votes come from it. Show up consistently in the community. Earn trust. Then, down the line, we can start talking about GOTV efforts.”
This thought was borne out of a very pivotal experience I had during my early activist days in Asbury Park. There was a community event at one of the churches on the west side of town with the Mayor at the time. During the Q&A I said a few words about about an injustice that was clear as day to the community. I was speaking truth, but I could feel that for some reason, it fell flat in the room. After the meeting, I was downstairs at the post-event lunch feeling somewhat dejected and not understanding why I didn’t get more support for my comment. So, I went to talk with Mary Johnson. Mary was a de facto political matriarch in the community. She was at every city council meeting speaking truth to power and advocating for justice. I asked her, “Mary, what happened up there? I know you know what I said was true, why did people not respond?”
She looked at me, smiled, and said, “Keady, keep coming back.”
That lesson has stuck with me ever since and it is one that I feel the Democratic party as well as new activists can and should take to heart. It is a lesson that should be heeded whether we are seeking to organize black Americans in the Atlanta suburbs (ex. Ossoff race) or white Americans in West Virginia coal country (ex. Hillary race). We must show up and remain in these communities not simply because we want votes. We must show up and remain in these communities because our values drive us there, because our passion for economic, social, and racial justice make it imperative that we stand in solidarity with people who have been ignored and forgotten by the powerful elites. Building a movement doesn’t start with a desire to “get out the vote.” Building a movement starts with a belief, to quote Dr. King, that “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Perhaps if we start organizing more based on our values and a desire to create justice, and not on the desire to simply “get out the vote,” in a decade or so, we may see the results at the voting booth.