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Founders of ‘Black Voters Matter’ and ‘Woke Vote’ Discuss Black Electoral Empowerment in the South

The Phillips Brooks House Association.
The Phillips Brooks House Association. By C.C. Gong
By Laura C. Espinoza and Isabel L. Isselbacher, Contributing Writers

“Black Votes Matter” co-founder LaTosha R. Brown and “Woke Vote” founder DeJuana L. Thompson joined students to discuss black electoral empowerment at the Phillips Brooks House Thursday.

Southerners Organizing Urgent Transformation through Harvard College, a recently formed student group, and the Institute of Politics’ Politics of Race and Ethnicity program co-hosted “Black Voters Matter: Conversation on Black Electoral Empowerment.” The event was intended to engage students from Harvard, Mississippi State University, University of Southern Mississippi, and University of Alabama.

The “Black Votes Matter” and “Woke Vote” programs were designed to mobilize African-American voters in Georgia and Alabama, respectively. According to Brown, there is an unrealized potential of black electoral power in the South.

“We have a particular kind of framework that says there are red-states and blue states,” Brown said. “If you use that as your analysis around who’s progressive and who’s not progressive, then you completely overlook that there are progressive pockets of voters in the Deep South.”

Thompson, former African American Outreach Director for the Democratic National Committee, reflected on why political campaigns are failing to connect with black voters. She criticized politicians who only devote resources to black constituencies immediately before elections instead of forming long-term community partnerships.

“If you look at the way resources come into our communities, if you look at the way anything comes in, it is always aligned with an election cycle,” Thompson said. “You’ve got to invest in these communities to build power, to allow them to grow, but all [politicians are] concerned with — all [they] can see — is the election cycle.”

The discussion about black political empowerment comes in the wake of a recent viral incident where a Black Voters Matter bus was stopped from taking African American senior citizens to the polls in Jefferson County, Ga.

Brown, who was on the bus, was dismayed after the county commissioner forced the director of the group’s living facility to deboard the seniors. She reported that she and her co-founder “literally didn’t sleep that night.” She said the seniors on the bus, however, were less surprised.

“My head was steaming. But the seniors smiled; they were so not shocked. I mean that says something,” Brown said. “It’s almost that there’s an expectation that someone’s gonna interfere.”

When asked by a student how she continues her work in the face of adversity, Brown broke out into song, launching into a verse of Pete Seeger’s “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”

Salma Abdelrahman ’20, who hopes to be a community organizer after college, said she was inspired listening to Brown and Thompson speak.

“To see how they use it in their real day-to-day work really, I think, gave me the impetus to keep learning about this stuff and to keep dedicating my life to this stuff,” Abdelrahman said, referring to Brown’s and Thompson’s practical experiences, lessons, and strategies in organizing.

SOUTTH President Trevor W. Ladner ’20, who helped organize the event, said he hoped that students would take away key lessons of inclusion and diversity in electoral activism.

“We talk about trusting black women,” Ladner said. “We need to listen to black women and follow their lead but that often doesn't come with actual investment in black women.”

Investment and enfranchisement, Ladner said, are important ideas accompanying growing political momentum in the South and across the country.

“Midterms are coming up in the next month, and this is an important part of that conversation that needs to be had on campus,” he added.

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