#BlackLivesRising: How Black Youth Made History In The 2018 Midterm Elections
Legends of today. Heroes of Our Time.
“Bet on Black. Let it lead you”. These are my recommendations to anyone who will listen. What do I mean by that? Bet on Black candidates and their value to progressive politics.
The past two years have been so memorable and noteworthy for Black politicos everywhere. The same cultural competencies we’ve stressed to our organizations and consultants for years has finally broken through. Savvy political observers now understand that Black candidates Matter. They matter because their stories are often what you would find in a comic book; with messages that resonate with everyday Americans, whether they’re looking for a (s)hero, or just someone whose struggle they identify with. Our tales of triumph properly told, can carry a far more inspirational quality than the traditional stories—of whiteness, masculinity, and privilege— that have littered the American political realm for far too long. The end of the Obama age has given rise to a new generation of Black candidates, who succeeded thanks to the amazing work of Black activists and organizers supporting their campaigns across the country.
Groups like Color of Change and Woke Vote have helped normalize a world in which more and more Black folk assume elected office and gain greater influence over our politics and policies. Simply put: “if you can see it, you can achieve it”. While the GOP is still trying to figure out how to keep Donald Trump off of Twitter and social media altogether, Black politicos have mastered these tools, reaching Black voters in a non-traditional, ever-evolving way. In years past, not having the money to run a television ad would have meant your political demise. Today, tools like Instagram provide new channels to broadcast the messages of Black candidates and emphasize the importance of Black voters. Take last year’s 1.2 Million Dollar #BlackLivesRising program as an example. In the days leading up to election day, my organization, NextGen America ran ads on Black-centric entertainment social media accounts like @theshaderoom and @bossip. The idea was to influence the influencers. If we could go to where the eyes of potential young voters of color were already focused, we could drive turnout among folks who otherwise wouldn’t be encouraged to vote.
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Our theory was correct. What we found was that there was a huge appetite for engagement from these audiences, allowing us to interact, inform, and recruit in real time—taking people who would otherwise remain politically inactive off the sidelines. And there were ripple effects, too. Beloved celebrities like Kelly Rowland and Tina Knowles that felt our message resonate so deeply they reposted our content on their own platforms organically. Their posts alone yielded over 130k views in the days leading up to election day. Our strategic partnership with Blavity also boasted over 3.9 million impressions through social media posts, display banners, and editorial content.
What your average, middle-aged white male consultant does not understand is that Black folk, wherever we are, are part of a larger village that influences our decision making and psychology. Look no further than Black Twitter’s effect on cultural trends. It may have to do with having to whisper secrets and dreams of freedom for hundreds of years, but what do I know? I’m just a black consultant.
So much of our work as Black folk in the political sphere is centered around convincing our non-melanated counterparts of how things work in our community. Although it is exhausting, it’s as important as sharpening the blade of a formidable weapon. That’s what we are - something that protects, yet can easily stoke fear. After our experience in 2017 helping elect Justin Fairfax as the 2nd Black Lieutenant Governor in Virginia's history, it was apparent that the approach (who is making the pitch to Black voters, and what they say) was pertinent to success. Black organizers need the opportunity to bring their whole selves to the work. Prescriptive talking points just won’t do it.
In 2018, we at NextGen America decided to make a commitment to specifically hiring 80+ Black activists to effectively run the program in 6 states and 13 cities. Often times, small percentage increases of 3-10% in voter turnout are touted by politicos as significant change. Meanwhile, in some areas like at Lincoln University, we helped increase turnout by as much as much as 267% through the efforts of folks like organizer Darriyante Johnson, who empowered young Black voters that led to progressive victories up and down the ticket. A mix of digital messaging, events and voter registration efforts yielded unfathomable results in a state like Pennsylvania, that had previously sprung Donald Trump to victory in 2016.
Focusing heavily on HBCU’s and their very unique ecosystems and precincts around them led to places like precincts 305/306 Richmond, VA increasing turnout by 103% & 101% respectively. Much of this success can be attributed to an overlooked, yet valuable resource: Black youth. NextGen America recognized this early on and hired David Brown, a Black juvenile justice advocate to head up #BlackLivesRising across Virginia's HBCU heavy electorate. The importance of knocking doors is always central in a campaign but what is less discussed is the importance of “who” is knocking doors and what they are saying. The boundless energy that college fellows bring to the table is also unrivaled when considering the physical demands of sustaining campaigns. Organizers often cited the response from both their peers and particularly older folks that were inspired by having a young (Black) person knock their door and connect everyday issues to the voting process.
In other states, we saw the marrying of Black consumer behavior to the electoral process as well. In more Metropolitan areas like Detroit, we partnered with Blavity and local influencer and Black fashion stylist Chi Uwazurike to resonate deeper with Black voters. Pre-established brand familiarity and the use of beauty/hair products as prizes/giveaways at these events helped us better connect with the demographic. Many try to dispel identity politics as a divisive measure used by strategists but in this regard, it was the catalyst to get folks in the door to eventually hear a more political message. In light of this, a “Blavity Trivia Bingo” and “Pre-Election Mixer” made the usual wonky content more palpable for young folks that were often self-described first-time voters. This work resulted in an increase of Black voters in targeted precincts around Wayne State University and helped in the election of Garlin Gilchrist, Michigan’s 1st Black Lieutenant Governor. For example, precinct 149 increased by a whopping 205% while precinct 151 went up an impressive 76%. Continued efforts to demystify the political process and showcase to young Black voters that their mere existence is, in essence, political was spearheaded by young Black activists Rasha Mohammed, Cameron Sanders, and Kel Righter, all of whom are under the age of 26.
Up the road in Flint Michigan, Regional Organizing Director Natasha Thomas-Jackson led a team of activists that hosted a barbershop/salon tour, prosperity panel and free screening of the movie "The Hate You Give". Partnering with local organizations like Black Millennials for Flint that had a focus on the water crisis was also another key factor the programs success and ability to resonate with the very real issues on the ground. Organizer and member of the fraternity Phi Beta Sigma, Jaylen McKinney utilized his niche network of black sororities and fraternities to popularize the message of voting at The University of Michigan-Flint. The Flint team was also unique in that hired, trained and empowered 15-year-old high school activist and standout athlete, Dori’Asia Miller. #BlackLivesRising Organizer and National African Chamber of Commerce Founder, Kimberly Edmonds hosted a series of events at/around Mott Community College - a perennially overlooked institution as it relates to politics.
In Florida, another place where Trump was victorious in 2016, we focused our efforts at HBCUs Bethune Cookman and FAMU. Our engagement at these institutions showed the significance of marrying old school tactics like marches and rallies to newer social phenomena such as the #BlackJoyBrunch with Color of Change. These #BlackLivesRising events helped tap into the cultural nuance of HBCUs and overall black culture to increase turnout by a staggering 157% (BCU) and 77% (FAMU) respectively. Our partnership with Color of Change to launch the first- ever #BlackLivesRising HBCU Tour was a major success in that we were able to train and use the collective power of over 200 young Black attendees to reach over 22,000+ black voters via text campaign across the state of Florida in support of Vlack gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. Whether it was chicken and waffles or shrimp and grits, a relatively unconventional political strategy (in the eyes of the average politico) was the key to success.
The aforementioned HBCU ecosystem was completely utilized through developing meaningful relationships with BCU Operations Director, Ashanta Williamson who ran point on logistics for Bethune Cookman's rallies, marches, panels, and brunch. Her tireless work also helped us identify current and former students to employ such as BCU Alum and former Senatorial intern, Jacari Harris as well as Sophomore Fellow James Franklin. Tapping into the familial structure of the Black community and training activists on approaching the community with care played a major role in this success. Some of our other partners Dejuana Thompson (Woke Vote) and Dr. Lezlie Baskerville (NAFEO) helped frame the importance of being civically engaged through the lens of pride in our blackness and the preservation of our future.
At FAMU we intentionally hired former college football standout and NFL pro Akil Blount as a familiar face to students. Regional Organizing Director and Haitian immigrant Gracey Jean-Bernard, played a pivotal role in bringing a diverse and often forgotten Black voice to the forefront by representing the thriving Caribbean communities seen across Florida. Often times, political organizations go with middle-aged white male operatives that struggle to understand the social lens of black institutions and the wide spectrum that is Blackness and Black issues. NextGen America was proud to provide opportunities to folks that may traditionally be overlooked as potent political operatives and train them to become instruments of social/electoral change. Much can be said about the experience itself, developing the skills and know-how of young folk that will only continue to grow as leaders and focal points in their communities.
The tireless work of Black senior staffers Justin Atkins (Organizing Director) , Maya Humes (Media Director) and Jordan Pride (Data Director) cannot be overstated. Each held positions not usually occupied by people of color, particularly Black folks in high stakes campaigning. Their commitment and inclusiveness in lifting up the voices of all Floridians once again showed the value of intentionally hiring people who represent the communities their organizing. Although Andrew Gillum was unable to secure the Governor's mansion, our program was excited to support the historic vision and success of Desmond Meade's Amendment 4, which recently restored the rights of over 1.4 million felons who will now be able to vote.
In Wisconsin (another state Trump won in 2016), Black environmental activist and Nigerian born George Olofusoye led the charge in Milwaukee by orchestrating a state team that registered over 36,000 voters and knocked on 80,000 doors. He empowered first-time organizers like Milwaukee School of Arts and Design Fellow Akira Mabon whose prior work consisted of Chipotle & Qdoba. Her success as a first-time political operative shined bright during the “Rally for The Ancestors” she helped organize where 2191 doors were knocked in a matter of hours. The biggest take away was the “silent canvass” pioneered by Angela Lang of BLOC (Black Leaders Organizing Communities). This speaks to the cultural-emotional context that is needed when empowering Black communities and is further proof of the importance of nuanced messaging to turn out Black voters. Their collective efforts resulted in the historic election of Mandela Barnes as the first-ever black Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin as well as Sheriff Earnell Lucas who recently made history in appointing an all women senior staff (thus proving that when black folk win, we all win).
In North Carolina, (which seems to be ground zero for voter suppression) the #BlackLivesRising program boasted a major victory in helping elect social justice warrior Anita Earls to the Supreme Court who will play a major role in the fight against gerrymandering. Much of this success can be attributed to the unprecedented makeup of North Carolina’s senior staff, who happened to be all Black (you know how hard it is to find a Black data director!?). Led by former U.S House of Representatives Staffer, Josette Ferguson, team North Carolina registered over 8000+ voters in just 4 months.
Young activists and SGA leaders Kirston Williams and Rochelle Givens led the charge at Bennett College for women by registering over 30% of the student body in a matter of months. Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Alicia Garza partnered with the #BlackLivesRising program to host “The Future is Female…& Black” which highlighted the continued importance of Black women in politics and social justice in America. Through partnerships with the school NAACP, Delta Sigma Theta and Blavity they led several marches to the polls leading up to and on election day - proving that Bennett Belles are truly Voting Belles. Their work continues and the skills they learned as fellows are needed now more than ever as HBCUs like Bennett College face possible closure due to financial issues.
Across the street, Organizer Juna Lamour registered over 800+ students at North Carolina A&T, which is arguably one of the largest HBCU’s in the country. Her commitment to engaging young Black folks about the issues that matter most to them yielded increases of 56% in precinct G68 - one of several voting locations within a mile radius, split between two congressional districts. Despite the woes and confusion of gerrymandering, #BlackLivesRising was still able to play a major role in the wave of Black law enforcement across the state and more namely Sheriff Danny Rogers. It must be said, however, that despite these successes, there is a great deal of anxiety from local organizers and organizations about national groups like NextGen America playing a role in these fights. National Organizations must continue to commit their time and resources to the folks already doing the work to avoid the perception of steamrolling into these communities.
In summary, 2018 was a historic year for many reasons but there are still needs for improvement as it relates to organizing black communities, particularly Black youth. The upside is enormous but the lack of commitment from donors that traditionally invest in social justice/political campaigns is staggering. Many are quick to tout the exceptional role of Black women in politics in recent years without a clear cut vision forward and understanding of how to truly unleash the power of the Black vote. What must be understood is that we are the purveyors of culture, the trendsetters and the heroes of our time molded by our adversities.
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