📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?
Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.
Last week, the South saw several landmark progressive wins—not only on down-ballot races and ballet referenda in historically blue states and much-contested Georgia, but also in firmly red states like Tennessee.
Despite a Republican majority vote for the presidency, the Tennessee Secretary of State's Office reported a 31 percent increase in democratic voter turnout this year compared to the 2016 election. Many grassroots organizers say that this is the direct result of the efforts of nonprofits and volunteers who have been registering people and getting them to the polls. Meanwhile, exit polls showed that the economy, response to the coronavirus pandemic, and racial inequality were other motivating factors.
Republican Eddie Mannis and Democrat Torrey Harris won seats in the state House to become the first openly queer members of that legislature in the Tennessee. In 2015, Jack Knoxville—an Afro-Latino Trans Activist and the founder of the Trans Empowerment Project—became the first trans man to run for political office in Tennessee. He lost that run, but the experience led him to founding The Trans Empowerment Project, which turned its attention this year to initiatives to increase voter turnout among the trans community.
See also: To prevent abhorrent state-run voter suppression and police brutality, look to local action beyond election years
"[Queer and POC] folks are tired of not being represented in conversations about the future," Knoxville said. "We are barely even acknowledged by most elected officials. I actually have yet to hear a single official who really understood the complexities of what it means to 'show up' for us."
Robert Sherrill, a well-known figure among the ex-felon community in Nashville, helps formerly incarcerated people looking to regain rights with local Nashville nonprofits like The Equity Alliance. He echoed much of the same sentiment: Win or lose, this year is historic, but last week's results exemplify just how far so many marginalized communities still have to go toward real change.
"There are so many years of misinformation that we have to overcome," Sherrill, CEO of the DREAM Initiative, said. The DREAM Initiative focuses on helping former incarcerated citizens return to life outside of prison through professional development and licensing and transitional housing to decrease recidivism.
Sherrill recently made headlines as an elusive undecided voter, pulling at the last minute for Trump, who he said was the better candidate for business owners like himself. His work on the ground is proof of bipartisan support for voter enfranchisement and criminal reform in the South. The issue has garnered Republican support in Tennessee in recent years, with Republican Representative Michael Curcio and Senator Steve Dickerson proposing legislation that would simplify the burdensome administrative process for ex-felons to vote.
This is in trend with other Southern states that may have remained red on the electoral college map, but voted in favor of progressive platforms at the local level, alongside North Carolina's vote to re-elect a Democratic governor and Florida approving a rise in the minimum wage—despite both swinging for Trump.
Before the election, both groups in Tennessee were excited for the possibility of a wider range of voices heard at the local level, even if national wins were still up in the air. Organizers across the state rallied hard around this election. But those who have spent this year campaigning for incremental victories say that while small strides toward greater representation are important in some ways, voting alone is not enough to shift the narrative.
A larger platform also means more attention, good and bad. With the real threat of polarized reactions both at the polls and in the days to come, that hope for change was tempered by the real possibility of escalating violence.
"Regardless of what the final count shows, the work for me is the same," Knoxville said. "After seeing all that red on the map shows us where that work needs to be done. Some of that work is around education, but there is a ton of healing that needs to happen too."
Scalawag checked in with both of these community leaders before, during, and in the days following the 2020 election cycle to see how groups on the ground in Tennessee are mobilizing for action in the days to come.
Week of the election:
What's the most pressing work you've been involved in? What work is left to do?
Knoxville: I've spent a majority of my time strategizing with organizers across the country and teaching them how to use digital tools to win their campaigns while holding important conversations around why we can't afford for anyone to sit out of the elections; especially this time around.
In talking with the community though, this doesn't feel like "our year." I mean, let's be real—our problems don't disappear with the election of a new president. We have to be vigilant and realize that while the elections may help bring back some systemic change, we still have to create cultural change, because that is the only real lasting change.
Outside of election years, the Trans Empowerment Project organizes grassroots and community-based initiatives like clothing swaps, donations and legal assistance to incarcerated trans folks, alongside job-hunting and training resources. This year, Knoxville has been working with larger community organizations to learn effective ways to increase voter turnout among the trans community, who face many systemic and immediate barriers to voting.
Sherrill: The most pressing work I've been involved in is the battle for equitable opportunities for returning citizens and creating solid foundations, paths, and tracks for inner city, at-risk youth. There is still so much work to do. Both of these populations are groups that are easily written off by society. We focus so much on the negativity of recidivism that we don't embrace the possibility of desistance.
Sherrill was formerly incarcerated on drug possession charges, but has since been pardoned by Gov. Bill Haslam for his advocacy and work since his release. This year, with Judge Rachel Bell, Sherrill has been helping ex-felons in Tennessee expunge their court fees and fines among other other obstacles so they can register to vote.
What predictions do you have about the races you're most invested in?
Sherrill: I am excited to see a general focus on equity. While it may be more pressing for some, to have a transparent, honest, blunt, and deep conversation about a topic that has been long ignored or skimmed over is amazing. And of course, as a small-business owner, I am also invested in issues and items that may or may not impact me professionally.
Knoxville: I'm excited at the rise in power for Black leaders, trans leaders, queer leaders, and the like. What I'm most nervous about is the escalation of violence as they find their way out the door.
I fear there will be violence at the polls and that the white right will lose their mind knowing their reign of terror is ending. From what I've seen so far, it's all driven by fear. They've never not been in control and are afraid that what they've done to the rest of us, will be done to them.
What does this election mean to you and the community you support?
Sherrill: It means a lot to my community because we are at a tough place in a tough year. There's a very fine line I walk between being a minority and a business owner. There are policies and agendas on both sides that impact me as an entrepreneur, as a black American, and as a returned citizen. This election is about seeing the forest through the trees and determining who is going to be the candidate to get the most done for the communities I am a part of. It's more than fluff-filled promises … it's about integrity and a willingness to serve the country and ALL of the citizens that reside in it.
Knoxville: While I think Biden is one of those folks who is fairly clueless about trans lives, I have hope that he is better than who we're dealing with right now because he shows a desire to learn and grow from his past.
[We've watched Trump's] abuses go unchallenged because Trump and his cronies don't see us as human beings, which only creates more of a crisis for our communities. Because these are stories of trans people—especially QTPOC—these stories don't get the attention they need. The media often downplays trans issues or perpetuates more harm by dead naming and erasing our identities, which only allows that hate and bigotry to keep coming for us. [But] with Amy Coney Barrett being confirmed to the Supreme Court, and the buzzings of Marriage Equality challenges, I'm real concerned about the structural gains our folks across the gender spectrum have made.
How do you feel about the results that you have so far? What's the sentiment like on the ground?
Knoxville: Right now, I feel pretty apathetic about the results. I never expected a clean sweep but seeing the number of Republicans that gained ground, the hold on of McConnell, Collins, and Graham are just wow; really disappointing.
Sherrill: I feel great about the results I've gotten so far. People have to feel like someone is in the fight with them or else it can be overwhelming. Being able to bridge the gap between returning and success is critical to me.
Unity is a general theme right now. People are looking for ways to give back and make a difference. They are fighting for equity and restoration. The focus on my type of cause has been long blurred, but it's at the forefront now. That means a lot. The level of awareness and competence surrounding reentry makes me happy.
Knoxville: The change we need to focus on as a movement is not on structural change, but rather the kind of change that is long lasting; cultural change.
What efforts are you doubling down on, and what seemed to pay off the most?
Sherrill: I am doubling down on reform most recently—and equity. We are focused on unity as a country and these are very important components of that. If we can find ways to invest into the future of the citizens of this country regardless of background, we'd be able to really create solid foundations for success across the country.
Knoxville: I'm doubling down most on anti-racism and our need to elect more diverse leadership. I'm also doubling down on the need for myself and others to be able to do some real genuine healing. What has paid off so far, I think, has been to focus on building relationships versus having transactional interactions with people. It's also paid off to pull myself back from expending energy unnecessarily, on people who don't want to learn from me.
I am also focused on building more spaces and places for marginalized people to thrive while working with white allies to help them have the important conversations they need to have with their communities.
What lessons have you learned from this election? What's next?
Knoxville: The war against racism and bigotry is far from over. If we want to see that [voting] map not look so terrifying in the future, then we need to start focusing on creating cultural change—and we can't wait until 6 months before the next election to do it.
Sherrill: I've learned that a difference of opinion, to many, is a reason to dissociate oneself. But, most importantly, I've learned that when a group of people unite on one front, history can be made. So often we focus on the differences that divide us instead of the passions that unite us. It's time to focus on the latter regardless of demographic or party identifiers.
[We're] working to create strategic partnerships and allies. It's business as usual. Focus on the tasks before me and get it done by any means necessary.
Knoxville: We also can't keep expecting BIPOC and QTPOC to be the only ones doing this work. White allies should already be on deck and getting prepared to do some of the more serious lifting with us.