It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
As we close out the 2020 election, the As The South Votes team reflects on their own political journeys—as journalists, and as active agents of change in democracy.
Folks talk a lot about the American dream, what it means to be an American or have "real" American values, but those conversations are so often framed by the narrow considerations we're fed in our news coverage.
In 2014, my children and I were among 300,000 people affected by the Elk River Chemical spill in West Virginia. This singular experience transformed me from a regular sports mom with strong opinions to a community advocate challenging and deconstructing status quo narratives. While I grew up in a politically engaged family, living through the chemical spill opened my eyes to the necessity of people willing to amplify the voices and experiences of at-risk and marginalized communities.
Over the past few years in my work as an organizer-turned-journalist, I have made it my mission to uplift conversations with good people doing good work. The task seemed simple enough.
But developing a framework for how I would approach those conversations while prioritizing issues I care about led me to reflect on the core values of the content that I was tasked with creating. Traditional media considerations around objectivity and the desire to appear balanced are generally grounded in protecting status quo positions, rather than serving community interests.
Staking a position and choosing to uplift voices of politically and economically impacted communities provides a lens into the experiences of people the media has historically talked at or over, but rarely listened to—or even considered worth listening to.
For me, this process led to a shift in how I develop the stories and narratives I wanted to tell—beyond simply providing a counter to mainstream reporting. This was an entirely new way of approaching and envisioning issues and ideas. I didn't have a name for what this approach could be until mid-2017 when I came across a report by Project South, "Out of Struggle: Strengthening and Expanding Movement Journalism in the U.S. South," coining the term "movement journalism."
I realized that recognizing the limitations of media as I knew it to exist was the first step in dismantling and rebuilding the ways in which stories like those of my own community are told.
Far too often, people from outside of communities parachute in and put their analysis or their lens onto our stories to tell. This can look like reporters from outside the area showing up to tell a particular narrative constructed based on assumptions on communities and outcomes, or it can look like reporters within the region who do not regularly engage with voting rights groups suddenly showing up without any context or respect for their work.
More than a mouthpiece for movement, my approach to coverage sees communities like mine as a starting point for analysis and understanding conditions instead of an afterthought. It's like having someone critique your auntie's sweet potato pie and they haven't actually even tried a slice. Each opportunity to provide authentic stories directly from a region about the region is an important part of this—and any—historic electoral cycle.
Bringing my framework and political coverage to the Scalawag family in the weekly video series "As the South Votes" was an opportunity to take the reins of those conversations around community- and movement-informed media and put them into practice. When conversations around voting rights and voter suppression are left to political experts, analysts and national pundits, we inherently ignore so many people directly impacted by these issues who are also leading and organizing around them.
Connecting with Arekia Bennet of Mississippi Votes, Cliff Albright from Black Voters Matter, and Sailor Jones from Democracy North Carolina carved out opportunities to directly respond to issues and concerns coming from the communities we seek to represent with our coverage. And it's those same communities, particularly across the South—full of people with questions, and others with answers—that have the capacity to build beyond the limitations and barriers built into existing systems.
The 2020 election solidified the rise of a new power in the South with a clarion call toward justice and equity for all. The emerging values that are centered in direct, year-round organizing also need to be reflected in the way media coverage operates and exists. Reported projects like "As the South Votes" helped fill the void. Having a collaborative team committed to elevating the stories of Southern communities and reflecting these self-determined efforts—instead of falling into the trap of depicting people as victims of oppressive systems—are part of the ongoing work of reframing that narrative.
A constant refrain I heard across the conversations I had since the start of our project was the need to share good, verifiable information. Whether debunking and challenging disinformation or providing clear and concise facts about assumptions made by well-meaning northern allies, we drew a clear line about making sure our voices were heard, without tripping over concepts like objectivity and balance.
Grounding our work in accountability to communities and providing the answers people were seeking removed concerns about conversations around bias or being unfair to a particular side. There are no two sides in matters of equity and justice. In this, I have been thankful to have worked free of such traditional, close-minded considerations that can nag at journalists to the detriment of our communities.
Addressing false narratives around virtually non-existent voter fraud and other allegations raised to distract from efforts to disenfranchise voters should not require giving life to clearly inflammatory rhetoric that serves no other purpose but to maintain power of a select few.
In doing the research for our conversation around voter ID laws, one of the most interesting facts I discovered came from a lawsuit filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund when they took on Alabama's voter ID requirements. Alabama passed their voter ID law, like many other states, with a wave of support built upon this same misconstructed narrative of rampant voter fraud. But when the NAACP Legal Defense Fund examined cases of confirmed voter fraud over a 12 year period prior to the passage of the law, they found only one instance of fraud in that period.
So much focus across the election cycle—and even now in the postelection cycle—was spent on speculation whether the outgoing person would be a sore loser. But what we are really seeing is that republican disinformation around voter fraud and other issues could usher in a new generation of restrictive voting practices and election practices.
We are already seeing some of that manifest in the Georgia runoff right now. When we think about how we convey information to people, and how we help bring more folks into the process of understanding that information, we can't play into the structure as it exists now. To not only challenge the current narrative, but reject it altogether in favor of a new way of understanding, is revolutionary in itself.
At its very core, protecting democracy cannot be up for debate. Worrying about upsetting a particular side should never take precedence when there is so much more than partisan wins and losses at stake.
Trump lost this election with 74 million votes, the most any nonwinning presidential candidate has ever received. So when we think about who we need to be specifically targeting and engaging, what we're really talking about are the 80 million people who did not vote this year.
Add to that the millions more who were not eligible to vote for varying reasons, from being too young to being formerly incarcerated, to being undocumented or not having the full rights of citizenship.
The 2020 election was hard-fought. But the work is far from over. We need to continue to think about the collective whole, and build with people who are willing to build alongside us.
By telling these stories and shaping the narratives that are informing and engaging the type of society we want to be a part of, without worrying about finding a way to convince those who are willing to believe falsehoods or follow people who distort and misconstrue information, or engage in undemocratic practices.
We have a real duty—and an opportunity—to shift narratives and conversations to help build and tell even more new stories. Looking across a diverse collective of communities and experiences, I look forward to the possibility, and the promise, of conversations that help shape a shared future that recognizes the self-determination and value of all—not just a select few.