It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
It feels like a lifetime ago that celebrations for the results of the Georgia runoffs, barely underway, were cut short when white supremacists tried to overthrow the government at the Capital riot on January 6.
But in the ensuing scramble to prevent further attempted domestic insurrection, we cannot allow the lessons from the Democratic victories in Georgia to be overshadowed. These strategies will be valuable for grassroots organizers across the South for a long time coming.
Over the past three years, I have dedicated my time and platform to uplifting the stories of grassroots organizers tasked with transforming Georgia's politics. I saw the same work now praised and widely covered in both local and national news overlooked, mischaracterized, and misrepresented. At the end of 2019, I began covering electoral justice, democracy reform, and voting rights as a full-time movement journalist. I later joined Scalawag as the host of "As the South Votes," serving as a practical resource to communities across the region.
The story of Georgia is personal. It is the story of the blood, sweat, and tears of many of my friends and colleagues who believed in liberation and built coalitions when no one else was looking.
As those trying to understand how a state once considered "deep red" might flip, one important takeaway is that Georgia's success cannot simply be copy-and-pasted elsewhere. These lessons are not meant to be a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach, but are instead examples of what is possible with continued engagement and investment in communities across the South.
We have a lot to learn as we continue to dissect the still-unfolding story of Georgia. For now, here are five often overlooked takeaways from the ground of the 2020 election cycle:
1. Voting is only one part of civic engagement
When we talk about civic engagement and the political system, the focus is often centered around the singular act of voting.
Voting is important.
Voting is how we participate in determining leadership or approving and denying policy, but voting alone is not enough.
For one, treating voting as the only important thing folks can contribute civically excludes members of our community who are excluded from the franchise. Undocumented organizers with groups like Mijente, youth organizers, and formerly incarcerated folks who have not regained their right to vote played vital roles this cycle.
Excluding them ignores our collective power. Reimagining our relationship with the political process and civic engagement is necessary to continue building on electoral victories.
Voter registration efforts are highly visible, but year-round civic engagement work takes many forms: training, issue-based advocacy, and legislative updates.
Political education and community-building through events and meetings provide entry points to working with grassroots leaders. The people I worked with found success because they found ways to bring people into the political process through participation in citizen lobbying, open comment periods, and other local decision-making mechanisms, like giving hearing testimony.
These are opportunities to not only be heard, but to potentially to shape policy. That's where we balance power with elected officials outside of elections.
We need more ordinary people shaping our policy, so that our policies can better reflect the values of our communities.
There is an art and skill to providing public comment and testimony when policy is under consideration, and while several local organizations have mastered the art, organizers alone cannot tip the scales in favor of justice. Ahead of the vote to end cash bail by the Atlanta City Council, Southerners on New Ground (SONG) and coalition partners organized people to sign up to give public comment, and then pass along their time to SONG's director Mary Hooks, granting her the time to make a passionate case to the council about why the ordinance needed to move forward.
Organizers rely on people power, and their testimonies are only as persuasive as the coalitions they've built.
2. Coalition building is power
Recent coverage has highlighted the role of different voting blocs, but little attention has been paid to the deep organizing and collective power-sharing that has happened over many years in this state.
Prior to the primary election, a group of voting rights and civic engagement organizations formed a voter empowerment task force to combat the criminal absentee ballot task force launched by the Secretary of State.
Because the Republican majority has continued to push for election policies that disproportionately disenfranchise Black and other communities of color, such coalition building was important to combat the ever-present scourge of voter suppression.
Such coalition building isn't about one political party but about upholding the political process.
Building a coalition of folks who are committed to issues that are about the betterment of individual lives and communities and can participate in democracy is possible across the South.
Let me say that again: This kind of coalition building is happening across the South, and their future victories will be built on the backs of people committed to democracy.
Prioritizing investment in new voters and infrequent voters, as well as figuring out strategies to overcome existing barriers, is an easier lift when multiple groups are working together.
Those of us who exist outside of mainstream frameworks grounded in white supremacy—either as individuals or intersectional organizations— generally will not accumulate power in the same way that has been traditionally done by white-led coalitions.
Building alternative systems and including collaborative approaches and workarounds to the way the existing system operates provide new entry points into the political process. In Georgia, that looked like Black folks and other people of color leading efforts to mobilize voters in an authentic manner. Organizers built cultural realism, and their processes adapted voter engagement efforts to meet the needs and interests of local communities.
Because we still have a system that very much depends upon the engagement of individuals—one person, one vote—we can build our own coalitions, ones that directly speak to the needs and conditions of our people, and use them to look at how we move agendas forward.
Power is at times an amorphous concept with very real implications when it comes to determining the actual flow of policy. Part of coalition building is also understanding that everyone has their own lane and their own role to play. Not everybody needs to do every single thing. Take comfort in that. When we each do our part, the burden we carry is manageable.
Coalition building also requires recognizing the value of speaking to people directly about the issues and experiences impacting their lives. Looking at common areas of intersection within and across communities does not require appealing to personal sensibilities and comfort. We don't need to create a false sense of unity with potential white voters by feeding into respectability politics and dodging issues of injustice.
Helping people envision new ways of existing—lifting people up instead of leaving them behind— opens a door to another way of building political alliances.
Immigration, health care, and COVID-19 pandemic relief were among the many issues prioritized in community outreach, without spending time trying to appease white moderate voters.
3. Narrative and storytelling are powerful tools
Grassroots leaders and community organizers need to tell their own stories of what unfolded in Georgia: for the sake of accuracy, for the power of their own voice, and for their record-keeping—to provide accurate context and history for this moment. Doing so helps people learn what is possible within their own spaces.
In other words, the media need to listen to organizers, and trust them as sources. Our stories are important.
Georgia is not an anomaly. But if telling the story of Georgia was left to the white, northern, male-led media or white Democratic strategists, we would never know the possibility and potential across this region. Instead, we'd be fed stories of disaffected Republicans flipping parties, even as those of us on the ground here knew better.
Yes, we can all read the post-election data, but data without context does not help move communities forward.
Data is also open to interpretation. Looking at data without an understanding of context often leads to drawing conclusions that aren't actually supported upon deeper examination. In November, the founder of Nieman Lab drew the hasty conclusion that Black voters could not have played a role in swinging the general election because of a decline in their share of voter turnout.
The truth was the overall electorate expanded with Black, Latino, and Asian-Americans all increasing their vote share since 2016. Tom Bonier, CEO of Target Smart, posted a detailed Twitter thread highlighting some impressive data points about turnout among the diverse coalition.
Bonier's analysis also debunked assumptions made about the impact of Georgia's white suburban voters, highlighting Henry County, which had the largest swing nationally from the GOP to Democrats.
People who are invested in the community are often invested in getting the story right.
4. Sustained results require sustained investment
Deep organizing, building relationships with communities and community partners, takes time and continued nurturing. It's an ongoing process that requires marathon-level energy and success through a longview.
Georgia-based organizers have long been engaging with communities and expanding their realm of influence.
Investment obviously means having the financial support to pay organizers to invest in opportunities to build with communities. Investment is also seen in developing local leadership: seeing the potential in the skills and knowledge of community folks who may not have traditional political training, but who can reach people like no other, and hiring people from communities to organize in areas they know intimately rather than bringing people in from other areas.
Organizers often develop innovative communication strategies, too. Many of the people we need to reach are not plugged into the usual political spaces. Not everyone is watching local or cable news. Facebook groups, local radio, and church bulletins are daily touch points in people's lives. When organizers build relationships with local media and influential creatives, they expand opportunities to inform and engage the public.
All of this sustained effort is ultimately about liberation.
Participation in the American political system is not liberation in itself. But it does provide opportunities to improve quality of life—with better health care, better schools, safer communities—through our engagement in the civic system.
Knowing we're in this for the long haul, sustained investment helps ward off the apathy, defeat, and terror of living under white supremacy.
5. Accountability cannot wait until after an election
Finally, accountability must not be an afterthought in political organizing. The notion that pushing candidates to be responsive to community needs or atone for prior harms would lead to lost elections is ridiculous.
As a steering committee member for Black Womxn For, I was a part of a group of Black womxn who endorsed Senator Elizabeth Warren for President. In that process, we had several clear and direct conversations with Warren and her team about what it would take to get our support and what issues she needed to commit to. Accountability was a clearly named expectation.
We couldn't simply endorse her—or any candidate—without addressing several issues upfront, and our support was not intended to shield her from more critique by others. Knowing all of this up front, she not only welcomed our support, but her team regularly included members of our steering committee in policy conversations.
When agendas are out ahead of an election, holding a candidate responsible for promises they made provides a clear direct point of reference to relate back to afterwards. Redressability of grievances and addressing specific actions can very well be a part of a platform moving forward.
Setting expectations does not guarantee everything on an agenda will make it through, particularly if your candidate doesn't win. But agenda-setting and making demands sets the groundwork, identifies the issues communities value most, and outlines the processes to be championed and supported by those communities that helped move them forward.
Showing up and staying engaged means elected officials know they are not alone, and that they have a support network that will hold them down when it gets rough.
Long before Georgia became a national political darling, organizers and volunteers made clear the expectations they had for candidates running at the federal, state, and local level in exchange for their support.
Now, we're ready to make sure they follow through.