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With the 2022 election season looming—or in some states, already upon us—Scalawag and Anoa Changa are talking to Southern communities about electoral politics and how they have held power to account in the face of compounding crises of the last two years. Check out the rest of the series.
Florida has been at the epicenter of national politics and conversations around protecting democracy for more than 20 years. From the dispute over hanging chads in the 2000 election to the erosion of protest rights seen in House Bill 1 last summer, the Sunshine state has proven to not be so sunny for voting rights. Florida is the testing ground for anti-democratic policies.
In an interview with Scalawag, Delilah Pierre of Tallahassee Community Action Committee called the Combating Public Disorder Act—also known as the "anti-riot" bill—"a power grab for the Republicans." Florida Rising's Senior Political Advisor Dwight Bullard joined As the South Votes from the state's capital of Tallahassee to discuss another power grab in the making. Previously serving in both houses of the state legislature, Bullard provided context for the current struggle in mobilizing to change policy at the state level. He also gave insight into the fight against Governor Ron DeSantis' administration's attempt to eliminate two congressional districts with historic Black leadership.
After this interview, Democratic members of the Florida legislature turned up the heat on DeSantis and the complicit silence from their Republican colleagues. Bullard and Democratic legislators argue that DeSantis' moves are aimed at diluting the political power of Black voters and their representatives.
While there are no simple solutions to major challenges in democracy, Bullard shared some of the micro-interventions and incremental solutions utilized by Florida Rising and allied organizations working to interrupt and disrupt the status quo of white supremacy in the state.
Folks talk a lot about people-powered movements and building power. Bullard breaks down how to go about doing it and why it's important.
Florida Rising is an independent organization working to increase the voting and political power of marginalized and excluded constituencies.
Disrupting the harm of a white supremacist administration and organizing every day Floridians to shift the balance of power across the state and in their local communities.
How they do it:
Dwight highlights the organization's use of people's assemblies as a means of further engaging impacted communities beyond election cycles.
The organization works to build a "movement home," providing a space for individuals to access for community and political education, as well as a support system in challenging disparities in quality of life issues.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Anoa Changa: Florida has been a hot place politically for several years now—and definitely now, ramping up into this midterm cycle. How are y'all really connecting with folks? What are some of the issues that you're hearing from folks about?
Senior Political Advisor
Dwight Bullard: Florida has always been a bellwether state. Some people want to call it a purple state, or a state that fluctuates between its own political ideology and identity. Part of the reason why it gets that title has to do with the experiences people have. It is a Southern state. So the impacts of voting rights have been felt here like they've been felt in states like Mississippi and Alabama and others. Again, we're at the intersection of the climate crisis—because of the number of bodies of water that we have. And, as people have probably read, we're going through a critical housing crisis at this moment. We're experiencing in some counties as much as 33 to 34 percent hikes in the cost of rent. So, Florida has this kind of unfortunate distinction of being at the forefront of a number of critical issues. How those issues are responded to, or reacted to, by the elected officials in this state, is oftentimes reflective of how Florida will swing statewide or in presidential elections.
What we're feeling right now is the result of those pressures—the idea of people wanting to fight for clean water and clean air, the idea that we're seeing an increased number of houseless and homeless people who can't afford to keep their lights on. We have a state that, unfortunately, is going through a healthcare crisis, because of the failure to expand Medicaid and address some of those critical issues. When we think about how the pandemic impacted the state, one of the first things that we had to do as an organization was shift our presence as a voter engagement organization into that of being one of almost like first responders. We were out here making sure that people had food, or making sure that people had access to resources, because we saw a failure on the part of governments to address those issues.
Anoa Changa: What are some of the ways that the organization is innovating or engaging with individuals? What are some of the ways that you've seen people implementing micro-interventions in protecting democracy and helping people have access to the halls of power?
Dwight Bullard: Our bread and butter is in engagement, and really meeting people where they are. What I mean by that is being creative about how you are touching people around the notion of electoral politics. Structurally, we'll start there.
Every month in each region that we work in, we have what's known as the People's Assembly, which is really an opportunity for the public to come in, engage with us as an organization, and talk about things that are of critical importance to you—as well as us being able to highlight hot button issues of the time. Whether that is the census, redistricting, the legislative session, pushing things like the tenant's Bill of Rights that we're trying to get traction on in different counties that give you no expansion of rights to renters.
Those are some of the tools that we use, but when we think about levels of engagement, we understand that we don't just want to hit people over the head all the time with this overt political message. So, we've sponsored movie nights, where the public can come out and check out a film that's part of a deeper political education. A recent film that we've been showcasing is called Moody, which gives some insight into the continued plight of Haitian Americans in this country. Or we've been showcasing Selma, which is Ava DuVernay's depiction of Bloody Sunday and the march from Selma to Montgomery, that really kind of highlights the importance of voting rights.
Florida Rising works in 13 counties, but for people in the other 54 counties around the state, they work with a larger statewide collective, Florida For All. They work with organizations like the Dream Defenders, the Florida Immigrant Coalition, Jobs With Justice, Faith in Florida, as well as labor partners like SEIU and others to build a more multifaceted version of collective liberation. "If you are a low wage worker looking to unionize, there's a space for you. In a place like Florida where you think no one is looking out for you, there are organizations trying to throw down for you."
It's those kinds of methods of engagement that allow us to really interact with folks in what we feel is a responsible way. I don't think anyone just wants to constantly hear the drumbeat of bad or sad news. We want to be able to highlight joy, we want to be able to applaud the great things that people are doing beyond that scope—but also recognizing that we can't escape politics.
I oftentimes say that you can try not to care about politics, but politics will ultimately care about you. What I mean by that is that politics will dictate in some way, shape, or form every facet of your life. It becomes absolutely important for you to be able to engage in that level of understanding that these things are happening and will happen—without your input, if you allow them to—and then to double down on that. As a Black person, as a Black man especially, I don't have the luxury of being apolitical, because my whole existence in this country has been one of deep-rooted political fodder. And so it's important that communities of color, and Black communities, in particular, understand the importance of political engagement and political education in order to fight for their very salvation.
Anoa Changa: It can sometimes feel like these different systems are absolutely against us. So why bother? How do you work to help people push past what some may call an apathy towards the system, towards actually collectively building in the way that y'all are?
Dwight Bullard: For us, it's about consistent and constant experimentation. What I mean by that is that the tactics, the means by which people become woke to what is happening in their everyday lives politically. They're not monolithic. There's not sort of one means that that will ultimately awaken somebody to why or how they're going to engage politically. And so understanding first that when we think about the notion of democracy is that we have to center people first. Understanding that for your everyday lived experience, something is going on in your world that you ultimately want to change for the better, or just change deliberately. That simple intervention is how we want people to onboard themselves to the notion of politics. It's deeper than the cult of personality. It's not about this one character or this one person or even this one institution that is determining outcomes for your life for you as the individual. What is the thing that you want to make better about your life? Helping you understand how those institutions can be either assistive or a barrier to what you want to achieve.
Take the housing crisis in particular: What we saw—especially around the pandemic—was folks being unable to pay their rent or their mortgage and facing eviction. But because people have not found themselves in this crisis before, they did not necessarily know how to react to it. So just simple education on the requirements that a landlord has for notification of your eviction, the legal process that allows you to stay sheltered, even when you cannot afford it, was just some basic information that people did not know.
We had scenarios where we were able to intervene with folks who are going through this situation where they were at least able to stay housed, until they were able to change their situation—which is a far cry from what they thought their situation is going to be, because they felt that once they got the notification of that eviction, I have 30 days and that's it, I have to be out. What am I going to do? In reality, just by taking a few measured steps and educating them on their own rights, they were able to stay there for six months, eight months, nine months, before they actually had to leave the situation that they're in—making sure they transition into a better one.
When it comes to the healthcare crisis, access to health, voting rights—all these things, the ways in which we want to interact with people is like: You have a crisis. And again, it doesn't always have to be some sort of sky is falling crisis. But it's just oftentimes a lack of basic information that, unfortunately, a Google search won't necessarily turn up. That's what we really empower our organizers with: The ability to kind of just engage people at the most basic level possible in order to make real change.
Anoa Changa: Thinking a little bit more specifically about some of the things that have been happening in your state recently—the current governor seems like he's trying to intentionally dilute the political and representational power of Black and brown voters in the state. How do people get together and fight back? What are some of the things that people are doing to challenge some of these egregious steps that are being taken by the DeSantis administration?
Dwight Bullard: Well, it's ironic that I'm actually coming to you from Tallahassee at this very moment, because we needed to mobilize people at this very moment to deal with that crisis. You're absolutely right. For those who don't know, the current governor, Ron DeSantis, in an unprecedented move, vetoed the congressional maps that were drawn by the state legislature. The rationale for his veto is that he did not like to have the particular congressional districts that are currently occupied by African American members of Congress. That engagement on the part of Ron DeSantis is, by all means, in my opinion, the textbook definition of racism. He's using discrimination, power, and influence, to undermine people based on color, or based on ethnic distinction. We're here in Tallahassee at this very moment to engage with the legislature to try to give them the power to push back against the governor's veto. But I think we're also prepared.
Through their two distinct curricula, the School of Unity and Power (SOUP) and their Path to Power programs, Florida Rising has been able to teach people about the basic tenets of political ideology and how to move the needle, creating new entry points for enacting change. "If folks want to get involved at the policy level, they can do so around distinct things. Whether it's battling power companies, shutting down incinerators or dumping sites in these Black and brown communities—those are the things that we need folks to understand, and understand we're not the only ones doing it there. There's organizations that are unheralded around this country that are out here, putting in this work each and every day standing in the gap for folks. All we're really asking for is for you as the individual to tap in where you can."
Folks have to be ready to do any and everything possible when their rights are under attack. I mean, we know this lesson from history that we have to be willing to take it to the streets. We have to be willing to take it to the courtrooms and we definitely have to be willing to take it to the ballot box around these issues.
More importantly, moreover, I would say that folks who consider themselves allies or accomplices of the Black community who are not Black need to look at moments like this and not pick and choose on when they're supposed to tap in and be in deep alignment with Black communities. I'm not trying to be provocative when I say that this act is racist. This is what racism is: Racism is the intersection of discrimination and power. When you're seeing direct racial or racist intent on the part of someone who's in political power, for those people that consider themselves people of good conscience, people who have fortitude, then it's your job to step up and take power back. The elections should have consequences for these folks. Folks should not be able to walk around feeling empowered enough to take advantage of the positions that they've acquired—positions that they've got because they've been elected—and do this to people.
Anoa Changa: It seems like it takes a lot of consistent little steps, or smaller actions and wins, to be able to topple this. Whether it's getting new people elected into office or pushing forward amendments like Amendment 4, or shifting legislation. What are some of the things that y'all are working on, that helps secure democracy for folks, but also shifting and changing for the better for all of our communities?
Dwight Bullard: The work is hard, the work is long, the work is arduous. But if you stay consistent then ultimately, you'll get positive change. It's important for people to invest in that. I think, unfortunately, because we live in a world that is oftentimes dictated by instant gratification, folks get enamored with this idea that if I do enough internet clicking, if I send enough tweets, that that is going to be the change. Change requires a little more deliberate work than that. It requires you to consistently have to engage in these battles. If you individually cannot be a part of that incremental movement, then you have to make sure you're recruiting more and more people to stand in your place. That's the work we're aiming to do at Florida Rising. We want to be a political home for folks who want people to engage in our political education.
We got to think about this, whether it is women's suffrage, whether it is the Black Civil Rights movement, whether it's the gay rights movement—there was a time and place where all these movements did not have the benefit of being able to speak out loudly and proudly about wanting to make change. A time when people could be killed, people could be arrested, people could be tracked by the government. And that's not to say that all that is over. But now, we live in a space where there's a multitude of organizations out there that are working on every issue, every facet of everything that anyone could imagine.
We have a responsibility as individuals to seek those organizations out. See who's out there doing the work around the thing that you deem important for your life. Whether that is voting rights, clean air, clean water, indigenous rights, whether it is LGBTQ plus rights—whatever the case may be, there are organizations working out there to make that change. And again, all that is a Google search away—who's doing the work in my community around X. You can look that up, find out what they're doing, see what they're about, and get involved. Like I said, it doesn't have to be about you dedicating hours upon hours every day or every week to this organization. You can find a lane in the simplest way possible to make it possible.