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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.
The saying goes that everything is bigger in Texas. But bigger doesn't always mean better—especially when it comes to the state's outsized attempts to control voting rights, abortion access, and the everyday lives of trans youth. While the latest of these right-wing attempts have captured the nation's attention, these policies are just one step in long and well-planned attacks on marginalized communities
Those marginalized communities—non-white people—will soon make up the majority of the population in Texas. That's why organizing in the state is important for the emerging majority to build an inclusive and representative Democracy at the state level, Brianna Brown, co-executive director of the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), said. Founded in 2009 and anchored in Dallas, Harris, and Bexar Counties—three of the largest population centers in the state—the organization builds community engagement from the ground up.
According to Brown, TOP has reached close to 6 million unique Texas voters so far, emphasizing outreach to Black and Latino Texans. A fifth-generation Texan, Brown cites the foundational experiences of her family and upbringing for how she thinks about building opportunities in the Lone Star State.
TOP's approach helps people understand how to engage beyond showing up at the ballot box.
The Texas Organizing Project is a membership-based organization boasting approximately 285,000 members across the state, committed to expanding power and political access for working class communities of color.
Texas has been trending toward an emerging majority of non-white people. TOP seeks to build coalitions between Black and Latino communities in Dallas, Bexar, and Harris Counties to strengthen relationships and expand participation in the Democratic process locally and as a part of statewide campaigns.
How they do it:
Targeted organizing focusing on three major county areas within the state, instead of trying to organize across the entire state. Texas is massive, and a targeted approach helps for building deeper connections.
Leveraging down ballot races like judicial elections, district attorney and city council to build support for democratic engagement beyond major election cycles.
Helping community members gain seats on governmental boards and committees as a way of building sustained engagement in the Democratic process and providing training for such leadership.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Brianna Brown: A couple of different things over the course of my life landed me back in Texas doing work around organizing. That's been the core of the work that I've done—organizing around health care, organizing around immigration rights, organizing around good public schools, organizing around legal reform—all roads really do lead to organizing as a path of transformation, and a path to dream. So I've been with the Texas Organizing Project for almost a decade now. It's an amazing opportunity every day to bring together a passion, and somehow it's my vocation. I certainly appreciate what a privilege that is.
Texas Organizing Project
Anoa Changa: It seems like Texas, and certain legislators and elected officials in Texas, take the challenge and go big, right? Like they say, everything is bigger in Texas. It just seems like when it comes to trying to suppress the vote, or restricting abortion access, and possibly even ending Roe, Texas is taking that challenge—or certain factions in Texas are taking that challenge—in the wrong direction. I'm curious, how is the Texas Organizing Project engaging in communities to address some of these pressing concerns that have not newly-arisen, but have stepped up to a new level of repression of rights at the state level?
Brianna Brown: We're the largest grassroots organization in Texas. We have almost 300,000 members and supporters across the state. That's folks who might have knocked on their door during election season, or they might have come out to a town hall or signed a petition online—folks who have a relationship with our organization.
We are a membership organization, which means that ultimately, our membership is who we're accountable to, and who we're working alongside.
Our folks are directly impacted by the issues that we organize around: immigration reform, legal reform, health care justice, housing justice, education justice, climate work, and economic justice work. We are anchored in the most densely-concentrated, most densely-populated counties, with Black folks and Latinos. Our theory of change is about linking the fate of Black folks and Latinos as the pathway to transforming Texas and transforming this country. Our young people are saddled with student loan debt. They are formerly incarcerated reverends. They are abuelas raising grandkids and aunties raising grandkids. We are dreamers in every sense the word—dreamers who are undocumented, and dreamers that are really holding a vision for something that we don't see right in front of us.
Our counties are as big as battleground states. So, for instance, if we win something around legal reform—which is a fight that we've been involved in in Harris County for quite some time, where we want bail reform on misdemeanor charges—that means that 4 million people instantly get to take advantage of not being locked up. The impact is that 4 million people, through organizing through a legal strategy, are able to go home, take care of the kids, go to work in the morning, and in a lot of ways, keep it moving. So it's not lost on us at all, the turf that we're working in, because it's so massive.
To date, TOP has reached around 6 million unique Texas voters. "Our strategy, whether we are doubling down in one of our counties to win a district attorney's race or to win a county commissioners' race, all center on the idea that we need to expand the electorate—we need to expand the amount of people that are going to polls and voting."
Texas has 254 counties, the most counties in any state in the country. We need a really big strategy to transform the way democracy works. What we say at TOP is that we fight with two fists to change how democracy works. On one fist is people power, and on the other fist is political power.
We always say that our real work starts the day after the election, when the cameras are gone. The real work begins when we hold both the institution and the elected accountable to the people. That's when we really do roll up our sleeves and get in deep strategy with our communities about how to win on issues that you can really see the impact of, that you can feel in your everyday.
[This work] is overlaid on a state that has really been ground zero for the right-wing agenda for the last 30 years. The last fight that we had in the Texas legislature in the session in 2021, one of their centerpieces was passing voter suppression legislation that had been copied and pasted from other right-wing states, especially in the South. That is their strategy. They have a playbook. And we have a playbook too.
One of their ethos is really that if they're not winning, you've got to change the rules of the game. And they were successful in passing voter suppression laws that we've been able to see the recent impact of in 2022. The intention of those voter suppression laws was realized.
Anoa Changa: What are some of the challenges with what you have seen as far as the increase in population amongst Latino and Black Texans representation-wise, but how that wasn't necessarily reflected and how the maps are being drawn in Texas?
Brianna Brown: To me, it's really instructive, right? The right are delivering on issues that excite their base, and get their base devoted to go to the ballot box and vote. This year, in 2022, there is a governor's race. And the work that we've been doing for the last dozen dozen years was really building towards our Texas For All—the thought that we would have the ability to win this governor's race and elect a progressive. That's a vision that we've been holding on to for the last decade, organizing around, building the infrastructure to realize, setting the stage for us to harness all the momentum and win big.
Texas is one of the most restrictive states surrounding access to the ballot box. "We already had voter purges. We already had massive closing of polling locations. We already had voter ID laws. We already had misinformation campaigns around how formerly incarcerated people can vote around just the voting process in general. We already had one of the most restrictive mail in ballot requirements in the country. They put voter suppression on steroids."
We've had to try to figure it out in real time. We just had our Texas primary on March 2, and we are seeing the impacts of the voter suppression laws passed in 2021. Almost 13 percent of ballots cast across the state—millions of ballots cast across the state—were rejected. Those kind of numbers start to really impact the results of an election. So I think there's a little bit of scurrying on our side to understand, "Okay, what is the specific defense we're going to have to play to ensure that our folks can determine for themselves who we want to elect?"
The experiment that we're always involved in is figuring out, on a city and county level, how we're electing folks that build the democracy we want to see. And that means that the people that we're able to elect on the city and county level, they most likely look like us. And they definitely share our values.
A lot of the things that happened in the 2021 state legislature was revenge. In Harris County, which is the largest county in Texas—it's 4 million people strong—in 2018, we were influential in electing Lina Hidalgo to county judge. For the quick bumper sticker of who she is: She was a 27-year-old immigrant Latina, who no one saw winning that race, who in fact, did ultimately win that race. With her being in office, there was an increase in the Harris County Elections budget, from being a few million dollars to $30 million. Innovations like drive-through voting and 24 hour voting centers came from that. And then you turn around and you see like the state legislature, with their voter suppression laws that were passed, they target those things specifically—things that help expand the electorate. In particular, targeting of Black folks and Latinos, of folks who are working third shift and want to vote but can't vote in the time that polling locations are open, or of folks who in the time of COVID had real concerns about their health and safety.
See also: How Georgia and Texas organizers are reimagining the culture of voting
I think one of the ways that we continue to hopefully inspire folks to continue to participate is electing people at the city and county level, that are implementing real policy reforms that change our lives that change the way we are in relationship to the government. We have some real meaningful case studies of that, with the work that we've done in Harris County, in Dallas County, and in Bexar County.
There is this kind of scurrying defense that we're going to have to do to make sure that folks can access the ballot box, which means they can go to the polls and vote for the person that reflects their values. Then we know what has worked. And how do we continue to scale that? How do we continue to invest in that? And how do we continue to protect that?
We just had our Texas primary. So we'll continue to do the work to have really great organizing conversations with people about elections at people's doorsteps. That was a huge centerpiece of our outreach program before the pandemic, and it will continue to be now too, so we are gearing up to do that again. We're talking to voters who, traditionally, the campaigns or our parties are not talking to: Folks that have chosen to opt out, or folks that for whatever reason are structurally disenfranchised. Our organizing doesn't stop.
This series is made possible with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.