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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.
Mississippi is one of the Blackest states in the nation with some of the most anti-Democratic policies. While the state may not have the same national political profile as nearby Georgia, the fight for increased political power and equity is just as important. The stakes are just as high in Mississippi as anywhere in the South—especially among younger voters. Organizing and mobilizing voters ages 18-35, Mississippi Votes is committed to engaging communities through a holistic approach—one that seeks to partner directly with impacted communities, instead of talking at them.
Mississippi also has a rich tradition of organizing for equal participation in Democracy. Led by Arekia Bennett, Mississippi Votes builds on the legacy of organizers like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, and the young SNCC organizers who organized for voting rights in the region.
Bennett and Mississippi Votes Programs Manager Velvet Johnson describe the micro-interventions and incremental solutions utilized to dismantle systemic barriers to access and lay a foundation for further advancement.
Taking on well-funded political machines requires steady engagement. Mississippi Votes uses a year-round engagement and community building model to build the momentum for longer term political shifts.
Their work is a case study in organizing young people, new voters and movement building to directly challenge practices that unduly burden free and fair participation in so-called American democracy.
Mississippi Votes is an intergenerational organization cultivating a culture of civic engagement and political empowerment in impacted communities across the state.
Moving Mississippi forward beyond the vestiges of Jim Crow, which continue to hold back progress in the state on issues ranging from healthcare and maternal mortality to fair political representation statewide.
How they do it:
Democracy captain and community ambassador programs. These trainings enable community members and students to develop the skills needed to be leaders and in the political realm.
Maintaining engagement and shifting culture for long term impact, and not just individual election cycles. While this may seem straightforward, the importance of consistency and helping community members see the connection between various aspects of the Democratic process helps build momentum—even in a so-called deep red state.
Building mutual aid practices into community organizing work became important during the COVID-19 pandemic—as well as the 2021 water crisis, which impacted the capital and several rural areas. Asking people to show up for meetings, voting, protests or at legislative hearings may ring hollow if folks are struggling and in need of immediate support. It doesn't require being a social service organization but does help with building trust and consistency with local residents.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Arekia Bennett: The public is intellectual about the political process in their own way—they have this understanding of how it works for and against them. But we've been able to expand how young people can see themselves as movers and shakers in the larger continuum around our work.
In 2020, we had to shift our programming—like everybody else did, right? We had to figure out how to be completely digital, and how to organize college students. A lot of our work is around young people on college campuses, and young people who don't have a particular educational background or whatever, and just trying to make sure that people are involved. It looked a lot like still making phone calls and still sending text messages, and having tons of volunteer cards and having tons of political education forms online. Virtually, one of the hiccups —if you know anything about Mississippi—is the digital divide. It's just hard for folks in the Mississippi Delta or like in rural parts of our state to reach and access information.
Now, we've got a deeper understanding. Our headquarters is in Jackson, Mississippi, which is the second congressional district, which is also the Blackest District, and which is where the only Black person representing Mississippi at a congressional level is our Congressperson. How do we expand and build outside of that? We've been doing some intense community building, we've hosted a couple of programs so that we could get community input. We have to build and design that in a communal way, with young people at the center of how we do that.
Anoa Changa: Could you contextualize a little bit about electoral justice and how it fits into how you work? It doesn't seem like it's just a "get out the vote," regular old traditional approach to politics.
Arekia Bennett: Part of the philosophy of our organization is that after an election cycle people, people come into Mississippi at the 16th hour, donate $10,000, and say like, "Alright y'all, get free!" They pay organizers $30 to canvass for 60 miles in neighborhoods across the Delta, or whatever it may be. There's no real investment in communities.
For our movement to actually work—and for democracy to work, the way that we envision democracy to work—is that you have to have a real investment in the people and the place in the context of the land that you are trying to move.
At MSV, where we've decided through the voter Empowerment Project, and through the youth civic engagement programs that we have, and obviously through our direct democracy work, is that legislatively, all of that serves a larger purpose outside of getting any one person elected. How do we change the minds of people who have the blood of Jim Crow stained into the fabric of their memory of what is possible in America? Or of what's possible in Mississippi? How do we change people's minds? How do we get into people's living rooms? How do we get into people's churches? How do we begin to have conversations that shift people's idea of what power is and what power they wield? Then it becomes a question of how we take care of folks. We can't just be asking people to come to meetings and hear about our fancy plans, using all of our fancy jargon, if we're not invested in the place, if we're not willing to teach and transform ourselves in the service of the work, as Mary Hooks would like to say.
After the 2016 election cycle, a group of college students started researching voting trends across the state of Mississippi. They found that there were over 350,000 eligible but not-yet-registered voters. Many of them were Black, many of them were young, and many live along the lines of what it means to be marginalized. Since 2018, Mississippi Votes has expanded their youth programming and re-registered over 30,000 new voters to date. They continue to engage the electorate by 6 percent higher every election cycle.
We've been intentional about our education in a way that makes sense for people and what's happening on a very human level for them and their lives. We provide childcare at our events, we make sure that people get paid equitably. If we ask them to be in the field for five hours a day, we're making sure that after the election cycle, people are still taken care of. We don't just drop them off like a bad habit after Mike Espy doesn't win. We want to still activate those people, and we want to still keep those people hopeful. We want to still make sure people have what they need to live their lives. We want to make sure that we're not just asking people to sign suffrage applications or people to come make phone calls with us when they can't feed their babies. We want to make a real investment in communities. And so for the lack of better words, like electoral justice isn't just about getting somebody elected. It's about changing the conditions of a community, so they can see themselves as viable to the political process. And while we are working within the confines of this system, we can move some things, but we can also have room to imagine something better.
Anoa Changa: I appreciate that. In terms of also thinking about how y'all are trying to expand beyond where there might already be a coalition of power-building happening. You just talked about some of the different programs, but what are some of the innovations or programs that you all have been growing?
Velvet Johnson: We have three programs within the organization. The first program, of course, I want to talk about is the youth civic engagement program. And the reason I say of course is because literally the organization was founded by young people, college students. Our ecosystem of leadership produces the next generation of civic leaders in Mississippi.
Within the youth civic engagement program, we have different fellowships. The first one is the Youth Advisory Council, which we started to engage with high school students—folks who are 16 years old—to get them in the process, and make sure that they're informed about what's going on in Mississippi. They're getting their community engaged, they're hosting voter registration drives in their community and with their peers, and within the school that they're in.
From there, we have a couple of college fellowships. One is the Democracy in Action Fellowship, which is a 10-month long fellowship extended to current college university students across the state. They're responsible for hosting forums and events that enlighten, empower, and engage their peers to not only register to vote, but to be informed about the political processes in their local governments. They host candidate questionnaires, and we do side-by-sides just for them to get more of what each possible elected official is advocating for.
The other college fellowship that we have is One Girl, One Vote. It centers young people that identify as women—and of course, when we say women, we mean trans, queer, gender non conforming. We teach them about policy, and how to create policy that puts them at the center of their everyday lives, and that affects them, and how to make their world better from their policy that they create.
Our Emerging Leaders Fellowship is a year-long program for people who have graduated college—or maybe they didn't go to college and have a non-traditional educational path—to become first time organizers. They have a Community Action Project, which they can either start an organization from, or the community or the community itself can adopt that community as a project that they do. From there, if they want to join our staff, they have that opportunity also. Our Voter Services Program holds our Up To Us campaign, which is a 16-week week voter registration, voter education, voter protection, and get-out-the-vote campaign led by Mississippi Votes. It is a nonpartisan effort to register and mobilize young Mississippians to vote in every election cycle.
Anoa Changa: Tell me more about your approach to working with young people. For example, this could be the first election where both my kids vote with me, but my son seems to think that voting doesn't matter. What is the conversation like between Mississippi Votes and younger people who are newly coming into the process?
Arekia Bennett: I think the unique part about our organization is that we are also the people we're talking to. We're not removed from this generation. Most of the folks who work at Mississippi Votes are millennials. The other half is Gen Z.
We are the people we're trying to organize. We are the people we're talking to. I think that unique edge in that conversation means that we're able to have more organic, genuine conversations—versus like, beating people with the mantra of like, "Oh, our ancestors died for this," which is obviously the truth, especially for folks in Mississippi. I think the relevance of your peer coming to you and saying "There's this thing on the ballot that is going to directly disenfranchise Black and brown folks. And it's called felony disenfranchisement," and starting a conversation from a place of where it hits home and going back and forth in conversation and doing it in a very organic way. That is the way that Mississippi Votes has been organizing young people. It's not to say that we don't run into folks who say, "Oh, my vote doesn't count," or like, "This doesn't matter. Why should I register? Nothing is changed."
Involving direct service organizations into their campaign work. "It's like meeting people where they are, not going into churches and being phony. The church is providing this opportunity, because they have the funding to talk about or to do a specific program in a different way."
If you're my niece, you think that Democrats are spicy Republicans. But what does this mean for you? I think the conversation for us shifts back into like policy and issues, versus party v. party and people running for office. That is where you get the 17 colleges and universities being very excited about a civic holiday, like national voter registration day—like students at Jackson State University, Millsaps College, Belhaven College, who cannot wait until September because they know that not only that we're bringing pizza to campus, but it's going to be a conversation that they get to lead. We are not talking at them about politics, but imbibing in them and talking with them about how we change the outcomes of elections to benefit the people in Mississippi.
Anoa Changa: You touched on a couple of different issues. What are some of the issues that y'all seeing that people are really concerned about? Whether it's leading up to this particular election cycle, or the year round work that y'all are already doing.
Velvet Johnson: People are really concerned about paying for health care. Another thing would be their loved ones losing the right to vote due to the state's 23 disenfranchising crimes, and just incarceration in general. We try to combat that with making sure we try to restore people's right back to vote, because that's literally 11 percent of the state's population. I believe we can really shift the landscape of Mississippi if those 23 disenfranchising crimes didn't exist anymore.
Arekia Bennett: Young folks are like everybody else—we don't live single issue lives. And in 2020, there was a need for us to redirect some of our work because of the uprisings, and because of the pandemic, to really talk more specifically and directly about climate change, and Black Lives Matter, and health care, and abortion access. So we launched our 501(c)(4), so that we could do some of that direct, direct issue based organizing. But in 2020, we started to get more feedback from young people about what our program should look like. Everybody said that young people care about climate justice, they care about abortion access—they care about all of the things that are the issues of their day. That kind of forced us to lean into figuring out what was possible within the organization. Our 501(c)(4) enables us to talk about climate justice, and enables us to talk about and take a more firm stance on criminal justice and education, etc.
Anoa Changa: Looking forward, people pay attention to presidential cycles, or they pay some attention to midterm election cycles. But what else is happening in terms of electoral and some of the other organizing work that you're all doing that is at the state or local level?
Arekia Bennett: Mississippi has an election every year. We don't get an off year, like a lot of folks, by design. But this particular year, and in 2021, there was a significant amount of social justice advocates coming together to figure out how we build a model or a political infrastructure that supports the progressive ideals of this day. How do we develop a base? We've been trying to work together and figure out how to cross pollinate our bases and activate people around all of these things.
We've been in exploratory mode, because we know that the rest of the country isn't looking at Mississippi as a battleground state, and they never have. But I think one of the things that we've been clear about not just in Mississippi Votes, but across our movement in Mississippi, is that in order for the rest of the country to experiment with democracy in a more clean way, Mississippi has to get it together. And so building those things, that is what we've been focused on, and what we're committed to.