Two years ago, the world of electoral organizing was shaken by the power and determination of Black- and Brown-led movements across the South and midwest. Against all odds—in the middle of a global pandemic, racial justice uprising, and economic struggle—people showed up in the 2020 election.
Recognizing the importance of that moment in the 2020 election, Scalawag hosted a series of conversations geared toward informing Southern voters about some of the issues complicating an already hairy election on and off the ballot. We also spoke with organizers to find out more about how people were moving the needle on behalf of impacted communities across the region.
There is a long history of organizing and resilience in the Southern states, and we wanted to know more about how this new generation of organizers in North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana were building for a future for all.
The idea behind As the South Votes has always been to explore deep conversations beyond superficial horse race-style politics, in order to actually engage with the conditions and issues impacting our communities.
In this first episode of our 2022 podcast, we hear from Arekia Benett and Velvet Johnson of Mississippi Votes, an intergenerational organization cultivating a culture of civic engagement and political empowerment in impacted communities across their state.
Arekia and Velvet share that as an organization, Mississippi Votes focuses on the issues that impact the communities they serve year-round—not just during the six to eight weeks of an election cycle when a particular candidate needs everyone's vote.
"After the 2016 election cycle, a group of college students started researching voting trends across the state of Mississippi," Velvet said. "And 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 lived lives along the lines of what it means to be marginalized."
Since 2018, the organization expanded its youth programming and registered over 30,000 new voters. Velvet said that organization has increased its electoral engagement by six percent each cycle.
Velvet also shares an overview of some of the different programs the organization has developed and the opportunities for young Mississippians to get involved. While some of their programmatic focus is about connecting with college students, the team at Mississippi Votes recognizes the importance of engaging young people who cannot be found on college campuses.
Mississippians, like all organizers, have had to adjust and adapt during the pandemic as well. COVID-19 and lackluster government response rocked everyone to their core—but it also exposed many of the inequities that we already knew existed, pushing our friends, neighbors, and loved ones to the brink. During this period, Mississippi Votes chose to deepen relationships with service providers and evaluate what it meant to be involved in mutual aid work as a part of their organizing. The group now provides childcare for their events as part of their promise to make sure people are still taken care of even after the election cycle.
"How do we take care of folks like, we can't just be asking people to come to meetings and hear about our fancy plans, and using all of our fancy jargon if we're not invested in the place?" Arekia said. "We've been intentional about voter education in a way that makes sense for people and what's happening on the on a very human level for them and their life."
It is important to note that while Mississippi Votes and other groups were grappling with the COVID-10 pandemic in early 2021, Jackson, Mississippi, and surrounding Hinds County have faced multiple water system disruptions. Since our interview with Arekia and Velvet, Jackson has been again devastated by a water crisis the result of years of disinvestment by a state government that would rather see the capitol city become a desert than an oasis.
Mississippi Votes has been a part of a collaborative effort, alongside the People's Advocacy Institute and several other organizations, to provide mutual aid for folks in need during these crises. Through it all, the group is still finding ways to connect the issues and conditions that are happening with policy and the ways in which decision-making is being done for people who do not see themselves represented in electoral politics.
The hallmark of the work done through Mississippi Votes is engaging young people in building collective power and opportunity. It is no surprise to see the team showing up at this moment as well.
That's what groups like Mississippi Votes have been doing across the country—finding points in which they can disrupt the status quo and make a way for their community to engage and thrive.
There is a vibrancy and determination in their voices and resilience. No matter what people on the outside may think they know about Mississippi, they know nothing until they have walked those streets and driven those roadways with the likes of Velvet and Arekia.
In this season of As The South Votes, Scalawag and Anoa Changa are teaming back up to talk about what's working, what's not, and what lessons Southern organizers have learned in their efforts to make the region we love a more just place.
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