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The Electoral Justice Project Is Seeking Black Liberation and Political Transformation

It will be the biggest Black political renaissance.

People carry signs and march at a Black Lives Matter protest in Seattle, Washington, on April 15, 2017. (Photo: Jason Redmond / AFP / Getty Images)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now nearly a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 106th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, the co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center, and Jessica Byrd from Three Point Strategies and one of the lead organizers for the Electoral Justice Project. They discuss how the newly launched Electoral Justice Project seeks to address the daily hardships of Black people while simultaneously organizing around elections.

Sarah Jaffe: I want to start off looking back at 2017, which was “The Year of Trump,” but also the year of some pretty impressive victories for movement-aligned candidates and movements, particularly in the South. What were some of the lessons that were learned last year? What were some of the victories that were particularly exciting?

Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson: It takes a lot of intersectional cross-issue, cross-frontline organizing inside and outside of election cycles to make sure that we are able to win some of the victories that we have been able to win in the South. I think that it required lots of folks committed to political education through popular education. It required a conversation about governance inside of and outside of elections.

I think we saw really, really amazing collaborative work between folks who are building movements around formerly and currently incarcerated people having a right to vote. Some of the things like [Pastor] Kenny Glasgow and the Ordinary People Society did, or folks really focusing on Black women voters and Black voters in general … connecting issues of housing to why it is important to elect people that care about you.

I think that … we have seen people, through the Southern Movement Assembly, having conversations about governance from how to build people’s democracy. I think we’re starting to see some of the fruits of that labor.

I don’t think many people in the region were surprised at the rise of Trump and white supremacy in its most overt form. I think we even called it, to some degree. I think that these wins aren’t a response to Trump. I think in some ways they are related, but even more, it is just the long-haul work that Southerners have been doing to resist white supremacy and white nationalism and to say that we are better than this. It is really wonderful to see some of this work starting to come to fruition.

Jessica Byrd: I also think in addition to all of the things that she mentioned that create a context and a soil that makes victories possible, I also think on top of that, primaries really matter. Where Black people, where low-income folks, where non-traditional leaders, where folks that are inspiring us right now, like trans folks and folks that are running and able to win … because we are truly engaging in the primary process at the local level and we are engaging in a conversation around our values and around who we truly believe who should be at the table and thinking about transformative public policy.

The Movement for Black Lives is calling for what we have always deserved and not just what we would concede to.

I think that is really important, because oftentimes primaries make people really uncomfortable; but, in particular, Democratic primaries are where candidates who have been largely left out of the system have to engage in that battle in order to ever even access to an elected political seat. I think that 2017 really showed us that there can be a lot of excitement; new folks with better, more radical ideas can get elected…. But that can’t happen unless we get really comfortable with the way that the battle feels, with the way that the election feels. I think that we have to get really comfortable with that if we want to continue to see this type of radical change happen at the ballot box.

We have seen the real serious crackdown on voting rights in recent years, around voter ID. It’s not like gerrymandering is new, but it has gotten quite intense. One thing that played an important role in a couple of elections was re-enfranchising formerly incarcerated people. Before we talk about specific elections or anything like that, talk about the terrain on which we are even having elections.

Byrd: This part of elections that I think we talk about the least is the real structural barriers in accessing democracy. Right now, our democracy is really an aspirational one versus one that we are actually finding the fruits of. What happens as we attempt to continue to access it more and more is that there are more barriers put in place for us to fully participate. When I say “us,” I mean nearly everyone but white men who own land and have a college degree, etc. Those laws largely were passed as folks were gaining access to democracy and access to voting and elected leadership and finding ways to make their voices heard in our electoral system. Part of what the movement has to engage in, as well, is removing those barriers.

Places like Florida and Alabama and Georgia and parts of California have really taken on rights restoration, ensuring that incarcerated folks can vote as just one basic step to several to achieve the aspirational democracy that people so often talk about. For the Electoral Justice Project, we intend to do much, much more, and engaging in places in the South where we are able to not only work in partnership with folks who have been doing this for a long time, but also to make that an intersectional issue.

What we know is that rights restoration is pretty bipartisan, that there are folks across political parties, across political ideologies who have been kept out of our system. That is one way to organize and to talk about issues without getting lost in some of the binaries that our DC electoral system would like us to get caught up in.

Henderson: I think that what has become ever more real in the Southern-specific context is that even with the achievements of Black liberation movements before us — specifically around voting rights and civil rights — that we deserve more than what policy ever gave us. I think that the Movement for Black Lives is really pushing both in the Electoral Justice Project and through the Vision for Black Lives policy platform, calling for what we have always deserved and not just what we would concede to.

We are seeing more and more people experimenting in what self-determined governance looks like inside and outside of systems, including elections.

That looks like demanding even more protections for folks that are exercising their right to vote as one particular form of participation and building people’s democracy. It is not the only tactic, but it is definitely one that we don’t have the luxury to ignore, especially with working-class Black people, especially in places that tend to be more disenfranchised — whether because you are a formerly or currently incarcerated person. Alabama, again, is another case study — people who have never been convicted of a crime that are literally not being allowed to vote. We saw folks fight and win protections for those folks and over 10,000 formerly and currently incarcerated people registered to vote in this last election.

I think we are seeing people actually step up and talk about what the self-determined governance looks like inside and outside of structures that exist. I think Louisiana is another case study of folks that are like, “If we are going to say that voting is a tactic that our folks should be participating in, then why aren’t we making it accessible to people?” Whether it be same day registration, whether it is through making sure we are doing intentional voter education work, and really being able to identify candidates regardless of their political affiliation that actually would want to serve our people. We should get to dictate that.

We are seeing more and more people experimenting in what self-determined governance looks like inside and outside of systems, including elections. I think folks in Alabama, folks in Louisiana [and] Jackson, Mississippi, and our comrades there are really giving a play by play of experiments that might be models in other places. I feel really excited about that.

Tell us about the launch of the Electoral Justice Project and the plans for it.

Byrd: … I have been in electoral politics for the last 15 years. In 2014, I participated with my personal hat on in protest and uprising after the murder of Michael Brown in St. Louis, Missouri. I was asking myself about how electoral politics could be a meaningful tool for the movement as I watched the movement grow, as I watched my friends become visible leaders, as I put my life on the line and watched lots of others do the same thing.

Starting Three Point Strategies was an attempt to answer some of those questions. Could we create a bridge between electoral strategy and movement vision? Was it actually possible, or was our system just way too broken, way too exclusionary to do that? Over the course of these last three years, I started to realize that while our system absolutely is broken and that there are very real structural barriers in the path to participation, there is also hope and a lot of self-determination and being able to participate on our own terms and in our own way. Along that journey, I was working on a mayoral campaign in St. Louis, Missouri, for Tishaura Jones and I met Kayla Reed, who had been on the frontlines of organizing in Ferguson, Missouri, since August 9, 2014. She had been able to translate a lot of that frontline energy into a very real viable field program for Tishaura — who folks in St. Louis really felt like was a movement candidate, was one of the first movement candidates really in the country to come out and say, “I am running because of this uprising. I am running to represent Black people and to really challenge the police.”

Kayla and I then began working together and building out the idea of this project. We officially launched in October and it intends to do three things. We want to build a political home for Black people across the country who feel like there isn’t a place to actually dream and talk about transformative public policy. We intend to provide a movement help desk [for] anyone who wants to engage in electoral political work where they live across the country. Right now, we have a listserv of 15 Black political operatives who are down to answer questions about how to write a voter engagement plan, what is legally allowed to engage in elections, etc. We are really excited that that gives us the opportunity to go really wide and to provide services to as many people as possible.

Then, this month … we are officially launching the Electoral Justice League, which will be led by Rukia Lumumba and myself. It is an intensive political institute for electoral organizers. There are going to be 20 people. The application is going to go live at the end of this month. What that is an attempt to do is to go really deep in 20 different places on 20 specific issues that movement organizations want to lead on.

Then, lastly, we just had the part of our launch that we called Black November. Black November was an attempt to let people know we are in the game for electoral justice. We essentially put out a call for any Black person across the country who wanted to hold a town hall on what it would mean to engage in elections in a radical movement-aligned way. We had town halls in November in every single region of the country. We actually had more in the South than anywhere else. We engaged thousands of people in a conversation about what their visions were in terms of electoral politics where they lived. Right now, we are in the process of creating a really beautiful political map that includes all of the political opportunities that people are engaging in, the issues that people want to work in, and how they can get connected to each other so that we truly are a movement as we move toward November.

Talk about how this focus on these trainings and all of this will connect up to the work that has been done already around things like the Vision for Black Lives policy platform and the connections with movement organizing that is going on outside of the electoral arena.

Henderson: I think that what we found in the Movement for Black Lives is that when our ancestors and elders said, “By any means necessary,” they meant by all the means. If we are going to be pushing for transformative public policy that will move us a little bit closer to freedom and liberation in our lifetime, then we have also got to be able to have some sort of say over the folks that are the legislators, that are the people that are controlling budgets, etc. I think we see it as an alignment with multi-tactical, multi-ideological strategy. I definitely think that some people are going to get down with policy, some people are going to get down with direct action, some people are going to get down with the organizing, some people are going to get down with electoral strategy or multiple tactics. We are not purists.

We do think it is going to require us to have some level of expertise in a multitude of sectors and be able to build the kind of progressive movement that will get Black people free…. I think that is something that I haven’t seen really on a national level in my lifetime. I think that to see people doing that with such intentionality about local people leading their work, about making sure we are doing the sort of political education necessary to fill the gaps of where our knowledge is. I think it is really exciting to have seen thousands of people registered for calls, hundreds of people across the region and across the country really come together across difference in their front lines, but all of the unity about building a political home where Black people feel welcome is really exciting to me.

When you show up for people on a daily basis, they will be more ready to fight with you when you really need them.

I think it is really, really critical that these tables be in relationship with each other and we are excited about continuing to build the structure for that to happen.

Byrd: We are in this time where, through radical visions that we see … many of us believe in and are hoping for a world that we live without prisons, without cages, that we hope we live in a world where everyone truly has access to housing and a place to sleep and enough food to eat — really basic things that feel really far away right now. In order to achieve anything that looks like that, we need a movement in the millions, in the many, many millions. Part of what electoral organizing provides us the opportunity to do is talk to our people and that is what we intend to do. We are not going to make any false promises. I promise, and I have promised everyone who we are working with, that I won’t make any false promises about what electoral politics can provide in the short term.

But, what I do think that it can provide in the long term is the ability to have said that we truly talked to our folks, that we know what they want, that we know what their lives are like, that we are engaging with them by calling them up on the phone and knocking on their door and going to the bus stop where they get on the bus, and going to the train station, and truly thinking about their every single day [and their] lives right now in the present. My hope for electoral work and my hope for 2018 and then for 2020 is that we … can mitigate harm for our people and reduce the amount of harm that is being brought to them by this administration. I hope that we can provide them some hope by electing people who truly love them and are willing to say that out loud.

Then, also, I hope that what we do is begin to till the soil so that when we are truly ready for this revolution that we are fighting for, that we actually have the people that can do it. I think that when you show up for people on a daily basis, that they will be more ready to fight with you when you really need them. That is my commitment to this project and I think that is this project’s commitment to Black people.

What are some of the things you heard from folks in the town halls, and are hearing since you launched, that they are interested in working on this year?

Byrd: The town halls were so beautiful. We are in kind of a synthesis time now and the folks who are working on this project are all meeting in two weeks to officially move into the next phase. The way that we have set up the town halls is that it would be a place of deep dreaming and visioning. Black people deserve so much righteous anger right now and they deserve to be pissed off with this administration and at all of the shitty leadership across the country that says that it represents them and doesn’t.

Sometimes what we miss in movements, because we think so far ahead, is that people just want a way to fight back.

But what we wanted was to create a space where people could come and say, “This is what I want my community to look like.” There were some places where they produced a brand-new budget for their city that completely gets rid of police, where they were able to dream about a new park in their community or an after-school program or providing meals to every single elder in their community three times a day. There was really cool visioning that was happening as people were engaging in what their communities would look like if they are being led by someone who truly loved Black people.

Then, in other ways, people came up with tangible plans around what they wanted to work on in 2018. We saw a lot of rights restoration, people who wanted to fight for ballot initiatives that ensure that incarcerated people could vote. There are also places where people wanted to un-elect a horrible racist district attorney or prosecutor. Those were all things that were coming up across the country. Mostly we just got a lot of excitement around people being together. Sometimes what we miss in movements, because we think so far ahead, is that people just want a way to fight back. They want a way to feel like they are a part of something that feels like there isn’t this huge DC power that … has effects over their lives and they don’t actually get to do anything about it. So, we got tons of emails and notes and messages online of people that were just like, “Thank you for giving me a place to go to talk with somebody and to just say how angry I am and how hurt I am. I want to fight back.” That also feels really good, too, for people to be building community in which they can truly be resilient and resist what this current political time looks like and feels like.

This is going to be an election year and we are going to be hearing a lot about elections. What and where are y’all looking this year for campaigns that are going to be exciting, places where people are really pushing something transformative?

Byrd: I feel like I am going to answer you in a couple of ways. One thing … I want to be really clear about, is this is in no way … a project of the Democratic Party. At all. We do not exist in a red to blue/blue to red binary. That is not what this project is. This project is not in service of a party. It is not in service of a particular organization. It is not a special project for Black people that people just get to pour money into and then say that they did Black people stuff. That is not what this is.

This is around truly building a ground-up, localized center of gravity on the things that Black people want to do where they live. That means a few things for us. One is that we have made a commitment to our movement … to do very real Southern work. Our organizing program has committed that at least 10 of the organizers in that 20-person cohort are going to be placed in the South. What that also means, too, is that these issues are going to be locally sourced by our movement family and organizations who work there.

That is a process that we are going through right now … to actually talk with all of our organizations and to say, “What do y’all need capacity to do? If you could have an organizer work on something every single day for the next 10 months, what would you have them work on?” We are building a map of both issue-based campaigns, as well as candidate campaigns where we are legally allowed. Also, if we can just create a beautiful voter mobilization project that make people feel excited and connected and also wins on a host of issues, then we also want to add capacity in those ways, as well. We are going to truly attempt to be as many places as possible, and in 20 places where we are going to go very, very deep.

Henderson: I think, as per usual, energy is going to get stopped up around the elections…. I think that Southern organizing is going to continue to be the thing that saves this country. Which is not a new practice. “As [the South] goes, [so] goes the nation” is not an opinion, it is a fact that we have concrete evidence for.

… I feel incredibly blessed the Movement for Black Lives is also a part of that Southern organizing tradition more and more. I think we are going to do our work. I think we are going to provide direct service for our people. I think we are going to come up with organizing campaigns and build alternatives while simultaneously exercising our power and flexing a little visionary muscle in the systems that already exist while challenging them to do right by our people. I think we are going to continue to build the world that we want outside of these systems that have never been good for us, while also challenging power in the systems as they exist right now. I think because of that, it is going to create entry points that all of our people can get down with and build the mass movement that our people have always deserved, and I feel incredibly lucky to get to be a part of it.

I don’t know that I feel like we are going to be shocked by anything that happens. I think that what we are going to see is that the Movement for Black Lives is going to keep doing good work to keep saving Black people’s lives. I think we are going to see a Southern freedom movement that keeps saving everybody because it is being led by Black folks like the Movement for Black Lives. That is something to call home about and be really excited about, I think.

Byrd: One thing that we keep saying is that the day after election day, that we are going to wake up to this beautiful headline that says, “The Movement for Black Lives sparks the largest Black political renaissance in the last 50 years.” Part of the reason that that is so motivating is that we truly believe that we have everything that we need to be building an independent Black political core that really motivates and inspires people — but also, when they look around their day-to-day lives, they are like, “This is actually changing my life. This is actually making my life better.” That is really the point of this project.

I think it is going to give people something to feel excited about, versus something that we are only doing because it is a crisis and we need to strap up and save each other.

Do I think that in 2018 that we are going to win everything everywhere? Maybe not. But what I do think is that for one of the most clear times in history, we actually have the ability to talk specifically about what Black people need, what Black people deserve and the way that Black people should be led. This project intends to do that every single day of this election cycle. I think we are going to do it in a way that makes even you feel not tired of hearing about it, because it is so good and so delicious and so inspiring and so centered on the real stories of what is happening in the community that it is going to make wins later on possible that we might not have even been able to dream of.

Henderson: … Our people’s frustration with all the systems that exist, that have harmed us in the past or not served us, and how that gets lumped into all things electoral — I think will feel different because this is different. This is not about some single party only talking to us around an election cycle and … telling us what we can be concerned about and not listening to, what we are saying we are concerned about. This has been an exercise from top to bottom in really listening to what the most marginalized in our communities really feel. Listening to Black working-class people talk to each other about what they want and then synthesizing that and helping to support the building of the capacity to be able to get what they want regardless of the tactic.

I think that is going to mean that this particular round of work includes elections, but is also very much bigger than that. I think it is going to give people something to feel excited about, versus something that we are only doing because it is a crisis and we need to strap up and save each other. I think that is something that is really, really powerful. I think that is literally the important everyday kind of life-saving work that base-building does. I think that as much as this is an electoral project … what is exciting to me is that this is also about people building their own power for those decisions about stuff that happens to them every day. That, to me, is a radical revolutionary act.

I think that is the kind of movement we are trying to build and I think that we would be remiss not to have folks like the [Electoral Justice Project] squad helping to support our people that are telling us that this is a tactic that they have to exercise if they are going to be able to survive the next four years. I think, to me, the reason that I don’t feel exhausted by conversations about elections is because we are literally seeing that when we meet our people where they are at, give them the resources to build the capacity to get to where they want to go, that we can win. Our people, I think, are thirsty for models of how to win right now.

How can people get involved in the project?

Byrd: They can text EJP to 91990 and then they will be added to our email list and text list and they will get all of the updates about this project. Then, they can also visit and check out our website, what our vision is for 2018, as well as sign up to be a part of this project.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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