Ahead of Election Season, LaTosha Brown Discusses Empowering Black Voters

Jan 20, 2020

Credit Elizabeth Gabriel / KLCC News

As election season approaches, minority groups may feel discouraged to go to the polls. KLCC’s Elizabeth Gabriel sat down with LaTosha Brown, the co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, to discuss the importance of community members using their right to vote.

Starting the “Get Out the Vote” Bus Tour

Question: Can you talk about the “Get Out the Vote” bus tour and your efforts to increase the black vote?

Brown: Okay. So, you know, we are really a power building organization. We don't say that we're a voting organization. We're a power building organization and what I mean by that is, many of the communities that we work with—they have really over the years—they've lost power. Some of them have lost control of their school board, their county commission. There’re all kinds of problems or issues in their community, and they should be engaged in that process. In the shaping of the policy that impacts them. And one way to do that is to get people engaged politically. To really use the power of the vote, so that people can actually get representative government and people that represent their interests in place. 

"In order to see something different, we've got to create something different."

And so, ultimately, we started the organization because we wanted to do that. That we were really getting frustrated and tired of just seeing candidates that didn't really come out of the community [or] come out of the interest of the community, but just said that they were running for office. It was almost—in many ways—it was feeling like a popularity contest. And so we wanted to see something different. In order to see something different, we've got to create something different. And part of that is, when we think about America and politics, more than 45% of the population don't vote. They don't even participate. How can you have a vibrant democracy when you don't have people participating in the process? And so we started this organization for a number of reasons.

Goals When Reaching Communities

  • One, it was to build independent black power throughout the south and throughout the states that we work in.
  • Two, it was to build this network of people to really think about issues, and be self-determined and think about how they can put people in office that represent their issue, but also how we can activate them in taking their community, and planning, and doing the policy around their communities for themselves.
  • And then the third piece is we really knew that in order to have a vibrant democracy, you really need grassroots organizations and neighborhoods [that are] strong.

Resources Provided to Communities

  • And so, part of what we've done with Black Voters Matter—what we do—is we provide capacity building support. And what does that mean? That means resources. Many of the organizations, we provide money for them and resources in the form of grants to do things like get out the vote, to educate voters on issues that are coming up. Also to have forums where they can actually talk about what's happening.
  • The second thing we do is we think about narrative shift. We know that what's really important is how people are perceived and put out in the media impacts those communities. We can look at certain headlines and you can almost tell the race of certain people in certain headlines, the way that some folks are fathers, and some people are described as thugs. And so we know that narrative is really important. So part of our work is really around narrative shift, that saying that people in the south have power, have a history of doing amazing work that has shifted this country, and that that work is continuing to happen.
  • And then the third thing, is that we actually build skills for those organizations so that they can expand themselves, so they can build their capacity. So wherever they are when we work with them, that over a course of a period of time, we want to see them stronger, have more resources, have more skills, and really be able to have a clear vision of what it is that they want to do to advance their community. 
    "2020 is not just about this election or this presidential election. This is really about people having power and having access to the tools so that they can express what it is that they see in their vision for their community."

Brown: I think so. I think so. I'm actually excited about this work. We started the organization in 2017, but really we've been doing this work for 25 years. This is a culmination of 25 years of political organizing, of doing strategic mapping, of doing fundraising. And my partner and I just decided to come together, put those pieces together and really be able to build this movement that could actually change the trajectory of our communities that really strengthen America—that ultimately strengthen America—and strengthens democracy. And I think that that's a conversation that we're not talking enough about. You know, 2020 is not just about this election or this presidential election. This is really about people having power and having access to the tools so that they can express what it is that they see in their vision for their community.

History of Communities Working to Gain Power

Question: How did community members lose power, and is this also a question of whether or not they had it in the first place?

Brown: I think that's an excellent question. When I think about that, you know, oftentimes when we're out registering people to vote, we'll run across people that say, ‘Well why should I vote? Cause they [are] gonna steal the election anyway.’ And so my position has always been, any decision that is going to be made about me, I feel like I should have some say so in it. Right? And so ultimately, I think this is really about having people to understand that they have to be self-determined. That power is not outside of ourselves. That power is actually within. And that as you stand in that power, then things beyond you shift. We saw that in Selma. In Selma, Alabama in 1965, there was a small group of people. If you look at power in the traditional sense of did they have the most money or did they have money? No. If you looked at them to see if they had government on their side at the time, no they did not. They didn't have policy on their side, they didn't have government, they didn't have resources on their side. 

"When we are loving each other and loving humanity and standing in that love, that that in fact is power."

 What they had though is they had a belief that their humanity had to be recognized and they not only transformed the circumstances for themselves, but they transformed the country. Matter of fact, they transformed the world. Places that I go, when I go to Brussels or when I go to South Africa, I'm constantly hearing people—when I say I'm from Selma—that talk about how inspired they were of the civil rights movement. So my point is, I think that oftentimes when we look at power, we look at it in this very narrow perspective around power is something around dominating someone, right? And not necessarily help people to understand that there's a greater power that when people work together, that is power. When people actually assert themselves and stand in being self-determined to create their future. That is power. That when we are loving each other and loving humanity and standing in that love, that in fact is power.

Empowering People to Vote
Okay. And you touched on this a bit. You said that you found it difficult for some people to want to register to vote. How do you get people, particularly black people, to register and have you noticed that certain age groups are more likely to register than others?

"In order for us to have something different, we've got to have a radical re-imagination and that we've got to assert and stand in our power and our vision to create something different."

You know, I think that young people are certainly, more suspect and more critical of the system. As they should be. I actually think that they bring a lot. I think their analysis is on. The truth of the matter is, there are some fundamental flaws in this system. And so, what our approach has been, is not to lie and not be honest. It is—yes, in fact, this is a deeply flawed system. But in order for us to have something different, we've got to have a radical re-imagination and that we've got to assert and stand in our power and our vision to create something different. I think what is a distinction for us, and possibly even other organizations, is that we're not trying to convince people to believe in this system. We're working to convince people or remind people to believe in themselves. How they engage in the system, right, can lead to power. And even in the Constitution it says, when your government no longer serves your interests, it is up to you to change it or to abolish it. And so my point is—that ultimately the focus for us—is the focus is on how do we get people to see their own worthiness? How do we get people to see their own vision for the future? How do we get people to think about as founders themselves, right? That ultimately this is their country, this is their community, and this is their neighborhood.

Question: When getting people to remember that, you all have this bus tour. Can you describe what the bus tour is and where it's going?

Brown: We have the blackest bus in America that we take all around the country. It's a beautiful bus that we take to the 11 states that we're working in primarily—that we go to these communities and it becomes a—you know—it's really fascinating. People are super, super excited. I'm telling you, anybody that's listening, y'all just need to Google the blackest bus in America and it will come up. You will see it. And you will understand why it's called that when you see it.

We have two values that we use the bus tours around—it’s love and power. Our belief is that we will be able to transform this country if we are going into communities and reminding them of the power of love, reminding them that they are love, and reminding them that the love that exists—that if we grow and we nurture that love for humanity, love for people who are struggling, love for our children—if that is shaping our policy, that we're going to see a better outcome.  And then power. Really think about power in a different kind of sense. Oftentimes people think about power and it's very dominating, negative. Most of the time, people think of power as something negative. And my partner loves to say, ‘Power is not a dirty word, right?’ So we have to really reframe and rethink about what power is. And so with those two values that we're pushing—love and power—we go around to different communities, we do a lot of hugging and singing and having pep rallies, and getting people inspired and motivated. But we also have listening sessions. We're talking to people to really hear what their issues are, what they're concerned about, and we're connecting and bringing groups together. So we use the bus.

[But] there's nothing magical in the bus except we think that we take a whole lot of love and a whole lot of power with us. And that that in itself is how we go from community to community. It becomes like a central organizing point for us. And so we've been able—we're actually going this weekend—on two tours. We're starting in Georgia and then we're going to South Carolina, but it's a really beautiful thing. I remember on the side of the bus, we have “black voters matter.” And we've got love and power as part of the messages. And I remember we were in Randolph County, Georgia in 2018 and there was an elder who was at the meeting I was at. And as we were walking out, she saw this big—and it's a big beautiful bus. She saw this big beautiful bus, and she said to me, she said, ‘Baby, does that bus say black voters matter?’ And I said yes ma'am, it does. Because we do. And she started crying. I know why she started crying. And so I think part of what has to happen is that we've got to give people hope that this isn't just about an election. This is about people's lives, right? And that it’s not just good enough for us to say—to treat people like they're just a number. ‘Just come and register to vote because you're just a number.’ I think it's really important for us to really let people know that we care and that we see their power and that we're willing to support them. And we've seen remarkable results. I like to tell people we’ve got receipts to show that it actually works.

Question: Whenever you go out and you're having these listening sessions, has anyone ever told you a story in which they just did not have the means to either register to vote or to actually go out and vote?

Brown: Oh, we hear that all the time. One of the things that we do different is, there are a lot of people that have done canvassing—which is door to door, going to door to door, talking to voters. And the time they find out that someone has a felony conviction or they're not registered to vote, they may walk over them. That's not our work. Our work is not just seeing you in terms of your values, your vote. Our work is we see your value in your humanity that, so every single person we talk to, we're talking to them about—we don't start with the framework of, ‘Oh well this election, if you don't vote for this person or that person.’ We start from the framework that it's not about the Democrats, is not about the Republicans, it's about you.

And we often say that when we're engaging them—first when they're saying that they don't believe in the system and they did this and they tried this and it didn't work—we don't argue with them. We listen. Oftentimes, people don't listen to folks. They're not crazy. Their experienced that they had, that's their experience. And so oftentimes just to listen and hear what the concern is, and then really be able to get them to make the connection. They said, ‘Well, I don’t want to vote because I just don't think it matters.’ And then I was like, well, what is it that you care about? And let's say there's a person that says, ‘Well, you know, what I care about is the school. They're closing the school down and such and such and such.’ I said, well, you know the school board makes that decision and the school board gets in position from voting. So that may be one way to help influence that process. Usually when we're helping folks to make the connection to something that matters to them, the light bulb goes off. It has a different kind of conversation because we named our organization “black voters matter” and not “black votes matter” because there are a lot of people that care about black votes, but don't care about black voters. And we care about the voters, we care about the people. And so ultimately, this isn't just about elections. We say I work as 365 days of the year. This work is really about what happens when you have a country—that the people in that country feel valued enough, that they feel powerful enough, that they believe and want to be a part of the shaping of their own destiny.

That's a power. Now that—and I envision it—now that will be the greatest country on Earth.

Question: What are the most issues people have had concerns with in these 11 states [that the bus tour visits]?

Brown: That's a good question. A couple of things. I think the—overwhelmingly in all of the communities that we go into—criminal justice reform. People are just, they've just had it. The criminal justice reform is important for a number of reasons. It has been an economic drain. It hasn't been a brain drain. We are literally taking, we're breaking families up. When one person gets incarcerated, there are six people that are impacted we know directly. That has an economic impact on a community. That has an emotional impact on the community. That even has a future impact on communities because now what we're doing is we're taking folks out of our communities, out of our families that have roles that they're loved.

"We've got to be more honest about how racism has been entrenched and has been the fundamental foundation of criminal justice in this system—in this country."

And over and over and over again, we're hearing that people are super—that we can't jail our way out of the problems that are happening in America. That we've gotta be more creative, that we've got to be more committed to a human rights agenda. That we've got to be more honest about how racism has been entrenched and has been the fundamental foundation of criminal justice in this system—in this country. So I like to remind people that folks need to understand that the police force was created for enslaved Africans. That ultimately the way that the police force came about, was is was slave patrols. That every white male over the age of 14 in the South, all had to have their own space and had to have their own shift of being a part of the slave patrols.  

That is the foundation of the criminal justice system in this country. And so we've got to unpack that. We've got to be honest and have the courage to really create something different so that all God's children can enjoy in the fruits of the labor of this country and really be able to make a contribution. Why would we not want every person to have the opportunity to make a contribution? Why would we not want every child to be raised with their, their parents or their loved ones? And I think we can shift this. That we will not be able to jail ourselves out of this. That ultimately something has to stop, something has to change, and we've got to figure out how we can support folks for the development of not just themselves, but the development of our entire communities.

Question: And then going off of that at LCCs MLK event and you're giving a speech titled, where do we go from here, community or chaos, what exactly would lead a community to chaos?

Brown: Uh, well, we're kind of there now. Ultimately, I do think that we're at the intersection of making the decision of, are we going to move America forward, or are we going to go backwards? The chaos that comes along with that is, it's amazing to me that even the conversations now—that all the conversations are in this partisan context. Who's Republican, who's Democrat? How about who's human? At the end of the day, I would expect—even what we're seeing on the border where there are children from Columbia and Peru and Mexico that are being locked in cages—I would expect just any decent human being to think that that's problematic. I would expect that any decent human being that has worked their lives and really has worked hard their lives to respect the fact that other people that work hard, should get paid a fair wage for their work. That's what I expect. I don't expect that to be in a context of a partisan framework. I expect that to be a different conversation. We've got to take that out.

And I raise that because I think that both parties in some ways have been equally responsible for this conversation getting hijacked in the context of which party is going to maintain power. This isn't about—nothing in the constitution says all the power to the parties. The constitution says we the people and that the power is supposed to go to the people. And if ultimately if that is to happen, we've got to shift the paradigm and have a different conversation around what is justice and what does justice look like, right? How do we really deal with racism and sexism and all those other things that keep us from tapping into the brilliance and the power of the people that are in this country and how do we form this more perfect union that literally we can get life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That's what I want. That's what I envision. That's my work.

And so I think ultimately, we're at a moment now of a moment of consciousness. That each of us have to ask ourselves, ‘What is it that we want?’ We've got to put aside, I even think we've got to put aside our identity politics. I think we've got to think, ultimately, what is going to advance humanity and what is the kind of world that we want to live in and leave behind for our children and their children's children and what will it take for us to get there.

Question: When having these conversations, what aspects of racism should people talk about in their neighborhoods in order to dismantle racism?

Brown: First of all, I think people have to be honest about racism. You know, one of my favorite references I think will be a good reference if I were to give people some tips on what they could do is, The New York Times did a series called the 1619 Project and they actually have a curriculum around that. There's been some controversy around it, but it was a credible historians and researchers and people who put these pieces together. And it gives a different perspective of how we've been taught American history.

America’s History of Racism

And so I think what is America's greatest problem? America's ignorance and it's denial. That on one handand there is ignorancenot because the information isn't available. There's an ignorance because I think we have bought into American exceptionalism. That in somehowbecause America is Americathat it doesn't have all these problems when we're seeing it. It's not by accident that when you deny people hundreds of years of being able to benefit from the fruit of their own labor, that those communities are economically disadvantaged. It’s not by accidentparticularly when we've seen that those kinds of policies to continue to happen where we've got a disproportional number of African Americans and people of color and incarcerated.

"It's not by accident that the Native Americans—the indigenous people whose land in which we all are sitting on right now—are now dealing with the highest suicide rates and have some of the highest poverty rates."

That's not by accident. It's not a fault because something is deficient in them, that's what racism would have you to believe. Racism would have us to believe that their conditions are a result of something that is deficient in them. No. The fact of the matter is there's been a systematic process of racism that we've seen that's denied peoplein many instancestheir very humanity. Denied people the opportunities to participate in the economicthe building of wealth in this country. Denied them the opportunity to have an adequate education. Denied them the opportunity to even benefit from their own work. And so there is an explorative nature around American economy and American culture that we often don't deal with. And so I think that it's really important that the first thing is that we should really educate ourselves around really understanding why is something the way it is and go beyond what we see now. But really just peel backwhen you're talking about the criminal justice systempeel back and look at the history of it.

"I often tell people, close your eyes and imagine an America without racism. Most people can't do it. And the fact that we can't do that says something."

And if you follow the history of it, then it would make sense to you. It would make sense to you around why racism has been a frame that had the outcome as a direct result because of racism in this country. And I think that if, once we get to the place that we're honestthat we've got the information and that we're honestthat's when I think we get to this place where I call the radical re-imagining. That we have to have a radical re-imagining of what the world can look like. I often tell people, close your eyes and imagine an America without racism. Most people can't do it. And the fact that we can't do that says something. The fact that we can't even imagine an America without racism says something. And I think we can see it as a way of it makes us sad, or we could see it as an opportunity.

It's interesting because while I am a critic of how America was founded and the exploitation [and] the genocide of Native Americans and the exploitation of enslaved Africans, there's something about the American Revolution that I really appreciate and value. And I think that some of the ideas that came out of the American Revolutionthis idea that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creatorthat fundamentally, if you take the truth out of that, there's some power behind that. If you take this idea that people should have access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, who thinks anything is wrong with that, right? And so I think ultimately, what we've not seen is, we've not seen an honest assessment about where we are, how we got where we are, and what it is that we want to change and to be different. On some level, people have gotten comfortable with where we are and just decide that, ‘Oh, the homeless are just homeless because they don't want to work, right?’ When we know that there are millions of people in this country right now that are teeter-tottering every week because of a paycheck. And we know that there are hundreds of thousands of people every week that are sleeping in their cars that are going to work every day. And so on some level, we're going to have to be honest about the fundamental flaws in this country so that we can actually correct it and that we can create this nation that we envision.

Question: Why does the black vote matter in Eugene in an area where the black population is only about 2%?

Brown: Cause I think the value of the people is not based on the percentage. The value is based on their humanity. And so if it was one person, does one person not matter? But ultimately, we've got to shift this frame to really understand that every single human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Every single human being deserves to have some say so on the aspects of their lives. Every single person that exists should have some say so on the policy that governs them of their government. Fundamentally, isn't that what democracy is?

Democracy is that every single person should have some say so in the shaping of that. And we have not achieved that. Let me say this because oftentimes we get caught up. We've not achieved that. We've achieved some aspects of that, and I think that there's some progress in some ways, but we've not achieved the democracy that every single vote matters and every person counts in the same way that I envision it. But as we're doing this work, I always say we got to build a plane and fly the plane at the same time. So part of this work is we've got to really get people to believe in their own power and participate in the process because I do think that they contribute to the shaping of it. And then secondly, as we're doing that, you know, we also got to envision something that pushes us—an evolution of sorts—pushes us to really create this nation that we're talking about theoretically, but we've not seen actualized yet.

Question: What are examples of voter suppression that communities should be aware of for this upcoming election?

Brown: I don't know that most people know this, but, since 2014, 33 million voters have been dropped from the voter rolls. I need people to really hear that. It's really a critical issue around if fundamentally, if the foundation of democracy is based on one person, one vote, and that the foundation of democracy is that the people who are being governed are responsible and have the power to shape that which governs them, then every single person should have free and fair access to the ballot. This has been a strategy that we've seen in Georgia. I know a lot of people may be familiar with 2018, within the governor's race where we know that the Republican governor of the state of Georgia, who's now the Republican governor of the state of Georgia, dropped hundreds of thousands of votersdisproportionally black votersfrom the voting rolls.

We've seen this in Native American communities, we've also seen this in people of color communities and poor communities. And I think ultimately we think of voter suppression in one way, but it's actually a spectrum of how it takes place.

Examples of Voter Suppression

So what is voter suppression? So voter suppression is anything that impacts people having free and fair access to the ballot. That's voter suppression. What does that look like? Well, it looks like a couple of ways. So one way could be the closing of polling sites in communities so that you create an additional barriera burden for them to get to the polls. There are some communities that people don't have cars or have adequate transportation. Another form of voter suppression is dropping you from the voting rolls. And people will say, ‘Well, you know, after two elections, they're dropped.’ Well, why is that? I just really want to think about the logic. Think about itas a driver and I know this isn't even a right, this is a privilege. As a driver, if my driver's license was dropped because I wasn't driving, I would have a fit. Most people would have a fit if they didn't drive, that's their license. They've gotten that license and why should they not have that license, right? You don't keep a driver's license based on how many times you drive. It is something that's given to you and that's as a privilege. So here it is a right that we're actually more fundamentally punitive on something that is a fundamental right in a democracy then we our driver's license.

And so I think it's really important for us to really think aboutand we know why. You know, people can say, ‘Well I don't know why.’ Yes you do. Be honest. Cause that's part of the piece. Yes you do. You know why and we know why it disproportionately impacts certain communities. Now whether we're courageous enough and honest enough to really do something about that, that's a different question. But you know why. And so I think that the other way is that we see voter suppression as well is oftentimes people will get to the polls and their name has been changed. They've been changed from one polling site to another polling site without having notification they’re refusedthere's a process where they might show up and they're refused a ballot, an absentee ballot. There have been electronic machines in Mississippi that when they pressed one name, the other name popped up. And so there's thisit is a fundamentalthe biggest threat of democracy in this nation right now I really do believe is voter suppression.