Lessons from communities of color in the struggle over voting rights in Minnesota

In the days following the elections, provocative headlines like “The New Supermajority: Latinos and People of Color” proclaimed the demographic and electoral power of communities of color within the United States. It’s true that people of color, women and young people who turned out the vote had a significant impact on the outcomes at the polling place. This new alignment has surprised many.  Yet, beneath the rhetoric and the high turnout numbers is an ongoing battle to shape the electorate and which voices are heard in the decision-making process.

Minnesota was just one site in the broader attack on the voting rights of communities of color and low-income people that manifested this past election. In our state, the attack took the form of a proposed Voter ID amendment that would have disenfranchised thousands in our communities.  The legislation, backed by local politicians connected to ALEC and other conservative interest groups, came at a time when the proportion of Minnesotans who are people of color has grown over 400 percent in the last 30 years – from 4 percent to 17 percent of the state population (MN Compass, Metropolitan Council).   Below are a few lessons gained from our work to defeat voter restriction in Minnesota.  These thoughts come directly out of conversations with leaders from communities of color who helped engage and inspire a critical group of voters to defeat the Voter ID amendment.

1. We have the power.  Minnesota now leads the nation in turning back a repressive attack on voting rights on the first try at the ballot box.  There are many reasons we achieved this – among them are a powerful set of leaders and organizations who focused and worked in communities of color.  Minnesota also defeated an anti-marriage amendment and the numbers show that our communities were key constituencies in deciding the final outcome.  It’s a pretty incredible and shared accomplishment.

Specifically, our work has shown us that we have the power to do big things when we come together, tell our stories, and support each other.  That is why my work with the Organizing Apprenticeship Project focused on the Voices for Voting Rights strategy table we convened this summer.  Together, the groups involved created multilingual educational tools that got out to over 25,000 Minnesotans, trained over 80 leaders in two weeks, carried out a media campaign that was covered by Somali, Hmong, American Indian, African American, and Latino local media outlets, launched a multilingual online video series speaking to different community histories with voting rights, and hosted a shared event that brought together elders and youth across language and culture. Our partners all committed to this work in addition to the voter engagement efforts they were already implementing, including get-out-the-vote activities leading up to Election Day.

2. Let’s invest for the future and not take our communities or our votes for granted.  Last spring, polling numbers showed that communities of color were nearly as likely to support the voter ID amendment as white voters and that many did not understand what the amendment was about.   However, it sometimes felt that strategies to engage “uncommitted voters” focused narrowly on white suburban voters, from the messaging, to the coalition building, to the infrastructure created to support organizers on the ground.  At the same time, the funding came in last minute.  This was especially true for those working on the ground in communities of color.  We often heard that organizers in communities of color were scrambling just to find materials, translation, and funding to pay for their work even part time – or were carrying out their voter engagement work independent of their organization/funding because they didn’t have adequate support behind them.

Even in the context of little investment, it felt like it was still expected that communities of color would magically align in opposition to the amendment.  We should never assume that any group of people will vote our way or are guaranteed to vote at all! This really devalues all the time, thought, commitment and passion that it takes to organize and engage communities.  Groups like Neighborhoods Organizing for Change have now announced that two-thirds of their voter contacts were not already in the databanks, meaning that NOC was reaching voters in low-income and communities of color that would not have been contacted otherwise. They would probably be the first to say that it took hours and days and weeks of ongoing dialogue and organizing to help folks connect to the issue and give them the facts.   This kind of work needs to be invested in earlier and more thoroughly.

3. Our messaging should not silence our own voices and histories.  When a policy proposal is clearly intended to disenfranchise the growing numbers of community of color and young voters in our state and country – speaking directly to those voters in stories and language that resonates should be a no-brainer.  But it wasn’t.  Instead, we were told, “it’s not the right message.”  The polling results had shown that mentioning “anyone being disenfranchised” should be avoided.  In other words, perpetuating the dominant colorblind perspective was supposed to be the only way to win.  Messages that worked for a subset of white voters were put out as messages for all of us – but they weren’t.

Voices for Voting Rights was one of several groups with strong constituencies in communities of color that brought the soul into the fight over what sometimes seemed like a technical, policy issue.  We (and other key groups who connected this issue with history and core values) talked about more than what it meant to require valid, government-issued photo ID to vote.  In our communities, that meant we talked about the histories of voting rights and our experiences with democratic participation. We talked about healing and connecting to a legacy of struggle and to the spirits of our ancestors that have stood up against injustice.  We held forward a vision of multicultural communities of color, young people, rural people, and white justice allies as voices for the Minnesota we want to see in the future.  These were powerful and effective messages, that energized our communities and spoke to us.

We certainly recognize the need to message differently to different people.  However, we need to challenge the idea that muffling the voice, story and passion of communities of color is ever worth it.  We win by talking about how social justice issues impact all Minnesotans, including communities of color and low-income people.   Creating accessible messaging does not have to mean sacrificing complexity or avoiding direct confrontation of systematic exclusion and discrimination.  Particularly since the issue of Voter ID/Voter Restriction was already ‘raced’ by the other side (through overt attempts to connect voter fraud with undocumented immigration, crime, and black and brown people) the attempt to maintain race-neutral messaging around the impacts of the amendment late in the campaign was disconcerting.  It maintained a passive silence in the face of one of the clearest attacks on voting rights in our state in the past decade.

4. Our voices, our stories, our experiences, our tactics are not the same- and that is a good thing.   All of our communities have different histories, different kinds of organizing, and different ways they will need to engage to keep momentum going. From community forums, to hip-hop shows, to phone teleconferencing, to door knocking, to texting, to creating theater performance, to eating a meal together, to playing basketball, to trick or treating, these were all ways to engage our communities in the past election. It’s exciting to see.

We should embrace rather than fear disparate voices speaking about the same issue.  We should embrace alignment – and know that it is not the same as uniformity.  In an age of social media, it’s very clear that when something goes “viral” it will change shape and adapt to each audience and their ways of communicating.  All of us can do more to try and learn from this ongoing process of transformation across difference.  This requires trusting other people’s leadership and their innovation, as well as trusting the expertise of communities.  Let’s invest more in our community experts (and their translations across language and culture and experience).  Let’s support all the people that are skilled at this work.  Let’s be ready to ask “what do you need from me to make this work for your folks?” and then make sure we bring it to the table even if it’s not exactly the way we would do things.

5. The time for organizing for the rights and vision of all Minnesota is now.  All of our communities right now, today, are an important part of this state.  This includes members of our community that are disenfranchised, that are undocumented, that are young people, and that otherwise couldn’t vote on November 6th.   This also includes people of color, immigrants, and American Indian communities. Let’s continue to build accountable leadership and broadcast messages that connect what we do on Election Day to the struggle of our ancestors and to each other.  Let’s continue to struggle together and align powerfully.  We have a right to claim our experiences, to nurture our own leaders, and to lift up our histories in the process. This may create tensions at times, but let’s continue to invest our labor and hearts into this good work.

-Hana Worku

Voices for Voting Rights

Voices for Voting Rights is a multiracial, multicultural group of organizations focused on building community power, voice, and access at the polling booth and beyond.  Partners include: Color the Vote, Main Street Project, Centro Campesino, Organizing Apprenticeship Project, Somali Action Alliance, African American Leadership Forum, CAPI, Community Action of Minneapolis, Native Vote Alliance of Minnesota, Lao Family Center, and Sagrado Corazón de Jesús.  www.voicesforvotingrights.org

Hana Worku is a 23-year-old community organizer in Minneapolis.  This fall she worked to coordinate the Voices for Voting Rights campaign with the Organizing Apprenticeship Project, a statewide racial justice organization, committed to forwarding equity in policy and organizing in the state. She is a graduate of SPEAC (Sustainable Progress through Engaging Active Citizens) at Hope Community, OAP’s organizer training program, and also a 2012 Wellstone Fellow.


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