S03 E06: The Election Episode
Allyn: Welcome to “Pod For The Cause,” the official podcast of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund, where we expand the conversation on the critical civil and human rights issues of our day. I’m your host, Allyn Brooks-LaSure, coming to you from Washington, DC. And like we start off every show, we’ve got the Pod Squad, where we discuss pop culture, social justice, and just about everything in between.
We’ve got some amazing folks on the Pod Squad today. First up is Leigh Chapman, Program Director of Voting Rights at The Leadership Conference. Ramon Contreras, founder of Youth Over Guns. And Deja Foxx, activist and founder of the GenZ Girl Gang. In this episode, we’re talking all about the upcoming election. You know what, why don’t we just jump right into it. And to start off the question I have to ask how everyone is surviving and thriving in 2020. Leigh, we’ll start off with you.
Leigh: Sure. You know I’m hanging in. I’ve worked on multiple election cycles before and I have to say, this is the hardest one I’ve worked on. You know, with the 24-hour news cycle, being in the middle of a pandemic. But it’s really been important for me to take time out for myself and to have self-care. You know, to spend time with friends and family when I can. Because it’s tough and we have less than a month to go. And, it’s just only going to get more intense from here out.
Allyn: Ramon, how are you doing it?
Ramon: I think we’re all still figuring it out. You know this is the new world that we’re adapting to and everything is moving fast while the pandemic is happening, while we have the craziest election of our lifetime. I’m taking it day-by-day. I am waking up, trying to stay focused, trying to set my priorities straight, you know making sure that we’re getting young people out to vote and making sure that we’re pushing on the issues that are important in 2020. And, also, taking care of my mental health and making sure that I am checking in on family and just trying honestly to adapt to COVID-19 world. It’s been a crazy year, but it’s going to continue to be crazy, and you know the best we can do is just work and take care of ourselves.
Allyn: Deja, how about you?
Deja: So I’m a full-time student. And I’m also working full-time as a social media director at ACRONYM, which is an organization building modern infrastructure for the progressive movement. And so, right now, I’m running GenZ Girl Gang and it’s been a lot. I think there’s something to be said about this pandemic and the ability to hop from meeting to meeting, right? Absolutely no travel time or anything like that. You can just be in one and then hop to the next. And I think I’m trying to really be realistic with myself and others about what I can and can’t do and build a team of support around me to get through this – whether that’s friends and family or a therapist or a financial advisor, people that can really support me as I bring my visions to life and I take leadership in this moment.
Allyn: So ever since I started voting, everyone has always said, “You’ve got to vote, because this is the most important election of our lifetime,” right? That is a phrase that people use I feel like every presidential I’ve ever voted in, it’s the most important election of my lifetime. But I think this election might actually be the most important election of our lifetime. -laughter- What’s at stake? What’s at stake in this election? We’ve been through so much already over the past four years and even before that, but what’s at stake at this election? Ramon, we’ll start with you.
Ramon: When I think of 2020 and this election I think of the protests that were fueled by the injustice that George Floyd was served, that Breonna Taylor was served. And, to have our president teargas protestors, and then on a national debate stage refuse to denounce white supremacy. I think the values that Americans have been fighting for, for all of these years, are on the line. I think racial justice is on the line. I think black women are on the line. I think our health care system is on the line. I think every issue that Democrats and progressives have been fighting on in the forefront are on the line and this election isn’t going to come down to whether we elect a Democratic president or a Republican president, but whoever we elect, it’s going to come down to whether we continue to advocate for the issues that we care about.
This election is one of the most eye-opening elections that I think I will ever see in my lifetime, especially because of COVID-19. We see a lot of the injustices and a lot of the flaws in our system exposed, mainly because we have a system that is flawed. A system that doesn’t work for the people. For example, Medicare-for-all, right? This is something that nobody believed in, in the beginning of this election cycle and people laughed at Bernie Sanders. People said that you know America wasn’t ready for Medicare-for-all. And, now, it’s become a serous conversation with millions of Americans questioning what happens if they get COVID? Or, what happens if a loved one gets sick? A lot of people are questioning if America is truly there for them, if the system is working, if government is truly there to serve them. So I think the main issue that people are really going to be looking for when they vote on the ballot is that trust – being confident enough to vote in a president and elected officials who they can say, “They will fight for us. They will make sure that the senate, or congress, or our local government is truly serving the people.”
Allyn: Leigh, what do you think?
Leigh: I agree with everything that Ramon just said. But just to add to that I would say our democracy is really on the line in this election. You know I’ve never seen a situation where we have the president of the United States actively working to suppress the vote, you know, and working to suppress the vote of people of color by using social media to tell people that their vote is not going to be secure. Casting doubt on vote-by-mail, casting doubt on the security of the election. And, it’s just so concerning. You know, we’ve never had a full-inclusive democracy, but I’ve never seen something like this. I mean I’m in my mid-30s so -laughter- but I’ve never seen this in my lifetime. And using social media really as a weapon to suppress the right to vote of people of color. And then, using his platform to tell people you know, “Go watch the polls in Philadelphia because bad things happen in Philadelphia,” right? And, we know that that’s coded language to scare and intimidate people from casting their ballot, and scaring and intimidating black and brown voters from casting their ballots. And, the only way we can really counter that is for people to turn out in record numbers and vote – so that’s what’s on the line.
Allyn: Deja, what are folks excited about as you’re talking to coworkers and colleagues, etc.?
Deja: So just to start, I think what’s on the line for me, as someone who’s 20, this is my first time voting in this election. It’s literally our future. It’s the right to choice and having control over our bodies in our futures. It’s our climate. And so when I think about what’s energizing young people particularly, I do think that one, it’s the issues. Young people can see clearly that the failings of this administration are going to have a direct impact on their ability to live happy healthy lives, right? We’re coming of age in this very uncertain time, many of us going into the workforce. And so young people are energized about the issues but I think we also need to be thinking about the delivery. And, you know I heard Leigh even mention social media, right?
Are we engaging influencers and community builders and content creators who have captive audiences, who’ve built communities around them, digitally, in this moment where we can’t really go out and door knock or table, right? How do we step into this digital space to bring excitement around the issues in a way that speaks to a native like digital language. And, that I think we see that through the sharing of memes or viral videos, all of that is a measure of excitement from young people. You know something I’ve been hearing a lot in the Get-Out-The-Vote space, so many people have the misconception that young people don’t vote because they don’t care and we need to convince them to care. And, that’s just not the case. Young people struggle to vote because it is hard to build the habit and because voting is meant to be difficult. They’ve built a system in which it is difficult and I think if we swapped it around and all of us were voting on an app on our phone, voter turnout might look very different. So in terms of what people are excited about, I do think young people are energized on the issues. And, we, as the people working on the inside, working on strategy, need to do a better job of bringing it to them in a way that feels organic and meets them where they’re at.
Allyn: What do you think that looks like, Deja, just to follow-up on that? What is a more effective way to be able to engage youth voters?
Deja: We need to be thinking outside of just these political bubbles, right? Who holds influence? What does influence really look like? Who are people like my friends back home or my mom looking to? And that’s not always your political commentator. Sometimes it’s the person who runs the cooking channel off TikTok or someone who does fashion stuff on IG or whose story really resonates with them as they talk on YouTube about their life. And I think we need to get really critical in thinking about the way that we can mobilize all kinds of influence online. But I also think we need to be taking content creators and digital creators into the fold and bringing them in on strategy and really using our connecting power to bring what we know about messages that are true and that work together with the people that know how to deliver them and have communities ready to hear them.
Allyn: Great. Ramon, what do you think about that? What is a more effective way of engaging voters writ large, but also youth voters as well?
Ramon: I think in this election, digital creators, like Deja said, are really important. And, I think even beyond just creativity, I noticed one thing – and I was on the frontlines marching in New York City when the George Floyd protests were happening – and the one thing I noticed were that there were people of all different colors, all different religion that came together marching until midnight, tired, screaming, coming together for a cause they believe in. And this was probably the most young people I’ve ever seen in the street for any type of political event, even when I did my Youth Over Guns march back two years ago to bring awareness to gun violence, you know we had quite a lot of adults who came out to support the cause, because that’s who you usually see. A lot of adults coming out to events and protesting and marching. But for the first time, like really ever when I think about it, I saw thousands of young people who are together marching.
And, there was one thing that I remember, there were a group of cops chasing us. And, when they were chasing us, you know, this one kid yelled you know, “Run.” And, the kid also said, “If we stay together, they can’t separate us. They can’t beat us.” And through that moment, you know, what I took with me was what young people are really looking for, what really excites people, what really motivates people to come together and vote and actually push for a cause they believe in is a sense of community. And that community has been created around the country through trauma and through injustices, because of you know, unfortunately, the lives that were lost. But I think the way that we truly get Americans out to vote, no matter their age, no matter what their background is, is recreating a sense of community. That if you join this, if you join this movement, it’ll lead to something better. You’ll be part of a community that cares about you and that will continue to fight for justice on behalf of you. And, I think that is what’s going to excite voters, on top of just digital creators, on top of the creativity and content that we’re pushing out. It’s going to be a collective of things that truly create a community of voters.
Allyn: Leigh, Deja talked a little bit about getting into the practice of voting, but there’s this pretty remarkable architecture of efforts to suppress the vote, these barriers that are erected to the polling place that have existed for a long time and that take many different forms these days. Can you just walk us through those and describe for us, why do some political actors go to such extremes to try to erect these barriers to the polling place?
Leigh: These barriers are erected because people who are in power want to maintain that power. And, they want to make it harder for certain populations to vote that they don’t believe will vote for them. So, you know, we’ve seen barriers really at every step of the way of the voting process from registration, to voting, to actually having your vote counted. So take registration for example – making sure you are on the rolls and making sure you stay on the rolls is a huge issue, because we’ve seen voter purges throughout our country in recent years. You know, over 17 million people have been purged from the roles just between 2016 and 2018. That’s a two-year time span. And usually when that happens, people show up to the polls on Election Day, they think they’re registered, because most of the time they’ve voted before, but then they realize that they’re not on the rolls. And at that point, there’s nothing that can be done. You know, their vote is not counted, so they’re effectively disenfranchised. So one thing that we’re trying to do is make sure people are checking their voter registration status to make sure they’re still on those rolls, and if they’re not, they have to re-register – and there’s still some time in some states to do that, but voter registration deadlines are coming up really fast.
Barriers to the ballot box also look like closed polling places. You know, we’ve seen this a lot in communities of color where polling places are shuttered down, and with COVID-19, we’re going to see even fewer polling places, because there’s a shortage of poll workers around the country. And there’s also just administrative barriers and things that are really like modern-day poll taxes. So for instance, in some states, in order to vote by mail, you actually have to have your ballot notarized. Like, how do we actually even go to a notary, you know? I’ve had something notarized a while ago. I had to go to the UPS Store and pay $15. And that person is usually only there between the hours of like 1:00 and 2:00, so that’s another huge barrier. And we’re in a pandemic when you know a lot of people are sheltering in place because they’re worried about their health and safety, so you know that’s just another one. And I can go on and on and on.
So one thing that we really just want to do is empower people. You know, there’s a way that we can stop voter suppression and I think the best antidote to that is voter empowerment and making a plan. So we have this whole campaign called “Be An October Voter.” You know, we really should start seeing Election Day as the last absolute day that you can vote. Like, we need to plan in advance, so if you can request your ballot, vote early, do it, because as we all know there’s these little administrative issues that could happen along the way and it’s better to vote early so you can fix them and make sure your ballot and your vote is counted. And you know, use Election Day as an absolute last resort if you have to to cast your ballot. So this year, we just have to plan further in advance to make sure that we can make sure our votes are counted.
Allyn: Deja, I can see that you’re agreeing with Leigh on there. What are your thoughts about that?
Deja: I mean, I think that the narrative for too long has been vote on November 3rd. And now, we’re totally writing that in and saying, “No, the messaging we need to be pushing is vote by November 3rd.” And that the election is already underway. People have cast votes. And it’s really important to remind people of that, that we are in the voting process now. And I just think something we need to acknowledge as well when we’re talking about barriers for young people to voting is how complicated the lives of young people are, right? So, many of us are maybe registered at our parents’ houses but are living somewhere else for school and that’s complicated by COVID now. And there’s so many layers to being a young person and being so mobile that I think, you know, we need to be talking about and really getting real with young people about what it looks like to make a plan and that your plan isn’t going to look like your friend’s, it isn’t going to be as easy maybe, as it might sound in a swipe through an Instagram post. You need to get on the phone with someone who you care about and who maybe has done this before and make that plan.
Allyn: Leigh, we have a pretty typical idea of what we think Election Day looks like here in the United States. We rush at the last minute to vote. And then we go home and then we turn on a cable news network to watch the results and we see there’s a meter, or there’s a scale, or there’s something that we watch to see what percentage of the vote is coming in. What is this so-called day of Election Day going to look like this year? How is it going to be different this year than it has been in all previous years?
Leigh: You know, there’s actually a lot of unknown on what it’s going to look like. You know, this is the first time we’ve had an election in the middle of a pandemic. But one thing we do know for sure is that we will not have election results on election night this year. You know, we’re used to seeing the states go blue and red and you know, we’re eager, and we see the watch parties, but that’s not what’s going to happen – because of the pandemic, so many states are allowing voters to vote early, which is a wonderful thing and that’s what we want. I mean we are seeing record early voting. And, many states actually don’t start counting vote-by-mail ballots until Election Day, so it’s going to take a few weeks, if not longer, for us to actually know the results and we just need to tell our friends that, tell our family that. Start getting comfortable with it. It’s just a new reality that we’re in right now.
Allyn: Ramon, what do you think?
Ramon: It’s going to be a weird night. This is the middle of a pandemic and we’re not going to get the results on election night. We don’t know when we’ll get the results and we have our current president you know is saying it could be weeks or months until we know the results, which is, you know, a scary thing for the president to be telling the American people. But I want to reiterate you know about the early voting. This election has already begun. Election night should be the absolutely last day that people actually go out and vote, or, if they haven’t already, you know, make it that day. But the truth is people are going to be waiting for I don’t know how long until the results come. I’ve barely lived through presidential elections, you know, enough that I can remember. I’m only 21 years old. So you know, for me, this is going to be unprecedented and I’m honestly not sure how it’s going to look like. All I know is that I’m going to cast my vote early in New York. And you know, my hope is that millions of Americans’ votes are cast throughout the country as they wait for the results.
Allyn: Deja, I have a question for you. You made a name for yourself confronting a certain former United States senator at a very public event. And it leads me to wonder why all of you are in this work. There’s so many things that you can be doing and many things that you are doing – why do this?
Deja: I want to be very clear. That my activist journey did not start at that viral moment. I’ve been doing this work since before Trump was in office and I’ll be doing it long after he’s gone. I got into this work when I was 15 through personal experience. I was experiencing what one in 30 young people in the U.S. are experiencing and that’s hidden homelessness. For me, it was staying with a significant other and their family, but it means not having a home of your own, and that is an issue in and of itself. But when you’re sitting in a class and the teacher says, “I don’t have to teach you about these contraceptives because your parents will,” it’s students like me who are disadvantaged. And so when I was looking at the sex education at my school district at 15-years-old, knowing I didn’t have parents to supplement it, it was last updated in the 80s, it didn’t mention consent, and it was medically inaccurate, I knew that that was a system that was built and designed to disadvantage students like me. And so I started getting active and I started telling my story at school or in meetings and getting up and saying, “I actually am not going to feel shame about these experiences that I’ve been through and the way that they’re impacting my life. I’m going to use them for change.” And my friends started coming along with me and telling their stories about why they needed sex ed reform. And after six months, we won a legislative victory there at the school board level, and I just started to scale up my work. I started fighting for birth control access on a national scale and I’ve gone on to work, sort of at the intersection of social justice and social media because of that viral moment. Seeing the power that social media has to catapult the voice of a 16-year-old girl to the national stage, right? To put me on an even playing field with a senator of the United States. And so you know, I’ve gone on to work on the Kamala Harris campaign as the Influencer and Surrogate Strategist out of her headquarters. I’m the youngest member of any of the presidential campaigns’ at that level of leadership. And now, as the social media director at Acronym.
Allyn: Ramon, why are you in this work?
Ramon: I was born in the South Bronx, which is one of the poorest places in America, if you look at it by district and county. And, I moved to Harlem to the Projects Public Housing when I was about six years old. And I was raised by a single mother who had broken English, and she was raising me and my two older sisters. And growing up, I’ve had to experience gun violence. I experienced police officers at every corner. I experienced going to public schools that didn’t have enough teachers or even enough books in the library to make sure that students were learning. When I got to high school I was actually to the point where I was thinking about dropping out. And at the age of 16 is when I got introduced to community organizing and actually doing work that was meaningful and helped others in my community. And it started simple. It was me organizing food can drives, clothing drives, organizing town halls in my school to talk about different issues happening within the school. And through that work, you know, I had the privilege of getting some pretty cool internships in government. But it wasn’t until I was 18 that I lost my friend to gun violence my senior year of high school.
And when you lose somebody that close to you, somebody that you see every day, it does something to you when you have to stare at that person in the casket. Somebody who’s your age, somebody who was supposed to graduate with you that year. And I will never forget the pain in my friends’ eyes and the silence that was in my school when, you know, we had to go back and know that he wasn’t going to be in the building with us that day. It is that moment, it is that pain, and it’s also getting on the bus after my friend died and traveling the country and meeting with other gun violence survivors and people who have been affected by this that makes me want to continue to do the work, because there are issues in this country that will continue to be ignored by those in power, if we don’t speak up and do something about it. And that’s why I do it.
Allyn: So Leigh, the same question to you. You’re a lawyer, you’re a voting rights activist. What got you into this work?
Leigh: It was really my family. You know, I started registering voters with my family when I was like 11 or 12-years-old at the local mall, and so they really taught me about the importance of voting and participating in our democracy. But I really decided I wanted to stick with this career path when I was a very junior lawyer working for Advancement Project. I was on the team that sued the state of Wisconsin over their discriminatory voter ID law. And my responsibility was to find the witnesses for the case, so to find people who could not get an ID, which was a challenging task. But I met some amazing people on that case. You know I met someone who was a veteran, who served our country, but be didn’t have an ID and he couldn’t get one. I also had another witness and she was 92-years-old and she was born in Mississippi at home to a midwife. And her birth was recorded in a family Bible, so she never had a birth certificate. And she moved up to Milwaukee with her family during the Great Migration for a better opportunity. She voted in every election. She was a poll worker. But because she didn’t have a birth certificate, she wasn’t able to get an ID to vote in the state of Wisconsin. And her daughter actually spent $2,000 in legal fees for her mom to be able to vote. And so I always think back to those people. I think back to those stories and how critical it is to advocate for them, because there’s no reason why in 2020 people should have to pay thousands of dollars to vote, or you know, people who want to vote are shut out of the political process. So that’s what keeps me going and it keeps me motivated.
Allyn: Well, Leigh, Deja, Ramon, thank you so much for joining us today on “Pod For The Cause.” And thank you for the work that you’re doing.
Allyn: Thank you for listening to “Pod For The Cause,” the official podcast of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund. For more information, please visit civilrights.org. And to connect with us, hit us up on Instagram and Twitter @PodForTheCause. Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast app and leave a five-star review. Until then, for “Pod For The Cause,” I’m Allyn Brooks-LaSure. Stay strong and keep hope alive.