S05 E07: Local Organizing & the Legacy of Black-led Civil Rights Movements


Pod Squad

Arekia Bennett-Scott executive director of Mississippi Votes @ArekiaSBennett
Jordan Johnson executive director of Georgia Shift @GeorgiaShift

Our Host

Photo of Vanessa N. Gonzalez Vanessa N. Gonzalez Executive Vice President of Field | The Leadership Conference @VNGinDC

Contact the Team

For all inquiries related to Pod For The Cause, please contact Evan Hartung ([email protected]).

Episode Transcript

Vanessa: 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, Vanessa Gonzalez, she, her, ella pronouns, coming to you from beautiful Washington, DC. And like we start off every show, we’ve got the Pod Squad. Let’s hear it. Woo.

Arekia: Woo.

Jordan: Woo.

Vanessa: Yes.

Jordan: That’s all I have.

Vanessa: Where we discuss pop culture, social justice, and everything in between. We’ve got some amazing folks on the Pod Squad today. First up we have Arekia Bennett-Scott, Executive Director at Mississippi Votes. Hey, Arekia.

Arekia: Hey, how are you?

Vanessa: Good. Good to have you today. Next up, we have Jordan Johnson, Executive Director at Georgia Shift. Hi Jordan.

Jordan: Hi. How are you doing?

Vanessa: Good. How are you?

Jordan: I’m good. Thank you.

Vanessa: Thank you both for being here today. This is gonna be a great conversation. In today’s episode, we are talking with our two awesome guests who run, I mean really run cool, Black-led organizations aimed at generating young people power in the South. How are they carrying on the legacy of civil rights organizing, but evolving it for the next generation? But before we jump in like we do, let’s set the stage. The civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s was the result of organizing. When black residents of Montgomery decided to boycott the bus company for its racial discrimination, that didn’t just happen at the drop of a hat. It did happen because of organizing.

I know a lot of times when we talk about civil rights, people have the sense of the brilliant Ms. Rosa Parks sat there and that it was like just happenstance, but it’s really important that people understand organizing goes behind all of this. All of the events of the civil rights movement that I really hope you all learned in school from the Freedom Rides, the Mississippi Freedom Summer, to the March on Washington for jobs and freedom, had local organizers at its core who made that happen. And progress doesn’t just happen naturally. It happens when people band together around a set of demands and create a people-powered movement to push the holders of power to change their ways and listen.

Whether it’s labor unions for the fight or the fight for LBGTQ equality, organizing is the practice that helps secure and advance many of the civil and human rights that we have today. But as we know, the world evolves and it is at an increasing pace. So organizing has to evolve. Local organizers have had to find new ways to reach people and motivate them to take action, particularly during COVID. In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency used the internet in unprecedented ways to reach voters, and that ’08 campaign in many ways helped rewrite the electoral organizing playbook. Suddenly, email and cool social media were central to organizer’s toolbox. But of course, they still had to use some old-school tactics like the barbershops and going to community events.

Then we are fast-forwarding to 2020 when a global mass movement for racial justice followed in response to the murder of Mr. George Floyd. People were organizing all over the US and the world in new, innovative ways, including TikTok. Like I don’t think when we all see the silly dances, we think, “Oh, TikTok can be a tool for social and racial change,” but it can. And people showed up from the videos that they saw. It’s unfortunate that it has to take seeing those videos that people were moved to action for that. So whether it’s marching in the streets or expressing yourself through tweets, organizing, time and time again, throughout all movements is how we achieve the change that we want.

And so we’re gonna get into that. That’s a lot of stats. So it’s a lot of history. Organizers, a lot of times we work behind the scenes. It is not to put yourself upfront, it’s to put the people in the community upfront because they are the ones that are really gonna lead the change. But I wanna get into this because I think that a lot of times when we say organizing people either romanticized in 1960s and they’re like, “Oh, that’s what organizing was.” And kind of feel like maybe that’s not organizing anymore. Or people feel like organizing is only around electoral politics. And that’s also not the only time people are out organizing, right?

I think there’s also this sense of what we see on social media is organizing and that maybe things just kind of pop up and it’s like, “Oh, if, having been an organizer, if things would just pop up, oh it would be so great.” It does not happen that way. So I wanna get into this. Arekia, what are some of the models of organizing? We’re gonna go like 101. So what are some of the really basic models of organizing that people should know?

Arekia: Yeah. I am in Mississippi, and a lot of the history of, you know, Jim Crow segregation and racism, etc., lives here in our soil. And so the way that folks in Mississippi have resisted is the model for my work. And so we look at the Freedom Summer of 1964, we look to some of our elders who are veterans of the civil rights movement because they still walk among us. And so the model is constantly evolving. There is no one-size-fits-all. There are some standard things that we continue to do out of those legacies and the tradition of black organizing.

And some of those things include some of the things that you mentioned, right? But for us, particularly at Mississippi Votes, those models consistently are being challenged and checked because we have a checks and balances system where we are talking to one another, we’re talking to the young people we serve, we’re talking to community, and we’re also talking to, like I said, our elders and making sure that, you know, we have a roundabout vision of how we get free and like what liberation really means and necessitates for that time and for that moment, for that movement.

So it’s not like, you know, we show up and we do this one particular thing today and we do it tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. We have what we call Up To Us Campaign, it’s basically our GOTV work. And every year that model changes because every year voters need something different, every year the electorate changes, every year it expands, every year, the voters care about something new. And so we have to stay on the edge and really tailor our messaging to make sure that it is relevant for the time and relevant for the people, right?

So like we often, and you know, when I can get real deep into organizing talk around the different segments of the electorate because you don’t talk to folks in Hinds County, Mississippi, the way that you talk to folks in Issaquena County. There is a different approach for different subsections of the electorate, but at the core, the people-centered model of like what the people want has to be paramount and like how we envision those strategies. Like the people inform how Mississippi Votes moves.

Vanessa: That’s great. Thank you so much for that. And I wanna just make sure that everybody understands when we say GOTV, we mean get out the vote. So yeah, it’s efforts that you see organizing its people going door to door, it’s text messages now that you might get, it’s cool Instagram posts, all of it. So it’s a period of time where we’re really helping the electorate know not only about the candidates but now also even more so the process to vote since every state has somehow gone a little bit bananas in restrictions on how people can vote.

Jordan, I wanna get you in this conversation. So can you talk a little bit about how organizing has evolved, right, because we have grassroots organizing, we have grasstops organizing, we have national organizing, recognizing sometimes the national might mess things up all the time. No, I try to do my best y’all. I try to do my best not to mess it up for you, but can you talk a little bit about some of the evolution, particularly in grassroots organizing that you’ve seen, and then how did you deal with COVID?

Jordan: Well, I don’t particularly think that organizing, grassroots organizing has changed so much from, you know, the time period that we just finished talking about with civil rights until now. I just think that the ways that we’ve gone about doing it has been improved by way of technology and social media and just how we connect with one another. At the end of the day, we’re still going to college campuses at the end of the day, we’re still going to barbershops. We’re still utilizing our faith-based communities. We’re still making connections in high schools and other areas, you know, where voters hang out. You know, it’s about getting to the voters, meeting people where they are.

And I don’t think that that has changed as much. I think what has changed is just the methods that we use with data being readily available, different, you know, voter databases being readily available, not much has changed. I think it’s just easier now to do, you know, the work that they did then because we have more at our disposal. I could not imagine organizing the March on Washington back in the ’60s. I’ve heard so many stories about just how stressful that was. And while we organize, we work more than 40 hours, I mean there’s no such thing as 40 hours anymore. I could not imagine what they went through. But the good thing is that some of our efforts can be condensed because of partnerships and now there’s technologies to us. But it’s still about getting face to face with people.

And you mentioned COVID. Well, we had to run electoral work throughout a pandemic, and it was the hardest thing for us. We went from being able to go door to door and making contact to just kind of crossing our fingers and hoping that our efforts were getting done throughout the pandemic. We were still able to send 580,000-plus text messages across Georgia, which was good. But at the end of the day, it was hard for me, I would say because I started organizing when I was 16, 17 years old, going door to door, going to hot spots, making phone calls, what we knew went completely out of the door. And not only that, but you know, staff, making sure that they were safe, making sure that our goals and objectives, they still were able to get achieved. It was quite a bit of a challenge, but you know, we just had to change how we did things. We went completely digital and we’re still digital because COVID hasn’t gone away yet.

Vanessa: Yeah. No, thank you for that. I really appreciate talking about, I can’t imagine how hard to your point it was to organize that march with all those people during those conditions too. And the safety measures that have to come into play that nobody probably ever knew about, right? I often work with organizers and they talk about some of this new technology and how you can do certain things. And I feel the ache in my bones. Like I have aged 20 years because I still remember sitting in union halls with stacks of printed turf lists and targets and like getting my highlighter and marking out the walk packets till like 2:00, 3:00 a.m., right. And then you have to wake up at 7:00 and be ready to rally people to go out and march. And all you wanna do is cry and go to sleep.

I always think it’s so interesting whenever, you know, we have these awesome technological tools, but at the end of the day, just to what both of you spoke to what’s important is that we’re still going to the people. Like the core is the people, no matter how fancy and cool your tool is, right? I also wanna get to this because you mentioned that you started organizing when you were 16. I don’t think people fully realize across the country, I think in the South, there’s such a strong tradition of Black organizing. I think in the Southwest we have Latino organizers.

And I know we often look to the Black community for like, “Okay, how’s how did this go? How do we set this up,” and then in partnership a lot. But I don’t know that people think that you could do a whole career out of this, that this is like a job. Can both of you tell us a little bit about how you came into organizing, and it’s hard y’all, so why do you stay?

Jordan: Well, I guess I’ll jump in here. At 16 it was about the money for me. We were in the middle of a hot election year. So I’m in Augusta, Georgia. That’s about two hours away from Atlanta. This was probably about, I don’t remember the year, but the point is I needed money and the job that was being offered was voter registration. So I’m thinking to myself, “I don’t know about any of this. Let’s just go, I’ve heard President Obama talk about being the change you want to see.” So yeah, I cared something about it, but at the end of the day, I just needed some money.

Vanessa: Got it.

Jordan: That, you know, going into that world and registering people to vote, I learned about organizing literally overnight, as far as interacting with people because the very first interaction that I had, someone stiff-armed me and was like, “I don’t wanna talk about that. I’m busy.” I’m like, “Lord, there’s gotta be a better way.” But as I got older and as I continued to progress, I realized how important this really was, because if we were gonna make change in priority areas and we were gonna make sure that young folks’ voice was heard in the democratic process, someone had to go do the voter registration, someone had to go do the survey, someone had to go door to door.

And I’ve literally been in this, I took a deviation for a few years to go teach at Boys and Girls Club, which I loved. I mean, it was some of the best times of my life, but I found my way back to organizing shortly after. And it’s been my career ever since. And I love it. I wouldn’t wanna do anything else because, number one, I’m so conditioned to it. Like everywhere I’m going, I’m trying to figure out how to organize something. But I love it. It’s really something that you can do and you can go to sleep, feeling good about it at night. And I’m trying my best to build more organizers around this area as well. So you can definitely make a living out of it, but it’s not really about that as it was for me when I first started, it has evolved into being the difference between doing what’s right and protecting what’s right, and to allow what’s wrong. And that’s why I’m here.

Vanessa: Yes. Thank you so much for that. Well, I’m very glad you’re here. Arekia, how about you? How’d you get into this mess?

Arekia: This mess, huh?

Jordan: The best way to put it.

Arekia: Oh man. A lot like Jordan, right, I was 17 at Jackson State University, shout out to my alma mater. But I was 17 at JSU and I’m a fourth-generation Jacksonian. And so, I got to campus and I had this idea of like, you know, “I’m going to be Ms. Jackson State and I’m gonna do all of these things.” And I was not interested in, you know, the social justice world. Like I was exposed to it because my grandparents were, you know, leaders in the NAACP in Walthall County. And I had all of this, you know, this family repertoire, but I didn’t have that for myself. I grew up doing pageants, right. So that wasn’t my life.

But the summer of 2011, there were so many cases of young women reporting sexual dating violence or sexual misconduct, and long story short of that is I developed a passion for women’s rights and women’s reproductive issues. As I was developing that, the fall semester would be an election in Mississippi. We have an election every year, but that year was gubernatorials. And I remember my grandmother making sure that I was registered to vote in 2011. And so I remember walking on the plaza and there being folks on the pedestrian walkway with signs that said, “No on initiative 26.” I had no idea what it was. It was just like a picture of a fetus and you know, people telling us what not to do.

And so by the time I got to the union, there were students doing voter registration and obviously, I registered to vote that day, but they had sample ballots. And I got, you know, really curious about what in the devil was Initiative 26. And it ended up being personhood, and Initiative 26 would’ve basic, you know, taking away women’s rights to reproductive freedom, access to abortion, and things that I cared about. And I started a black feminist collective, raised a lot of hell on campus.

Vanessa: Nice.

Arekia: My friends and I would register folks to vote. We just were super involved in campus life. And then, you know, after that I joined the Coalition for Economic Justice, got involved in a couple of campaigns, did a lot of youth civic engagement work, a lot of community work, and was like, you know what? Everything that I care about is always on the ballot. And I don’t like that. And I was like, how do I make this connection for other young people? And because there’s an election every year, how do we make it relevant to folks in Mississippi, especially young black folks, folks who look like me?

And so that is the short of my story. I am, you know, here because young people continue to inspire me to be here. I am, you know, a lot like Jordan, trying to make sure that the next generation of young organizers, young people have the tools and resources that they need to continue the legacy of this protracted struggle, this continuum of our movement.

Vanessa: I love that. Oh, I’m so glad for your journey as well. Mine definitely started in college and woo, I was brave. And like I organized this whole town hall against the college because they weren’t providing services for untraditional students. And there’s so many mistakes I made now looking back as a baby organizer, but it’s like, but I did it without fear. You know, now I would have a discussion with myself.

Jordan: Just cringe a little bit.

Vanessa: Yeah. Like, oh, man. But it is a place, right, where so much can get ignited and you can like find your voice in your space if you are lucky enough and you’re privileged enough to be able to go to college, right, and walk on that campus and learn. I wanna talk a little bit about the young people focus because both of you focus on young people within your campaigns and your messaging and things like that. I think we felt that during the Obama campaign, this just huge jump in young people’s involvement happened nationally, right? And we saw like, wow, this is like a cool way to do it and it was super exciting.

But can you talk a little bit about first, why is it so important that young people feel that they have that space for political independence? What are some old heads like, what are we doing wrong? You know, how do we continue to like set structure, but make sure that the young people can lead? So essentially, like why should young people feel like they need to fight for that political independence? Why it’s important and what are some of the best practices, I guess, that you all could share with folks? Let me go to Jordan first.

Jordan: Okay. Well, I think that youth organizing and youth voice in this process is so important simply because if you think about it, a 20-year-old for about the next 30 years will have to live with the decisions that policymakers make on their behalf now. At least 30 to 40 years, they’re going to have to live with those decisions. For me when I was a young, young, young, young person, I’m only 28 now, but when I was a little bit younger, I lived in public housing. And for me, public housing was all I had. It was all I knew. I didn’t realize that there were other sides of town that looked different than mine.

I mean, I would go to the Augusta Mall where my mom worked, she worked at a toy store while she was studying to be a nurse. That was the biggest place I had ever been. It was up the street to the mall. And so, you know, organizing the youth voice is so important because without it you don’t get progress made. And I think what happens is that during election cycles, and this is why it’s so important to organize, even outside of election cycle, we can’t just focus strictly on electoral work. We have to be issue-driven.

Georgia Shift exists because of issue organizing. I think what happens is that young folks hear great things during election cycles, local and national, but we don’t see much. And so that is why the issue advocacy portion of youth organizing is so important because before I come to you asking you to vote for me, I’m gonna wanna know what you’ve done on the issues that I care about. For me in public housing, it was criminal justice, it was police relations because I saw my brothers and my friends and my colleagues or whoever the case, I saw them have negative relations.

And so for me, it’s one of the first things I took on as a young organizer, was pushing for local legislation around police reform. Education, was pushing for education measures across the state. And so I think the big thing here is giving young people an opportunity to organize around the issues that they care the most about. You can’t tell me what’s important to me if you’re not there with me or you’re not there in my struggle, which is why we hire young folks to go out and do the organizing. We hire young people to go out and create our legislative agenda for the year. Because without that voice for young folks, what are we fighting for? What are we lobbying for? What’s our mission, what’s our goal.

You know, if you are struggling to put food on the table, I can’t come to you talking about the environment. While that’s important, I’ve gotta meet you where you are. And I can’t just ask you to come to the city council meeting. No, I’ve gotta come to your front door, sit on your porch and figure out what’s wrong. And I think that is the basis of organizing and I think that’s sometimes where we miss it. But the good thing is that because of the efforts over the last few years, you’ve seen an uptick in folks really sitting down and having what I call those kitchen table conversations.

Vanessa: Love it. Thank you so much. You so eloquently link our episodes. In our last episode, we were talking about the criminal legal system and linking that specifically to voting. And what does that look like? And we had a phenomenal guest who himself was a formerly incarcerated individual and he was talking about, he knew that crime was happening and his circumstances in his environment that that’s how you survived. You know, because there weren’t no jobs, there wasn’t nothing, you know, to like keep it going. And so he talks about out when he was young if someone had just offered him a way to move the energy in the right direction.

He’s like, “I knew those things were an issue. I had no idea how to address them or fix ’em, so I just joined in.” And so I appreciate that lifting that up about, here’s why we gotta meet people where they’re at, including youth. It doesn’t just mean, you know, the family on the corner, right? It means who are you talking to? You’ve gotta talk to everybody. Arekia, how about you? What do you think? Again, why is it important for youth to have that political independence, and what are some of the best lessons that you could share?

Arekia: Yeah. I also wanna say like, it’s super cliche, but literally at the turn of every point in history, in all of our movement work, there are young people brilliantly organizing and strategizing our way towards freedom, liberation, and whatever those mean to you, right? And so I think it’s also important to mention that young people are intellectual and we gotta stop treating them like they don’t have the knowledge to dream and imagine a world without, you know, these ridiculous conditions that we’re under right now.

And so I think part of our work is allowing young people the freedom to imagine and dream of systems that work for us and not against us. And to note that young people are not concerned with politicians, they’re concerned with the politic. So if your politics speaks to their material conditions, 9 times out of 10, they show up on election day. And that’s what we’ve seen in Mississippi and across the country since 2018, there’s a midterm election, right? And not since the ’70s, from our research, have young people showed up like that in record numbers. So in 2018 young people outperformed baby boomers across this country during a midterm. And I keep stressing midterm because like that is a wild reality, right? Especially for people who, like, hop on the idea that young people are apathetic. I resent that. I don’t believe that young folks are apathetic about voting. I believe that we are not talking to them in ways that humanize their experience and center them as the experts, right?

So a lot of times when we go into communities, we like to remedy what folks are going through. And it’s like, just because they’re not using your jargon doesn’t mean that they don’t understand their conditions. We’ve got to really get out of this. I think sometimes organizers, especially in a nonprofit space, we forget that we come from, in our cases, very privileged backgrounds. But when you think about the conditions of a college campus, nobody can tell you better how horrible your dorm life experience is, but your dorm mate or but you, right? And so if communities are talking together and having these conversations and then you come into their communities and you tell them you’ve got a plan or a solution for them, they’re looking at you sideways, and so am I, to be frank.

Vanessa: Yeah.

Arekia: So like we don’t do that. We allow community the space to imagine with us. And if they tell us that what we’re dreaming up is off-target, guess what, we’re not doing that? And young people are the same. You know, if you come into the Mississippi Votes office, you know, the folks that work here are not over the age of 30-something, I’m almost there, but you know, this is offense. But I think that says something to, you know, the change that’s occurring across the country, young people are taking their power and organizing in these ways and building organizations that reflect the vision for the future. And we’ve got to pay attention to that. Young people are very astute when it comes to how we have to reimagine and change and shift the ways that we’ve done things before, and the ways that we’ve been thinking about what is possible.

Vanessa: I love it. I love it. I love it. I love it. I will say one of the things that I have been so in awe, and just really appreciated young people leading throughout these, really the last few years, right, when it feels like they’re not asking for permission to lead by any means. And I think, you know, coming up in a sense of respectability politics, that’s how I came up. Like, okay, “I gotta do this, I gotta do this. I gotta do this.” Maybe I don’t know this because I haven’t lived it, right? And you always kind of feel like, “I think I could do that really well, but okay, somebody else is telling me it’s not my time.”

And I love that that is being broken apart and stomped upon. And that we’re saying we need to get away and give young people the space. Now I do think it is our job to make sure they have the tools for success and then let them take those tools, and don’t dictate what they say with those tools, right? Like let them roll, but make sure that there’s a foundation and that structure for success.

Arekia: I was just gonna say that something that just came into my mind. Like I remember being that younger organizer and older folks just kind of like not making space and me having to push through. And so my commitment to young people has been, even if I think your idea might not work, my responsibility is to make sure that you have all you need so there is a possibility. And if it doesn’t work, there’s a learning opportunity in that. And so we’ve gotta also be, you know, open to the idea that young people will fail and make their own mistakes because we failed and made our own mistakes.

And so I wanted to say that because there’s so many organizations, so many people that are like tokenizing young people and/or like moving their agenda through young people and not allowing the space for their ideas to flourish and for them to become better human beings, number one, but also good at their craft. Organizing is a craft and a skill that nobody prepares you for unless you fall flat on your butt a couple of times. And so my responsibility in making sure that this, you know, that our container of organizers continues to grow and like evolve and shift is to like sit back and allow the next generation to experiment.

Vanessa: I love it. Yep. And if they fail, they fail, but it’s also a space to fail safely, right. And I think it’s like, there’s nothing that you’re gonna do that can’t be fixed. And it’s also the whole entirety of democracy is not riding on you and this one event or this one campaign or this one door knock, like it’s okay, it’s okay. So let’s get a little personal. I know you guys talked about why you organize, but what has been, as you mentioned, Arekia, some of the failures that, you know, organizers have, and you will fail again and again and again and again, but can you give us a little bit, if it’s not too embarrassing, a little bit of your worst organizing fail. We’ve all had ’em like nobody shows up at the event cause you forgot to do something or your boss shows up an hour late and people are yelling at you. Let’s go who’s first? Jordan? We’ll go with Jordan first.

Jordan: Oh man. Okay. I don’t know if it’s a failure. I mean, so I’ll be honest. I’m an executive director that doesn’t like to raise money. So does that exist? Yes. You’re listening to one now. Does that mean that I don’t raise money? No, because I raise it every day, but I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. Not an organizing fail, that was a flaw. A fail would have been I was so discouraged one day, we were doing a voter registration effort. This was years ago. I was probably all of 20 years old. This was right before I went back to Boys and Girls Club. We had a voter registration goal to hit, and I was so discouraged because I didn’t hit that goal and none of the staff was hitting the goal. And instead of being active that day, my time on turf was really low. I just sat under a tree and just sat there my whole shift.

And when I came back into the office, I was like, “Yeah, nobody wanted to register.” I was so discouraged, but I did not understand how to work. I was such a fresh, green, wet, behind the years organizer. It was not successful. And I had to come back into the office. At the time I was not with Georgia Shift then, I was with another grassroots organization and I had to explain what was going on. And I was actually the lead organizer for that day. And instead of reaching back and saying, “Hey, I need help. I need strategy. I need training.” I just kind of, you know, I let myself, I guess, my feelings get in the way. I’m like, this is not… Everyone in organizing have those days and we’re like, you know what, maybe we should just go to corporate or maybe we should just take a sick-day today.

Like just a moment of transparency. We’ve all had those moments where we reconsidered our roles, but it wasn’t until we did organizing around public education. So where we had young folks and our senior population coming up, thanking us for the work that we had done to protect public schools in Richmond County and across Georgia. It wasn’t until then when I realized, you know what, we’re gonna be okay. But I guess the biggest fail had was just giving up that day. It was just like, you know, maybe we should try something else. But I sat under a tree for my shift. I came back to the office and was like, “I gave it all I had.”

And I think we all have those days when we just give it all we have and hope for the best afterwards. But I said that to say this, when we do specific voter registration now or we do specific outreach now and my canvassers come back into the office, looking discouraged. I’m able to tell that story. They see me as the executive director, but you know, years ago I was the canvasser. I was going door to door. I was being like I said, stiff-armed when I was trying to reach my goal. I guess that’s a fail, but I consider it a learning moment, opportunity to learn and do better.

Vanessa: One hundred percent. I love it. Yeah. Thank you. And I asked the question because it’s gonna happen, right? But you just gotta take the steps and try because even if you help one person out of a hundred, you helped one person out a hundred that can start a chain reaction, right? All right. Miss Arekia, how about you?

Arekia: Oh man. I was fighting the urge to say every day. Every day it’s something. And like if I’m being completely honest and I think I said this in some way, nobody prepares you to be the executive director and nobody prepares you to be the organizer. Nobody. People just kind of expect you to know, right? So I was 25 when I started the role as executive director. Before then, I was, you know, just organizing and doing digital stuff and communications and organizing young people on college campuses. But executive director means you are responsible for everything and everybody.

And my mama used to say, “It ain’t easy because you see me do it.” And I tell people that all the time, “It ain’t easy because you see me do it.” But one of the biggest failures, well, so many failures at the turn of my leadership was, you know, you adopt this 1, 2, 3, A, B, C, you gotta do it this way. Like you forget how to be cleanly raggedy because organizing, you gotta be raggedy. You gotta be. But as the director, there’s, you know, this mentality of step by step and then you forget, and you kind of disconnect from the team a little bit because it’s like, “Why you not doing it like this? “And that’s not their reality. And so I remember crying in my office a couple of times, like, “Why is nobody listening to me? And like how can I be a better leader?”

And I had to sit there and be like, you know, the vulnerability that you once had as an organizer is no longer present in your leadership. And so you have to be able to be human and direct, but also be accessible and touchable and not expecting something that is like unrealistic for the mind of an organizer as a director. And so that is just one situation where I’ve had to check myself, not necessarily a flaw, not a flaw, but a failure, but you know, one instance where, you know, there are moments in leadership where you’re just trying to figure it out like everybody else, but you’re going through a whole different internal struggle because it’s the leadership role.

As an organizer, I was always very strategic, very meticulous, and careful about how, you know, events were planned and how we did certain things. But there were so many times where, you know, I thought we had done all of the things that we were supposed to do in terms of like getting people childcare and getting people food, and like having, you know, media and press around these big things that we were doing. And then like maybe five or six people would show up, and I would cry. I would cry that you learn that. But I think part of the disconnect there is also not understanding that you can’t have a screening of something about something that’s disconnected from people’s everyday lives.

Like nobody’s coming to Jackson from DeSoto county to watch a documentary. Nobody’s doing that. People want you to come to their community and engage with them on a very personal level. And until we can like divorce ourselves from this very hierarchal nonprofit status, we can organize our people better. So those are just some of the instances where we consistently, organizationally have to check ourselves, check our relationships, and be mindful of how we are engaging people. Not just young people, but Mississippians in general.

Vanessa: Yep. Yep. Oh, I love that. I know I have also fought those tears. Where is everybody? It’s like, it’s your own birthday party. “Why’d nobody come? Nobody likes me. I didn’t do it right.” So thank you all so much. I think those, as you pointed out that vulnerability to be able to share those stories helps people feel like I can do this. I can totally do this. And even if it doesn’t go the way I wanted to go, it’s a step back, but I can still move forward, right? Thank you both for sharing those stories. I know that this year is gonna be hard. We’ve heard from communities of color that, you know, they don’t wanna, like what was the point? Right? They haven’t gotten a lot that they thought would happen with this administration that has moved forward on some promises, not on all promises.

We’re still dealing with COVID. A lot of us pushed so hard for our communities to get out, to vote last round. We had, you know, elders, we had, you know, children running around, waiting in line for hours upon hours upon hours to vote, right? And now we have state legislatures across the country, introducing bills to make it even harder and more restrictive. And so I say that just to remind everybody kind of what we’re working with and what we’re going into and that people like you and the lessons that you are teaching us about coming to the community, talking to people about what they care about, making it issue-specific, right?

It’s just not the moral imperative conversation. It’s about why voting matters to them, is something I really hope that people take and will remember as we’re all trying to move to make this work and make our democracy stronger and push back against some of these bad bills. Are you all thinking about anything in particular that you feel like, woo, we’re gonna have to do that really different this round?

Jordan: This is a hard one. it’s a hard one. I would say everything. I think for me, we have to do a better job at listening to, number one, what folks are saying and what I mean by folks, I mean, we need to listen to what the base is saying. We need to be able to galvanize the pulse better. If someone is out talking about why they’re dissatisfied with an administration, it’s not our job to fuss back and say why they shouldn’t be. Our job should be to listen. Our job should be to figure out what the issues are. And we do that by a storytelling campaign. We go out and just collect storytelling from the perspective of non-traditional voters, young voters, folks who aren’t really engaged in everyday politics, but they do have a voice in what’s going on because they’re experiencing it.

So I think for me, and, and for this state, it is listening better, understanding what’s going on better, taking our time listening, not preaching. And then not only that, but what are we doing outside of election cycles? I’ve always said that if we turn out the vote in a substantial way, I mean, youth voted higher in this past cycle than I believe in, you know, since the Obama years. And that was pretty substantial. But what are we doing outside of election cycle? I think if we’re waiting until election years to start galvanizing and start organizing young people, I think we’ve waited way too late. I mean, we are having to right now go back and do what we didn’t do before in order to be successful or to have some type of, you know, successful outcomes this next cycle.

So for me, I think we need to do a better job listening, and then we need to do a better job in engaging young voters throughout the entire year, cycle or not. Because when it comes time to vote, it just makes things more complicated because like you said, folks are wondering, well, what was the point? What is the point? And the whole time, it’s our job to help them understand that they’re the hands like they’re that they are the energy that we need to be able to us to this next cycle. If you wanna see certain results, we gotta show up and make ’em happen.

And I will even take some type of ownership for this as well. I don’t think that we have done the best job that we can, where organizing the vote outside of the cycle is concerned. I think that is gonna be so key, is that after the election, the day after the results come out, we have to continue to organize. We’ve got to continue working as if there’s an election tomorrow. And I don’t think that we do that nearly as enough, you know than what we already do.

Vanessa: I appreciate that.

Jordan: That’s a tough answer. It’s very tough question.

Vanessa: Yeah. It is something we’re all wrestling with, right? What does that look like? Where you can do it, recognizing the humanity and everything that people are going through, but also the urgency of this is how you’re gonna save the democracy, right? So I appreciate that. Final question. As we’ve noted, this is tough. This is hard work. It’s hard every day to keep going. But for some reason, we all keep going. It feels like you are born into doing this and that this is what drives you and moves you. And I think oftentimes you can’t envision a world or a life where you don’t do this in some way.

I know even our boss, Wade Henderson, who ran the leadership conference for over 20 years, stepped away. He retired or he thought he was gonna retire, and we brought him back and he’s continuing this work well into an age where he should be enjoying his retirement, but we’re so grateful he came back. So with that and with knowing all that this is, the final question that we have for all of our guests is what gives you hope. So I’m gonna turn this over to Arekia. What gives you hope?

Arekia: What’s giving me hope, always gonna be the young people who are a part of our program. So we have about five different fellowship programs. One of them is strictly for women, girls, and non-binary folks. And then there’s another for college students. Another for folks who don’t have a traditional educational route, like who aren’t in college, but like wanna be in Mississippi and wanna organize. And then another, for folks who’ve been formerly incarcerated, who’ve been convicted with one of Mississippi’s disenfranchised in crimes or their family members.

So all of the young people who are connected to our work connected to our vision, give me hope that like at any moment now I can sit down and the work is in good hands. And truly, you know, the folks of Mississippi are a resilient people. Like, I don’t know if you’ve ever been here, but people love each other in a way that, like, I don’t think the rest of the country knows about.

Like I understand what headlines tell you, but unless you’ve been here, unless you know the people who live next door to me, unless you go to church with us, like you don’t know who we are, but the fact that you know, we are and have been teaching the country and the rest of the world, how to organize and how to resist. And that continues to be our tradition. I know that you, any moment now and possibly during my lifetime, this idea of democracy, this experiment of democracy in the truest and purest form will become a reality because we exist.

Vanessa: I wanna go work for you. This is fantastic. Don’t tell Wade, okay? Jordan, what gives…

Jordan: I would have to agree. I think about the people who we’re serving, I think about why Georgia Shift even exists. We exist to be able to serve disenfranchised youth. We’re here to serve young people and give them a seat at the table of democracy, building youth power. I look at our young folks and I see how, as we stated earlier, they’re not apathetic they just, you know, if you don’t ask, you’re not gonna receive. I look at them as being folks who, even though they have, you know, fought through a pandemic, this generation, Gen Z and other generations have been through, you know, pandemics and 9/11, and two economic crashes. And all of this hurt, all of this, you know, discord, I guess I can say they still come back. They’re still trying to go to college. They’re still attempting to graduate high school. They’re still trying to work even though wages are low, they’re still coming back and they have hope.

And I think what gives me hope is the fact that they have hope. And they may not say it’s hope, they may not refer to what they have as being hope, but you know what it is because you know, youth turnout is not 0%. They’re still going to the polls. You know, Greek fraternities and sororities are still getting members every year. They’re not just there to have friends. They’re there to make a difference. Community service is still happening. And I think that for me, if I were to walk away or if Georgia Shift was to never exist again, we would be doing a disservice to the folks who know that there’s something wrong and not necessarily know how to get it done, we would be doing them a disservice.

And so we serve to be that how. There’s so many ideas and so many reasons why, but that how, you know, is why we exist. And so what gives me hope is the fact that young folks are still showing up, young folks are still being strong, we’re still creating, we’re still organizing, we’re still building, regardless of whatever stump comes in our way. It’s kind of like Areka said, every day is something else. We wake up, we do the best we can, we hope that we make it, but that hope that I have is because of the hope that they have, it’s the strength that they have.

And I just say, if I didn’t do this work, or if I decided to walk away from it, what would I be saying or doing? I mean, what would I look like, you know, not being side by side with other strong young people? And so I’m excited about the future because the future is here. I spoke to some college students yesterday. I told ’em. I said, “You all aren’t the future.” They looked at me like, “What are you talking about?” I said, “You guys are the now, you’re right now, the future’s not guaranteed.” And so, if any college campus you go to, any community you go to, you see the future in live display. So we have nothing to worry about.

Vanessa: Oh, I love that. Speaking to the two of you is exactly what I know I needed. And I’m sure what tons of people who have anxiety out there about what is to come to need to hear. It’s real, y’all, don’t pay attention to the national headlines about, you know, despair and what this can look like. This is great. These are just two of the amazing people that we have fighting the fight in real-time.

So again, that question, Arekia, was, we know that we’re going into a really hard time. There’s a lot of things stacked up against us. A lot of people saying, “Why should I vote? It didn’t matter last time.” We’re still living with COVID, right. And we know we’ve had to change some of our organizing tactics and style. So what are you thinking about for your outreach and how you move people to the polls and to care about their issues? What are you recognizing that you’re just gonna have to do differently this round?

Arekia: Yeah. The pandemic rather posed a different kind of threat on organizers and our ability to move. We have always done door to door. We’ve always sent mail, we’ve always done the text bank and the phone bank and all of the traditional things. And we’ve had to get really innovative about like using geo-targetted ads and like getting people that way and using billboards and all of that. But what I’ve come to know is that none of that matters if people don’t trust your organization. People don’t know who you are, they gonna throw your mail away, right?

And so 2020 made us so emotional and made us really sit back and think. And so last year, 2021, we didn’t run a lot of our programs, but because we were like young people are demanding something different and the voters are saying, “We don’t know y’all.” And so we’re just like, “Wait a minute.” And so we’ve been really relevant on college campuses for the last three and a half years, but we haven’t been as relevant in community. And so like the communities that the colleges are sit situated in, yeah, they know who MSD is, but what about those rural communities? What about, you know, the towns where all the mom and pop shops are? Like we have not done our due diligence in serving all of Mississippi. And so we’ve developed our expansion strategy that we’re calling the future.

And what that means is we are going to set up satellite offices across the state and really do statewide organizing and really be in people’s backyards, their living rooms, their churches, because what good is it to move all of this messaging and nobody trusts the messenger. So that is what we’re gonna be up to. And we are going to also continue listening to communities. So we’ve held several focus groups in 2021 to help us reenvision our youth programs. But now we’re going to utilize focus groups and community groups and stakeholders to assess a lot of our communal-centered programs that are not just on college campuses. So looking forward to the challenge of that, because we know that organizing sometimes we think we have the best of the best ideas, but people who live it day to day have the better idea about how we can serve them, so.

Vanessa: I love it. Oh, you all are amazing. Thank you so much. Anything that we can do to support your efforts, including by saying, if you get a mail piece from any of these organizations, please read it, don’t toss it. Pick up that phone call, make sure you talk to that young person who’s on your door because think about how brave they have to be to give up a weekend to do this and to do this work and they know what it’s for and how they’re moving forward. So this has been a phenomenal conversation. I know I have learned a lot. I appreciate the work that you all do so much. Thank you again to the amazing Arekia Bennett-Scott from Executive Director at Mississippi Votes and the wonderful Jordan Johnson, Executive Director at Georgia Shift. Thank you all so much.

Jordan: Thank you.

Arekia: Thank you for having us.

Jordan: It’s been a pleasure.

Arekia: Absolutely.

Vanessa: Thank you again to our incredible guests for joining “Pod for the Cause.” 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. And you can text us. Text “civil rights,” that’s two words, “civil rights” to 52199 to keep up with our latest updates. Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast app and leave that five-star review. Until next time, I’m Vanessa Gonzalez. Thanks for listening to “Pod for the Cause.”