Getting out the vote is vital work, but how do you get people to that starting line in the first place? SONG has been working alongside communities in the South for decades, meeting the needs of their neighbors where they live while building up political muscle. Hear how that work came to fruition in 2020’s races to elect new county sheriffs in Georgia, as SONG Power campaign lead Robert-John Hinojosa traces the organization’s past and present with hosts Holly Anderson and Marcus Patrick Ellsworth.
SONG Power – https://unleashpower.org/
Movement for Black Lives – https://m4bl.org
MIJENTE – https://mijente.net
GLAHR – https://glahr.org
Sister Song – https://www.sistersong.net
Ground Game: Georgia is a production of unir.
EPISODE 01: WHERE THE SOUTH GOES IS WHERE THE NATION’S GONNA GO – TRANSCRIPT
HOLLY ANDERSON, HOST: There are these really great signs going up all over Atlanta that say, “Vote” and then at the bottom it’s like “One More Time.” That’s the campaign.
MARCUS ELLSWORTH, HOST: Perfect.
HOLLY: I love it.
JON OSSOFF: “This all about turnout and enthusiasm and energy and getting Georgians back out to the polls.”
LATOSHA BROWN: “We know that there is power in numbers and when we work together we win. You gotta be in the game to win it.”
RAPHAEL WARNOCK: “Listen this is a Georgia race and I’m Georgia.”
JEEZY: “This probably going to be one of the most important elections ever. There’s a lot at stake.”
JON OSSOFF: “We are already running the most ambitious voter registration and get out the vote effort in American history, here.”
ROBERT-JOHN HINOJOSA: “Where the South goes is where the nation’s gonna go. We’re bellwethers.”
MARCUS: Welcome to GROUND GAME: GEORGIA.
HOLLY: From Atlanta, I’m Holly Anderson.
MARCUS: And from Chattanooga, Tennessee, right across the border, I am Marcus Ellsworth. While the election is over in most of the country Georgia is having a very decisive runoff election.
HOLLY: Not just one decisive runoff election.
MARCUS: But two. That could very well change the balance of power in the Senate.
HOLLY: If you’re following this election at all, you’re probably familiar already with amazing work of Stacey Abrams and organizations like Fair Fight. They are the sun of organizing power in Georgia. We are here to show you the stars and planets. Because, as Stacey herself would tell you, she didn’t do this alone.
MARCUS: So here on GROUND GAME: GEORGIA, we will be talking to the folks who are doing that work. People who have turned to their neighbors and taken to the streets to exercise the full extent of their rights in order to change the political landscape of Georgia itself, who are among the most innovative and successful community activists this country has ever seen.
HOLLY: And this work didn’t start in 2020. It didn’t even start in 2016. The very first organization we’re featuring has been organizing on the ground in Georgia and around the South for decades.
MARCUS: And that work is going to continue, not just through this election, but long after this runoff is over. For almost 30 years, SONG, also known as Southerners On New Ground has been working across the Southeast to build power around the LGBTQ community. Everything from organizing communities, mutual aid, building up the power of the people, and making a difference in ways that go far beyond just voting. We spoke with Robert-John Hinojosa from SONG Power, and he covers quite a bit of the topics that we are going to be addressing as we go along on this journey. And without further ado here is Robert-John from SONG Power.
ROBERT-JOHN: I’mma do my whole spiel.
HOLLY: Yeah, go for it.
MARCUS & HOLLY: Go for it.
ROBERT-JOHN: Just do my thing.
ROBERT-JOHN: Hey, my name is Robert-John. Two words, one name. Very Southern, very sexy. I use he and him pronouns. I live in West Columbia, South Carolina, and I’m with SONG Power, and currently I am the Campaign Lead. Southerners on New Ground is an organization that started in 1993. We’ve been organizing in the South for the last 30 years, specifically in Georgia and North Carolina, but representing 16 Southern states. And what we do as abolitionists is bring queer and LGBT issues and integrate them into freedom struggles here in the South, and we do that by using tools such as storytelling, electoral process, as well as organizing in our communities. We do political education, which is huge for us, and we utilize those tools in order to build community, our beloved community, and establish not only political power, but community power, and for us to be able to move our agendas and ideas forward, which we believe is liberation in our lifetime and that we should be living free from fear. So we’ve been organizing in Georgia for about 25 years, and overall North Carolina, 28 years, and throughout the South for the last 20 years, since 2000, consciously organizing from Louisiana all the way to Virginia and including Florida, to really build political power, because we believe where the South goes is where the nation’s going to go, right? We’re bellwethers. And we also know that the right uses the South as an experimental ground for all their policies and experiments. That’s been happening since Goldwater.
HOLLY: Quick footnote: You may have learned in history class, I hope you learned in history class, about Goldwater, about Nixon, about the Southern Strategy, but you may not realize that the South is still being used today as a proving ground for policies that conservative think-tanks, that big scary churches, that
(big scary church conservative think-tanks, want to make federal law.
MARCUS: Some fairly recent examples are anti-trans bathroom bills, or attacks on marriage equality, and pretty regularly, attacks on abortion access. Those usually get a test run in some southern states before moving to the Northwest and then to the rest of the country.
HOLLY: And there’s a reason that this strategy keeps getting deployed. It’s because so far, it’s worked.
MARCUS: Very reliably.
HOLLY: One crucial aspect of SONG’s mission is nipping campaigns like these at the root, where they start
ROBERT-JOHN: So I get a lot of questions about what the Southerners on New Ground, and what is New Ground. We believe the old South is going to fall, and as it falls and crumbles, we’re going to create a new South, and that new South will be on new ground, hallowed ground, ground that recognized the indigenous peoples who were murdered so this land could be here, and to recognize the black bodies that were stolen to build this land, to create this empire. As we drop monuments, we’re dropping the old South in its totality. Southerners on New Ground is a (c)(3) organization. And around the mid-2000s, as we really started building our analysis around what we needed for our community. That leads us into establishing a (c)(4), and the (c)(4) being the bully arm of the (c)(3).
HOLLY: So SONG and SONG Power are 2 groups with very similar missions. They’re very closely aligned, but they have to exist as 2 separate groups for IRS reasons.
MARCUS: SONG is the 501 (c)(3) arm of the organization. That means it is a non-profit that can take donations and can do work in the community but it cannot be politically engaged. It can’t endorse candidates, can’t really get involved in partisan politics. However, SONG Power is a 501 (c)(4), also a non-profit, but it has the leeway where it can actually get politically engaged. The organization itself can take stances on issues and even candidates while still maintaining it’s non-profit status.
ROBERT-JOHN: We wanted to take it to the next level, utilize our skillsets that we have, and be able to organize our community. We also recognize in doing that, that our people are in VAN or in Votivate or any of the majority tools the United States uses to recognize and identify voters.
HOLLY: Databases like VAN and Votivate are used by political parties to track the number of voters they have in an area and to develop policies on behalf of those voters. Lots and lots of LGBTQ folks, particularly trans folks, end up left out of the census and thus left out of voter databases because, in 2020, the gender binary still exists in the United States census. The census form that you filled out back in the spring, only asks if you’re male or female. The realization that SONG and other groups came to lead to an incredibly ambitious undertaking: They built their own database.
ROBERT-JOHN: So building that, recognizing that, using that database of our people, of our community, would help us to laser focus what we wanted to do with the (c)(4). We needed to decide what fights we were going to get into and what those fights were going to look like. So we knew GA for sure, so we decided to throw down in Gwinnett and Cobb County in the fight for the sheriffs. The sheriffs upheld 287G, which allows police officers to operate as ICE agents and police stations to operate as ICE detention centers, and police forces then receive an enormous amount of money from the federal government to not only pay those folks but to militarize their agencies. So then we wanted to have sheriffs who are going to be like, “Nah, I don’t fuck with 287G. I don’t want my community to be in fear, or nor do I want to completely racially profile my community, either, right? We’re here to protect and serve.”
HOLLY: How did you guys determine the strategy for reaching these people in Cobb and Gwinnett? And then how did you go about implementing that? Like what did that look like on the ground?
ROBERT-JOHN: What we really talked about in very early, was like, what is our strategy? How are we going to go about and connect with our communities in Gwinnett and Cobb Counties? As part of our campaigns to be free from fear, which SONG, Southerners On New Ground, as a C3 runs a number of campaigns, #meltICE, #EndMoneyBail, #BlackMamaBailouts. So now we took that C3 energy and those campaigns that were running around like community needs and then put some of those resources into electoral process to flip those sheriffs out. We did all that because we really build relationships with that community. We already had a database of folks that we already throwing down with, people who have, who have known us for decades at this point, and relationships built with other communities and other organizations. And our campaigns are not transactional. And that’s where, and for us in South Carolina, Georgia, we differ from the Republicans and the Democrats. They come into your cultural centers, to your places of worship, to your communities and want you to give them something: to vote. And they’re going to promise you, they’re going to do these grand things and you’re not going to see them again until they come back.
MARCUS: What Robert-John is getting into here is a far too common occurrence where underserved communities get outreach from candidates and other organizations promising them, “hey, if you vote for us or you support what we’re doing, we’re gonna change things in your community,” but then once the community delivers for that candidate, that campaign, they are then ignored until the next election season which is why those communities remain underserved.
ROBERT-JOHN: We wanted our campaigns to be transformative. So we had a back to school event in North Charleston, where we gave 100 book bags out filled with school supplies and PPE, and we fed 100 families in the communities that we set up posts at. And we’re not concerned whether they were registered to vote or not. They may not want to fucking vote. They may not believe in the electoral process. What I need them to do is, be comfortable, be fed, and then we can have conversations about abolition and liberation. And maybe through those conversations, through building relationships, through building community, we can come to a consensus and maybe you can throw down with us in electoral process. Or you might just do the education stuff, and I’m cool with that. Our relationships cannot be transactional. We’ve been treated as commodities before. We’ve been treated, our bodies and communities, as things that can be exchanged and bartered. We’re not going to do that to our people and we’re not going to do it over an electoral process for sure, one that never has been beneficial to us on the long term. But we want to change that, right? So in order to change that, we are going to have broader conversations. We have to get deeper. That’s why we have those relationships in GA. That’s why, when we’re in Gwinnett and Cobb County in 2020 in the midst of a pandemic, we figured out a hybrid way to connect with 150,000 black and brown community members. We did it in English and Spanish. We did it in ASL. We created spaces and curated spaces that we wanted our communities to be part of, that we would feel safe in.
MARCUS: Cobb and Gwinnett counties both set all-time voter turnout records in the 2020 presidential election. Gwinnett had an increase of 25% over 2016’s turnout.
ROBERT-JOHN: Once we, once our crew was down, what we did is then build on the people we’ve already been dealing with and doing what we call relational to relational organizing. And what we did is, I know five people I’m throwing down with, “Hey, five people, you connect to another five people with this message. So you’re the block leader because we’re Knock Your Block, right? So you’re the block leader.” As you knock your block, you’re collecting five names that are people like, “yeah, yeah, I’m down with this.” I connect with them. I drop off literature, any type of information they need, because they’re going to knock the block with five other family members. And they’re going to keep doing that so that you’re not canvassing in the traditional way where a group of people show up and knocking on strangers’ doors. You are organizing your own people, your own community. We’re not hiring somebody from, not even from Birmingham to organize in GA. We’re not hiring somebody from Chicago to organize in GA. We’re hiring people in Gwinnett, and we’re hiring people in Cobb, to throw down in Gwinnett and Cobb. We’re hiring people in ATL. We’re hiring people in Columbus, in Athens. Because we’re also here to be sustainable as well, right? Again, I’m not here to be exploitative and I’m not here to be transactional. So if I want to build in those communities then I should give the resources that we have to our communities. I want to build the equity in our own communities, and they’re the people that are going to tell us what we need to do. Those why our campaigns were successful. We flipped the old sheriffs out and got new representation. And that’s how we’re approaching the runoff, as well. We’re building within our community. We’re reaching out. We are going to really bump up our mutual aid.
MARCUS: Mutual aid is when communities actually work to help each other. It’s not transactional as Robert-John was talking about in some other examples. It’s where everyone is part of a system of help. No one is being helped out of a situation, no one is being infantilized or coming in as a savior. Those kinds of structures are broken down. In mutual aid, everyone benefits from the relationships that are established and everyone has resources that are valuable to the common goal.
ROBERT-JOHN: So community resources in the way of coat drives, doing more food for the community, also figuring out how we can plug in with other health care organizations to see how we can get folks influenza shots, right, and also education around COVID and the pandemic. What information do they need to be safe? We want, in the next seven weeks as we’re doing this runoff, to let people know what’s up, why this is paramount for us as a nation but also we still have needs on the ground that are happening right now. We need to be aware and concentrated on those needs as we build this. And we’re going to do it at the same time. We can chew gum and walk. We’ve been able to do it. And that’s why I’m honored and blessed to be around these dope ass queers who like, who are like, “You know what? We’re going to run shit in GA,” and running shit, right? Flipping GA.
HOLLY: If there are people outside your organization or outside the community of your organization who want to help today, what is the best way for them to do that?
ROBERT-JOHN: 100% for us is funding. To all the “hit me up, too” Karen and Kens, mad love. I love y’all, but no, I don’t need you to show up. I don’t need you to do a TikTok for us. Your best intention is to write a check, is to give us stock, is to give us any resources that we can utilize with the best intention. Because our people’s lives depend on it. Trust black and Brown people and queer people to know what they need in their communities. Throw those, throw those coins. We like racks and stacks, give it to us and we’ll make it happen. And that’s what we’ve been doing. And we’ve been doing it for 30 years strong. We’re going to do it until our family has liberation, ’til all our communities are liberated.
HOLLY: If folks hear this and want to throw in today, where can people donate to you, and what is the best way for them to stay up to date with what SONG is doing?
ROBERT-JOHN: Unleashpower.org will land, is the platform that will land you to everything you need. So when you go to unleashpower.org you’re gonna learn everything about our C3, our C4, our event calendars, where you can plug in, and where you can donate. So unleashpower.org connects you to everything, then from there you can go and sign up for our social media, sign up to get emails, just look at our awesome pictures of awesome, beautiful queer folk. And there’s a lot of us and we’re super shiny and pretty. So you should check it out. You should be on that website right now.
HOLLY: We cannot thank Robert-John enough for the time and the intel and the hilarity that he shared with us. These are all things that we are extremely short on at the end of 2020. Thank you.
MARCUS: And you can follow Robert-John on Facebook at Robert-John.Hinojosa.
HOLLY: You can find SONG and SONG Power on social media at @ignitekindred and @songpowerC4.
MARCUS: And you can follow us on Twitter and Instagram @groundgamepod. And visit our website at groundgamepod.com.
HOLLY: Join us next week, as we venture further into the Georgia political landscape around the Senate elections from the ground up.
MARCUS: Until next time for Ground Game Pod, I’m Marcus Ellsworth.
HOLLY: And I’m Holly Anderson.
MARCUS: And y’all stay safe and be good to each other out there.
DOUGLAS REYES-CERON: Our show is produced by the Ground Game: Georgia volunteer militia with help from Amelia Baker. Editing by me, Douglas Reyes-Ceron, and Arlill Rodriguez. Our theme is by the amazing Johnathan Sanford. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Design by Jazmine Johnson. Nicole Mackey runs our social. Ground Game: Georgia is a production of unir.
HOLLY: That was great!