Episode 03: An Organizing Mindset

The history of civic engagement is one of coalition building, a process which takes more labor than you can imagine. Now imagine running a coalition composed entirely of other coalitions. Tamieka Atkins, the Executive Director of the non-partisan voter advocacy organization ProGeorgia, sits down with hosts Marcus Ellsworth and Holly Anderson for an extended interview on the flashpoint that brought her to civic engagement work, community-led models of organizing, and the overshadowed public service commissioner race that’s happening alongside the Senate runoffs. 

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Ground Game: Georgia is a production of unir.

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EPISODE 03: AN ORGANIZING MINDSET – TRANSCRIPT

HOLLY ANDERSON, HOST: Knock knock.

MARCUS ELLSWORTH, HOST: Who’s there?

HOLLY: The balance of power in the Senate is going to come down to Georgia.

(Theme Music)

JON OSSOFF: “Hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance; millions of livelihoods and jobs and homes and businesses.”

ERICA PINES: “Because one thing that we know is that people are tired and people need relief.”

MARCHERS: “V-O-T-E! Vote, vote, vote, vote!”

REVEREND WARNOCK: “I am hoping all across the stateof Georgia and I’m talking to real Georgians who are struggling with real issue.”

TONI WATKINS: “It looks like it happened overnight, but we have been out here doing this work for 4,6,8, 12 years.”

MARCUS: Welcome to Ground Game: Georgia.

HOLLY: From Atlanta, I’m Holly Anderson.

MARCUS: And I’m Marcus Ellsworth, just across the border in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

HOLLY: We’ve talked already on this show about how people like Stacey Abrams and organizations like Fair Fight are seen as the sun in Georgia’s organizational sky. They’re very shiny, they reach a lot of people. But we want to shift our telescopes a bit this week and show you some of the stars and planets, activists and organizations that shine just as brightly in a little bit of a different direction.

MARCUS: And today as the lovable misfit crew of a metaphorical starship, we have an entire arm of the spiral galaxy to show you. ProGeorgia is not just one organization, but a network of close to 40 partners who work together to ensure Georgia voters can fully participate in the electoral process. We’ll be talking about those organizations more at the end of today’s episode.

HOLLY: But first, we spoke with a woman at the helm of coordinating all of these groups, ProGeorgia Executive Director, Tamieka Atkins.

MARCUS: And we are so excited to have her on our podcast. Because when people are talking about the Black women who have helped to flip Georgia, the leadership that has made such a huge impact in this state, Tamieka Atkins is at the top of that list. She’s one of those organizers that I look to, and I know many others look to, as a prime example of how to do that work with integrity and dedication. And quite frankly, she’s a role model for a lot of us. 

HOLLY: We could not be more honored that she found the time to share some of her stories and some of her insight with us today.

TAMIEKA ATKINS: Can you hear me well? Do you hear any background noise?

MARCUS: Pretty clear to me.

TAMIEKA: All right. Good afternoon. My name is Tamieka Atkins. I’m the executive director of ProGeorgia. We are Georgia’s state-based table and I coordinate the civic engagement and voter registration plans of 38 different grassroots organizations across the state.

MARCUS: So what led you to this work? Is this a lifelong journey that’s culminated to where you are now or was there a particular turning point that activated you?

TAMIEKA: I was born in Trinidad. I came over to the US when I was three, and I grew up in New York. And you know, what activated me was the murder of Amadou Diallo. He was an African immigrant who was shot 41 times by police and I think he was maybe 19 years of age and I really thought that the police officers would be held accountable. And I was devastated at the outcome of the trial and that just led me on this path of social justice, equality and equity. And I’ve never looked back. So I worked at MC International, the US section for nearly seven years. I then worked at the National Domestic Workers Alliance. I created and built up their Atlanta chapter and when I left, we had over 1500 members of nannies, housekeepers or homecare workers, primarily Black and African diaspora, organizing for rights and dignity and safety, frankly, in the workplace. That’s when the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion came on the scene and we found out that many of our chapter members fell into the coverage gap, and that Medicaid expansion would be life changing for them. And we found out that our state was not planning to accept the free money over three years, six subsidy expansion.

HOLLY: Yep, it’s the year of our Lord: 2020. We are eight or nine months into the biggest global health crisis in any of our lifetimes. And Georgia is still among the states refusing Medicaid expansion. Governor Brian Kemp floated his own retooling late last year, a plan the Brookings Institute, not exactly known for being a leftist leaning think tank, said would likely cause tens of thousands of Georgia residents to lose their health insurance coverage. That’s a quote.

TAMIEKA: We held press conferences and interviews with domestic workers leading the work. Our governor at the time decided to give up his ability to implement Medicaid expansion and that was the next pivot. For me, in my work was social justice, which was if folks aren’t serving the people, then we need to vote them out. And that’s how I got involved with voter registration and civic engagement. What would it look like for domestic workers to be a base, a powerful voting base, and in 2016, I actually transitioned over to ProGeorgia, the state table that supported me at the Domestic Workers Alliance when we started our voter registration and civic engagement work. And I’ve been at ProGeorgia and doing voting rights work since then.

MARCUS: When Tamika is talking about a state table or table partners, the table she was referring to is an egalitarian working partnership between organizations who share a common goal. For a national example, see the Movement for Black Lives policy table, which is made of over 50 Black-led organizations with a vested interest in enacting inclusive racial justice policies.

TAMIEKA: I think I do this work a little differently. I do this work with an organizing framework, right, and an organizing lens. And, you know, I think that’s been part of the success of ProGeorgia and our partners over the last seven years.

MARCUS: What does that mean to have an organizing mindset? Could you define that real quick for the people who might not be familiar with organizing work?

TAMIEKA: For me, it means that we don’t look at voter registration as something that’s transactional, that we as table partners, we don’t show up in September and register people to vote and then walk away. It also means that voting, we believe that, voting is part of an overall power building strategy but not the only strategy and not the singular answer to improving the quality and conditions of life. For Black and Brown people in Georgia, it means that any of our work in our campaigns, you put the most marginalized folks at the center of the work and that means that our priorities are determined by, by the folks that we are working for and with. So we’re not looking at a top down model, right, we’re looking at a community-led model and it also means that for the folks doing this work, and how we choose to do our work with community organizations, the budget is not infinite. And we can go into how structural racism shows up in the world of philanthropy but it can mean that organizations may not be able to always provide what they’d like to provide for their team for their staff. Right, we are working twice as hard, right? And so at ProGeorgia, we look at the folks who are doing this work again, because we intentionally have leadership from Black and Brown communities. And what does it mean to make sure that we are advocating and supporting all of our table partners to be able to pay their campuses $15 an hour? That’s a part of the voter registration and civic engagement work that the people who are doing this work are also good and healthy and whole, right? What are we modeling? What are we leaving behind? How we win is just as important, if not more important, right? And that’s what we want the world to look like 500 years from now, because this is not going to be a one generation thing. And so transactional voter registration, and transactional civic engagement is not going to build us that long term transformation that we’re looking for.

MARCUS: ProGeorgia organizes people through issue-based engagement. So what does it look like to base outreach around issues? And how do ya’ll determine which issues to focus on?

TAMIEKA: So the way that we do our work with voter registration and civic engagement, our partners are all local grassroots community organizations that are already institutions, in their neighborhoods in their communities, right. Many of our partners like Atlanta Jobs with Justice, like GeorgiaWAND, like 9to5 Working Women’s Association, they are already organizing with Black and Brown folks, they’re either providing direct services from English as a second language class, to citizenship classes, to providing food pantries, to, you know, at the Domestic Workers Alliance, we would provide CPR trainings, so that domestic workers can be trained up and then advocate for better wages with the families that they were working for. And how ProGeorgia works is we support all of these organizations to do voter registration, and the work that they’re already doing, right, so if you are already recruiting members to your organization, if you are providing direct services, we support you in putting voter registration in to that ongoing work that moves voter registration and civic engagement to an organizing landscape, right. This is another form of organizing and these are community organizations that have membership. They have volunteers, they have member leaders. Many of the leaders of these organizations themselves come from the community that they advocate for and with and so that’s how we know what issues matters. We then do this voter registration and civic engagement work, connecting those issues to the act of voting, access to the ballot, so that people can vote and that’s how we work to reduce attacks on early voting. That’s how we work on countering the discriminatory exact natural here in Georgia and, you know, making sure that drop boxes, ballot boxes aren’t reduced in a way that doesn’t match the population’s need and, you know, now there’s talk about making these drop boxes accessible, like what 9 to 5 instead of 24 hours and I’m unclear who that serves. 

HOLLY: In 2018, Georgia enacted what is referred to as an exact match law. It says voters can have their registrations rejected over minor discrepancies on their documents. This can discourage voters from going through the trouble of retaining their ability to vote, or even prevent them outright from voting. This might sound outrageous, but exact match means exact match. Filling out your registration in a hurry and signing your name without including your middle initial? In the state of Georgia, you might be a nefarious actor, and redoing all of this takes time, time a lot of people just don’t have thanks to work or school or it’s 2020 and I’m trying to get one kid through an online math test while the other one pours pancake syrup on the dog.

MARCUS: Then there’s the game of hot potato that’s being played with drop boxes for absentee ballots. Recently, there have been changes to the number of available boxes for some counties, and talk of limiting the hours when people can use them. The fact that this keeps changing and leading to conflicting rumors of when and where ballots can be dropped off is another problem that is making it confusing and difficult for some Georgians to vote.

TAMIEKA: So ProGeorgia and our partners, we make sure that there’s access to the ballot. But then the next piece is engagement. So now you can vote but do you want to vote? And our partners are the trusted messengers and they’re the ones because they’re the ones who do the voter registration, provide services are there and present year round, right, that when it comes time to connecting the act of voting to the issues that matter, they’re the ones that make it click, right, for our communities. And you know, I will say this, you know, nationally, we’re all talking about the US Senate race, which is very important. But again, back to what’s coming from the community, people want to talk about the Public Service Commissioner race.

MARCUS: In Episode Two, you might remember Luke Boggs talking about the Public Service Commissioner races. In Georgia, Public Service Commissioners, or PSCs, are elected across five districts representing different areas of the state. The race in District Four, which makes up much of the northern and northeastern counties, has gone into a runoff that will be on the ballot alongside the Senate races in January. This is an incredibly important race as well, because these commissioners oversee the regulation of public services like electricity, gas, public transportation, and telecommunication. This includes the rates and fees these services are allowed to charge, which directly affects the quality of life and cost of living for everyone in Georgia.

TAMIEKA: Georgia has some of the highest utility rates in the country. People in Southwest Georgia, rural Georgia, right, older Black and Brown folks have liens on their home or have faced evictions from receiving utility bills that are $800 a month, and we are lacking equitable regulation of our utility providers. And so, back to the issues that matter, we are clearly talking about the US Senate race, which has long-lasting impact on all of our lives. But you know, what you feel right, right now, in the middle of a pandemic, is that utility bill. And so our partners have a ton of talking points, civic engagement materials about the PSC race, because again, that’s connecting the issues that matter to the act of voting. And I am so glad that the Public Service Commissioner race was moved to be the same day as a US Senate race on January 5, because now we can pull people in on the Public Service Commissioner race and the issues of utility rates and also the US Senate race.

HOLLY: Has ProGeorgia made any pivots between the November race and the January race? Have you had to change your tactics at all?

TAMIEKA: So we get asked that question a lot, because now there’s national interest, and what I usually tell those people is that there’s no new secret sauce thing, the work that we have been doing is the work that we will continue to do. And folks have to trust that we know what we’re doing and then Black and Brown folks know what we need. I will say this, because, lest we forget, we’re in a pandemic. And so we’ve had to pivot this whole entire year. And so, you know, I think a lot of our big rock, our big boulder challenges, we hit those in March. 

MARCUS: One thing that ProGeorgia does is the unsexy but ever so crucial work of tracking voter information as it moves through the system to ensure someone’s registration does not get flagged and informing people of what is required to address any problems that may come up.

TAMIEKA: Online voter registration in Georgia has, you know, historically not been a real thing. And so we at ProGeorgia, all of our partners, we do paper forms where we receive permission from voters to track their non-sensitive information, so that, you know, even when they walk away and we’re like, “it was nice to meet you”, we are still in the background, making sure that there are no flags that will prevent them from voting. Because nothing, nothing can disenfranchise a voter like going down to your polling location and then being told, “we can’t find you.” It just brings up such feelings of shame and people walk away and they can have long lasting impact. So you know, we make sure that we are in the background making sure that there are no barriers to you voting and, if we have to follow up with you, we can follow up with you and say, “hey, there’s a flag you know, here. You know, you need to contact your election official, you need to write, follow up.” What we can’t do in person, right, not like we used to. And so we had to quickly pivot to digital canvassing, digital voter registration. 60% of 60+ percent of the entire state’s population lives in Metro Atlanta. And also what we know, right, which I think a lot [of] the West Coast, a lot of northern states do not know, is that in Georgia and other Southern states, you know, rural does not mean white. And so, you know, we have along Southwest Georgia around by Albany, Columbus, you know, Muskogee, Chatham County, there is a density, right, of eligible people of color voters. So we pivoted very quickly, and we did something called a civic care package and we mailed tablets and hotspots and laptops and cell phones with unlimited data, which was very expensive, to canvassers, right, in organizations outside of Metro Atlanta so that they can continue their civic engagement work. They can continue the texting, they can continue the phone banking, even in the midst of a pandemic, where we can’t all be together. I mean, unemployment rates, I’m y’all know, this is a very, very difficult time, especially for Black and Brown folks and so we wanted to make sure that they were safe, that their community was safe, you know, we made sure that all of our partners had mass, we shipped more than 100,000 mass inboxes out to all of our table partners, because again, back to looking at the whole person. And you know, I think on one hand, you could say that’s not voter registration or civic engagement but on the other hand, I think it’s back to that organizing framework. These are some great lessons that, frankly, when the pandemic is over, we want to continue some of these same practices, right, so that we can have a real connection and leadership from other parts of the state, how to reach people when you can’t be close together, those lessons we are continuing for this runoff.

MARCUS: After the bitterly contested 2018 Governor’s race that culminated in then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp claiming victory over Stacey Abrams, in a contest he himself presided over, it would have been understandable to see widespread disillusionment and disengagement both in the ranks of the Democratic Party of Georgia, and in the activist organizers set. Instead, the electoral mismanagement has galvanized their ranks.

TAMIEKA: What we found in 2019 as we were doing, you know, outreach on municipal elections and census and knocking on doors, that Georgians were invigorated. That, for me, has been very inspirational, and very motivated. We have seen nothing but record early voting from Black and Brown communities. And so, to me, no matter the outcomes, because that’s not what I’m here for, I’m here to reduce barriers to the ballot. And so, as we keep seeing these voting numbers and the voter registration gap between whites and people of color in Georgia close, I always feel inspired by that. And I will say, you know, what keeps me going is that, you know, I fully understand that there are generations of Black women behind me literally holding my back, and generations to come. I have two daughters, I’m not just doing this work for them. I’m doing this for their granddaughters and great-granddaughters, right? This is, this is a 500 year game of transformation and, you know, I am humbled to be doing the best that I can do my part,

HOLLY: How can people listening at home, whether they’re in Georgia or outside the state, contribute to ProGeorgia’s mission in a way that is both efficient and also effective?

TAMIEKA: For folks who feel moved and say, “I want to do something now, I want to do something today.” Both folks in Georgia and outside of Georgia, go to our website, govotega.org. We have it already set up for you to do phone banking and text banking remotely, right. What we are not encouraging is for people from out-of-state to come in-state to do in-person canvassing, we are quite aware that we are in a pandemic that is disproportionately ravaging Black and Brown folks. And so we do not need folks from out-of-state to come and potentially ramp up [an] already bad situation. But the best way is to go to that website, and you can sign up for phone banks and text banks in a second. There’s also a link to donate, and frankly, any amount, any dollar amount is funding that supports ProGeorgia and our 38 partners.

HOLLY: We want to thank Tamieka Atkins for her time and for her insights into what it’s like to build a coalition composed of many smaller coalitions and we couldn’t let you go today without giving you just a little bit of a peek into some of the work that ProGeorgia does. Here are just some of their member organizations. If you’d like to learn more about any of these, there’s a link to this list in our show notes.

MARCUS: 9to5 is a national organization advocating for the needs and rights of working women. It also shares its name with an amazing Dolly Parton song and movie. As a Tennessee and a lifelong Dolly fan, much respect.

HOLLY: Atlanta Jobs with Justice is a coalition of labor unions, yes we do have a few of them in the South, community organizations, and student groups fighting for economic and social justice in the workplace and everywhere.

MARCUS: The Center for Pan Asian Community Services is the first and largest Asian and Pacific Islander health and human services agency in the southeast region. The Counter Narrative Project centers the voices and shared community of Black gay men to support social justice through telling our stories and celebrating our history.

HOLLY: The Equality Foundation of Georgia is a statewide organization working to promote equitable laws to protect the rights of Georgia’s LGBTQ+ community.

MARCUS: Faith in Public Life works to shift the narrative about faith and politics to one of progressive and inclusive visions that center social justice work and the common good.

HOLLY: The Feminist Women’s Health Center provides judgment-free abortion and gynecological services to any who need it. 

MARCUS: The Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials works to increase civic engagement among Latin and Hispanic people and recognize the contributions of those communities. 

HOLLY: The Georgia Muslim Voters Project works for representation, justice, and equality for Muslims across Georgia.  Georgia Shift…well, y’all remember Ian Bridgeforth from Episode Two, this is his org. Higher Heights for America works to expand the presence of Black women and civic engagement elected positions and making decisions about policies.

MARCUS: National Domestic Workers Alliance protects and supports the needs and rights of domestic workers and their families.

HOLLY: New American Pathways is a full service refugee resettlement agency that serves families from touchdown to citizenship. 

MARCUS: Women Engaged builds on the power of Black women to enact public policy and bring about systemic change. 

HOLLY: For more information about these organizations and the rest of the membership of ProGeorgia, see the links in our show notes.

MARCUS: Or you can visit groundgamepod.com.

HOLLY: By the time you hear this episode, early voting will be well underway in Georgia and next week, we’ll be talking to King Williams, a writer and documentary filmmaker from Atlanta, who started the Pizza to the Polls initiative in Metro Atlanta and the surrounding counties.

MARCUS: And until then, you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter @groundgamepod. Till next time, take care of yourselves and be good to each other.

NICOLE MACKIE: Our show is produced by the Ground Game: Georgia volunteer flotilla. Editing by Douglas Reyes-Ceron and Arlill Rodriguez. Our theme is by the wonderful Jonathan Sanford. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Design by Jasmine Johnson. Nicole Mackey runs our social. Hey, that’s me! Ground Game: Georgia is a production of unir.

HOLLY: doody doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo.