When you learn to pursue justice in Sunday School, growing up to become part of the stream guiding the world toward justice is almost inevitable. There’s an enormous cloud of witnesses to that fact, including Rabbi Lydia Medwin. Lydia is Director of Congregational Engagement and Outreach at The Temple, Atlanta’s oldest Reform synagogue with a long history of civil rights allyship. In this episode, Rabbi Lydia takes us on a journey from a childhood awakening to the work she’s dedicated to today, building strong bonds within her faith community and being part of the flow toward social change that enables us all to live free and be well.
The galvanization of the Black church greatly aided Georgia’s bluest political victories in the recent historical elections. As the Scripture goes, “Faith without works is dead.” No one knows this better than organizers of faith communities like Billy Michael Honor (@BillyMHonor). Public scholar, community organizer and Georgia resident, Honor’s foray into organizing came by way of national tragedy and has been bolstered by a deep interest in and care for humanity. His work with the New Georgia Project, Rev. Raphael Warnock, and The Aspen Institute is the outgrowth of both his beliefs and lineage as a man of faith and the people. Hear Honor’s thoughts on everything from bipartisan faith leadership to the deeper legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on this special episode of Ground Game.
The election is over (we’re almost positive). We’re still here; Georgia is still here. Friends and neighbors and allies, it’s time to make good on all those “Trust Black Women” memes you posted during the campaign! The good and necessary work you’ve come to know and appreciate during the past election cycle will continue, and the time to support that work is now. Malika Redmond of Women Engaged joins Marcus and Holly for an extended interview focused on centering the lives and livelihoods of black women, femmes, and girls.
Ground Game: Georgia is hosted by Holly Anderson and Marcus Patrick Ellsworth. Follow us at @groundgamepod on Twitter and Instagram, and visit us on the web at www.groundgamepod.com.
Ground Game: Georgia is a production of unir.
EPISODE 7: BRING THE FACTS INTO THE ROOM – TRANSCRIPT
HOLLY ANDERSON, HOST: I’m trying to think of what my grandmother would have referred to as sedition because it was one of those things where you can’t even whisper it. Did the women in your family have that thing where they whisper the unpleasant words, but they whisper it louder than they would have said it?
MARCUS ELLSWORTH, HOST: No, no, the women in my family just say it loudly and pointedly at whoever they’re talking about.
HOLLY: Because in my family, it’s like, “oh, you know, I think he’s got hemorrhoids.”
HOLLY: “And that’s why he left the party early.”
MARCUS: “I think he was part of that sedition. That’s why his flight was delayed.”
HOLLY: “Insurrection and the domestic no-fly lists have completely ruined my super-spreading barbecue.”
JON OSSOFF: [Theme Music] I want to thank the people of Georgia for participating in this election. Everybody who cast your ballot, everybody who put your faith and confidence in our democracy’s capacity to deliver the representation that we deserve.
REVEREND WARNOCK: Scripture tells us that weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning. Let us rise up and greet the morning and meet the challenges of this moment. Together, we can do the necessary work and win the future for all of our children.
MARCUS: Welcome to Ground Game: Georgia.
HOLLY: From Atlanta, Georgia, America’s newest blue state, I’m Holly Anderson.
MARCUS: And just across the border in the still red state of Tennessee, I’m Marcus Ellsworth.
HOLLY: Hey, Marcus!
MARCUS Hey, how’s it, how is it down there in, uh, in Atlanta?
HOLLY: The sky is blue and so is the state.
MARCUS Hey, what a coincidence.
HOLLY: Wait, we have a lavender trending into a periwinkle trending into what I would call kind of a cornflower situation at the moment.
MARCUS Mm, I gotcha.
HOLLY: Anyway, congratulations to Georgia on shedding several 100 pounds of unsightly hair and gristle as Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have both been kicked to the legislative curb. Dave, enjoy your island where you live. Kelly, enjoy going back to New York where you live. So it has been a couple of weeks, as you heard on our last episode, we held off on releasing our morning-after election talk with your friend and mine, Rembert Brown due to “events.” We are now coming up on the week of inauguration in theory. (chuckles) And you may be wondering why you’re hearing from us at all. The election is over, finally, and we’re still here because we’re not done yet. The work’s not done yet, obviously. You know that, but the story of the Georgia election is both unfinished and instructive.
MARCUS: Yeah and when we started this podcast, our idea was really to talk about how Georgia flipped blue in November and really just focusing on those stories specifically, but as we got to talking to organizers, reaching out to these people in these communities, and in Holly’s case, even in volunteering alongside some of them, we saw that there’s so much more to learn about that. There are strategies and all these different communities, there are adaptive responses to the needs of these communities that all tie into how a state moves into the blue column over time. So we’re not just done just because the election is over, we’re gonna keep covering a little bit more ground in Georgia.
HOLLY: We have a few more episodes coming, is what we’re trying to tell you. You already know the end of the story but if you go back and listen to the earlier episodes, we encourage you to do so, encourage you to tell your friends, you’ll find that they’re not necessarily pegged to news. You know, it’s, it’s not specific to the 2016, the 2018, the 2020 or ’22 elections, that community aid and mutual aid networks are going to be more important in some areas than voter registration. Abolition versus activism is not a conversation that began with any recent election and it’s not going away anytime soon. There are lessons that we’ve learned that you can take at a genre level into other states and back into Georgia and 2022. You might have heard we’ve got a Governor’s race coming up. So a few more episodes from us to put bows on this long, long, twisty campaign. And after that, well, you’ll find out when we do. For today, we have something very special.
MARCUS: Yes, we have an interview with Malika Redmond of Women Engaged.
HOLLY: Malika is a terrific speaker and educator and it was a privilege to sit with her for this time.
MARCUS: Now, we talked to Malika a few weeks ago, actually right before the last day of voting in Georgia before the election and in this conversation, we talked about a lot of things. Malika was very informative and very generous with her time but a recurring theme with this conversation, I think, is something that has come up a lot in the past couple of years, especially talking about organizing and voting in Georgia and it’s really about what it really means to support and follow the lead of Black women. I think it’s a popular hashtag and a lot of people like to say it and put it on t-shirts, but Malika and the folks at Women Engaged, actually walk that walk. So without further ado, here’s our interview with Malika.
MALIKA REDMOND: Hi, my name is Malika Redmond, my pronouns are she/her/hers. I live in Atlanta, Georgia, and my organization is Women Engaged and I am the co-founder and Executive Director. My grandmother, both of my grandmothers, they always voted and I would watch my grandmother, my mom’s mom, who we lived with growing up, who would get dressed in her Sunday best every year to go vote and she would also volunteer at the polls. And, you know, as a little girl, I just thought this was what you’re supposed to do, that kind of sense of being engaged and also growing up as a Black woman and understanding the intersections of race and gender and class and all those kinds of things growing up in Pittsburgh. Also, the question around justice and fairness and dignity and respect were always in my consciousness when I went into college so all of that led me to being where I am today and how we get to Women Engaged.
HOLLY: Can you tell us a little bit about the story of Women Engaged? How did this organization come about? What is its origin story?
MALIKA: So I had spent a pretty long career in the area of reproductive health rights and justice, and feminist activism research and I was thinking about, as we moved into a reality post-Shelby v. Holder, thinking about what does that really mean?
HOLLY: If you’re in your mid-20s, mid to late 20s, you’ve probably lived your entire voting age life in a post Shelby v. Holder world, where the federal government does not have to preclear changes that certain states make to their voting laws.
MARCUS: Without that oversight, we’ve seen a large increase in forms of voter suppression across states since 2013.
HOLLY: Things like closing polling places, voter ID requirements. These stories seem commonplace and they’re a big part of the underpinning for why this show exists but they’re not supposed to be commonplace and prior to the 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, they weren’t. Now they’re normal again. Here we are.
MALIKA: I am too young to understand a world without it, without a complete, intact Voting Rights Act and so while there have been this sort of bubbling up of issues around participation to vote, and what it all means, having it be, like, squarely in my consciousness actually really scared me. I was concerned, as a Black person, a Black woman knowing and understanding and having experience of what it’s like to grow up in this country and deal with racism on a regular basis. When you pull away the tools and the mechanism to have that kind of behavior checked when it comes to voting scared me. So quite frankly, I was like, as many ways that I can be a part of a process to make sure that voting is something that is accessible, and it continued to push to make this process even more democratic, that I want to be a part of that. While I am also centering the issues that are important, I clearly understood for me, that if we’re going to deal with reproductive justice for Black women, Black femmes, Black girls, that we have to deal with these fundamental democratic processes, and voting was one of them, so Women Engaged was birthed sort of at that intersection of the issues that are important to me, the human rights of Black women, femmes, and girls, and integrated voter engagement. And again, growing up as someone with a perspective on what it means to invest in your community, when everybody else has divested, I wanted to make sure that we were talking to our community members, and I also was sensitive to the fact that while I’ve lived in Georgia over 15 years, I’m not from here. I’m from Pennsylvania. I went to college here and graduate school here and I’ve built a life here but I want to also make sure that I am being and participating in ways that are respectful and so we build an integrated voter engagement model, which means that we’re talking to community members in the greater Metro Atlanta and the surrounding counties on and off-election cycle three to up to five times, depending on the year, a year, with messages about how to be engaged, but most importantly, what are the issues that are important to you, and helping to connect the dots to the voter participation. And so that’s why we stick to a nonpartisan 501 (c)(3) based voter engagement strategy. We hire folks from the communities that we work in because we have found that when someone’s neighbor knocks on their door, they’re more apt to answer the door. We have our office space in the communities that we work in, you know, and many of us live in the communities that we also work in and so we have a real sort of deep investment and that’s how we got to Women Engaged, in 2014, is wanting to marry those things. And the other part to it is as someone who went to Spelman College, and was taught at Spelman College, that it is okay for us as Black women to center our lives in our academic study. Like in fact, we’re going to do that right now, while you’re here, and then you’re going to go out in the world, and you’re going to be a part of that change and transformation. And so I was like, “ooo, that’s what I want to do. That’s who I am.” What’s most important to Women Engaged is that we bring to the table a centering of the issues that are so important to Black women and girls and femmes and what we say is, is that, in fact, not only is it important for us to talk about the issues that are most intimate and personal to our lives, in order to make our lives thrive, but we can hold public leaders accountable to us thriving, not just making it and that’s what we do at Women Engaged. We start from that place.
MARCUS: And what’s something that you wish more people understood about that work of supporting and building Black women’s power?
MALIKA: One is that I think that people assume just like there’s the assumptions broadly about, you know, the Black community, but I think people assume largely that Black women are a monolith, that think the 80’s and 90’s did a horrible job of, you know, scapegoating, particularly Black mothers, working class Black mothers, in a box, that is all of, you know, all of the issues that are problematic in our society. And it is unfortunate because others who knew better also did not stand up for working class Black mothers and I’m talking about people who see themselves as, you know, allies of racial justice and all those things. When it came to Black women and girls and the kinds of horrible racist right-wing tropes that were being thrown at us, people who knew better did not stand up and we have been, for a very long time, been the ones who have to stand up for ourselves, tell our own story, tell the truth, bring facts into the room. And and that is also where we sit at Women Engaged, we bring the facts into the room so that it’s not okay to just lean on a stereotype. What I want more people to understand and know is that it’s important to read, it’s important to do your work- (chuckles) -and understand before engaging in any particular community. I’m always learning from my community as well. I don’t know everything, you know, we just need folks who are for real about what it means to embody accountability and intersectionality when we’re thinking about, you know, context, and you know how issues come together and merge, so that we can have better approaches, strategies and approaches to making our lives, our nation better.
MARCUS: Just, just for clarity, like the scope of your work, you know talking about intersectionality, when y’all talk about the work you do and even in this conversation so far, you talk about the importance of working with Black women, girls, and femmes. Can you talk about that from like an intergenerational, intersectional perspective of what that means?
MALIKA: So on the practical level, what it looks like is that our staff, our internal team, is made up largely of Black women who are intergenerational. We have people that participate, for example, like on our canvas team who are in their 70s, who are 18, 19, 20, you know, so we make sure to have that kind of range. That has actually been really exciting because there’s been so much cross-sharing across learning, but also has been interesting. Our Gen Zers are having conversations with their grandparents that actually have the shared understanding experience of what it means when you have to fight for your vote.
MALIKA: It’s a rich conversation to be able to have that point of connection for progress. We also make sure that, you know, Women Engaged, we’re constantly learning and centering those of us who are LBT in our space, you know, and making sure that we are continuing to teach and train all of us about what does it mean to, in our own space, be recognized, to be acknowledged, you know, to have shared experience, but also experiences that are not shared? What does accountability look like in our own space? I work to create the kind of work environment that allows us to be able to do that, because we center celebration. The co-founder of Women Engaged, Margaret Kargbo, my dear friend, and before she passed in 2015, we had this statement that we would always say in what she would introduce into our space at Women Engaged: “I’ve learned to go where I am celebrated, not just tolerated.”
MARCUS: That’s a great quote.
MALIKA: So learning to go where I’m celebrated, not just tolerated is what we do at Women Engaged. That’s how we sort of create the kind of environment that support all of who we are in all of our complexities and dynamics.
HOLLY: Can I take you back to the days after the election, when it started to become apparent that we were not done yet? We all, I think, got to that sensation of getting to November 3rd and going, “wait, this isn’t a half marathon and the road is still stretching out in front of us?” Can you take me through how you and Women Engaged regrouped and said, “okay, here’s what we’re gonna do.” And how did you guys get there?
MALIKA: So I would say the feeling of November 3rd was the feeling for us here in Georgia of 2017, of 2018, and 2020. It is, for us, from our perspective as a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan organization, what it said to us this year in 2020, is that when people have more options to make sure that they can be counted, it works, even in a pandemic. And what I tell people, you know, a lot of folks forget is that Hurricane Zeta ripped through Georgia, the last week of early voting. And unlike really, any, can anything else, please-
HOLLY: Cause we needed another challenge.
MALIKA: Just one more, if you give us one more, you know, we got it, right?
HOLLY: We were out of power at my house for, like, four days. And we were one of the lucky ones.
MALIKA REDMOND That’s right. Right! And so, I feel bad when I’m like, “we didn’t have power for 48 hours!” (laughs)
HOLLY: We were one of the lucky ones there was, I could see it on the Georgia Power app. We had a little sliver outage, and ours got restored, and then all around us, it was still red for like days and days after and I remember being, “I’m really glad I voted in October. I wonder who else didn’t? Because I’ve been wondering if we’re going to see an accidental goosing of these runoff turnout numbers, because there were people who physically, in more ways than usual, couldn’t get to the polls in November because we were cleaning up.
MALIKA: Absolutely. But no, you’re right. This is why early voting, the opportunity to early vote, the opportunity to vote by mail, to have the drop off locations, to have weekend opportunities, like all of that matters because you just don’t know. During the Zeta situation, I was really concerned. I was really, really concerned because there were a number of things in terms of even our own strategies, you know, this was also a census year. So people were inundated with information and I was concerned about oversaturation. Along with that woven in was so much misinformation in the disinformation campaigns. So at the same time, internally, we were really breaking our own organizational records in terms of contacts and conversations. So it was kind of felt like a bit of a toss up in a way so we get to Election Night, and the logic part of my brain said, “look, we know what the data is saying, we know what the results were in years past. This is a monumental moment for opportunity, for turnout and voter engagement. And there’s a dynamic infrastructure of organizations and leaders, particularly those that are led by black women who have been doing this for a while and we know what we know based on what we’re seeing and in our conversations with our community members. Then there’s the other part that was like, “yeah, but people that have been through, excuse me, hell and back this year.” Those things were working at the same time and it was the longest week of November, longest two weeks of November but I felt, you know, really good and based on what I could see internally from, you know, our preliminary results that the voter turnout was going to be good. Even for our own team, we had 100% voter turnout rate, 70% of our team members are Gen Z, over 50% of them are for first time voters, they all participated and then when we looked at the results coming out of Georgia, 92% of Black Gen Zers voted in the way of progress. At the same time, their white peers voted 62% in the other direction. You know, it’s very interesting to think about that. I think that trend is different nationwide. But in Georgia, it did come down racial lines in a lot of ways. To me, what it speaks to is that we have to really be speaking into the listening of young people of color. They’ve gone through so much when I think about, you know, young people who are coming from, you know, immigrant families, young people coming from LGBTQ families, single parent families, all kinds of different families. We had young people who, as soon as COVID hit, they were in their senior year in college and now they’re not having a graduation. All the kinds of things have been very dramatic for that generation, um, extremely dramatic. I think that their turnout is also reflective of how dramatic this year has been. Those of us who are older don’t see how urgent it is and how, in some ways, they feel like they’re on a knife’s edge. There’s not a luxury not to connect the dots or not to have a perspective that’s intersectional. It is about accountability. It is unafraid to talk about anti-Blackness, to talk about racial justice, to talk about reparations, they’re unafraid to use that language. They use it and they believe that people should be held accountable to it to, you know, talk about justice with regards to holding police accountable, and talking about police violence against Black bodies, and talking about where funds need to go in other directions to make our communities safe with dignity. It is powerful, and exciting and I would also say, my millennial and Gen Z staff, they also want to be fully completely recognized for who they are, like, unapologetically. It’s beautiful, you know, and so I will say for Women Engaged, one of the things that made me happy is that as we had to shift in 2020, once we started to learn more about what was happening with COVID, I made a decision as a leader to say we are moving to [a] virtual space so we did that very early on. Early March, we moved to [a] virtual space and that meant getting the technology and the tools and, and everything to our folks so that they can continue to work. The great thing is that we train all of our folks, no matter sort of what level you are in the organization on all of the technology so that we could still do our work during the primary, do our work for census education and outreach, without missing a beat. I’m happy that Women Engaged can continue to be this steady drumbeat in my life and in our community’s life.
MARCUS: When you’re looking at, like, these strategies for outreach and for building Black woman’s power, is there anything you found your work that’s very specific to Georgia? And then is there anything that’s more universal, like could be applied anywhere?
MALIKA: Some of the things that may feel kind of specific to Georgia is thinking about being in the Southern context and experience. There’s such a rich, important history of civil rights and movement right here in the South and having the opportunity to tap into that, and to be a part of an infrastructure of civic engagement and civil rights here [has] also been really key to our work. So that is part of a sense of pride here. That is also side by side, you know, some of the key issues that people have told us, especially Black women here, know Georgia is a state that did not expand Medicaid. We have not actualized the full promise of the Affordable Care Act. Health care is critical here. The rates of uninsured make no sense. And so health care, access to affordable health care is very serious here. Affordable housing in our greater metro area, some of this is reflective of the nation but I know that when it, that piece around health care has been a real critical fight. And in Georgia, you know, we’ve had a number of rural hospitals close so it becomes even more critical in rural areas. With this COVID context, it is just enormous. When I think about the safety net programs here in Georgia, they also lack the kind of depth they need to really support pregnant people, particularly pregnant Black people and Latinx and undocumented people, with the kind of health care needed, those kinds of things are very critical and important. So we do a lot of time speaking about those issues here in Georgia. What I’m loving, seeing from a national perspective, but also what I know, when I think about scale, and I think about, you know, what Women Engaged brings and offers. I really do think it is about how do we make sure that we are placing at the center of any sort of public policy discourse, the needs of Black women, and making sure that we are finding ways against interject that into any kind of discourse around how do we create public policy? We’re seeing some of that, obviously, as the vaccine, the COVID-19 vaccine kind of rolls out, you know, there’s these conversations about who is a frontline worker, who is an essential worker, what does that person look like? Whether they’re in the medical field or not? What does it look like when we talk about research and files for vaccines? What does it mean to have representation in all of those spaces because it’s important? This conversation is happening all over the country. I’m happy to see that Black women leaders are interjecting in some of those spaces to say, “we are here. We’ve been here and now we demand that you listen to us.” That’s what I would say is that making sure that the perspective is inserted in these conversations.
HOLLY: Is there anything in particular that you think we need to be doing in order to make sure that this change, we create a sustainable, especially if we’re not doing it right now? Like, are there any gears you would shift along the way to make sure that this change that we do lasts?
MALIKA REDMOND Yeah-
HOLLY: I know that’s a billion dollar question for everyone right now. But you know, we’re doing it, we’re trying to dream big.
MALIKA REDMOND Well, we have to. I mean, we have to have to dream big, we have to dream bold, we have to dream for the now as well as for the future to really kick in that and the importance of the urgency. I think one of the things that I have found so important, as I’ve been doing this work with Women Engaged, is just how many people just generally aren’t sort of aware of the importance of their participation because one, there’s so much spent on the big national elections once every four years so, in a way, things that happen every year when there’s an opportunity to vote on the local level, statewide level, there’s drop off because information isn’t there. The “why” isn’t there and sometimes it takes just someone in your life to say, “hey, did you know that we’re trying to vote for our city council members right now and these other things,” a lot of times people don’t know and so part of our job is just really “Civics 101” on and off election cycles all the time because people are busy, and it can go in and out. And it’s not a judgement, it’s what it is so making sure that the messaging is constant. There’s a consistency around the messaging and investing again, deep investment in communities with layered communication strategies that make sure that people hear and understand and know what’s happening and it can be done with their interests in mind. That’s why Women Engaged is so important and why our integrated voter engagement strategy is important because this is going to end and we’re going to be talking to people in a couple of weeks about the next important thing, you know. And for us, we’re going to be talking about their maps and we’re going to be talking about what that means in terms of representation, redistricting, and, you know, but we’ve got to give people that education to continue to build up the groundswell of people who are organized. Organized people can hold their governments, hold public leaders accountable, when they’re organized, and when they feel confident about what they know and understand on the issues. So that’s going to be key, I think the other thing that’s really going to be key is making sure that the messaging, you know, I love the fact of, like, having a space like this with your podcast, and the kind of spaces like this, because we’ve got to make sure that people can hear from community leaders, they can hear someone who sounds like them, asking the questions. You know, the last four years has been awful, to freedom of the press, and for the opportunity to have, you know, people in power and in leadership to be held accountable and to ask the questions and the maturity to respond to the questions being asked, so this is so important, we need that. And so that’s what I would say is that it’s it’s about continuing to build on that.
HOLLY: You’ve talked a couple of times about Black people, specifically Black women, not being monolithic voters. And something that I’ve been thinking about a lot while we do this show is that to the extent in which they are, it’s because they’ve been forced into a monolithic formation, because they keep having to cast, a term our listeners might not be familiar with, defensive votes, they keep having to vote in favor of their own survival, and vote against their own destruction rather than in favor of their own interests. And I’m glad that we’re finally talking about the exhaustion that has to come with that on a cellular level, the generational exhaustion that comes from not even being able to focus on your interests, or you know, this politician is more in line with how I would like my taxes to be structured. This politician is more in line with what I would like to be done, you know, about the potholes on my street. But this one is likely to install a police commissioner who’s less likely to murder my family. You know, we say that that’s a choice, but it’s not. Like at the ballot box, that is not a choice. The thing that I’m trying [a] very long winded way to get around to because I know I’m certainly not saying anything that you don’t already know is how do you fight that exhaustion, because I don’t have the capacity to imagine what it’s like, what, how do you keep going?
MALIKA: So I would kind of complicate a little bit of your analysis on the Black women voter advocate a little bit. You don’t have these kinds of experiences that, that make us all one kind of thinker, or perspective or whatever so even thinking about sort of, you know, how to speak to Black women in different ways is very important. So you know, like this year, you would hear things like, oh, the educated suburban mom, or the, you know, I don’t know, the working class or the single educated woman or, and I was all code for white women but what we know in Georgia is that when you look at the surrounding counties, particularly the ones that had historical changes, what we know here in Georgia is that that suburban educated mom is Black. That suburban educated mom is Latinx, like, the suburbs are diverse so, in some ways, that’s what I’m speaking to is like, you know, whoever’s doing these kinds of polling and creating these kind of points to talk about who is this and that, they are missing things and then therefore, what happens is that the investment is wrong, in terms of on the ground engagement is wrong so there’s that piece. To your question, It’s a bit complicated. On the one hand, yes, it is the experiences of racial terrorism, this health pandemic, these crises, that in some ways has brought us together in a sense as Black women in our voting power and strength. But the other thing is, is that that’s not only it because obviously, everybody is experiencing these things in different ways, but they’re all happening at the same time so that in and of itself alone isn’t necessarily how we get to Black women’s strength in voting, in the way of progress. I think the other reasons why we get there is because of the sense of values, a sense of culture, the sense of protecting culture, and proud of culture, and an education and I think all of those things bring us to how we get to Black women voting in the ways that we do. So I would say that for Black people, but for Black women in particular, this notion of my vote, it’s my business, it’s individual, to me, I will say this is a way in which I believe for so many Black women, when we think about the vote, we don’t think about our vote, from a perspective of my individual vote, but from the perspective of what does it mean for our entire community, and therefore, not only organizing myself to get out the vote, but I’m also organizing the folks at my church. I’m also organizing my sorority, I’m also, you know, organizing my family, my partner.
MARCUS: We’d like to thank Malika for being so generous with her time and giving us so much insight into her work. You can follow her work on Facebook and Twitter @WomenEngaged, and you can find them on Instagram at women_engaged. You can also follow their work at the website directly at womenengaged.org.
HOLLY: And for more from us, and there will be more from us, you can follow us on Twitter and Instagram @groundgamepod [and] on the web at groundgamepod.com. And since we’re not done yet, a podcast played for you. You’ve heard it before. It really does help. Rate review, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and tell your friends. If you don’t like the show, tell them anyway. Don’t tell them you don’t like it. We don’t want to hear it. We’re all about positivity.
MARCUS: And make sure you go back and listen to all the episodes like there’s a lot of really good stuff in there.
HOLLY: I’m really proud of it. I’m really proud from our first episode to this one. I am really proud of what we’ve done here.
MARCUS: And I’m proud of you, Holly.
HOLLY: I’m proud of me, too. I mean, I’m proud of you.
MARCUS: And with that, for those of you listening out there, take care of yourselves and be good to each other.
ASHLEY J. HOBBS: Our show is produced, written and hosted by Holly Anderson and Marcus Ellsworth with help from the Ground Game: Georgia volunteer armada including Brian Gutiérrez-Shelton, Ben Tiernan, and me, Ashley J. Hobbs. Editing by Douglas Reyes-Ceron and Arlill Rodriguez. Our theme is by the awesome Jonathan Sanford. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Design by Jazmine Johnson and Nicole Mackie runs our social. Ground Game: Georgia is a production of unir.
HOLLY: Tell us to take care of each other, Marcus.
This episode features an interview with Rembert Browne, host of Gaining Ground: The New Georgia, that was recorded early on the morning of January 6, before any of the events in DC occurred, and while we were still overjoyed about Jon Ossoff and Reverend Warnock’s victories in the Senate runoff. The introduction was recorded the next day, January 7.
The format for this episode is a little different from our usual style. Our hosts Holly and Marcus got on a call with our friend Rembert Browne, from the Crooked Media podcast Gaining Ground: The New Georgia, to have a more casual chat about the results. (spoiler alert: Warnock and Ossoff both won) They discuss how Georgia’s political landscape has shifted over the years, especially outside of Atlanta, why the type of grassroots organizing we’ve been covering works so well, and what kind of leadership Georgia is likely to see come from its newly elected senators.
MARCUS ELLSWORTH, HOST: A quick note before we begin: this episode features an interview with Rembert Brown, host of Gaining Ground: The New Georgia, that was recorded early on the morning of January 6, before any of the events in DC occurred. And while we were still overjoyed about Jon Ossoff and Reverend Warnock’s victories in the Senate runoff. The introduction was recorded the next day, January 7th.
HOLLY ANDERSON, HOST: From Atlanta, I’m Holly Anderson.
MARCUS: And right across the border in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I’m Marcus Ellsworth.
HOLLY: This episode is coming to you a little bit late, you might notice, it should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that the events of the past couple days overtook us a little bit. We have a great conversation coming up with our buddy Rembert Brown, but yesterday just didn’t feel like the right time to drop that. Members of our crew are in DC, members of our team have family, in DC and elsewhere, and we wanted to give everyone the space to be present in their own lives, and in the lives of their loved ones for a day. So we are back with you today, we hope you are as safe and well as can reasonably be expected and we’re gonna bring you something a little bit lighter talking to your friend, my friend, former colleague, Rembert Brown.
MARCUS: But first we’re going to also offer up some ways that you can get involved. We know that everything that transpired yesterday, and things that are yet to come, have a lot of people on edge and feeling helpless and that is actually far from the truth. Of course, you can always contact your legislators, but there are other ways you can get involved. One is to go to electiondefenders.org. There you can sign up for newsletters from the election defenders, they have been working in Georgia and various other states around the country to accomplish the simple mission of defending democracy which is more important now than it has ever been. Another way you can get involved is to go to mobilize.us/thefrontline to check out events from The Frontline, which is a network of organizations working across the country on a number of fronts. There you can find access to online trainings if you’re trying to strengthen your organization’s capacity. You can also find ways to get involved in phone banking, text banking, and a number of other ways that you can make a difference from wherever you are in the country.
HOLLY: But Marcus, I thought the election was over. Why are we phone banking and text banking?
MARCUS: Well, there are more, there’s more work to be done, frankly, there’s more runoff elections coming up in other states, there are threats to democracy that are happening, apparently every day now, and people have to remain vigilant. And so these text parties are also to make sure people know what’s going on and what they can do locally and nationally.
HOLLY: And today, we’re going to bring you something that’s a little bit different from our previous episodes. Rembert Brown is a lifelong Atlanta resident, a longtime friend of mine, a former colleague at Grantland, which some of you may remember was a website of some type. Rembert is also a childhood friend of a kid named Jon Ossoff, who it turns out is a United States Senator. Now that’s interesting.
HOLLY: That’s interesting.
HOLLY: Somebody should, we should follow up on that with our research department after the show.
MARCUS: That’s kinda wild.
HOLLY: Rembert is also working on a podcast of his own that is on kind of a parallel track with ours but we grabbed some time with him yesterday morning, that would be Wednesday morning, the day after the election, just to talk about what changes he has seen in Atlanta from his childhood to now and what it was like growing up here with a family of very politically engaged people, particularly politically engaged women, what it’s like to watch Jon Ossoff come into his own and just kind of shooting the shit. We just wanted a moment to take a breath and then the rest of the day was taken up by really not breathing at all at some points. Anyway, we hope you enjoy. We had a good time with Rem.
MARCUS: If you’d like to hear more from Rembert and his co-host Jewel Wicker, you can find their podcast, Gaining Ground: The New Georgia, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher. They give a great historical context for organizing in Georgia and how the political landscape in the state has changed over the years, combined with their own personal experiences and insight from various organizers, the candidates and leaders throughout the area.
HOLLY: Rembert and Jewel both have years of lived experience in Atlanta itself so if it’s not a city that you’re familiar with, if it’s not a part of the state that you’re familiar with, this is a great place to jump into and learn a little bit from more of a journalistic perspective than the activist perspective that our show takes. And without further ado, here is Rembert Brown, in conversation with me and Marcus, the morning after the election. We’re very sleepy. Bear with us.
CARL DOUGLAS: There cannot be any mistake that the activism of the African American voter in Georgia is the salve that will hopefully make a change.
JAKE TAPPER: CNN will now project that Democrat Raphael Warnock is elected to the US Senate.
LESTER HOLT: NBC News now projecting that Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, will win the Senate runoff in the state of Georgia.
CARL: Much of America has to give credit where credit is due this time.
MARCUS: Welcome to Ground Game: Georgia. Hey y’all, we are hung over and a little out of our minds.
HOLLY: It’s a beautiful blue day here in Georgia.
MARCUS: We’re Southern and a little, uh, little full of ourselves right now. So yeah.
HOLLY: Hey Marcus.
MARCUS: Hey Holly.
HOLLY: How you doing?
MARCUS: I’m alright.
MARCUS: I’m sleep deprived. But I’m good. I’m here. And we have, we have a great guest with us today joining us in this celebration.
HOLLY: I’m talking about noted Atlantan, perhaps the most Atlanta person I’ve ever known, one Rembert Brown. Rembert, how are you doing?
REMBERT BROWN: I am doing…I feel weird. I’m still waiting for this to go bad. Even though, like, this is, I was…last night, every time I got stressed, I would get a call from a friend, stressed, and we just started talking. In one of my calls with a friend that I grew up with, Bradley who is one of my, he’s like, part of my soul. I love him so much. And I was just like, “I can’t, like why is all of my residual sports fear seep into the way I approach any type of competition?”
HOLLY: You more than anybody else, perhaps understand the sensation I felt walking into the Falcon Stadium to vote?
REMBERT: Oh, my goodness, there’s no- (laughs)
HOLLY: I’m just looking around waiting for, like, a grand piano, I’m waiting for some kind of, like, Looney Tunes situation to happen, like an anvil to fall on me from a great height or a grand piano to be dropped off the concourse?
REMBERT: Yeah, but then I think the big difference is, like, we actually did the work, like the organizers and the people, like, we didn’t stumble into this and, like, hope for the best.
HOLLY: Folks, It is 9:45 on Wednesday morning and we’re shambling.
MARCUS: (laughs) What impressed me the most, like, leading up to yesterday was seeing the numbers of, like, voter engagement on a runoff election. Because I mean, this isn’t the first time that a runoff election has been in the national spotlight but I think it’s the first time we’ve seen this surge in engagement.
HOLLY: And I saw, I saw a lot of people last night say something to the effect of you know, “this is what happens when you invest in the South, when you don’t write it off as, “well, you know, everybody there is either a redneck or people who deserve to be ruled under the thumb of redneck.” This is also what happens when you get out of those people’s way. The act of, the act of getting money to one of these organizations is ultimately an act of trust, right? When you’re donating to a campaign, or a grassroots advocacy group, you’re saying, “you know, you know what to do with this money. And I trust you, I trust that you know what you need.” That’s a very different thing from saying, “okay, we trust you guys to run this entire campaign.” But fundamentally, that’s what we’re doing. Right? When you support these efforts, we’re saying, “we trust that you know better than our Connecticut-ass consultants what is or is not going to play in Georgia.
REMBERT: You know, having lived in New York for 10 years, there was this, like, as soon as it was runoff time, there was, like, very real, and you know it came from a good place, as many things do but it was like, there was a lot of, “we need to go down to Georgia.” You know, there was some very real, like, okay, it’s time for, it’s time for us to swoop in and save America energy-
REMBERT: -that I think I’m really glad I feel like got nipped in the bud early in the runoff. I do think that something we saw here is like, the people on the ground can handle their own ground, you know.
MARCUS And do it better.
REMBERT: The stakes would often be talked about as, you know, this is about the stakes of the whole country. You know, folks would often forget, like, you know, it’s also about what senators do to the people that live in their own state, like, most stuff that happens every day in Georgia but I do think that there’s so many things that hopefully, hopefully get replicated, that hopefully can get taken lots of other places. But I hope one of those things is folks increasingly trusting the people who put in the work and not chalking things up to, oh, this was like, you know, basically like, “look at these country folk.” Nothing that happened was accidental, like, this was very purposeful stuff.
MARCUS: And I think that, that message-
HOLLY: It was purposeful.
MARCUS: -is like, the message of letting people who are in these communities already take the lead and do the work is important because I’ve been a part of a, of a grassroots campaign where we had, and I’m gonna go ahead and say it, the Human Rights Campaign, parachuted into Chattanooga. We were working on a non-discrimination ordinance for LGBT city employees and me and my fellow community organizers, we were like, cool, you’re here, all we need is your money. We just need you to pay for billboards and advertisements and radio spots and TV spots. They turned around and looked at us and said, “well, won’t that cause a backlash against the community?” We’re like, we live in Tennessee. The backlash is always here. We’re not afraid of it because we live with it. They stood in our way and eventually, we just walked away from them and so to help get the word out, we staged a 600-person protest that we organized in four days. They went through middle downtown Chattanooga raising awareness of the needs of our city employees.
HOLLY: Marcus, how did that ordinance go?
MARCUS: When the HRC was helping us, it failed. When we did it on our own, it passed, and it’s not talked about enough is that when you do just support the folks who’ve been living in these communities and who know them, you can win and you can win pretty big. If you’re listening to so-called experts who live in coastal cities or in another state and they come in, they have the expertise of where they’ve been working. They don’t have the expertise of every community in the country.
HOLLY: And we’ve got to normalize that trust.
MARCUS: Yeah, we do and it’s like and don’t just think that because you’re from a bigger city that is more progressive that you know better because likely you don’t. You haven’t had to fight the same battles that people are still fighting down here.
HOLLY: And it is so early but one big example that I think we can rest pretty solidly on right now is the continued attacks on Warnock’s faith as though that was going to get anywhere in this state.
REMBERT: Loeffler came after Jesus.
HOLLY: Like, come on, are you not unpopular enough? She took the one, maybe the one person left, who’s supposed to love her, snd she’s like, “that guy?”
REMBERT: The combination of, you know, where Warnock as a pastor plus the fact that he’s so clearly not like a prosperity gospel-
HOLLY: I think there’s a lot of people across the country who probably don’t bother to make that distinction-
REMBERT: -you know, mega church preacher, like he’s not Creflo out here. And you know, he’s like, you know, he, he literally is the pastor at Ebenezer.
MARCUS: M-hmm. M-hmm.
HOLLY: -between somebody like him and somebody like Creflo, because they only see a pastor.
MARCUS: They see a Southern pastor, and they see a Black pastor too, not, not realizing he’s pro-choice, pro-immigrant, pro a whole bunch of things and that has routing his faith.
REMBERT: It’s just one of those reminders. Like my, my uncle is a pastor of a church in Atlanta. And, you know, when I see, when I see, like, what all the things that his, his job entails, like, you’re reminded and just like what the Black church is, it’s like, people were like, we’re not never, “you know, he’s never run for anything before.” It’s like, that’s true, but part of his life as a pastor is, like, community leader, you know,
HOLLY: And administrative bullshit. (chuckles) The sheer volume of administrative bullshit that you have to deal with.
MARCUS If you’ve ever sat in on a church board meeting, then, you know, pastors work.
HOLLY A church, like a church that big, yeah.
REMBERT Like a church that has history and is connected to the King family-
REMBERT: -and all, like, you are a political figure, you know, you’ve been a political figure, you’ve been someone that’s had to deal with politics before and the fact that he clearly has navigated this in a, in a masterful way. It’s like, you know, he probably was like, “politics, like real, I can do this.”
MARCUS I could be a senator.
REMBERT: I can deal with church folk, I can deal with anybody, you know-
HOLLY: I’ll, juggling with the…Yes! He has dealt with-
MARCUS: If he can deal with the church elders on a regular basis, the Senate ain’t nothing, he’s fine. He’s fine.
REMBERT: He’s like, “and I get it, I get a whole staff?” Coming back to your original question, you know, after November, there was like a lot of pride in looking at the short, the USA map and seeing like this sea of red and then there’s just like, one little blue-ass state and I’m like, “oh, my God, that’s like, my state. That’s crazy. That’s so impressive and exciting.” And to then to see this happen again, I’m just like this is all the things that I’ve always felt about being from Atlanta, being from Georgia, having Atlanta be, like, a place that I’ve long thought was like, way ahead of it’s like, it’s time in terms of, like, mentally where it was in terms of coalition building and, and in folks, just like, you know, from a very basic level. Part of my life in Atlanta has always been like lots of different folks liking to hang out with each other. and wondering if that could ever materialize into something when it comes to, you know, politics and all this other stuff. And I’m like, it, it actually happened.
HOLLY We should, we should actually back up because I would like to talk about how we approach Atlanta differently because I am a Tennessee native and went to a big state school and for kids all over the South, Atlanta is where you go, when you are grown. Atlanta is where you go to make it. All of the big state schools in the surrounding states, they feed into Atlanta, because this is where you go after you graduate. This is where you go to make a life and that’s, that’s a whole other set of issues that we will deal with another day but what I’m getting at is that I’m a transplant, as are many of my friends from college and from schools and other states, but Rem, you are of Atlanta, how is this different right now from what you remember growing up here?
REMBERT: There was always like, uh, I’m from Atlanta and not Georgia type energy- -because it, it really felt like the two were feuding and I do think that, for a long time, the suburbs of Atlanta were thought of as Georgia. I think that’s like the big thing that’s shifted. Growing up, there was like the energy was very ITP OTP, “inside the perimeter”, “outside the perimeter”, and OTP basically was especially north, I feel like it was always considered especially part of Georgia. You know, OTP on the south side, when you start, you know, you start talking about like Riverdale and, you know, like, there’s, like, certain parts of that still were super Black so it felt like it was lumped into the city of Atlanta. But, you know, when I, just thinking about the migration patterns that have been part of my life and my family’s life, like going from growing up in the city, to like, like very central Southwest Atlanta, then moving to like Old National, which was super Black and most notably was where [Evander] Holyfield lived. You know, that was like the thing like, “Oh, you live near Holyfield, like okay, like that’s, that was a part of my life. So much of the way I think about Atlanta and the way we should think about Atlanta is, like, so many things go back to the Olympics.
MARCUS: (chuckles) M-hmm.
REMBERT: You know, the Olympics happen, and it completely altered the geography of where people lived, you know, seeing, having friends that live in Summerhill, like down by the stadium, I’m like, “these were projects,” you know, and the reason they’re no longer projects is because they got all torn down so we could look shiny for these Olympics, you know. But fast forwarding to, you know, 2008 my mom moves to Jonesboro, which is a Southside suburb, which, you know, in some ways, has, like, this very real, like super Southern white history, because if you go into downtown Jonesboro, there’s like Scarlett O’Hara murals, like the “Road to Tara”-type stuff. But then, over time, Jonesboro and Clayton County, which is a place the world knows now has had this crazy transformation where my mom was telling me when she moved there, and then ’08 happened and she would put out Obama signs, she put on Obama signs twice, and each time they got stolen the next day.
REMBERT: So like that was, that was like some Jonesboro, Clayton County energy that was happening in 2008. Now she still lives in that house. When I drive around, the whole neighborhood, the same neighborhood, like “Dump Trump” signs and like all this other stuff, and I’m like, that’s something tangible that I remember. Like, I remember all of this happening, and it wasn’t so much time. That’s a 12 year span and so when you look at these counties, it really feels like Metro Atlanta is like a more unified front in a way that was definitely not part of my upbringing. It really felt like the actual city center was fighting a solo fight against the rest of the state. But I do think you know, it’s important to note these other little clusters that exist in Georgia. You know, like, there are Black people that live in Georgia that do not live in Atlanta, like, “Hello, surprise.” Also, there’s Black people that don’t live in cities that live in Georgia, there are people that live in Atlanta that are not Black or White. Like, these are things that are real, you know, and these are things that I have, you know, at times had to confront my own biases. It was 2018, I was living at home, it was the first time I lived at home in a really long time and, like, knew about all of the changing demographics in Atlanta, but still was living mentally in a Black/White Atlanta, it was like a convenient mindset for me. I was like, it’s us and it’s them and sometimes we’re together and I started just like, finally, you know, not just talking about Buford Highway but actually spending time there, but also understanding that the 100% of the Asian American community does not live on Buford Highway, there’s so many things where you just like hear stuff, and you get locked into narratives. And then you just kind of accept it and you don’t engage with it. And so, you know, really, really being able to, like, understand the data of the city and the state that you are from, and then actually engaging with it and interacting with it, and then seeing that stuff play out in something like the political process, It’s all really exciting. It proves that Georgia is a dynamic state and it’s like a really, politically smart place to live and I like that narrative, because that’s not something that I grew up around. I grew up hearing, like talking to my mom during this election cycle was also really great.
HOLLY: Can you tell, can you tell people a little bit about your mom’s background? Because I feel like most of them probably won’t know.
REMBERT: My mom went to high school in Atlanta, she’s a, she taught all over the AUC, the Atlanta University Center and also Atlanta Metropolitan College. And, yeah, I mean, she, she is 1000 times more Atlanta than I am, you know, like, she and her siblings. Uh, you know, my grandfather worked at the post office in Atlanta, you know, like, it’s real, like, when I drive around, I’m just like, pointing at stuff and I feel like, it’s just memories of either mine or my families. But I remember when I landed, when I landed in Atlanta last, like, as soon as I got, like, I got service, I had a call from my aunt, who is also a professor, was a professor at Clark, but also a member of Delta Sigma Theta Incorporated sorority and she was basically like, “tell Ossoff, like, he needs to come talk to us.” And I was like that energy is the best. And, you know, there’s a lot on Twitter right now, there’s a lot of like, “Thank you, black women. Thank you black women for being the best.” I’m like, yeah, but like, that’s for real, you know, like, the mobilizing and the sense of urgency that Black women, Southern Black women, Black women in Georgia, Black women in Atlanta have when it comes to politics and not being satisfied with a system that tends to treat them lesser than. Like when it comes to groups that are like, “we cannot leave this up to chance.”
HOLLY Let’s talk for a minute about your, your background with Ossoff because I feel like you’ve got a unique perspective here to offer.
REMBERT: We started going to school together in seventh grade, and my high school graduating classes, there’s about 90 of us and I’d say 35 of us keep up and we always stay close in large part because of a shared love of politics but also our lives crisscrossed in DC a lot. He went to college there so I always went to DC because I fashioned myself as the one who was going to run for mayor. I was gonna move back home or run for mayor.
HOLLY: It’d be so many good scandals off that.
REMBERT: Yeah, I was like, “Oh, I was like if Bill and Shirley could do it, I can do it.” But as my, as my life turned to writing, you know, I remember when he was working for John Lewis. I remember when he started working for congressman Hank Johnson and was like, seem to be like a really trusted, I was like “Hank really listen to Ossoff. Like, that’s cool. Like my friend wears the suit all the time.” He’s like really getting to, like, go to meetings and like really, really seems to be in the ear of a congressman. That was always very cool to me, like my mother and his mother are friends, so like, they text a lot, you know the way moms text like Facebook memes and stuff.
REMBERT: And so he’s like, always kind of been, like, within arm’s reach. When it comes to this, even just like, “hey, you want to read this thing? Like I’m thinking about this thing.” Like, that’s kind of been the way we’ve, like we’ve talked since we’ve been in high school, in college. I’m excited for him, because I do think that he figured out campaigning, but he’s going to be, like, 50 times better of a senator than a campaigner. The thing that I’ve always wanted to come true is I really just think this dude wants to get to work. Thank goodness, he can actually go be a senator, this, like, brilliant person that I know to be like such a strong political mind, and also someone who’s like, fundamentally good, which is something we need. I’m excited for him to actually go get to do the work instead of having to basically spend the better part of the last four years proving to people that he deserves a chance to do the work. So yes, the homie. I’m super excited. I’m just like, I’m giddy. I’m super excited. Shout out to the Class of 2005. I can’t believe we have a senator that was born in 1987.
HOLLY: I know you have to get to work. Can you tell us real, real quick about your show and the approach that you guys have taken? Because I want people to know that we’re, we’re on two like parallel, but very different paths here and I want to hear a little bit about your approach.
REMBERT: Yeah. So, um, hours from the jump was a five episode, uh, build up to honestly to right now, you know, take something as large as Georgia went blue, how did this happen? And then, part two, Georgia is trying to go bluer. And, you know, for us, it was super important to, you know, build a kind of storytelling framework that was informative, and to some degree entertaining. But also just like, mainly letting the people who have been doing this work speak, which is something that’s consistent between the two of our podcasts is like not having it, like I was very purposeful and being like, “I do not want this to be the Rembert Show. I want to, like, if you, if you want me to speak, I will get over my fears of hearing my own voice.” And so, like, it was important to, yes, talk about the protests and talk about what was happening in Atlanta, but also talk to the Mayor of Savannah and talk to the Mayor of Albany and talk about how all of these things really are connected, how, you know, the ties between COVID and voter suppression, and, you know, the fact that people were in the streets like all of this stuff, you take out one of these things and the election is completely different in Georgia. You know, the fact that you know, these titans of politics in Georgia, nationally, C. T. Vivian, Joseph Lowery, John Lewis, like, you can’t talk about this runoff election without talking about giving some context about John Lewis, like, you have one guy who is the pastor of his church and the other guy intern for him, like, that’s crazy that like these are the two people who are the senators in the year that he dies, like, that’s like, it’s like his legacy lives through these two people. Like that’s, that’s incredible. It really makes it clear how it really took everyone doing their own little thing, or big thing to like, push Georgia over the edge. There’s just so many, you know, you have really, like, world changing stories like Nsè Ufot, who started New Georgia Project, like having this chance meeting with Stacey a couple years ago and thinking Stacey was crazy because of her plans for Georgia and then something about that making her be like, “I’m going to drive from where I currently live in Canada, back home to Atlanta and, like, try to do my part.” And like, this was such a massive effort of folks being like, “I’m gonna try to do my part”, to do something that, like, let it be known, like, everything that just happened, all three things was a giant upset, these are all upsets. None of these things are like supposed to happen and so, to watch these very leap of faith efforts actually be rewarded, to actually feel like to some degree, like the people that put in the work actually got rewarded. But there’s real, there’s real hope, you know, for us, as a people, and I’m just, you know, I can’t ever if I, if I feel like if I do ever lose my sense of optimism, I’m like, I’m done. You know, like, I feel like, sometimes that optimism is completely mental gymnastics and steeped in delusion just to keep going. But today feels like one of those rare days where the optimism is very real. I want to give a special shout-out to my co-host of our podcast, Jewel Wicker.
HOLLY: Yeah, I was not familiar with her work before, before this, but she’s great.
REMBERT: She’s great.
REMBERT: Black-ass, Atlanta-ass woman right there. She’s great and I’m glad that she wanted to do this podcast with me, because, as you all know, like so much of this is like the stuff that you did, but it’s like the choices you decided not to make that would have like, made this like, really bad. It’s like “no, like, I’m really glad we didn’t start this podcast with like, TI saying Atlanta’s Wakanda.” I’m really glad we didn’t do that, you know.
HOLLY: (laughs) It was on the table, but we didn’t do it.
REMBERT: It was on a wall somewhere.
MARCUS: Somebody’s vision board.
REMBERT: I think we should maybe do this another way.
HOLLY: Thank you to Rembert Brown for donating his time and available brain bandwidth to help us pick things apart on the morning after a very, very long election night. And again, if you would like to hear more from him and from Jewel Wicker about the race, about the history of politics in Atlanta and in Georgia, check out Gaining Ground: The New Georgia, wherever you get your podcasts. You can also keep up with us online at groundgamepod.com. Our website has subscription links to all the episodes, it’s got transcripts of every episode and also resource links to all the organizations that we mentioned on all of our shows. You can follow us on Twitter @groundgamepod and on Instagram @groundgamepod.
MARCUS: Take care of yourselves and be good to each other out there. And congratulations to all the folks who did a lot of hard work. You did good.
HOLLY: Not too bad for a bunch, uh, a bunch of backwater red staters, huh?
MARCUS: A bunch of folks from the holler.
BEN TIERNAN: Our show is produced, written, and hosted by Holly Anderson and Marcus Ellsworth. With help from the Ground Game: Georgia volunteer jambouree, including Ashley Hobbs, Brian Gutièrrez-Shelton and me, Ben Kiernan. Editing by Douglas Reyes-Ceron and Arlill Rodriguez. Our theme is by the legendary Jonathan Sanford. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Design by Jazmine Johnson. Nicole Mackie runs our social. Ground Game: Georgia is a production of unir.
HOLLY: Well, I dropped coffee on my keyboard. Hang on. (laughs) Keep talking. I literally just dropped it into my keyboard. This has never happened before.
REMBERT: The point you made was so good.
HOLLY: I know.
REMBERT: Coffee exploded.
HOLLY: Oh man.
MARCUS: I couldn’t take it.
REMBERT: I do think that-
HOLLY: I just dropped, I’ve straight up just dropped a mug out of my hand. Alright.
You’ve heard their hits; now explore the b-sides: As we race into 2021 and count down the days until Georgia’s Senate runoff elections, hosts Marcus Patrick Ellsworth and Holly Anderson revisit vital moments with guests from our earlier episodes, tangents and exchanges we weren’t able to fit into our first four shows but can’t stand to leave behind. You’ll also hear segments from an upcoming featured interview, a conversation we couldn’t wait until next week to share. (Think of it as a clip show, but with all new material!)
From our team to you and yours, wishes for a peaceful and productive New Year. And remember, the work’s not done.
TIA MITCHELL: This election has become so much more than just about the four candidates and who do Georgians want to represent them in Washington.
DANIEL BLACKMAN: Our environment matters, and it’s on the ballot on January 5th.
REVEREND WARNOCK: And when you go to the polls on January 5th, you will perform moral surgery on a nation in need of heart repair.
JON OSSOFF: Georgia has the power to set the tone for the next several decades in this country to demand health and jobs and justice for the people.
MARCUS ELLSWORTH, HOST: Welcome to Ground Game: Georgia.
HOLLY ANDERSON, HOST: From Atlanta, Georgia, I’m Holly Anderson.
MARCUS: And just across the border in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I’m Marcus Ellsworth. We’ve come to the end of the year and our last installment before the Georgia runoff elections.
HOLLY: A friendly reminder that if you’re in Georgia and didn’t vote early, January 5th – Election Day, is your last day to vote. We’ll be back on January 6, to follow up on the election results and take a look at what’s on the horizon for organizers in Georgia.
MARCUS: Today’s episode is a little different. We’ve collected our favorite pieces of our interviews that didn’t fit into past episodes due to time or thematic constraints.
HOLLY: From meaningful insights into how they view their work, to just solid advice that we can all learn from, we wanted to share with our listeners a few of the gems that were so graciously given to us.
MARCUS: You’ve heard the hits. Now here are the B-Sides.
HOLLY: First up, a little inspiration. Raven Bradfield shared an experience she had in the last days of the November campaign when she was working as a Regional Organizing Director for the Georgia Democratic Party. It had been a grueling few months, and she was exhausted and overwhelmed.
RAVEN BRADFIELD: Yeah, so this actually happened to me 16 days before the election. I was so tired. I said, “I can’t, I’m giving up,” and Ayanna Presley, was invited to one of our calls that day and she is the person that inspires me, she’s not the only person, but she makes me feel courageous because she says things that I thought that we would never be able to say, cuz I recognize that Black people lived in America as second-class citizens from a very young age. And I told my mother, I told both of my parents that this is the work that I would die for and so when she is representing me and saying things that are specific to my community, it really inspires me. It makes me feel like I can be brave in that way, and actually say out loud what I want to do and what I’m fighting for. And it’s her, Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, of course, Stacey Abrams, and I think about Shirley Chisholm all the time. She’s just so far ahead of her time, just running as an unapologetically Black candidate. At that time, it seems so brave but I’ve come to realize that when I’m in these mostly white spaces, that is, I’m not sure each of them. But it’s the same thing, that it’s just me showing up as a Black woman, you know, basically, for the first time to these, these white people and saying out loud what it is that I’m really here for, what it is that I want, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that without other people I named and so many others.
MARCUS: We’re working on a future episode to cover the impact of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community on the November election. But due to scheduling conflicts, we could not get it out the door in December. In the meantime, we would be remiss if we didn’t share with you this clip of Tom Bonier, CEO of data analytics firm TargetSmart, explaining the unprecedented and largely unheralded impact that the AAPI community had in Georgia in 2020.
TOM BONIER: Immigrant communities tend to have the lowest turnout and AAPI voters, that’s certainly been the case, AAPI voters nationally have had lowest turnout of any race or ethnic group in federal and state level elections historically. And then something happened, and this election in Georgia was very much the epicenter of this, where we saw just entirely reverse where no group search by more in turnout than AAPI voters.
HOLLY: One of the most interesting facts that Tom shared with us is that more AAPI voters voted early in 2020, then voted in all of 2016.
TOM: A big part of that certainly was just growth in the community but when you’re talking about growth, I think the most recent numbers I’d seen showed about something like 17% growth among AAPI individuals between 2010 and 2017. So you know, high growth, but still in no way explaining a doubling in turnout, as we saw in a lot of these suburban Atlanta county, so that, that was what caught my attention and told me, “well, there’s something happening here, generally in this election,” because turnout surge so much nationally, and in Georgia, that there were a lot of people coming out who hadn’t participated before. In Georgia, 31% of the people who voted in this election didn’t vote in 2016. So a lot of people who had stayed home, 9% of the people who voted, had never voted before, that’s overall, but among AAPI voters, that number went up to 26%. So over more than one fourth of AAPI voters who voted in this election were voting for the first time in their life in an American election, which is amazing. 55% of the AAPI voters who voted in Georgia, and last month’s election, didn’t vote in 2016. That number overall, to say that 31% of Georgians who voted in this election didn’t vote in 2016, you look at that and say, “wow, that’s a lot,” right, that by itself, but then 55% [of] AAPI voters, again, that that’s the sort of thing that you generally don’t see. I’ve been analyzing election data for longer than I’d like to admit. I’ve not seen anything even approaching what we saw and what we experienced with, with the AAPI vote and I, and I’ve had the pleasure since then, in terms of sharing this and talking with some AAPI groups, a lot of them in Georgia and hearing about the organizing. You know it’s clear this wasn’t something that happened by accident, it did happen very much under the radar, but it did not happen by accident, it happened by early investment, it happened by representation, it happened by organizing into communities by using culturally appropriate communication, you know, very sophisticated efforts. And I think a lot that, that organizers in general will be able to learn from these organizers and what they’re able to do in Georgia. It’s inspiring, I think, especially so in the context of this election, when we’ve seen Asian Americans being subject to racist physical violence, racist outbursts from a president who, you know, using racist terms to describe the virus. And then on the other end of that equation, you see representation, you see a vice presidential candidate who has roots in both African American and AAPI communities and seen that representatives, you see in all these things come together. It was inspiring, right, that we’ve had, we’ve had four years of a lot of things to feel a bit downtrodden about so to be able to see this sort of inspiring result in AAPI turnout was a nice sort of full circle moment in a lot of ways.
HOLLY: When we spoke with Robert-John from SONG Power for our first episode, he offered his perspective on the particular framing of abolition work as an organizer, as well as the meaning behind SONG’s motto, “liberation in our lifetime”. The distinction of being an abolitionist versus being an activist is an important one for many organizers. Activists are usually pushing for the reform of a system that they see as broken or harmful. Abolitionists pursue a vision of full reconstruction, where new systems are built to entirely replace the existing oppressive structures and institutions in our society.
ROBERT-JOHN HINOJOSA: Folks ask, “how do you make a living as an activist”, and I said, “well, A: I’m not an activist, I’m an abolitionist,” and that’s very different and abolition already understand that the systems that we’re working in are racist and patriarchal. And we’re trying to fix something that the forefathers didn’t understand and broke or I’m starting this, I already recognize that I’m saying, “let’s rebuild this system” and we can rebuild this system in these ways. But that’s the scary part, because that’s challenging the status quo, that challenges white power structures. So in that space, I try to explain to folks that we’re coming from a different perspective, you’re activating to be part of ,like, your quality movement. Quality is cool, but I want liberation, in liberation, all of us are free. My whole self is free, and liberation, I don’t have to pick and choose what parts of me get to be lifted, all of it, right. And then liberation has more fluidity than your equality and equality is cool, but it’s usually meant to be a very corporate way of how we have our rights, like it’s a corporate way, like Prides are dope and then you see Absolut Vodka and Poppers being advertised everywhere in loops, like those are important things, but is that what’s driving the price, like what’s driving the price? Because that’s not Pride anymore. That’s just a commercial.
MARCUS: Pride itself was born from a riot that sparked further protests, that inspired lobbying, and more uprisings in order to bulldoze a path for the relative improvements to the quality of life for queer folks that we know today. But the movement is far from over. Robert John’s question about what is driving Pride is one many of us queer activists have. I know I do. It’s an answer I’ve pursued through my own career. I served as the president of Chattanooga’s Pride, was a Hamilton County Chair for Tennessee Equality Project and have advocated for LGBTQ equity in Chattanooga for almost two decades. We know the work must continue but our movements must feed our minds, hearts bodies, and the wildest dreams of those who came before us.
ROBERT-JOHN: The work we do, movement work, is hungry work. It is spiritual work. It is work that is necessary because there’s been people who did it before me. There’s people who are meeting up in juke joints and in bars, uh, barns that were meeting up in people’s houses using code. There were people that were throwing down and organizing, and they could sacrifice body and limb. Those are the folks I think about. Those are the folks, those queer folks who had to find very secretive and dangerous ways to connect, love and be magical. That is the work we coming to do. That is why we’re here because we, we, those are part of, those [are] our ancestors, those are part of the people who were with us. You know, back in the day, I’ve lost so many folks in this movement, I’ve lost so many folks to violence, I’ve lost so many folks to disease, I lost so many folks to despair. And we shouldn’t have to lose any more of these folks, none of our people should die. No one should have to die because of isolation, or because of fear, or because of a policy that tells you who you should be. This is why I’m here. This is why we’re doing this work. It’s not only personal, the political is personal, feminist axiom, but it’s real. It’s real. And it’s our lives, right? Like, I can’t turn a blind eye to the injustices that happen. It can’t be that way.
HOLLY: The work of organizations like SONG is inherently intersectional. That means they look at LGBTQ rights, racial justice, reproductive rights, workers rights, and other social issues as inseparable parts of a single goal of justice and equity for everyone. While intersectional organizers may have to focus on particular issues as needed, they’re on a constant journey of education and engagement that includes the interests of all marginalized peoples, not only for the groups they belong to or the communities that make up the primary focus of their organization.
ROBERT-JOHN: Just this is never going to be just us. If I’m here, like what am I doing around reproductive rights as a queer Brown man, like, what am I doing around like agricultural work? What am I doing around gentrification when I didn’t grow up in those areas? What am I doing about poverty, when I haven’t experienced those things, like, if we’re not having those conversations, then we are utilizing our privilege to be exploitative, right? So we’re not using what we have to try to uplift the rest of us. So that’s where that integration and my ideology of around what movement, where it can look like, started. And from there, I just got connected with the founders of SONG. It was six women, three Black women, three white women, lesbian dykes, who were parts of all type of freedom works, who came together and recognized that their queerness didn’t separate them from the movement work. And that’s also what separates us from the right. In the right, you have to be segmented in order to fit. They need conformity for order, their movement, and their ideas to go forward. This idea of just one means that I have to leave all my other pieces separated and in our work, in abolition of work, we want your whole self, we want a holistic movement. I want all your edges and your broken pieces, because that’s who you are. And together, we can try to figure it out. I don’t need you to conform because that’s boring. And I like it a little kinky so let’s, let’s have those edges. Let’s have that broadness, right. So let’s not play those games.
MARCUS: Robert-John told us that sometimes he gets asked what it would look like to have the cultural shift that abolitionists seek. His answer is basically…look around. We’re living through it.
ROBERT-JOHN: People ask me constantly about, you know, about this cultural shift, or liberation in the last time and I’m like, “bro, it’s happening now. You are in a cultural shift.” There was uprisings in the street. The American uprisings happened this summer. And it happened, because people saw the inequities, the injustice of what is happening. So we’re the stewards now to decide how we’re going to carry it. Are we going to let it wither on the vine? Are we going to let it be a raisin in the sun? All right, all right, some quotes, or are we going to push forward? Are we going to lift it and be our ancestors’ wildest dreams? So we have possibilities, and that’s what I want and, you know, liberation in our lifetime is real, and it’s possible and that’s what we’re here to charge to do.
HOLLY: In our conversation with Ian Bridgeforth, he shared an important aspect of the long-term vision for Georgia Shift. He’ll know that the organization he founded has been a success when they’ve worked themselves out of the need to exist at all.
IAN BRIDGEFORTH: So we exist, I think, particularly to provide a independent political home for young people who otherwise wouldn’t be engaged or brought into this process. You know, elections are cool and fun, and that kind of thing. And we, of course, are doing work in a lot of these elections but I think the most thing that gets me more excited is around the accountability and like the leadership development piece around it is, how do we really actually invest in people so that way us even as an institution, like at some point, doesn’t need to exist. And so it’s like, when I started this, I never wanted to be one of those like non-profits that’s like 100, 150 years old. And that’s not saying any shade to them or anything like that but it’s like, I feel like how do we build an infrastructure to where we can essentially, like, we’re giving the power and the resources to them and making sure that they can continue to build on that without assistance from us or without any, like, how do we make sure that, you know, whatever issue that they care about, they have the tools and resources to organize around it and we essentially fade to the background and allow them to fight for issues of you know, public utilities, or whatever else that they’re fighting for. And that’s, to me, why we exist. I think that accountability, and, you know, the social unrest that was happening this summer, and for years beforehand, like, that’s, I think, in a lot of ways, the accountability that needs to happen on a year-round basis.
MARCUS: While speaking with Mina Turabi, the state director of March For Our Lives – Georgia, we touched on the issue of burnout, a very real concern in almost any line of work. But the burnout of organizing can come with the added guilt of feeling like you can’t take a break. Mina pointed out exactly why [trying] to work through a burnout is so terrible, and how folks can help keep themselves and each other from pushing too hard.
MINA TURABI: A burned out activist is not an activist at all. A mentally tired activist is not going to do anything because the problems that we’re working for, you know, we’re working for such vile things to be fixed, we’re working for people getting shot, we’re working against Corona patients going and getting a $3 million bill in the mail, we’re working against such problems. And mentally overall, you have to be okay, you have to be somewhat willing to take on other people’s problems and you can’t do that if you’re tired and…self love, self worth, self, self help is the top three. Because without this, you can’t do anything and it’s going to get to a point, no matter how much of a go-getter you are, no matter how much you’re like, “I’m going to do this,” it’s going to catch up to you. I remember, I’m a full time student, I also have a job and I’m working with March [MFOL] and RISE and all these organizations, and I hadn’t slept for five days, literally no sleep. I was running on Monsters and I was just like, I sat down and I was like, “okay, the next thing I have to do is like I have to write the script, I have to get everything ready. The program’s about to start.” And I fall asleep and I didn’t wake up for like 19 hours, I literally fell asleep sitting on a chair and I woke up and I feel this guilt but a part of me is like I needed that. You know, like, there’s a part of me that if I’m burned out, how am I going to help anybody else? You have to help yourself first.
MARCUS: When you, when you’re doing this work, you’re part of a community. So what do you do when you see somebody else approaching that burnout?
MINA: Yeah, so I think that has been the biggest challenge for me because I’m that person that’s like, I know myself, I don’t like when people are telling me that, you know, you’re, you’re tired, go to sleep. I’m not like, I don’t like that, I get really, really angry when people tell me that. So you have to find a way. It can be through just talking to people, you know, checking up on my organizers has been a big part of the runoffs and the general election, my check ins that I have are never like, “did you get this, this, and this done?” It’s about “hey, are you okay? Is your relationship going okay, did you eat today?” And the biggest thing I think I always lead off on all my calls, is do we tend to judge ourselves based on other people? You know, you go on social media, and you’re, like, this person did this, this and this today, and all I did was wake up. Well, you waking up is a little victory. You eating is a victory, you sleeping is a victory. Their victories are not you, you’re not them. It’s a totally different thing. So just checking up, you know, having these conversations, I think, is the main focus.
HOLLY: We asked Tamieka Atkins, Executive Director of ProGeorgia, the same question about burnout, and she shared with us how she stays present and grounded in the lesson she’s learned from her own mentors.
TAMIEKA ATKINS: You know, I think this is another Audrey Lorde quote about like, caring for ourselves as resistance. I fully believe that. I’ve had the privilege to be mentored and learn from women like Denise Perry, who founded Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity [BOLD], which had a huge impact on me and my leadership, knows the complete sentence, focus on our outcomes and our strategy. It’s okay to pivot, make mistakes, right? Just not the same ones, but make mistakes. Perfection is the enemy of the good. We do not do this work as individuals, we do this work as community, and frankly, as family. So the minute you start thinking it’s all on you, then that is ego and actually works against what we are trying to accomplish for us and our people.
MARCUS: Malika Redmond, the founder and Executive Director of Women Engaged, will be featured in our very next episode. But there’s an urgency to her message that we thought was very timely and some thoughts she delivered that we all agreed needed to be shared now, before Election Day.
MALIKA REDMOND: For folks who are newly awake to the realities of racial injustice, racial violence against Black people, Black bodies, immigrant bodies, people who are a part of religious minority groups, other kinds, you know, that it’s not okay to then think that, “oh, well, we changed some things, and I’m gonna go,” and that is not okay. It is important for particularly white people who, again, who have gotten this, like, school who have felt for whatever reason, like this cold bucket of water splashed on your face, for the first time, that the work is yours to make sure that your community continues to learn and, and participate in ways that are part of responsible civic engagement in a community. That’s not the job of people of color, and Black people and Black women to do that work at all. It never has been our job, we just, we do what we do to save our own lives and our own families. So some of the criticism I have about, you know, “the Black women are saving all of us.” Yeah, but that is a byproduct of the fact that we see our daughters in mind when we go to the polls, and we are scared to death and we are saying, “we have got to save our children,” we see our sons, and we say, “we’ve got to take care of our children, we will organize for our own self.” (laughs) But what we, but what is important is that everybody else, not sort of, you know, sit on the fact that we will do that, and then relax. In fact, you need to continue to learn what you need to learn about yourself, your own history and the history of this country from a factual place, not from a “what I want to feel” place, but from a factual place and use that as a guide to do the kind of work necessary to make all of our communities better.
HOLLY: And if you need help getting to that finish line, Women Engaged is here for you. If you’re listening to this, and you haven’t been able to vote yet, and you need anything to help you do that, they’ve got you.
MALIKA: For my in-state people, voting is happening now. If you are needing anything, childcare support, ride to the polls, I stamp anything to help you with your voting plan, go to womenengaged.vote, there are buttons on there that says, “Do I need childcare to the polls? Do I need rides to the polls,” click what you need. Let us help support you get to the polls or to know your early voting location or help you figure out getting your absentee ballot if it hasn’t come in the mail yet. They should be arriving most,you know, people are getting them. So if you’re concerned, like, “it hasn’t come yet, I don’t want to, you know, I don’t know what’s happening,” don’t be scared, call us. Go to womenengaged.vote, let us know, we will be in touch with you and we will support you walking through those steps.
MARCUS: Finally, a reminder and one that’s never been more timely. The work’s not done. That doesn’t change on Tuesday.
MALIKA: Have those conversations that, before you thought was okay to, I don’t talk about this at home and we don’t do this. It is time. It is time. It is time. You need to muster up the courage. And if you have family that’s in Georgia and you know you’re going to be on some kind of Zoom or whatever kind of virtual family gathering, yes, remind them, engage them, and engage yourself in the conversations of what this vision, this bold vision is hope that we all want to see and what folks want moving into the new year, what do you want moving into the new year. And so that’s what I would say for our, for our folks listening out there. And thank you for listening out there.
HOLLY: You’re gonna hear a lot more from Malika in our next episode. She was incredibly generous with her time and we covered a lot of ground so tune in to hear more about her work with Women Engaged.
MARCUS: And you can follow us on Twitter and Instagram at groundgamepod as well as check out our website at groundgamepod.com.
HOLLY: The website has subscription links, show notes, transcripts of the episodes.Pretty much anything you need, we got you there.
MARCUS: And in the meantime, take care of yourselves and be good to each other.
BRYAN GUTIÈRREZ-SHELTON: Our show is produced, written, and hosted by Holly Anderson and Marcus Ellsworth with help from the Ground Game: Georgia volunteer cavalcade, including Ashley Hobbs, Ben Tiernan, and me, Bryan Gutièrrez Shelton. Editing by Douglas Reyes-Ceron and Arlill Rodriguez. Our theme is by the magnificent Jonathan Sanford. The additional music [is] by Blue Dot Sessions. Design by Jasmine Johnson. Nicole Mackie runs our social. Ground Game: Georgia is a production of unir.
There aren’t too many issues that unite most Americans on the same side, but “Love thy neighbor” has historically been a pretty popular concept – at least, in theory. The leap of initiative between the thought of “I should help,” and the action of “I *will* help,” is one most people fail to make. Not so for today’s guests, King Williams and Mina Turabi, who looked at problems in their own communities – voter suppression and gun violence, respectively – and forged their own paths in search of solutions.
NSÉ UFOT: “You know, we are here because of the changing demographics that are happening in the country. For that change, more acute and more aggressive than in Georgia.
CLIFF ALBRIGHT: “Because at the end of the day ya’ll, it’s not just about any one election. It’s not even just about the candidates. That’s right. We put on the back of our shirts: It’s about us, because that’s what it’s about. It’s about us, our communities, our kids, our jobs, our schools, and it is literally about our lives, ya’ll.”
LATOSHA BROWN: “When I say love, you say power! LOVE!”
LATOSHA BROWN: “LOVE!”
LATOSHA BROWN: “We love ya’ll! See you all at the polls on Monday!”
MARCUS ELLSWORTH, HOST: Welcome to Ground Game: Georgia.
MARCUS: “And just across the border in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I’m Marcus Ellsworth.”
HOLLY: In today’s episode, we’re talking with Atlanta filmmaker King Williams about the Pizza to the Polls program he and his friends started to feed hungry voters standing in long lines. We also have Mina Turabi from March For Our Lives – Georgia who has been organizing voters around the issue of ending gun violence, while being a full-time student.
MARCUS: Both of these young leaders have something in common with many activists, advocates and organizers out there. They are inspired and driven by a desire to help their neighbors. That is a core value which anyone doing moving work must have.
HOLLY: To put in the long hours required to do work for others that is meaningful and sustainable, you have to genuinely invest in the needs and interests of people around you, especially when you have little to nothing to gain personally from all that effort.
MARCUS: “Love Thy Neighbor” is a pretty popular concept in theory. In practice, you’ll find a lot of well-meaning folks don’t clear the gap to actually give that help, like a real good neighbor should. So let’s make like Mr. Fred Rogers and get more neighborly, shall we?
HOLLY: First up, we have King Williams, who is already well known around Atlanta as a writer and documentary filmmaker. Over the summer, he became famous for something else: heading up an initiative to take pizza, snacks, and water to people standing in long lines to vote. I became aware of this work because I was one of those people standing in a really long line to vote. Quick note: King quite literally never stops moving. He is always working on something and he was running an errand for a relative during our interview. So you might hear a little more background noise than usual. It’s a podcast, you’ll cope.
KING WILLIAMS: I am King Williams, documentary filmmaker, journalist here in Atlanta. I am a local Black man in Atlanta. And that is my organization.
MARCUS: Nice. To get us started with this, what led you into this work? Was there an inciting incident? Or is this like the arc of your life? Like, are there, is there a series of events or was there one particular thing that made you go, “Hey, I gotta get involved”.
KING: I’ve always been around, my mom was very politically active, my grandma before her. But the thing that got me active this year was seeing a lot of people in precincts around my neighborhood, dating back to 2018, be outright told that they couldn’t vote, people being turned away from their polling locations. And then this year I went, I saw more people back in June, who were also being told that they couldn’t vote, or even just outright seeing lines and not going, I live on the east side of Atlanta, like in DeKalb County on that side of it. And so there’s a woman in the wheelchair who I didn’t realize she was in her car. And they changed her polling location. And because of that, she was getting the runaround to drive in different places, difficult to find the parking space, getting out and getting in line. And at the time, I was a volunteer for a buddy of mine, B Wynn, who was running for office during the primary, I just quit on the spot,saying, Hey B, I’m not going to hold up your signs anymore. I thought to just help her, get her right polling location, get her the right people, and then make sure that she didn’t leave, you know that she actually went out and voted.
MARCUS: This moment, where a chance encounter drew King’s focus to the immediate needs of one person trying to vote, helped to shift his perspective to the fact that there were other needs that he and his friends could address. Long lines of hungry people who might be driven away by their basic human need for pizza.
KING: At that point in time, I just put it out on Twitter. And I tell people, “hey, this is my cash app, we’re gonna get people food so that they don’t leave the polls, we’re just gonna address some needs for people who are stuck in line for a while and hit me up if you want to be down”. And so that’s kind of how I roll from there. And the rest is history.
MARCUS: And so, how did the “Pizza at the Polls”, how did that evolve from the moment of like, “Hey, we need to feed people, keep them in line, give them one less reason to leave,” to becoming this much broader movement?
KING: It really kind of happened organically. The main thing is, I saw back in June, just some of the pros and cons of doing it on your own. Well, it wasn’t, I had like four people I went to college with, and I just brought it out saying, “Hey, you know, I know there’s gonna be a lot more people trying to vote.” And I wasn’t trying to make a movement, I was trying to reach a need. And so I just said, “Okay, you know what, no one’s gonna really address this need in the way that I think is conducive to people who actually live on my side of town who live in places that like none of the advocacy groups are going to. So that’s like DeKalb Counties or Clayton Counties, the non-gentrified parts of Atlanta. And so, let me be there because they have a different need and it’s not going to be addressed by necessarily just coming out and asking people questions. It’s like, “Hey, man, I gotta get time off. Can you hold the line for me? Until I get back” or you know, I can’t do that but like, “Hey, man, can you let me know when the actual right time to show up because I got to go to work and I got three kids.” So it was just like that. It wasn’t trying to make it a movement. It’s like hey, people need a different set of needs and let’s just get some people who are like minded to do the same.
HOLLY: Can you give us like a timeline of how that has grown from the primaries to the November election and now to the runoff?
KING: Yeah, so I picked pizza because I wanted something that would be, A: safe to eat during the pandemic, and then, B: like really accessible to pick up or deliver. Where I live at, mostly we don’t have like these gourmet pizza shops. It’s mostly like a Domino’s and mostly Black-owned. So I was like, all right, cool. If I’m gonna put some money up, I want to support a Black-owned business and it may be a franchise. So I knew Domino’s could deliver. I knew Pizza Hut had the capabilities to deliver out and so I legitimately just went to these places and said, Hey, walked into the store and said, “hey, can I talk to your manager. I’m looking to order 50 pizzas, I’m looking to order 100 pizzas, can you do that?” And they were like, “okay, cool, hit me up. Let me know.” How we built that was essentially us two things: I use my DMs on Instagram and Twitter, “direct messenger” for some of the other people who don’t know what that is. And then I also just used this straight up phone number. So I just set it up where me and my partner, Dan, and we just said, “Okay, these are all the numbers of people that we have. These are all the DMs we have. We’re going to send out one email to everyone who wants to be down and say, ‘Hey, if you want to be down, show up to this location and show up for this time, this is what we need to do.’ ” For some people need to go physically to the locations and scout and some people needed to be ready to pick up food from the pizza places if they don’t deliver it, because they typically don’t deliver like 50 and 100 boxes anymore like that. Some people needed to be there to set up and break down. Some people need to be back at our hub, which is where we operate out to, like, load things up, get things situated, be mobile, if we needed to. We knew we can get to any place that we needed to if we need to scale up, get more volunteers to scale down within 20 minutes and that was our goal. And so we just kind of built around that, like, if we were in a car, if we needed somebody to pick up and deliver to us, can it take 20 minutes or less? And that’s kind of what we did.
HOLLY: To help identify areas with a need for some hot food to take the edge off of waiting for upwards of an hour, King and his co-conspirators took publicly available data on polling place wait times and linked that data with a map of nearby pizza places. This allowed their volunteers to pick up and drop off boxes of cheesy goodness as efficiently as possible.
KING: On the day of, since we had everybody’s phone numbers, we had a text thread. So if Dan was like, “hey, I need four people to go out to Stone Mountain. I need two people to go out to Cobb,” looked at the GIS, saw something, text somebody the addresses that they needed, told them to go out and just took it from there.
HOLLY: This sounds like a heist movie. Like it sounds like you’re planning a caper, which is-
KING: I wish because we didn’t get any money.
KING: But you know.
HOLLY: So speaking of money, Pizza to the Polls was a huge success. Friends and neighbors from all over Atlanta, all over the country, poured in money to help feed folks standing in line and they had funds left over. King donated the leftover funds to Hosea Helps, another Atlanta institution. Here he is again telling us about his connection with that group.
KING: So Hosea Feed the Homeless is some organization I’ve known about since I was young. My mom knows Ms. Omalami, who is the director over there, since I was a young boy. And so I just tell people, anybody who donated whatever leftover funds, I’m going to donate some Hosea Feed the Homeless because Atlanta right now is experiencing another wave of homelessness. And one of the biggest issues with regarding homelessness in Atlanta is not only not having a place to stay, but also a dedicated facility that can feed homeless people where they are. And so Hosea Feed the Homeless, they have both a hub where you can donate food and then they also have the ability to drive out to where homeless people are and just feed them on the street. And so I knew that if we had something left over, it needed to go to them and so the moment we were done, I think November 4th, I just came over, took the rest of the funds and gave them directly to Hosea and it’s been really good. And so hopefully, with this new round of it, we’ll have a little bit left over, and I can donate to them again, because they really could use it. They’re a local organization. They don’t get a lot of help from like the traditional Atlanta non-profit donors. And so I think it’s really important to support organizations [that’ve] been doing it for a while that may not necessarily be the most polished looking, and things like that, or have, like, the nice brochures.
HOLLY: This is your third election cycle kind of in less than a year of doing this and doing it amid this rancorous political climate, doing it amid a pandemic. One of the things we’ve been asking everybody is how do you fight burnout?
KING: You know, if I’m gonna get burned out, it’s gonna be burnt out for something else, and not necessarily giving pizza to people at the polls.
KING: I think for me, it’s been easy to not avoid burnout because they’ve been staggered a bit. June is definitely not October, November. And then even this December election, there was a decent low for like two weeks or so we kind of already knew what the plan was on Election Day. So we already knew the runoff and we already knew what the plan was so we didn’t burn out as much. We just kind of knew what what was needed.
HOLLY: If folks hear this and want to help and we hope they do, what is the best way they could help get pizza and snacks to the polls? And same question also for out-of-state folks. What’s your most immediate need and how can our audience help get you the resources that you need?
KING: So my most immediate need right now is actually having volunteers. Even though we’re starting on Monday with Pizza to the Polls, we have a long early voting period and so, having physical people present will be a really good benefit and the reason why is because we need some people who are willing to drive out to sometimes outlying counties, maybe 30 minutes outside of Atlanta. Y’all see, sometimes people just pick up food and things like that and one of the other things about Pizza to the Polls is we’ve also donated a lot of food to homeless people within Atlanta. And so sometimes people may not be able to come out during the voting session but that evening, we’re passing out water and pizza to Atlanta’s homeless, we can also use you again. And if you want to donate, I have a cash app and a Venmo that people can also donate to. It is like $IAmKingWilliams on Cash App. And then IAmKingWilliams on Venmo. And just being there is the point but if you don’t have money, if you can’t be there, I think I would love for you to do is just kind of amplify the message that we’re talking about. I do it on Twitter all the time. Just amplify some of the things we’re talking about, which is about Atlanta’s planning, Atlanta’s history, and just really learning about what Atlanta is gonna need going forward, because it’s going to take a lot of us to be working together. And I hope that people do. And, you know, that’s my speech for President.
HOLLY: If we happen to get questions from listeners about where they can sign up to volunteer for Pizza at the Polls, who should they contact?
KING: They can contact either me or Dan. His Instagram and Twitter handle’s the same, like, it’s D Mal, so D is in Daniel, Mal as in Malcolm. But, it’s dmal91,
KING: On Twitter or Instagram.
MARCUS: As much time and energy as it takes, volunteer pizza delivery isn’t actually King Williams’ main gig. He is a writer, a filmmaker and a podcaster with a particular focus on the subject of gentrification in Atlanta. He directed The Atlanta Way, a documentary on gentrification, hosts a spin-off podcast called The Neighborhood Watch, and his newsletter on Substack, complete with its own book club, focuses on the intersections of politics, entertainment, business and urban development.
KING: iamkingwilliams.substack.com, it’s only fans for writers, I would appreciate it if you join and that’s where you can learn about the book club, history of Atlanta, advocacy work, donating to the homeless, it’s all there in my newsletter and you can also follow me on Twitter @IamKingWilliams or Instagram @IamKingWilliams as well.
MARCUS: Awesome. Well, thank you, King.
HOLLY: We’ve talked to a lot of terrific organizations during this series. And one reason I wanted to make sure we fit somebody like King into the rotation was that the idea of joining an organization or starting an organization can be pretty daunting. But all you have to do is anything. King is an interesting person to me because he saw a problem and he said “well, I can fix that,” and he tried to fix it, still tries to fix it, is trying to fix it right now. It’s an impulse that’s shared by our next guest, Mina Turabi, who is the state director for March for our Lives Georgia. She’s also the deputy state director for RISE Georgia and a college student.
MARCUS: March For Our Lives was founded in response to the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. It is now a nationwide organization that advocates for ending gun violence, lobbies for gun control legislation, and educates the general public about gun violence and how to end it. RISE is a nationwide student-led organization that works to make higher education affordable and accessible for everyone. We asked Mina how she began her journey as an organizer and activist.
MINA TURABI: I grew up in Augusta, Georgia and gun violence was always a prevalent thing in my community. You always heard somebody was killed this week, somebody was affected by gun violence and I guess it had always become like a norm like there’s nothing we can do to fix this problem. Well, after Parkland happened, all these activists rose to talk about gun violence and in a way that was very empowering, because we were like, well, if they can do it, so can we. I led the school walkout in my high school back in Augusta, and then eventually led on to go to the national march.
MARCUS: Inspired by the energy she had seen in DC, Mina returned to Augusta and focused her efforts on reducing the police presence in her high school.
MINA: My high school had 12 Safety Resource Officers yet we did not have a nurse and we didn’t have a college advisor and that was showing how the school-to-prison pipeline is real. So it was always a thing about changing my community and I feel like every time somebody asked me, “why do you do this work,” it’s because the work and the change that we want to see starts from the ground up. We can’t just go to the federal level and be like, “this is what we need changed” when we’re not even working for change in our community. I graduated high school, I came to Georgia State in Atlanta, started in March for our Lives here and eventually became the State Director last year. My mentors Trevor Wilde, he was my regional organizing director. Maxwell Frost, he was, he’s now our executive organizing director, all these people, these wonderful people I’ve had a chance to work with, kind of showed me the ropes of organizing because for me, it was always personal. It wasn’t just something I saw on TV. And I was like, well, maybe I should do this. It was seeing my best friend’s friend shot to death, it was seeing how racism affects the community that we don’t even talk about, you know, we talk about gun violence when a school shooting happens, or we talk about gun violence when there’s a mass shooting. But how many times in these conversations do we talk about the inner city gun violence? How many times do we talk about the kids that live in Atlanta, Chicago, in Augusta, in DC, that are affected by these things every day? It’s our daily living conditions.
HOLLY: Are you going to school full time and doing this?
MINA: Yes, I am a full-time biology student actually at Georgia State.
HOLLY: Oh, wow. What do you, what do you want to do after this? What are, what are your plans for after school?
MINA: After this, I want to get into lobbying work, gun violence, Medicaid, health insurance COVID. Everything is related. You know, you can’t talk about the issue of gun violence without talking about health insurance. You can’t talk about the issue of gun violence without talking about systemic oppression which this country is built on. So how can we fix a bigger problem if we don’t address the root side? [I] hope to get into lobbying against big pharma, against these companies that are actually inducing gun violence on these communities.
HOLLY: How did March For Our Lives come to decide to devote their resources to this particular election?
MINA: Well, in the 2018 midterms, we saw that we voted out so many people that were in the pockets of the gun lobby, that were more in tune with getting themselves paid, and not worrying about the fact that people are dying. We’re in the middle of a pandemic but gun violence has always been a pandemic that has infiltrated this country for years and years. So in the 2018 midterms, we worked to get rid of all these politicians and then we were like, “wait, this does not end here.” March For Our Lives is not a one election organization, it is not a one term organization. Just because these progressive people were voted in office doesn’t mean gun violence has ended. It’s still there. So 2020 came around. And we were like, well, this is what we need to do. We need to achieve the highest youth turnout in history and we did that. I’m proud to be from Georgia, because Georgia was the state with the highest youth turnout in the country. We’re the catalyst for change because in every election, we see this older generation going to vote but let’s be real, they’re not going to be around when all these situations, these problems are affecting us. If we want to end mass incarceration, we want to reform the criminal justice system, we want to end police brutality, we want to end gun violence, which police brutality is a type of, then we need change and the biggest catalyst of change right now, this year, was the election. So we put our resources and we got out the vote, we encouraged youth voters to turn out, we got them to the polls, we made sure they knew who was on their ballots, because a lot of people just vote because you know, their friends are voting for that person. But do they actually know who’s on the ballot? So it was a lot about educating people and a lot of young folks, especially here in Georgia, we’re out all summer long protesting. So how do we actually continue that change? How do we keep up the momentum and one way is voting, you know, we can’t let any resource get out of hand, if we have something that we can use, why not use it? And that was kind of the mentality that we acquired to go into the 2020 election.
MARCUS: And in your outreach to young voters? What does that look like? What is effective when trying to activate these young voters?
MINA: Well, first, just speaking on the issues, you know, relating to people, we call it “telling our story”. A lot of the times we don’t realize we share a lot in common with a stranger, you know, our stories show who we really are so telling our story first, and then relating to that person’s story and then getting that problem is like, well, we both agree that this is a problem. How do we fix it? And well, we fix it by voting and then you know, utilizing social media. We live in an age of technology when everyone’s on Instagram and TikTok and Snapchat. Well, why don’t we utilize this for a change? So getting out ads and putting out information where people can see it. An accessibility of information is the key and then fighting misinformation and then you know, your common tactic, cell phone banking, text banking, blood drops, getting out canvassing, showing these people that we’re out here, banner drops. I don’t know if you guys live in Georgia or Atlanta, but we dropped banners off of I-75, showing who’s out there, so…
HOLLY: How have these tactics helped you or have you had to adapt them for reaching folks outside the metro Atlanta area? Something that always comes up in my mind when I hear about protest marches is, you know, I grew up in a town of 27,000 people, you know, there’s not much of a march anywhere no matter what so how do you guys reach people who are, you know, outside our our little blue bubble here?
MINA: I love how you said “blue bubble” because I feel like a lot of people that live in Atlanta, don’t really realize how much of a bubble it is, you know, there’s a lot of issues that affect Atlanta, but it is way worse in rural and southern Georgia. It’s not that there aren’t people out there that believe in these issues and that want to fix it. I was one of those people, you know, in Augusta, I didn’t have all these resources to myself. So it’s about reaching out. It’s about using the tools that we have social media, you do one hashtag. And you see so many people that want to do the work, you reach out to them. You’re like, “Hey, I have the resources. I liked your voice. You have a passion? Why don’t we work together to create that change?” We know that Georgia has these people, we just need to tap into them.
MARCUS: Now looking at the work ya’ll have been doing this year, leading up to the November election and now coming into the runoffs, are there any specific lessons that y’all learned in the general election that are leading to adjustments going into these runoffs?
MINA: Yeah, so we live in a pandemic world, you know, we can’t just walk outside, show up to people’s houses in groups of 15 to 20 people and be like, “hey, you need to go vote, these are on your ballots.” So it’s about adapting and a lot of people are tired, you know, they’re tired of hearing about politics, because not everybody has the stamina for hearing about this 24 hours a day. And maybe that comes from a place of privilege but it also is like, “I’m just not interested in it.” It’s about adapting yourself, you know, people have been doing phone banks and text banks and they’ve been on these Zoom calls for help, like since March, you know, Zoom fatigue is a real thing. A lot of our phone banks take place on Zoom. So how do we make it interactive? How do we just not have that people start logging off? Because all they hear is low fi music and people phone banking? How do we keep them engaged? So you know, we invited celebrities, we started watching movies on Zoom, while we’re phone banking and text banking, to keep people engaged because our target is the youth, right? While also being part of the youth, I know that we have the attention span of a three year old, so keeping people engaged and not doing the same old, same old.
HOLLY: Yeah, I don’t think a lot of people realize, especially if you know, you’re like me, you’re in your 30s and when you grew up, volunteering for a campaign meant going to a cafeteria somewhere, sitting at a long table with like actual phones, and sitting there and talking through a script. And I don’t think a lot of people realize how fast the technology has advanced in this arena, and how much of it can be done from your cell phone and that you can do it while, you know, while the rest of your life is going on in the background.
MINA: Yeah, actually we use this thing called peer-to-peer texting and we sent 800,000 texts in the matter of seven days. We were sending out 15,000 texts every 20 minutes, technology can either work against you or for you. So why not make it work for you?
HOLLY: How many people did it take to send that many texts?
MINA: Like 25, 30?
MINA: We called it “election headquarters” because I was, you know, taking, writing scripts and sending them out and making sure that you know, people’s ballots are cured and people are staying in line and working the hotlines. And I’m like sitting here in my living room and I look to my phone and Trevor’s like, “we’re done.” And I was like, “what do you mean, we’re done? I launched the program 30 minutes ago, how do you mean we’re done.” And he’s like, “we’re done. There’s, there’s no more text to be sent, all conversations are done.” Because all it takes us is enter. All it takes is pressing yes, pressing “no opt out”.
MARCUS: And that side of stuff, still kind of blown away about them, the sheer volume of texts-
HOLLY: I know what you, we never get, they’re nice surprises when we’re telling these stories, it’s always, you know, when did everything go completely sideways?
MINA: It goes sideways too, it’s not always, you know, gonna work like in a perfectly oiled machine. A lot of times actually, when we’re text-banking, you’ll get like, vulgar messages, and you’ll get like, “I don’t care about you, I voted for Trump, and I’m gonna send the FBI to your house.” So it’s always a couple of things along the way but I’m really glad about how the program went out.
HOLLY: Can we spin this a little bit forward and look to the future? What are some of the keys, you think, to creating change that’s sustainable in the state and other states?
MINA: Well, it’s about holding people accountable because, let’s be real, politicians go in, they do the work for a year, and then it’s back to running for re-election. The thing they valued the most is their seat. Well, you have the power to take the seat away. We have a phrase in the march community called “our power” because it is our power. We held the power to take them out. We hold the power to put somebody in office that actually cares about us, because right now, you know, it’s 2020. [In] 2022, Georgia has another election. You know a lot of people my age are coming of age to run for office and if we can put these people in office that actually care about these topics and then actually passing legislation that works for us. That’s why this election is so important in Georgia, this runoff. It’s because we, we took Trump out of office, right? But right now we need to put people who put not themselves, not their pockets first, not the gun lobby first. It’s about people who care. It’s about people who are even, when they get to Washington, they’re going to be like, “okay, this person in rural Augusta cares about passing gun legislation. So maybe I should work for it.” And how do you get them to notice that? Well, if you don’t, two years later, I’m going to vote you out. And that’s, that’s that. One of my biggest, I think, success was we dropped a peace plan and it was called “A Legislative Agenda for a Safer Georgia” and it basically outlined everything that we need to do to reduce gun violence. But personally, my biggest victory, I would say, is making it here. I know that we as organizers, especially, we don’t take mental health very seriously. We, especially myself, my birthday was the same day as Brianna Taylor’s birthday. And I remember sitting here on, I came back from a protest on my birthday, and I just had a meltdown. And I was like, “it is so, I don’t know how to celebrate my birthday, because I have all this guilt.” She’s supposed to be here and that pushed me into a very, like, depressive mode and I would like to say my biggest victory is still being here and still doing this work because there was a very long part of my life where I had no intention of going to college, I had no intention of keep going, I had nothing. And I feel like in a way organizing saved me. It showed me that I have it. I have it bad and sometimes I have really, really bad days, but there are people whose voice, I can uplift by keep going and I think that’s my biggest victory overall.
MARCUS: Thank you for sharing that. That’s a message that a lot of people need to hear, that reminder that just sometimes just keep it going, and you’ll find your place. I really appreciate Mina sharing her personal struggles and how being part of a movement has helped her. Organizers have their own lives with ups and downs like everyone. Add to that, the weight of deep emotional investment in the lives of people affected most by the very systems these activists are working against and it can take a toll on emotional and physical health. But the work itself can also be a balm for the soul. The people who do movement work have long-held traditions of regular check-ins, self-care practices, and support from counselors and spiritual leaders. So if you are doing this kind of work, remember to check in with yourself and reach out to your comrades for support. Trust me, it’s there for you when you need it.
HOLLY: In this next portion of our conversation, Mina references the execution of Brandon Barnard on December 10. Hours after we interviewed Mina, Alfred Bourgeois was put to death. President Trump reinstated the federal death penalty earlier this year, breaking a 17-year ban on federal executions. Organizers in Nina’s line of work are staunchly against all forms of violence, as you might guess, including and especially that which is carried out by the government.
MARCUS: Looking back and, like, lessons that you’ve learned doing this, doing this kind of work, what’s something you wish you’d known when you first started? Or, as an alternative way of looking at it, something you just realized, you wish you would realize sooner?
MINA: Oh, wow, that is a deep question. I think I knew this, but I didn’t realize it. Change doesn’t happen overnight. Last night, when the execution took place, I was driving, and I saw it come up on my phone and I pulled to the side. And a wave of sadness just hit me. And I’m like, “we do so much. You know, we were doing so much and there’s so many people. But did we really do something?” And it’s just, then I texted Trevor, and I’m like, “Trevor, like this just happened. I don’t know how to feel about it. Like I’m feeling really, like I don’t know, like, are we actually doing something?” And he’s like, “change doesn’t happen overnight.” You know, you have to keep building at it. You know, it’s not going to be one day you wake up, there’s not going to be any inner city gun violence, there’s not going to be domestic violence. It’s not going to happen like that but you have to keep going and you have to take those victories. Whether it be, you know, an amendment on a bill, or just notifying someone of something that happened in Washington. It’s keep going and even like when Brianna Taylor’s murderers went free, I remember just sitting here and I’m like, “wow, like we did all this, you know, we were in these streets and we protested day and night and we signed petitions, and we took it to the White House and we took it to Washington and it still happened.” Well, change doesn’t happen overnight and we have to keep saying her name and we have to keep saying their names and we have to keep talking about it, talking about it is going to get it done, just not ignoring the problem.
HOLLY: So speaking of getting it done, if, if people at home listening to this show hear this interview, and they want to help your organization today, and we hope they will, what is your greatest area of immediate need? How can we help from here?
MINA: Well, right now, you know, we’re focused on the runoff. So that’s, that’s the number one thing that we’re focused on. So to anybody listening to this, I would say text GA to 954-954. Do that first, then head over to marchforourlives.com/ga, sign up for our phone banks. We’re running phone banks every single day starting this Sunday, leading up to Christmas Day and after Christmas Day, leading up to New Year’s and leading up to the election. Help us get the word out. If you’re in Georgia, check to see that you’re registered. Voter suppression is the biggest problem in every election here in Georgia. Make sure that you’re still registered. Research who’s on your ballot, make a voting plan, know where you’re going to vote and share it with your friends because everything helps get the word out. There’s no such thing as too many volunteers.
MARCUS: With the best ways for people to stay in touch with March For Our Lives, going throughout the runoff and then long after that, like what are your social media channels? What’s your best connectivity?
MINA: Our best connectivity right now is @MFOLGeorgia spelled out on Twitter, on Instagram. If you are so one of the users that uses Facebook, March For Our Lives – Georgia, we’re on that too and then to connect with nationals @AMarch4OurLives. We even have our own TikTok page so if that’s your speed, follow us on TikTok and stay in touch with us because this work is not done. November 3rd, it’s not done January 5th, it’s going to keep going till we don’t see this problem anymore.
HOLLY: We’d like to thank our guests, King Williams and Mina Turabi, for taking the time to speak with us. Whether or not you’re in Georgia, you can help send tasty treats and water to folks standing in line to vote. Just reach out on Twitter @IamKingWilliams. If you’re in Georgia, you can also volunteer to deliver these treats yourself.
MARCUS: And if you do go to volunteer in Georgia, you might see Holly out there.
HOLLY: It was a good time, it was really good to be out of the house on a beautiful crisp winter day. It was also nice to see human beings who I don’t live with, albeit from a safe distance and I gotta say nobody is ever upset to be offered a water bottle. It was, it felt kind of like being a florist for a day. Everyone’s always happy to see you. It’s a nice feeling.
MARCUS: You can sign up for updates on ways to support March For Our Lives at marchforourlives.com and find a chapter near you or support the work being done in Georgia. They also have a handy link at the top of their page to help you make a voting plan.
HOLLY: If you’re in Georgia, we encourage you to use resources like these and, as you will hear time and again during this race, make a voting plan whether you’re voting with an absentee ballot [or] early voting around Election Day. And speaking of which, seriously, vote as early as possible. January 5th is the last day to vote, not the only day you can vote. Once again, I would like to recommend going to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they have a ton of machines in and out, it’s very fast.
MARCUS: If you’re not in Georgia, you can still be a good neighbor by supporting organizations like the ones we featured.
HOLLY: You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram @groundgamepod.
MARCUS: For show notes, transcripts, or to contact us, go to groundgamepod.com and until next time, take care of yourselves and be good to each other.
JAZMINE JOHNSON: Our show is produced by the Ground Game: Georgia volunteer jambouree. Editing by Douglas Reyes-Ceron and Arlill Rodriguez. Our theme is by the tremendous Jonathan Sanford. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Designed by me, Jazmine Johnson. Nicole Mackie runs our social. Ground Game: Georgia is a production of unir.
HOLLY: Nobody is ever mad at being offered a pack of Nutter Butters while waiting to do their civic duty.
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.
HOLLY: The balance of power in the Senate is going to come down to Georgia.
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.
Despite how you might feel in the dregs of 2020, most of what we think of as “real life” takes place outside of election cycles. This week, TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier breaks down the basics of voter data analytics. Next, Raven Bradfield discusses her experiences organizing for Democratic campaigns in Iowa and Georgia, and what campaigns lose when they assemble staffs that don’t resemble their constituents. PeachPod’s Luke Boggs explains how peer-to-peer contact makes a difference when getting college students out to vote. Finally, Georgia Shift founder Ian Bridgeforth continues our conversation on transactional versus transformational activism, and the challenges of engaging young Georgians outside the Atlanta metro area.
Follow us @groundgamepod on Twitter and Instagram, and visit us on the web at www.groundgamepod.com.
Ground Game: Georgia is a production of Unir.
EPISODE 2: FIND THE OTHERS – TRANSCRIPT
MARCUS ELLSWORTH, HOST: Coming off of his spectacular no-show performance in the debate against John Ossoff, we have Senator David Alfred Purdue Jr. with this message for Georgia voters…
(The sound of crickets.)
HOLLY ANDERSON, HOST: Are we having technical difficulties?
MARCUS: Actually, we didn’t have the $7,500 the senator requires in order to speak with anyone.
HOLLY: Showing up for Georgia voters as he always does.
MARCUS: Which is not at all.
REVEREND WARNOCK: “It’s dark right now, but morning is on the way. It’s our job, Georgia, to put our shoes off and get ready.”
ANJALI ENJETI: “We’ve had minority voters here in Georgia understand that every year is an election year.”
JON OSSOFF: “It’s the most important message of the evening. Make a plan to vote with early voting beginning December 14th so we can secure equal justice for all.”
STACEY ABRAMS: “Together, we’ve made Georgia move further and we’ve gotten more done. So if we keep working at it together, we’ll get it done.”
MARCUS: Welcome to Ground Game: Georgia.
HOLLY: I’m Holly Anderson in Atlanta.
MARCUS: And I’m Marcus Ellsworth just across the border in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Every week in December and January, we are bringing you stories from the folks on the ground in Georgia during the runoff election.
HOLLY: This week, we are joined by three young activists who have worked to organize voters in Georgia on different fronts. Raven Bradfield and Luke Boggs have both worked from within the Democratic Party structure in a variety of roles.
MARCUS: Ian Bridgeforth founded his own organization, Georgia Shift, that created a “Party at the Polls”.
HOLLY: But first, we spoke with Tom Bonier of Target Smart who tells us what the data says about why Trump lost in Georgia and how the January runoff differs mathematically from the November election. Now this interview was recorded on December 3rd so some of his numbers may be a little out of date at this point. We kept it in because it’s really interesting.
TOM BONIER: My name is Tom Bonier. Uh, my pronouns are he/his. I’m the CEO of Target Smart. At our core, We’re a data company, a political data company. We’ve been around for about 15 years and we work with Democratic candidates, progressive organizations, and we go and collect individual level voter data, and then use that to analyze trends in terms of turnout and performance. And that sort of thing.
MARCUS: What kind of data are you looking at for the January runoff elections? Are there differences between what you’re seeing now and what you saw in November?
TOM: That’s what we’ve just begun to focus on. So we have a few data points that we’re beginning to dig into. You know, number one is the vote-by-mail requests. The first conclusions we can draw from that are fairly obvious. The vote-by-mail requests, if you compare them to the same point in time for the general election, they’re lower. No one would argue that turnout was going to match or exceed the historic levels we saw in the November election. The question is, how much will it drop off? If you look at the history for runoffs, it generally drops off quite a bit. We’re trending at about 70% of where we were at the same point in time. And there’s reason to be optimistic that those numbers might end up being a bit higher because of the Thanksgiving holidays, making that slow down a bit. The next thing that we’ll be looking at is the vote-by-mail returns that only really just began. So that’s something we’ll be looking at over the coming days and weeks. Voter registration closes in Georgia December seven so, at that point, we’ll be looking at the voter registration. I don’t anticipate we’ll see massive increases because if you didn’t register for the general, you’re probably not going to register. It doesn’t mean that that’s not happening. There won’t be some of it. It’s just not going to be huge numbers and then there’ll be the early in-person data. We know in Georgia that you have different demographic profiles in terms of how you’re voting, whether you’re voting- by-mail versus early in-person versus Election Day. Obviously, the big distinction we saw in the general election was Republicans not being as open to voting by mail.
HOLLY: How’d that happen?
TOM: Right? Right. I can’t figure it out. Uh, it’s, it’s funny when you, when you have the leader of the party, demagoguing against a safe and easy form of voting, which very well might have cost him the election when you look at it, big question in terms of will that turn around again? If this challenge of this runoff is how do you get most of the people who supported you in the general because and then that’s probably how it would be decided which side gets more of their people who turned out the general to come back out. Now, of course they can fall back on the fact that Republicans have an advantage, just in terms of, of how many Republicans there still are in this state.
HOLLY: To understand the sense of urgency around Georgia’s Senate runoffs, you need to look at Georgia’s party identification numbers, which are changing, but not at hyper-speed. This feeling is particularly keen and the Warnock-Loeffler race, where the two candidates ran a tight contest and the general, but if you add Doug Collins voters in November as presumptive Loeffler voters in January, it gets daunting pretty fast.
MARCUS: And is there any data around non-voters like their behavioral patterns? Like what would bring them to the polls? What might make them stay home the next time?
HOLLY: How do you collect data on non-voters?
TOM: So that, that is the million dollar question or maybe 10 million or a hundred million, depending on how far you want to go, because, and this is another pet peeve of mine, when you look at polling as an industry, the first question that they’ll ask a voter when someone picks up the phone is “how likely would you say you are to vote in this election?” They call that a turnout screener and the options are “almost certain”, “somewhat likely”, “not very likely”, “not at all”. And what they do traditionally is if someone says “not at all” or “not very likely”, they say, thank you and they hang up. And the problem is, if you think about our challenge in democracy in general, and, and more narrowly in these elections, especially in these runoff elections were runoff elections, traditionally, a very low turnout, but there’s reason to believe that people will be much more engaged in this election.
TOM: But the challenge is how do we convince the people who aren’t going to vote without intervention to change that behavior? But if all of our polling is only talking to the people who do vote, then that’s problematic. We don’t have the research to say, well, what is it that makes these people feel disenfranchised and separated from the process? The extent to which that they don’t feel like voting is important, but to take that a step further, it’s not just that question we’re asking because it does become a data question and that the kind of person who is likely to pick up their phone and then say, “yeah, I’ll talk to a stranger for 20 to 30 minutes and talk about my opinions.” Well, that’s someone who is likely to vote anyhow, right? So it’s harder to get these people, these non-voters, the people that haven’t voted, by, by definition, they are not likely to engage in these types of processes. So that, that becomes a challenge. And that’s where the community organizing becomes so important.
MARCUS: This is a topic we touched on in our first episode and it’s one we’re going to come back to: major political parties are by nature, transactional, not transformational.
HOLLY: What deep community investment on the part of major political parties might look like is a longer conversation. It’s a number of conversations, but it’s in that space between elections where you find groups like SONG, which you heard about in our last episode, and Georgia Shift, which you’ll hear more about in just a few minutes.
TOM: The organizations that are in the communities that can develop relationships that can reach out to people one-on-one, who can reach out to their own personal networks. We’ve found that that’s the most effective form of getting people, uh, who are non-voters, engaged in the process because the data we have is limited. We have a lot of data on registered voters, not to get creepy, but for any individual registered voter in this country, we probably have about 5,000 different variables of data on them. And it’s not as creepy as uh, you think, you know, people think we know what websites you’re going to, and that sort of, what you’re buying in the store. You know, someone might know that, but we don’t. But when it comes to non-voters, we have what we call consumer files. So we have the data from consumer vendors, you know, the credit card companies, that sort of thing, that gives us basic information about someone’s name, age, race, ethnicity, gender, basic things on consumer patterns.
TOM: But the other problem there is we know, again, by definition, these people who don’t vote tend to have less of a footprint in terms of having consumer history, in terms of having credit cards that would give them that consumer footprint. So they tend to be more invisible from a data perspective, which makes it more challenging for campaigns to make that engagement and get them out. And again, that’s why you see the massive search and turn out. That didn’t happen by accident. That happened by organizers in those communities, not relying necessarily on, on big data, so to speak, but more on their ability to organize in these communities.
MARCUS: So what does that outreach look like going into communities of color? We’re speaking now with Raven Bradfield, who’s lived in Georgia since childhood. She worked on Elizabeth Warren’s campaign in Iowa and has worked for the Democratic Party of Georgia in a couple of different capacities versus a Field Organizer, and most recently, as Regional Organizing Director.
RAVEN BRADFIELD: If I go into a middle-class neighborhood, they’re all gung-ho for the Democrats. They’re really excited about the election, things like that. But in more working-class type neighborhoods, I will get feedback from people saying things like, “why does it matter? Because nothing is going to change. It’s never helped before. And um, why should we start now?” But I also get a lot of people who are really excited and they’re like, “Oh, you know, I’m so glad that you’re engaged because this is so important.” Also, we don’t have the resources to really be able to help those people. It would take a longer amount of time than a campaign usually takes in order to actually turn out those voters. So I do give a lot of credit to Stacey Abrams and other organizers and activists that are on the ground who kind of do that work year-round. Like she’s been doing it for decades and a lot of people have as well, but that’s the kind of work that it would take. First, you have to get people registered to vote. And then they actually have to still remove barriers to voting. For example, in the county that I’m from in DeKalb County, they had established polling locations for their early vote. And then for election day, 31 of those polling locations changed.
HOLLY: If you’re listening to this show, you probably already know about the widespread game of polling place musical chairs that helped Brian Kemp snatch the governor’s job from Stacey Abrams in 2018.
MARCUS: Cobb County, which you heard about in our first episode, is reducing its number of early voting locations for the runoff from 11 to just five, citing a lack of resources. The state NAACP and other advocacy organizations have understandably already begun to raise hell over this.
RAVEN: Now you show up to your poll location if this, the wrong place and yeah, but issue with voting, then you have to resolve that the same day and that’s like a barrier to voting. So being able to combat things like that, like some people don’t have cars. I know in like rural areas, especially rural areas where people of color reside, that they don’t have internet. So if you’re tweeting about, “Hey, go vote, make sure you go register.” They don’t even see those things. They have to find a ride to their polling location. If it changes suddenly, it’s harder to let them know, things like that. And those are not things that we take into account.
HOLLY: You’ve been talking on social media about your experiences with political campaigns, hiring white people, specifically white women to perform outreach to communities that are largely not white. Would you like to expand upon any experiences that you’ve had or any further thoughts you have about that?
RAVEN: Georgia was won by Black, Latinx people of color, AAPI communities. And you should see that as, “Oh, that’s, that’s not my community. That is not how I identify and allow people who are from those communities to organize.” It is racist and it’s harmful to their people of color organizers. I understand that it, when it likely wasn’t their attention, and this is a really important election, this runoff election that we’re going into, I myself recognize that there are more ways to help than just having gone to the next campaign in order to benefit me personally. Instead of choosing to do the runoff, I chose to volunteer and I was tapped on to work on the runoff. However, instead I reached out to people of color, LGBT+ communities, disabled organizers that I know, and Southern organizers that could take my place or just anybody who had been an intern or was trying to get their foot in the door. Those are the people I recommended because if those are the people who we want to help, like those are the people who we say that we value who we want to center. It seemed like a really obvious thing for me to do.
HOLLY: There’s a tendency within the mainstream media and from politicians to talk about systemic change as though it is some vague and nebulous thing, which has the handy side effect of obscuring specific calls to action and needed reforms.
MARCUS: But by the same math that tells us all to vote, however unlikely it is for a single vote to sway a national election, systemic change begins with individuals. In this case with Raven, representation in the Democratic Party isn’t going to be solved overnight, but she left a door open behind her, maybe ushered a few folks in after her and enough of those actions combined will move the needle.
HOLLY: So alongside the would-be voters, the never-have voters, and the just aged and the eligibility voters, there’s another population that’s legendarily difficult to pin down and draw data from. I am speaking, of course, of college students. If you’ve ever tried to plan Sunday brunch after a Saturday night football game in this state, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
MARCUS: Our next guest is Luke Boggs, a veteran of multiple campaigns, a former office holder with Georgia’s Young Democrats and a current law student at the University of Georgia. He’s also a co-host of the Georgia politics podcast, PeachPod, and during the November elections, as well as subsequent runoff elections in Athens Clark County, he watched the party confront the already steep challenge of getting college students to the polls and conducting those outreach efforts during a pandemic. Here he is explaining how tactics in the area have changed between the general and runoff elections.
MARCUS: What’s the difference between your tactics like leading up to November and then now going into the runoff?
LUKE BOGGS: So let me frame this: the big thing we left off the table, because the science was, was not as together as it is now, is we were not canvassing. And, and that’s because, you know, it’s hard to go back in time and remember, but like there was a while there like, coronavirus, we knew nothing about it. We did not know what worked. We didn’t know what was safe. And so like now we feel very confident and if you are outside distance wearing a mask, like your, your chances of getting COVID are very, very small. And, and so now we’re canvassing. And so what we did previously is we really focused on phone calls, postcards by volunteers and mailers and digital ads. And so we were doing all of that and we were doing it very aggressively and we, we were very, um, unambiguous and progressive in our messaging. There were some people in Clark County that just, they have to have someone physically show up at their door and tell them like, you need to go vote. I mean, here’s, this is a crazy, crazy fact, more people, more human beings on Election Day voted on December 1st than on November 3rd in Clark County.
HOLLY: Okay, Luke is talking here about runoff elections for Clark and Oconee counties that took place last week for Circuit DA and the Georgia Public Service Commission. And we just want to know that this actually is kind of wild: runoff elections are a notorious headache, not just from an endurance standpoint, but from a logistical one. And the fact that turnout increased in that short span of time from November to December is a really interesting data point. Luke has a couple of theories as to why that might be.
LUKE: The, uh, there’s the shorter ramp so they didn’t have a lot of time to vote by mail. They didn’t have a lot of time to vote early in person. And so anecdotally, what we’ve heard from a lot of our canvassers is like, there are people who like when they see the canvasser and they have the conversation and they’re like, “thank you for coming, because I forgot about this election entirely.”
MARCUS: So one thing we heard from Raven that was echoed in our conversation with Luke is that these efforts being made at the local and state level to ensure that campaign staffs reflect their constituencies more accurately are immediate and short-term actions that can spiral into far reaching consequences. This kind of thinking is crucial and we’re focusing on it today because it tends to get swept aside in the frenetic pace of a campaign in favor of doing whatever is convenient and expedient, and a little further down the timeline, in a chronological sense, you’ll find another quandary. After the election’s over and before the next one roars into town, that’s where most real-life problems take place. And for most of that time, major political parties are nowhere to be seen. We’re speaking now to Ian Bridgeforth, founder and executive director of Georgia Shift, a non-partisan non-profit organization that elevates marginalized young voices through electoral action, hands-on education and civic media programs. Like SONG, the organization featured in our first episode, Georgia Shift is a 501(c)(3) organization with an affiliated 501(c)(4).
HOLLY: What, what do you think the biggest keys are to replicating the successes that we saw in Georgia in November, both in January, but also in two years and four years?
IAN BRIDGEFORTH: The biggest things that I would say we would need to do are investing in areas outside the Metro Atlanta area. And there’s been this misconception for a while that like in rural areas, it’s just a lot of white people. And like in Georgia, specifically, if you’re from Georgia, you know this, there are a lot of black and Brown people, and there’s a lot of young black and Brown people who still could be activated in those areas. For instance, if you look at our HBCUs that are outside the Metro Atlanta area, there are more rural areas that a lot of people wouldn’t think are full of young, black and Brown people, what we typically call “the black belt.”
MARCUS: “The black belt” doesn’t just exist in Georgia. It’s a band of exceptionally fertile land that winds south through the Carolinas, all the way to the Eastern borders of Arkansas and Louisiana, which led in the 1600s and beyond to plantations being established there and higher numbers of enslaved Africans being imported to work that land. It is still home today to the highest proportions of black Americans descended from those abducted and enslaved peoples. And if you look at a map of Georgia, it does look a little like a belt bisecting the state along a rough east-west line.
IAN: There’s a lot of opportunities on the local and state legislative level that, like, we can build a political home and also have like organizers who are out there who know what they’re doing, and you give them the resources to do it. This is not to say that people aren’t doing it. I think we want as much resources as possible. The (c)(3) (c)(4) groups who are doing not only organizing or doing like direct service work, that’s how you really build relationships with people and do it in a way that you’re saying, “Hey, we’re not expecting anything back. Like you are the community and how do we invest in you?” And I think even for all these communities that turned out, my thing is wondering, even after the runoff, like, what are we doing in February, March, and April and throw the rest of the year to really invest in these communities? Now they know that we actually care about them versus just using them as some sort of transactional lever. The partisan institution is not built for direct service kind of work. I don’t think engaging communities on an everyday level with the things that they need is not really in their wheelhouse, because I think that’s the biggest thing it’s like, who are you to just randomly come into my neighborhood and tell me to do something where I haven’t seen you in 11 months.
HOLLY: This is what got us interested in talking to folks who were organizing in Georgia from the ground up, as opposed to from the top down, you know, it’s a lot easier to get 200 people to write postcards to their neighbors, telling them about a city council meeting than it is to get one person to go around to houses and say, “okay, you don’t have a car. How are we going to get you to the city council meeting? And then how are we going to work on getting you a car?”
IAN: How do we really dismantle these systems that have been oppressive to, to these communities for so long? And if, as an organization you can’t provide it, finding resources to connect with, maybe there may be some other non-profit that does more direct services and working with them to help. So it’s really just one-on-one conversations around “what do you need” and and “how can we help” and making sure that they know that you care about them. And, you know, in some instances there are certain institutions that don’t care. That’s probably one of the things that I think was a little surprising as far as like, “Hey, we really have to build this thing from the ground up”. And, and, th-, that’s going to take time. That’s was, it was like, “wow, there’s really not a lot of infrastructure.” And people can be very lonely, I think. And, and so it’s like, how do we provide a space where people don’t feel alone? Like, because this is something that is, is a, is a year round thing. And we have to really localize a lot of this and, and not just put a blanket statement around like, “Hey, if we, you know, we talk about jobs or transportation here, we should do that there.” That’s kind of where I think it’s like, “wow, there’s, there’s a lot of work to be done and it’s rewarding, but it’s, it’s, it’s a lot of work and necessary work that needs to happen.
MARCUS: So what was your most successful event or form of engagement during the general election campaign?
IAN: October 24th, Vote Early Day, we did our big “Party at the Polls”. So we had five DJs. If I were different polling locations, we were passing out like care packages or, or bags or that kind thing with hand sanitizer masks. And so just monitoring the lines and making sure that, you know, everything was fine.
IAN: And so we wanted to make a celebratory event. Essentially people could bring their families, those kinds of things, um, of course go vote but like, even if you, you know, do you want it to just get food and go, we want to provide as much food as possible, and continue to build that relationship with people. The one we did on Election Day was, we looked at the five precincts with the most young black and Brown people in our area. And we said, okay, we’re going to put DJs there from three to seven, like rush hour and made sure that we provide the care packages and we want to continue this kind of celebratory thing. There’s so much doom and gloom, I think in the world and just especially like this past year and so we want to do something that celebrates people coming out to vote and doing their civic duty.
MARCUS: And what about folks outside Georgia who want to help? What’s the best way for them to do that, that gets you what you need?
IAN: Resources as far as like money and those kinds of things, I think, always helps especially if you’re out of state. We have like a texting program and peer-to-peer contact program that anyone can engage it with. Mostly texting the resources has helped because I think it can be dangerous for like people to try to like whether it’s coming from outside the state to knock on doors. So those kinds of things, especially during COVID and that kind of stuff, these organizations have the resources to do, do the voter contact that we need to do, whether it’s mail, digital, and everything like that. And so I think fundraising is probably the biggest thing it’s like saying, “Hey, we can give this organization, whatever you can give, like is, is helpful.”
MARCUS: And how would somebody go about making those donations and participating in the texting program?
IAN: georgiashift.com/contribute. And then, georgiashift.com/volunteer. There should be a form on our site that allows you to assign it to volunteer. Or you can also go to like our, our Instagram page and go to our Linktree. Our Instagram is @georgiashift and you’ll see the Linktree there. And so we’ll have opportunities to get involved that way as well.
MARCUS: Is there anywhere else online where y’all like, you know, do your work and people can, like, be in touch and follow y’all?
IAN BRIDGEFORTH: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. I think those are the biggest ones.
HOLLY: The last thing we talked about with Ian was the first thing we saw when he sat down in front of the camera.There was a Christmas tree on one side and on the other side of him, there was a print with a beautiful flowing script and a Timothy Leary quote on it that ends, “…Find the others”. Because podcasting is a visual medium, we asked him to talk about it.
IAN: “Find the others”, I think, like, where it speaks to me, you know, finding people who sort of essentially finding your tribe. In this organizing work, you will find a lot of grifters or you’ll find a lot of like people who are like, they’re either in it for themselves or those kinds of things. And it’s like, how do you find the people who really want to invest and do this work versus get their name at a gala. Who really wants to, like, invest in people and, and that’s kind of like, to me, like what resonates with us? And, and that’s, I mean, that’s a hard thing to do because it’s politics. There’s, there’s so many people who want attention and people who want positions and also things like that. And it’s like, how do you find people who just, just want to do the work.
MARCUS: The context for that quote, by the way, it goes like this: “Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle. Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Find the others.”
HOLLY: Many, thanks to Tom Bonier, Raven Bradfield, Luke Boggs, and Ian Bridgeforth for their time and for sharing their insights. You can find links to Georgia Shift as well as other organizations mentioned in the podcast and recommended by our guests in the show notes.
MARCUS: We should underscore our earlier mention of polling places across Georgia being closed in advance of elections, especially with the recent move to reduce the number of locations in Cobb County from 11 to only five. Fair Fight is where you want to throw your donation dollars and volunteer hours if this is an issue that’s near and dear to your heart. You can find them at fairfight.com
HOLLY: No matter where you live in the state, if you’re registered to vote in the Georgia runoffs and you plan to vote in person, double-check your polling place before you go at mvp.sos.ga.gov. That’s MVP as in, my voter page, .sos.ga.gov. And if you’re a Fulton County resident, don’t forget that you can vote early at either State Farm Arena or Mercedes-Benz Stadium starting next week. Dates and times for those opportunities are available right now on both venue websites. I cannot recommend this enough.
MARCUS: If you’re interested in Tom Bonier’s work, he’ll be appearing on a future episode to discuss the surges in Asian American Pacific Islander voter activation, and turnout that startled many national pundits in November. Also next week, we’ll be featuring Tamika Atkins of ProGeorgia. In the meantime, if you’re mobilizing voters in Georgia or know of some great people and organizations we should talk to, you can reach us through the “Contact Us” page at groundgamepod.com.
HOLLY: Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @groundgamepod, and make sure you subscribe, rate and review on your favorite podcast apps. Also the ones you don’t like.
MARCUS: Until next time, take care of yourselves and be good to each other out there.
ARLILL RODRIGUEZ: Our show is produced by the Ground Game: Georgia volunteer squadron, editing by Douglas Reyes-Ceron and me, Arlill Rodriguez. Our theme is by the amazing Jonathan Sanford, additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Design by Jasmine Johnson. Nicole Mackie runs our social. Ground Game: Georgia is a production of unir.
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.
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.
Ground Game: Georgia is a podcast miniseries that tells first-person stories from inside the organizations on the ground that are registering voters, getting them to the polls, and fighting voter suppression during the Senate runoff elections.
Hosts Holly Anderson (Shutdown Fullcast) and Marcus Ellsworth (The Chocolate Therapy Podcast) will focus on the activists and organizers throughout the state that have proven effective in turning Georgia from red to purple and now, possibly, to blue.
Starts December 2, 2020 on your favorite podcast app.