America’s 2020 general election placed Georgia and its hardworking organizers center stage. The prevailing question on everyone’s mind: how did Georgia, a state in the country’s deep south, turn blue? To really unpack the answer to this question, all eyes turned to the state’s preeminent organizers. Stacey Abrams, Latosha Brown and Helen Butler are the big names representing the organizers throughout the state who developed a largely Black woman-led multi-issue coalition. And they started well before the rest of the country had even begun to think about the 2020 election.
But even as their work is being put on display, there is still a disconnect in what many take away from this critical work. Rather than adopting new organizing methods that take its cues from those on the ground and actually based in the state, there is still a mad dash to plant seeds in Georgia where organizers are already tending to a fruitful garden.
On the one hand, we see a lack of understanding of Georgia, and the greater South’s, commitment to community organizing. But, as we look further, there is an even more pervasive message, Georgia’s people power has been and continues to be underestimated.
Georgia’s civil rights history is well documented. The state’s foremost figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lewis and Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery all had a significant hand in the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But this civil rights history is not a thing of the past. It is Georgia’s present and future too.
Georgians have been running at full speed in the marathon of voting rights for decades, passing the baton to each new generation and picking up right where they left off. However, now we see those not versed in this history running in from the sidelines and causing fumbles when they should simply be asking if the runners need water as they continue to cheer them on.
What we see now, as we head to the state’s January 5 runoff, is a whirlwind of outside help lacking any clear direction. Outsiders continue to pour money into a deluge of canned text messages, reminders to vote and unsolicited absentee ballot forms. These soulless tactics are being met with memes at best, and at worst, are contributing to misinformation that can be weaponized in the wrong hands.
Contrast this with the thoughtful approach of those Georgians working on the ground. The 2018 gubernatorial election spotlighted the state’s widespread voter suppression, and organizers sought to understand the resources needed in communities across the state. The result is a deeply engaged electorate. Their understanding of the electoral process runs deep thanks to organizers’ commitment to shifting the focus from simple voter turnout to holistic voter education.
A holistic commitment to voter education centers on a deep understanding of the ins and outs of each individual community. This knowledge comes from being a member of the communities you seek to impact. Taking the time to understand a community enables us to understand a community’s needs while uplifting and amplifying the voice of that community. This is the key to developing action plans and promoting involvement. This is what Georgia’s organizers understand.
Classism and racism are at play for those who don’t understand these community dynamics. The South’s history as home to poor communities, Black communities and other disenfranchised groups has created the myth that through a lack of knowledge and care, voter suppression has prevailed. Instead, it must be understood that despite all of this, voter encouragement prevails through the power of community organizing.
Voter turnout in the state reached just under 5 million. Black voter turnout increased by over 500,000 from 2018. Asian voter turnout reached an all-time high in the state as numbers increased by 141% from 2016. Georgia voters know what’s at stake. They know how to make their voices heard and understand the growing power they possess.
Voter suppression in Georgia is the result of the growing political power of long disenfranchised voices. Black voters, poor voters, those who have the most to lose are not the voters who need to be pressured to turnout. They do not need to be harassed with text messages, misguided letters and postcards from those out of state trying to have a say in Georgia’s elections. It’s insulting to think that Georgia’s voters need these constant reminders and guidance on how to exercise their rights.
It’s one thing to say you respect the work of those on the ground in Georgia and the Black women leading them. It is an entirely different thing to demonstrate your respect through action and a dedication to following their lead. Understand, Georgia is the example. It is the blueprint for progress thanks to its commitment to amplifying the diverse voices leading the charge.
I am not here to gatekeep or stop anyone from lending a helping hand. But what I am doing is demanding the respect of voting rights organizers in Georgia and the state’s powerful electorate. I am demanding that their voices, causes, and calls to action be amplified, not drowned out in a choir of confusion. I am demanding funding for these groups and more intentional dedication to supporting Georgia’s voters and voting rights organizers.