Tag Archives: civil rights

Can Nonprofits Increase Voting? Short Answer: Yes!

It’s an election year.

An important one.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one, too.

But it’s certainly not too early to think about precisely how we can engage in the civic participation/Get-Out-the-Vote/voter empowerment process, as nonprofit service providers.

So, in case you missed it, here’s a really inspiring report from Nonprofit Vote, with case studies about what different nonprofits did to increase voter participation, and what lessons they learned in the process.

A few highlights, just to tide you over until you get through the 73 pages:

  • Don’t forget to register your staff. Really. Don’t forget that.
  • If you want people to register to vote, ask them. Individually. Posters are not an invitation. Asking people if you can register them is an invitation. And it makes a difference.
  • You can register people beyond your walls, and getting out to register voters also means building your name recognition and community presence, too.
  • Figure out what you want to measure, and then measure it. Do you care most about the total number of registrants? Voter turnout among those you register? Increasing participation among a specific population? Set goals and then hold yourself accountable.
  • Invest in staff training. Now. Voter engagement doesn’t necessarily come naturally to nonprofit staff, so staff development is essential.
  • Get people to pledge to vote–if they’re already registered, if laws prevent you from registering them, if you just registered them and you want to make sure they vote. Of course it’s no guarantee, but it gets you their contact information, and it gets them to acknowledge–at least briefly–that it matters if they show up. Both are huge.
  • Use peer pressure, like in group sessions where the interest of just a few can prompt broad voter engagement.
  • Partner. Remember that you don’t need to know/do everything, and you absolutely can rely on your field to carry some of the weight here. There are organizations that specialize in civil rights law, and they can help you with complicated questions/concerns about voting eligibility and restrictions.
  • Don’t assume that clients will view electoral engagement as a ‘distraction’–some organizations found that there was tremendous interest in talking about the election and issues and their rights as voters. You may find yourselves having to bracket this work so that it doesn’t spill over into other programs, instead of it being seen as an intrusion.

I’d love to hear others’ reactions to these case studies, or, especially, your own lessons learned from your organization’s civic engagement work. What do we need to be doing in February to ensure that our clients’ voices are heard in August and November? What capacity and support do you need now to make that happen?

What will you do to make sure that we keep answering, “yes!” to the question: Can Nonprofits Increase Voting?

Why we celebrate Kansas Day

This hangs in our dining room. Really.

This hangs in our dining room. Really.

So that there’s no confusion, Kansas Day is actually next week–January 29th, to be exact.

But I have a full week of posts about inequality scheduled for next week and, besides, Kansas deserves a whole birthday week, right?

I just finished reading For the Common Good (review coming before too long, once I get some other posts cleared out), and there’s a part in the very beginning that made it clear that this isn’t just a book about leadership.

It’s a book about leadership in Kansas, written by Kansans.

Because it’s different.

Those who aren’t from our state (and, I must admit, probably even some who are) are certainly forgiven for not knowing, but Kansas is sort of a big deal.

Historically, unlike Iowa, the Dakotas, Illinois, Indiana, and other states founded based on geography, “Kansas was founded for a cause: freedom” (p. 8). When Congress passed the Kansas and Nebraska Act in 1854, the choice between being a free state or a slave state was left to the residents of those territories. Abolitionists came from the Northeast and elsewhere to flood the Kansas Territory and influence it to enter as a free state. “Their success helped put Kansas on the right side of history.”

And, in my house and among many of my colleagues and friends, we take that very, very seriously.

Several of the proponents of our instate tuition legislation for immigrant youth referenced our anti-slavery background in their floor speeches; to them, standing up for equality now is more than just the right thing to do.

It’s our birthright as Kansans.

It’s who we are as a people, every bit as much as the sunflowers.

American historian Carl Becker described it in the way that my family still sees it, “The origin of Kansas must ever be associated with the struggle against slavery. Of this fact Kansans are well aware…It is a state with a past.” (cited p. 8, For the Common Good)

My oldest son and I spent a day at the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence this summer.

When we stop at Civil War cemeteries (which, yes, happens with some regularity around here), one of the boys usually wants to know if “someone made them fight for the confederacy”.

They just can’t contemplate willingly putting your life on the line for something so wrong.

I’m not naive about the state of Kansas politics today, and how far less than noble are many of our aspirations in 2014.

And I’m not even ignoring the injustices perpetrated in the name of ‘freedom’ then.

We were the Brown v. Board of Education state, after all; we certainly have known our share of racial and social injustice.

I don’t try to encourage my son’s animosity toward the University of Missouri; he comes by that all on his own.

But, I do think that keeping alive a sense of where we came from and why it matters is important, not just for a sort of ‘pride of place’, but also because it is the right side of history, and I want my children to know very clearly that there is always–alwaysa choice to stand there.

As one of my Facebook friends said at the time of the Quantrill commemoration, “the massacre of innocent civilians by Quantrill and his rebels, just because they stood for freedom and justice, is nothing that needs to be gotten over anytime soon.”

So we celebrate Kansas Day, and celebrate Kansas.

Ad astra per aspera–to the stars through difficulty–is a reminder of where we have been, and an exhortation about where we must go.

Thankful…

…for summer vacations, for the legacy of those who have gone before, and for the opportunity to help raise the next generation of champions for justice.

And, as promised, elusive photos of my incredible kids, here on the Internet. Spreading the thankfulness.

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On the capitol steps in Montgomery. It was here that a reporter who had been following Dr. King turned to his companion and said, “I really think they’re going to win this thing.”

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Timeline of the civil rights movement

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In front of Dr. King’s church in Montgomery

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And the Greyhound station where Freedom Riders were attacked

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On the Freedom Trail between Selma and Montgomery: grateful for a husband who stopped at every.single.marker

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16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. I’ve been before, but not as a mother. I cannot comprehend the agony of those parents.

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“We ain’t afraid of your jails.” And they weren’t. Incredible.

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Taking the time to be frightened, and to imagine their fear and appreciate their courage

Thankful Week

I’m doing something different for this week of thankfulness this year.

Thursday, I’ll have my usual roundup of links and celebrations and shout-outs, but, today and tomorrow, I am sharing some photos of my travels and adventures this summer, especially those that connect to social justice and parenting, two journeys for which I am most thankful, indeed.

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Learning about court cases around desegregation with my oldest son

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He studies civil rights on the steps of Little Rock Central HS

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Cool quote in the memorial garden in Little Rock

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Road honoring Daisy Bates, a grown-up behind the Little Rock 9

Frightening beyond words

I know, I know.

I’ve heard all the arguments about how the Voting Rights Act isn’t dead, about how there are still lots of options for those alleging infringement of their civil rights, about how the Supreme Court’s June ruling really only tinkers with this fundamental human rights protection.

And, you know, standing on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma this summer,

I’m.Just.Not.Buying.It.

What’s scary to me this Halloween?

That our Supreme Court could honestly think that, somehow, history couldn’t repeat itself. That racism is over. And that getting a lawyer to fight for your right to vote is anything like equal citizenship.

That’s just frightening.

I have often found myself wishing that those who, today, take their right to vote for granted would have to pass a citizenship test, witnessing what aspiring Americans go through for the same chance to help shape our democracy.

I’ve altered that: now I wish that we all had to walk in the steps of John Lewis and the freedom fighters whose steps marked a generation and threw down a gauntlet that changed us forever.

It was an incredibly powerful walk across that bridge, imagining the fear and remembering how, just a few weeks before, the highest court in the United States prematurely declared that the fight was won.

We must not only not forget. That suggests that this is, somehow, a relic of history.

We must, instead, keep walking.

To do otherwise is too scary to contemplate.

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Ready to walk

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Sobbing with every step

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My husband knew I would want this picture

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The church where courage was forged

Top of my Christmas list: Restoring the Right to Vote

The blog e.politics had a post a couple of months ago with a map that I find fairly haunting. (I can’t get it to embed, so click on it. Trust me.)

It shows the concentration of voter identification laws primarily in the states that, at one time, had poll taxes, plus Kansas, which purportedly has the highest concentration of ‘voter fraud’ cases in the country.

At 97 total cases, out of millions of votes cast.

Then, more recently, the Government Accountability Office released a report that failed to document any cases of voter fraud in any of the numerous states that have recently passed stricter voting regulations.

What the GAO did find was a substantial increase in voting requirements over the last 10 years. Twenty-one states passed new voter I.D. laws and seven heightened requirements, bringing the total number of states requiring restrictive identification to 31.

To address a virtually nonexistent problem.

Primarily in a part of the country still grappling with a legacy of restrictive voting laws that denied democracy to millions over generations.

It’s an abomination, and its epicenter, today, is in my home state.

The land of John Brown and Jayhawkers.

So, dear Santa Claus, what do I want for Christmas?

It to not be 1964 anymore.

I want people’s right to vote to be respected, not trampled on under the trumped-up guise of ‘voter fraud’. I want people to stop using totally specious arguments like “but you have to show ID to get into a rated R movie,” like watching a movie is in any way comparable to exercising one’s most fundamental constitutional right. I want us to tackle real problems–there are plenty from which to choose–instead of wringing our hands over mostly made-up statistics.

I want the man who is homeless and lacks a photo ID to be able to vote. Just like me.

Horrible stuff I wouldn’t even dare to make up

I thought about, for this April Fool’s Day, making up something really awesome in the social policy world. But then I thought that would be super depressing, to find out that it was just a joke.

And, so, then I thought about making something up that’s really horrible, because that would make us feel better, right, to find out that it was a trick?

But, then I worried that I’d never be able to make up something so terrible that it would seem at all suspicious. Which was super depressing, too.

So, then I decided that I’d MUCH rather be angry than sad, about the assaults on social work values and on those we serve. So I scrolled through my email archives to find some of the horrible stuff that sounds so outlandishly awful that it should be made up, that I’ve collected over the past couple of months, for a sort of “should be April Fool’s jokes but we’re not laughing, so let’s do something about it” list.

That was too wordy a title even for me.

In no particular order, here are some completely unfunny, all-too-true examples of why social work advocacy is so needed.

No joke.

  • Tea Party group in my own state of Kansas depicts President Obama as a skunk, in an overtly racist smear. I’m grateful not only to the local NAACP chapter for speaking out on this but also for my good friends at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, for helping us see how this connects to very worrisome trends of anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric (and action) within Tea Party groups.
  • City of Topeka repeals its domestic violence law in order to avoid having to pay to prosecute misdemeanors, after the County DA announced that his office would no longer do so, in order to save money. This was really controversial, with some advocates applauding the City Council’s decision as calling the DA’s bluff, but I side with those who feel that it sent a really dangerous signal, in addition to resulting in the failure to charge at least several perpetrators whose crimes were committed during the time during which they were, essentially, not crimes. Women struggling to flee abuse should not be pawns in an intra-governmental budget showdown. Period.
  • 96-year-old African-American woman who voted even during the Jim Crow era blocked by Tennessee’s “voter ID” law. Honestly, I had hoped that I was just being paranoid about these laws being an attack on our most fundamental democratic rights. Obviously not.
  • Alabama. Enough said.

    It shouldn’t be so hard to come up with a list of totally wild things, pulled from our imaginations, that would be instantly recognizable as fabrications.

    Maybe that’s my new advocacy goal: make “ridiculous” mean something again, in the policy context.

    A year from now, I want to be foolable again.

We need to win this on the merits

Image credit: americasvoiceonline.org

You know I’m not a fan of taking the easy way out.

It’s tempting, sometimes, to think that we can throw the proverbial Hail Mary pass and move down the field (that’s the right sports metaphor, right?).

But in advocacy, as in life, it’s seldom that simple.

And, I’d argue, even when it might be possible, at least temporarily, it’s just not as good.

This is one of those cases.

Around the country, sparked first by the living nightmare that is now Alabama, anti-immigrant forces have been going after what they’ve long considered the Holy Grail:

Kicking immigrant kids out of Kindergarten.

It was at least 8 years ago that I first heard Kris Kobach’s assertion that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe, which established the right of every child in the U.S. to attend public K-12 schools, was ‘fatally flawed’, I think along with some pronouncement that he could win a different decision if he had a chance to try the case.

Since then, he has been hoping for his chance.

With the Alabama legislature’s approval of a requirement that K-12 schools verify the immigration status of students, that door was opened, even though that provision was pretty quickly enjoined in federal court.

This legislative session has already seen similar debates in other states, and I guarantee that there’s more to come: in the ‘war of attrition’ that the anti-immigrant crowd has been waging for years, barring immigrant kids from going to school would be a really big deal.

Immigrants and their allies, then, are justifiably hell-bent on stopping these attacks. In our fervor, I think we’re vulnerable to make a serious error.

We have to win this battle on the merits. We can’t take a shortcut, point to the Supreme Court, and just argue legal precedent. Yes, scaring legislators with threats of lawsuits and confusing them with references to previous decisions can sometimes work. And, yes, I fully believe that the U.S. Supreme Court (and I mean this specific one) would still decide a similar case the same way. Absolutely. But precedent can change. Winds can shift. And, so, the foundation can fall out from under those arguments that once looked so solid.

Besides, who was ever motivated to stand up and join a cause to fight against something just because it contradicts Justice Brennan’s majority opinion?

Because the truth is, Supreme Court or no Supreme Court, turning our teachers into immigration agents is a horrible idea. Keeping children, most of whom will eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship, out of school and on the streets is really terrible policy. Sending ripple effects through mixed-status families and communities, depressing the educational attainment of an entire generation, just because we hope that it might make some parents leave the country, is a nightmare scenario. Kicking kids out of Kindergarten because we don’t approve of their mom and dad is not an action of a place worthy to be called the United States of America.

Those need to be our arguments, not recitations of precedent, even that which is based on a legal principle as important as the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

We can win this.

I truly believe that a majority of Americans opposes this idea, and that we can convince state lawmakers that this is not the way to prove a point on immigration reform. I think that we can find new allies–in teachers and administrators and law enforcement officers and business leaders–and that we can emerge from this struggle poised for more success on other fronts.

But we’ve got to fight.

It was bad policy in 1982, and it’s bad policy today.

We don’t need a precedent to tell us that.

Truth and the cult of objectivity

This is going to be one of those not-quite-fully-developed posts, where there are just too many ideas in my head to say something terrifically cogent. As usual, that’s where you all come in.

But my core message (in case it doesn’t come through clearly!) is this:

We can’t let our obsession with objectivity, and our equation of it with “fairness” or “even-handed treatment”, obscure our search for truth.

I thought about this the other day when I was internally railing against coverage of our nation’s ongoing immigration debate. I was reading yet another article that quoted some immigrant students’ stories of their own lives and hopes for meaningful reform in the coming year, followed by a few quotes from a restrictionist group about how the “pro-illegal immigrant” groups were hoping to blackmail members of Congress with electoral threats related to the 2012 elections and the rising prominence of Latino voters. Or some nonsense like that–I kind of stopped reading.

And it reminded me of part of The Race Beat, where some of the reporters charged with covering the civil rights movement found it increasingly difficult to do so to their editors’ satisfaction, because the issue had crystallized to such an extent that, truly, there wasn’t a legitimate “other side.” In their quest to provide the balance that their newsrooms demanded, they were giving voice to actors who truly didn’t have a real place in the debate, morally or politically. I mean, people of color were being killed for trying to register to vote, and we’re somehow supposed to give credence to an alternative explanation–something other than the evil of racism? Really?

I’m not arguing that we’re in exactly the same place with immigrants’ rights. I don’t get into the “whose injustice is worse?” game. Ever.

But I do think that we’re beginning to find ourselves facing some of the same quandries, at least with elements of this debate. Who do you find who is a legitimate voice arguing that amazingly bright and hard-working immigrant youth should be rounded up and sent “back” to a foreign country? Who represents the “other side” in a question about how we should handle the deportation proceedings of mothers with young U.S. citizen children? Where do you put a shrill nativist voice clamoring for sealed borders and harsh detention conditions? And why can’t we have this national conversation without including them?

Truth obviously means being open to inquiry, curious about alternative views, and willing to engage in an earnest dialogue, including with people who disagree with us. But, in order to fuel the knowledge on which we rely for those conversations, I just don’t think there’s any rule that we should have to try to give equal time to those whose views masquerade as opinion, when they are really dangerous attempts to dress hatred up as dissent.

Objectivity is just not necessarily a virtue.

Our values are a valid lens through which to view our world.

And giving more attention to those voices our values compel us to heed does not mean that we’re so hopelessly biased that we cannot think.

That might make me a terrible newspaper editor.

But I think it serves me fairly well as a seeker of truth.

Making it count: demographics and the “new” electorate

The new Census report on voting in the 2010 elections was released a couple of weeks ago, and there are some interesting trends there.

As our friends at Nonprofit Vote describe it, “Last year, Hispanics comprised 7% of voters, the highest percentage ever for a non-presidential election. The percentage of non-Hispanic white voters was 77.5%, down from 80.4% in 2006. Tiffany Julian of the Census Bureau’s Education and Social Stratification Branch noted that “The electorate looks much different than when we first started collecting these data 37 years ago,” yet turnout and registration rates still do not mirror the nation’s growing diversity. There are persistent voting gaps for many of the populations that nonprofits serve. In addition to racial and ethnic gaps, economic gaps remain stark: People in families who earned $100,000 or more were more than twice as likely to vote as those who lived with families earning less than $20,000. Homeowners were more likely to both register and vote than renters.” Furthermore, people with at least some college education made up 68 percent of voters. Individuals without a high school diploma comprised 6 percent of voters.

These statistics were made all-too-real for me two weeks ago when I facilitated a voter registration and Get-Out-The-Vote training for a local nonprofit organization that serves a primarily low-income Latino community. When we got to the part of the training where I ask people to think of the objections they’re likely to hear from those they’re trying to engage in the electoral process, the responses came fast and furious.

  • “My one vote won’t matter.”
  • “They’ll just steal the elections anyway.”
  • “I couldn’t figure out who to vote for.”
  • “The whole process is corrupt; I don’t want any part of it.”
  • “They’re not even talking about issues that matter to me–it’s a waste of time.”
  • “I have too much going on to spend time figuring out elections and stuff.”

And on and on and on.

These nonprofit employees weren’t off the mark. The Census Bureau reports that the most common reason people did not vote was they were too busy (27 percent). Another 16 percent felt that their vote would not make a difference.

The truth is that there are a lot of barriers that separate the population this organization serves–mostly native Spanish speakers, a lot of recently naturalized citizens who didn’t grow up in our democratic system, families with young children and a million demands on their time and attention–from active and informed participation in our electoral system.

So that’s why, despite great progress, we still don’t have an electorate that fully represents our population. And the implications are profound, serving to perpetuate policy decisions that, in turn, widen the gap between elected officials and those they should serve.

Demographics alone won’t change our destiny. It’s up to us–including nonprofit organizations well-positioned to engage our constituents in our democracy–to make sure that 2012′s statistics on voter turnout continue the trajectory of increasing participation by communities of color, and that low-income communities are present in the voting booth at this critical time in our economic future.

The numbers may be on “our” side–those of us who want a diverse electorate that invigorates our national conversation about the kind of future we want to build–but history is replete with examples when numbers were not enough.

We’re the missing link, and we’ve got some chasms to hurdle. And not-quite-13-months to get leaping.