In his historic 1984 speech at Tindley Temple Church in Philadelphia, Rev. Jesse Jackson declared, “Our defeats are characterized by the margin of despair and the fracture of our coalitions.” In an effort to explain both the challenge and a way forward, Rev. Jackson invoked the well-known story of David and Goliath. He told of how David, a shepherd boy, was able to defeat the giant before him by using the wealth of tools at his disposal and within his reach: rocks, laying on the ground. By picking up these rocks, David defeated Goliath.
Our task, he continued, is to pick up our “rocks laying around” and defeat the giants of racial exclusion and economic exploitation through a massive effort to activate infrequent and low-propensity voters across the political spectrum. Particularly important were those from communities of color, colleges and universities, and poor communities.
This paper will argue why progressives need to radically re-think how investments are made in the infrastructure and expertise needed to close the razor-thin margins that characterize our defeats at the polls. For the past six years, I’ve been part of a talented and ambitious network of strategists, organizers, and everyday people who are Black, brown, formerly incarcerated, youth, women, men, and queer folks, all committed to activating lower-propensity voters in our country. Many of us have been part of faith-based organizing networks, political campaigns, and millennial-led organizing groups. Over the years, we experienced significant victories around criminal justice reform, voter access and re-enfranchisement, gun-violence prevention funding, and upstart political candidates who champion such issues. These victories have convinced us that if we scale our successes and learnings, we could defeat many more of the political giants our communities face daily.
Unfortunately, these lessons are not easily embraced by progressive electoral and political establishment decision-makers. For decades, the groupthink of many consultants has calcified around the near-exclusive pursuit of securing support from “white working-class” voters, at the expense of voters of color and poor people in communities across the country. Many of us in the network I mentioned have sat in meetings with philanthropy, campaigns, donors, and consultants, and attempted to lay out the roadmap for this new “Rising American Electorate.” Indeed, research now confirms that the most reliable base of progressive political constituencies include Black women, young people, religious communities, and people of color.
What does not follow, despite this ample evidence, is the continuous investment needed to leverage the power, moral authority, and infrastructure of existing Black legacy institutions which serve as an institutional home of many of these voters. These Black legacy institutions include: religious congregations, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and other social and civic organizations that are trusted by these communities. Below, our lessons intend to explain how Black legacy institutions help us win elections, and why investing early and often in the infrastructure working to leverage Black legacy institutions can help us pick up our rocks and defeat the giants.
Defining the Rocks: Black Legacy Institutions
In retrospect, events that unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 turned many of us who are the metaphorical rocks laying on the ground on to politics in new ways. The killing of Michael Brown, and the subsequent state sanctioned terror unleashed by local and regional law enforcement agencies, sharpened our analysis, tested our tactics, and clarified who our enemies are. The subsequent uprisings intensified and accelerated our sense of urgency to imagine a more transformative way forward. In the crucible of this fire, a network of intergenerational activists, organizers, faith leaders, and everyday people emerged with a renewed commitment to fight systemic oppression by centering a radical framework of inclusion and democratic participation that would deepen our coalition efforts.
Given this network’s unique situatedness in Black legacy institutions including Black churches, HBCUs, Black street organizations, and Black social clubs, we discovered lots of rocks laying around. But so too were young Black college students in St. Louis, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Tallahassee, and elsewhere becoming increasingly engaged. Large numbers of unemployed and underemployed youth were filling the streets demanding justice with an uncompromising voice that shook institutions to their core. Faith leaders and clergy members from Black congregations across denominations began to wrestle with our collective impact and generational divides. National organizing bodies and historic civil rights organizations had to rethink our approaches and outdated assumptions. We accepted the challenge put forward by young people who demanded our organizing work result in changes to everyday people’s material conditions. We assessed how our work fueled the fragmentation of our coalitions and leaned differently into the many existing and newfound relationships which were before us. And we owned our responsibility as stewards of Black legacy institutions and sought to coalesce around a common strategy, as well as align our work, resources, and talent differently. This alignment reinforces the possibility and necessity of investing in political infrastructure, intent on leveraging the inherent power, moral authority, and infrastructure of our existing Black legacy organizations.
Picking Up Our Rocks: Owning the Margins
Rev. Jackson’s speech powerfully recounted the numbers of votes that decided the 1980 presidential election, and contrasted them with the number of voters left unregistered to vote, or who did not turn out to vote. It was a stunning display of the margins of despair that decided too many elections. While in Ferguson, we began to test some of these ideas, particularly during the immediate midterm election cycle of 2014. We poured over voting records and began to see the low number of registered voters, the low voter turnout, and the low margins of victory and/or defeat of local elected officials. How to pick up some of these rocks and close some of the margins? The answer was clearly to go to where the people were. We quickly began to mobilize folks from churches, colleges, street organizations, and other allied groups to see if we could engage our lowest propensity voters. These voters are the ones that are not even on the lists when most candidates and campaigns put together their ground strategy. They are entirely written off, and thereby left out. But to call someone a “low-propensity” voter is about probability, and we believed that these folks’ potential eclipsed the scores assigned to them.
With this “new and principled” math directing us, it soon became clear that the individuals unregistered and unengaged within our small to mid-size churches were indeed the votes needed to close these margins. The neighborhoods steeped in street organizations, largely unregistered and unengaged, were the votes needed to close these margins. The students in the HBCUs—away from their homes and parents, often unregistered and unengaged—represented votes needed to close these margins. Our job then became clear: we must operationalize a civic engagement program that takes seriously culture, faith, and institutional infrastructure to activate these rocks laying around.
Within Faith In Action, Andrea Marta and Risa Brown have been key catalysts in building this capacity across our civic engagement programs. Tapping into the deep pool of organizers and directly impacted leaders of color within Faith In Action’s federations, their teams have been able to successfully train skilled electoral strategists, organizers, and campaign operatives across the organization’s network. This has increased voter turnout especially in down-ballot races, particularly related to prosecutors and sheriffs. The benefit of building this internal capacity is that it allows these concrete skills to live within organizations and communities beyond election cycles, rather than leaving our communities when out-of-town consultants leave after each election.
Likewise, LIVE FREE and New Nation Rising’s robust relationships in movement and campaign spaces, introduced us to highly skilled operatives of color who felt underused, invisibilized, and ignored by the progressive establishment. These individuals and their under-appreciated expertise helped us execute the kind of programming strategies mentioned above to activate new voters. We used traditional voter tools, as well as nontraditional tactics. For example, we utilized Voter Sabbaths and Holy Weeks of Activation as an onramp to braid our institutions together. Rather than fly in out-of-town canvassers to connect with families, we invested in neighborhood residents and directly impacted people to make the case. And the rise in successful activations was significant. Our program also leveraged the reach and power of culture makers and influencers who shared our commitments and ends. These were tactics we felt confident would tantalize the interest and participation of our important Black institutional constituencies, because they were steeped in the culture of these legacy institutions.
While we were unable to fully realize a victory in the midterm election of 2014 in Ferguson, by 2016 and 2017, we began to see huge results in our work. In 2016, we began to put the infrastructure together for the first ever Black Church PAC, which would leverage the influencers of Black religious institutions. Thanks to the brilliance of DeJuana Thompson, the architect of Woke Vote, we built Black church-specific engagement strategies and college-specific engagement programs that helped move millions of dollars to Black-led organizations in Alabama. We were able to move more than 30 percent of Black Alabamians to the polls and help deliver a historic victory to the state of Alabama in an off-year election by electing a Democrat to the US Senate.1
We continue to be convinced that owning the margins only happens when we deeply invest in Black legacy institutions across election cycles so infrastructure can be continuously sustained and scaled. We learned there are an abundance of skilled operatives with the cultural competency and relational connections to connect to the spectrum of Black folks who are left unregistered and unengaged around elections and democratic participation. These skilled operatives have a more difficult time securing employment than their white counterparts. Most political strategy firms with huge budgets do not hire Black and brown political consultants, strategists, and managers during off-year elections. The result is a disrupted electoral engagement apparatus which leaves the momentum built in our base constituencies to peter out post elections.2 These lessons and more continue to inform how and why we organize the way we do.
Black Tide vs. Blue/White Wave
We continue to experience the insidious vestiges of racism in the electoral sector of progressive politics. Despite the growing evidence, and hard-earned victories grounded in Black voter engagement—particularly Black women—we see the groupthink of the establishment and political elites endure. Too many remain stubbornly convinced that the “blue wave” can only happen with the bulk of investment going to persuading white rural and working-class voters. Tristan Wilkerson, one of our architects and key strategists rightly says: “There can be no blue wave without a Black tide.”
In spite of the robust data and research that underscores the loyal base of Black voters—largely situated in Black legacy institutions—the investment in our institutions post-elections and across electoral cycles is sparse and “Steve Phillips has described in great length the “billion-dollar blunder” of 2016, in which Democratic and allied groups failed to spend early and effectively on educating and engaging Black and brown voters.3 Below are some recommendations which could offer a radical course correction to these avoidable missteps:
Extend Engagement beyond Election Day
As organizers working to change the material conditions of our loved ones daily, governance matters. As a matter of fact, bad governance produces de-facto voter suppression by reinforcing the belief that elections can’t really change anything. Too many of our families do not experience significant improvements in their well-being even if those for whom they vote actually win, because too few officials ultimately govern with our families in mind. Investing in legacy organizations who engage before, through, and after elections is critical because it allows us to circle back to voters and connect them to a base of civically engaged citizens who will influence governance and hold elected officials accountable.
Amplify Issues and Not Candidates
While inspirational candidates are critical to winning elections, we must have principled issues and transformational policy agendas to match as well. We are finding in many states that the earlier a community gets clear about their policy agenda, the more voter engagement can be done, regardless of the candidate. This means we need a well-resourced army of indigenous organizers who remain in communities to help cultivate and clarify such an agenda. In many of our most engaged communities, we have created scorecards and reports that are contextualized to the cities and counties where people live. This has allowed electoral engagement to be an extension of good, solid organizing which happens 365 days a year. Such a process with the community, led by Black legacy institutions supported and resourced by organizers and strategists that have a continuous presence in these communities, is critical if we are to scale our impact and work. We cannot just parachute people and money into communities in the 11th hours for voter registration and GOTV.
Invest Early and Often
The unfortunate reality for too many of us has been the lateness of resources to activate the most loyal base. Rather than receive the necessary investments six-to-nine months ahead of elections, we usually see a huge influx six-to-nine weeks before Election Day. And this investment schedule is very racialized. Large white-led consultant firms specializing in communications, data, and polling receive large sums of dollars beginning many months before an election, while mid-size Black-led groups receive paltry leftovers when it’s crunch time. Often just one black organization is selected for investment—as if to check a box—while consistently many white-led organizations are chosen. This unfairly pits Black-led organizations against one another, creates a perverse incentive to compete and differentiate rather than align their programs, and further fractures our coalitions. If a more robust vision across electoral cycles existed, the work to scale this targeted outreach would be less laborious and much less transactional with our communities who largely feel progressives care more about our votes than our actual lives.
These Rocks Can Win
Can we call for audits of state parties, philanthropic partners, and donors to assess the proportion of their investments across base constituencies of progressives? Can we reframe these investments beyond election-year strategies, and see them as mini-stimulus packages for Black legacy institutions and the communities we serve that can sustain the work past Election Day? Too often, elections create windfalls of cash for white-led firms who freeze out reputable groups on the ground. The vendors, the consultants, and the institutions that are rooted, and have credibility, in Black communities can keep the energy of civic participation alive if doing so offered a sustainable material benefit to them beyond one day every few years.
Needless to say, the commitment to invest in Black legacy institutions is not the muscle memory of progressive leaders. To do this will require a radically different way of structuring the work. But we do have a coalition that is formidable. Like David, we are facing many giants. Yet, we have many rocks laying on the ground. They are within reach. And we have shown we can win with these rocks. The question is: Will we pick them up, strategically align them, and deploy them in service of those whose backs are most against the wall?
- 1For only those African Americans who were registered to vote in 2017, analysis of voting records found turnout rates as high as 40 percent among registered Black men and over 48 percent among registered Black women.
- 2For more on how the status quo approach to civic engagement funding squanders power-building gains, see Bob Fulkerson, “When Boom Goes Bust: Why Civic Engagement Funding Must Change,” Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, March 6, 2019, belonging.berkeley.edu/when-boom-goes-bust
- 3Democracy in Color, “Return of the Majority: A Roadmap for Taking Back Our Country,” June 2017, democracyincolor.com/update