YouTube video

Khalilah Harris discusses the role of women of color in driving voter engagement during the midterm elections in Baltimore and beyond

Story Transcript

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Welcome, ladies, to the Real News Network. We know Baltimore has been ground zero for some of our nation’s most significant issues and challenges, but also the location and foundation for some of its greatest solutions.

Will you talk a little bit, Nykidra, about the work you’ve been doing around voter engagement and voter turnout?

NYKIDRA ROBINSON: Sure, absolutely. First, Khalilah thank you so much for having me. I am the founder and CEO of Black Girls Vote.

It is a concrete fact that Women of Color, Black Women, we are loyal voters. As we saw in 2008, 2012, Black Women delivered the presidency of Barack Obama. We saw in 2016, 94 percent of Black Women voted for Secretary Clinton. Senator Doug Jones is in office because of Black Women. And it’s so important with getting 98 percent of the vote. And it’s so important that Women of Color, Black Women particularly say, “Hey, we vote, but in exchange for our vote, we want policy, we want real life solutions for Black Women.

So, Black Girls Vote, we’re out in the streets, we’re in the community getting folks engaged, educated and empowered about what’s happening in the community. We’re making sure that they’re not only registered to vote but mobilizing them to the polls as well.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: And you have an event coming up. Will you talk about that?

NYKIDRA ROBINSON: Absolutely. On October 25, we’re extremely honored and excited that we have our first collegiate chapter of Black Girls Vote at Morgan State University, the historic Morgan State University and we’re partnering with Tumblr. Our goal is to mobilize, for the year 2018, voters to the polls on election day or during early voting. So, we’re kicking off at Morgan State University. We’re going to do a demonstration with a press conference in the morning, then a demonstration to the polls. And across the city, we’re doing 10 activations. Towson University is one of them, some of the local schools are partners, and we’re actually mobilizing students to the pools and saying, “Hey, early voting, you don’t have to be registered to vote in advance, you can register on site and get out to vote,” because the millennial voting block is so powerful.

Black Girls Vote, we focus on 18 to 25 year olds. And this is the first time now in looking at where we’re able to eclipse the baby boomers. If not in 2018 and 2020 – Brennan they’re still doing research, as well as Pew, but it’s the time now where millennials have to get out and vote. And I want young Black Girls to say, “Hey, we are going to vote, but we want things in exchange for our vote. Mutually beneficial relationships.” That’s what it’s about in Black Girls Vote. We’re super excited.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Ricarra Jones, will you talk a bit about your work with Baltimore Women United and what they’ve been doing to organize voters to get engaged and also turn out?

RICARRA JONES: Sure. So, thank you again for having me here. I’m on a steering committee of Baltimore Women United.

We are an organization that was formed right after Trump was elected. I think we all kind of woke up sad, disgusted, depressed and just was like, “What can we do, how can we overcome this besides sit at home and be depressed?” So, we came together, and our goal is to bring women and Women of Color across the city of Baltimore, bring them together. So, a lot of the activities that we do are we’ve been doing a lot of postcards, we’ve been writing hand written postcards to women, telling them how important it is to vote.

We have an action on the 8th of every single month where we either do canvassing of women, register women and talk to them about how important an upcoming election is or just talk to them about their issues, what they want to see as a part of an agenda going forward for their elected officials. We do a lot of phone banks, and we’re also working right now with a couple of our partners to put together a march to the polls. So, we think it’s going to be a very powerful visual to see hundreds of women come together and have a little bit of fun, listen to some speakers, have a DJ and then we’re all going to take this time and we’re going to march to the polls are we’re going to go vote on October 27.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: That’s great. And just to piggyback on what you just said, both of you are taking actions to make sure that people understand how critical it is to vote, the importance of the Black Woman’s voice in elections for the past few decades, if we are being accurate. But what kinds of things are you hearing from people when you’re knocking on doors or when you’re doing “get out the vote” work? What kinds of things are you hearing and what are you responding to community members to engage them in voting, whether it be young people or women who are sporadically voting or haven’t voted before?

RICARRA JONES: So, I would just say one quick thing that I hear and have been hearing for quite some time, that I personally and BWU is working to change, is that we, like you said, the Democratic Party specifically has relied on Black Women for most of the elections in the past. But we don’t see that played out in the agenda. So, a lot of times Black Women are relied on when it’s time to get to the polls, but our voices are not being heard in Annapolis and not being heard in DC. So, I think it’s time that we not only depend on Black Women to vote, but make their issues are part of our agenda, kind of move forward. And that’s a lot of what we hear on the doors.

So, in our conversations we’re always trying to highlight candidates who have taken some time to actually listen to Black Women and have made some of their issues a part of their agenda going forward. And we want to see how that’s going to play, out especially in this upcoming gubernatorial election.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: And Nyki, what do you guys say to people who say voting doesn’t matter, our votes don’t mean anything?

NYKIDRA ROBINSON: We ask them, “What’s bothering you, what’s keeping you up at night?” And people have to realize people are dealing with real life issues every single day and we don’t take the time to stop and talk to them, but more importantly listen. And then, tie that into policy whichever way. And here in the city of Baltimore, you opened the segment with, we’ve had, over the last few years, over 300 murders on average in our city of Baltimore. These are Black men majority, those are our sons, our brothers, our husbands. They come from us as Black Women. So, there’s a lot of people in pain. There are a lot of people hurting.

And so, we have to change the conversation, but more importantly, let them know how that one particular vote can change things. And people think, “My vote doesn’t matter,” and I say to them all the time, “I don’t know any wealthy people that don’t play politics, you know why? Because they put money into campaigns and that campaign pays for those mailers get those, pays for those commercials that you see, and that’s because they want to influence your vote.” They want to influence your one little vote. I say, “I don’t care if you’re Donald Trump, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, they have one vote on election day and so do you, and so, I want you to understand that not only is that power of the vote, but power of the collective vote.” And so, I tell people all the time about Black Girls Vote, it’s about a voting bloc.

And so, when we get there and say, “Hey, we have 2000 votes. In the city of Baltimore, 30,000 votes will determine who’s the mayor of the city of Baltimore.” It’s a three point two billion dollar budget, so the contracts that are going out like those HVAC contracts for schools without heat, we want to make sure Black people are getting those contracts because that means that they’re going to hire people that look like us. So, you can look at the crime that will decrease. This is a systemic issue that we have to address. So, we just can’t talk about, “Oh, my vote doesn’t matter.” They have to see the bigger picture and understand that people are out here fighting for your behalf. But it’s real, it’s hard, but taking time to stop, listen to them and understand what’s bothering them. And then it becomes more relatable and then it will make them think.

You may not get them the first time, you may not get them the second time, but when they’re like, “There you all go again, Black Girls Vote.” A guy told us the other day, “I’m not going to vote, but I’m going to vote because y’all want me to,” because there are young, attractive women who are saying, “Get out to vote.” And then that’s what we have. We have the power to influence people, we can influence our brothers, our sons, our family members. So, we say with Black Girls Vote, and we have a hashtag, #SheWillVote. If she’s too young to vote for someone, commit to voting and take someone young with you. Take your husband, you brother, he will vote. Because it needs to be a part of the conversation and a part of your routine. And then it will start to shift.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: What do you say to the person who goes, “I don’t care if you’re cute, I don’t care if you have a lot to say, I don’t care if there’s an issue that you think is important and coming up in this election, I’m not going to vote because I keep getting locked up,” or “the police keep harassing me in my community,” or “I didn’t go to any good school my entire school career.” How do you respond to those people?

NYKIDRA ROBINSON: I think the reality is circumstantial. Sometimes I’ve had people say after we say register to vote, say, “F you and F voting too.” I mean, I’m going to let you have a great day. So, safety’s number one. But understand that this person has some other things that they’re dealing with and it may not be me, the person to get them. But it’s circumstantial. And understanding why they have a story, they’re angry at something greater than me and let them go on about their day. But again, talk about, as we shared with you or I just shared, “What’s bothering you? Let me show you how this ties into voting.” But it’s a situation that you have to keep repeating. And then, one day, they may get it. Like, “You know what, I remember you.”.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Plant the seed, right?

NYKIDRA ROBINSON: Plant the seed. And that’s the start, planting the seed. And then, it doesn’t happen overnight.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: So, ladies, we know that in women’s movements we’ve experienced situations where white women are prioritizing things that are important to them. And Ricarra, you spoke about this, about women on the door saying, “We carry the weight of the party,” or “we carry the weight of our party in the case of Democrats.” Or, women who may not be Democrats maybe saying, “We are supporters of the policies that are important to this party. But after the election we don’t have the opportunity to see our issues raised as a platform or put forward in legislation. So, how do we bridge those divides between white women who may be advocating for gender-specific policies but not necessarily drilling down to policies that directly impact Women of Color?

RICARRA JONES: So, I would say I think that we saw that with the Women’s March. So, it was a lot of women that came together, but when you looked at the pictures, it was a lot of white women. So, I think for what part of BWU is trying to do is to meet women where they are. Because a lot of women in Baltimore, they may not have been able to get on a bus and travel all the way to DC. Because I also work for a health care union and my members are working two jobs, they’re trying to take care of their kids, they’re just trying to figure out how they’re going to put food on the table at the end of the week. So, they might not be able to spend a few hours at a march because they’re at work.

But the goal of what we’re trying to accomplish is meeting women where they are. So, that’s why we’re going to have something like a poll party, so women are coming to vote. We can offer resources right there to the women when they show up. So, you might need information about childcare, you might need information other types of resources, but they are going to be there when you get there, and we want to meet women exactly where we are.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: So, ladies, there is a lot to be done. What should we expect from your organizations going forward?

NYKIDRA ROBINSON: Well, I just want to share, the Black Girl Vote Ball will be on November 16, Friday November 16 at the Forum Caterers. It’s our largest fundraiser. So, if you believe in the work that we’re doing, please support us. We have the Honorable Ambassador, former U.S. Senator, first Black Woman elected to the United States Senate, Carol Moseley Braun will be joining us from Chicago. She’ll be here. We have some other surprises in store, but it’s going to be an amazing event. It sold out last year, we’re going to sell out again this year. So, if you want to sponsor, you want to come, please make sure that you come to the Black Girls Vote Ball.

You’ll see us in the community. We have over 20 colleges on a waiting list who would like Black Girls Vote chapters. But again, we’re only at Morgan State University because we are figuring it out, we’re learning as we go. So, expect to see Black Girls Vote chapters across the country, but more importantly, to see is out in the community in dealing more actively with policy and issues and things like that.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Thank you, Nykidra Robinson.

NYKIDRA ROBINSON: Thank you, Khalilah Harris.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: All right. Ricarra?

RICARRA JONES: So, yes, for Baltimore Women United, we are going to continue to partner with our allies across the city to one, support women who are running for office. So, women make up 52 percent of the population, but yet, there are currently no women who were elected statewide right now. So, we want to continue to push forward that effort, to have women represent us in Annapolis. And then, we also are going to continue to try to put on some of the events that I talked about, like parties at the polls.

We’re going to have an event every 8th of the month going forward, canvassing, phone banking and just continuing to reach out to women and trying to get them engaged and involved in politics, as well as making sure that we’re supporting candidates who are going to push an agenda that has women at the center of their agenda and talk about issues like the Fight for 15, talk about fully funded education, making sure health care is affordable and accessible as well.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: And you ladies are working together on something, is that right?

RICARRA JONES: We are. So, we’re partnering with Morgan State University and Black Girls Vote. And we are putting on a concert that is called Young Gets it Done.

NYKIDRA ROBINSON: And this is in her capacity not with BWU, another capacity. You know, she wears multiple hats as we do as Black Women, multiple hats.

RICARRA JONES: So, I work with 1199SEIU, we represent health care workers. But we are working with Black Girls Vote, again, and Morgan State University and a couple of other partners to try to put on this concert because we want to engage millennials and young people to vote. And a lot of people say, “No, don’t, why are you wasting your time, they’re not going to come out and vote, they’re not going to show up.” But we think that they will. It’s just that you have to be able to connect with young voters and you have to talk about the issues and the things that they care about. And we want to do it in a fun way.

So, we don’t want to be all stuffy and sitting around all boring. But we think if we get some really great artists that are exciting and that the kids will want to listen to, and they’re also telling them how important it is to vote, then we’re going to make sure they show up and the vote that their voices are heard, and their numbers are counted on election day.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: And that’s also on October 27.

RICARRA JONES: October 27, yes, at Morgan State University.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: So, with your many hats, Ricarra Jones, thank you.

NYKIDRA ROBINSON: I just want to mention one other thing. On our event on October 27, we’re going to have Marilyn Mosby, Barbara Mikulski, again, on the 27th at the March on the Polls. But we’re also going to have a great MC. Khalilah is going to be our MC for this event. So, I just want to invite everybody to come on out. We’re going to have a great time. We’re going to have a lot of women that are going to show up and we’re going to march to the polls and show up in great numbers.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Thank you ladies. So, we’re looking forward to, regardless of what your political affiliation may be and your interests, making sure that voters have all of the information they need to understand how they can make informed decisions and make sure that they understand that this city belongs to them and their engagement, no matter what their political beliefs are, are certainly important.

And at The Real News we believe that the future depends on knowing and solutions can come from the people. So, we just want to keep making sure we bring folk like you on to talk about important issues and the ways that you’re working on solutions for the city. So, thank you.

RICARRA JONES: Thank you, we’re happy to be here.


Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Khalilah M. Harris is a host and executive producer at the Real News Network focused on the Baltimore Bureau, education reporting, and social commentary. Khalilah brings a unique perspective to curating content from an extensive career working to expand access to opportunity through an equity lens in community organizing, education, education policy, youth advocacy, and building an inclusive workforce. In addition to her background as an attorney and researcher, Khalilah brings experiences from the grassroots as a founder of a Baltimore City school focused on social justice, to co-founding a local community collaborative called the Coalition of Black Leaders in Education. She organizes nationally with the EduColor movement and served as the first Deputy Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. A proud alum of Morgan State University, Khalilah also obtained her doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania, and her law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law.