African-American communities in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, face more than their fair share of political and socioeconomic challenges; at the same time, these communities will play an outsized role in determining the outcome of the next US presidential election. Four years ago, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities launched in the hopes of serving these very communities and modeling an alternative to traditional get-out-the-vote organizations by building genuine community power through year-round canvassing and community engagement.
Reporting from Milwaukee, TRNN’s Jaisal Noor sits down with the organization’s founder and Executive Director Angela Lang to discuss the organization’s mission, tactics, successes, and limitations.
See the first part of Jaisal Noor’s interview with Angela Lang here.
Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
This story is part of a series that was made possible with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
Jaisal Noor: Welcome to The Real News. We’re in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, reporting on the fight back against voter suppression of Black and Brown voters in a city that’s a microcosm for the inequities, inequalities that are in the fabric of America. Where a few thousand votes can determine who becomes the next president, governor, or senator from the state. We’re talking to Angela Lang, founder and executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, a nationally recognized group launched after the 2016 election, in which Trump won Wisconsin on his way to winning the White House amid a sharp decrease in Black voter turnout which was attributed in part to voter suppression. BLOC doesn’t just get out the vote. Instead it works year round in some of Milwaukee’s most disinvested and incarcerated communities to empower residents and build political power. Thanks so much for joining us.
Angela Lang: Yeah. Thanks for being here too.
Jaisal Noor: So Rebecca Kleefisch, who is running for governor next year, says Republicans need to hire mercenaries to win the 2022 race for governor. That’s a headline from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Kleefisch, who’s been campaigning, said she’d also increase voter restrictions if elected, and has embraced the debunked theory that voter fraud handed Trump or was responsible for Trump’s loss in Wisconsin in last year’s election. So what’s your response to this? This is the latest sort of salvo in these mythical lies that Republicans are creating across the country. And it’s interesting because they’re making these crazy claims about stolen elections when the reality is there’s problems with elections in Wisconsin, but it’s not exactly the way that the conservatives have described it. So give us your response and talk about what the actual impediments are to fair elections in Wisconsin.
Angela Lang: Yeah, so hearing that type of commentary and narrative I think is incredibly troubling, and it does nothing to actually bridge this divide that we have in our country around the big lie and around voter fraud and voter suppression. And it’s unfortunate to hear that that’s the narrative that she is pushing. We also know that voter suppression is deeply racist. Even shortly after the November election when they were doing recounts, they only did recounts in two counties: Milwaukee County and Dane County, the state’s most diverse counties. And it’s unfortunate. And I think it’s an incredible dog whistle about the votes of Black and Brown people. And if you don’t want us to vote, just say that. That’s literally kind of what she’s getting at. And the challenges around voting are being able to constantly limit early voting hours, taking away polling places, taking away weekend voting where so many people utilize.
But then also we have photo ID in our state, and not everybody has an ID. Not everyone has the most up-to-date ID. But we’ve also seen some challenges, and this happened to myself too, is that I presented an ID. It didn’t match my previous or my current address, it had my old address on it. But I knew that all I had to do was just show my picture and they should only be looking at my picture. And they tried to turn me away and say that my address didn’t match. But I knew the rules and I knew my rights, so I stayed there and we had to get the chief election inspector to say, no, yep, she’s right. Let her vote.
And so it’s even those types of challenges. Even if you have an ID there’s a lot of confusion about what needs to all be on it. Does it need to have your current address? And also having an ID can sometimes be a challenge if people lose an ID. I know I have to get mine updated and I’m dreading it because I don’t have time to stand in line for hours at the DMV if people are working. And so these are some of the big challenges. And if we’re going to have a conversation about our elections in Wisconsin, we need to have it in the frame of voter suppression.
Jaisal Noor: Voter ID is the law that’s in Wisconsin. There’s a study done. It reduced Black voter turnout by about the margin that Trump won in 2016. And I know that was a crushing blow for Black communities in Wisconsin, in Milwaukee. And folks that don’t know, Milwaukee County has about 70% of Wisconsin’s Black population. And Milwaukee itself is one of the most segregated, disinvested cities, similar to Baltimore in a lot of ways, where we’re based. What is the human impact of voter suppression? Because that’s a word that’s thrown around. It’s almost sort of lost its meaning because we don’t talk about how that impacts families, how that impacts communities in terms of disenfranchising the ability to elect officials and to exercise power.
Angela Lang: I think it leads people to feel hopeless, unfortunately. If people know that constantly their rights are being eroded and taken away, people ultimately lose process in the system as a whole. It’s disappointing, but we hear conversations all the time where people are like, well, I’m not even going to vote. I’ve seen the politics here and there. It’s too messy. I want no parts of this and my vote doesn’t matter. It breaks my heart every time I hear that. And it’s fairly common that people don’t feel that their votes or their voices even matter anymore because of the way that they’re constantly trying to erode our rights. And so people sometimes feel that they’re just going to flat out remove themselves from the political process. They’re not going to engage in democracy. And that’s something, quite frankly, we all should be concerned about. Because if we want to have a robust democracy that means we need everyone’s participation in it, but people aren’t going to participate if they don’t feel that their voices are actually being heard.
Jaisal Noor: And I can’t move on to the next topic without talking about how Wisconsin’s Republican attorney general Brad Schimel in 2018 credited the state’s voter ID law with Trump’s victory. So this is not something that’s an accusation. This is something that Republicans are holding up and saying like, hey, this actually won the election for us.
Angela Lang: Yeah. It’s not a surprise. There are times that, there’s videos where we have our own Republican elected officials that said the exact same thing on TV to a news person. They’re not even hiding it these days. And I think that’s also incredibly disheartening, because it feels like it’s very targeted and it’s very focused at Black and Brown communities. But then when you call it out, they say, oh, it’s not racist. Well, you actually said this is what it’s doing. And everyone knows that when Black and Brown people turn out, we’re not a monolith by any means, but we know that we are Democratic leaning, and I think Republicans know that too. And so it’s not even a dog whistle anymore. It’s kind of a bullhorn at this point.
Jaisal Noor: So talk a little bit about why you decided to launch BLOC in 2017. It’s almost your four year anniversary. And you’ve talked about how traditional get out the vote efforts, where people go out like in the days before an election and sort of ask you to vote for a candidate, don’t necessarily work in the communities that you work with. So talk about what you do and how it’s different than these traditional efforts.
Angela Lang: Yeah. So after the 2016 election I was crushed just like a lot of other people were. Trying to figure out what my next career move was as well. But what was, I think, very heartbreaking for me to hear was Democrats and progressives that literally were pointing the finger at us and said, if you people would just would’ve voted, we wouldn’t have been here. And that was really hard for me to hear knowing that our community is some of the most disenfranchised and least engaged, but yet we were to blame. And so I think it was a lazy way of trying to cast the blame on someone. And so it was that, that I was like, I feel like I need to do something. And so I was fortunate enough to be able to be connected to some leaders and really think about how do we do things differently? How do we fill this gap?
I didn’t want to help build an organization that’s just going to be a cookie cutter organization. We said that it was kind of this for us by us model. We wanted to disrupt some of the transactional nature of typical electoral politics in communities of color. And so we’re a year-round civic engagement organization. Even with COVID we had to scale back a lot, but we’re one of the only organizations that has a year-round field program. We’re canvassing 24/7 around issues and around the things that people care about.
And what is, I think, so beautiful about it, is that there’s people from our community. There are some people on our staff that haven’t had their voting rights restored yet, but yet they’re still knocking doors. They’re still educating people. And so I think there’s something beautiful about being able to have people from the community being able to have these conversations because we know the landmarks. We can go into a community and say, oh yeah, I remember when that used to be a barber shop. Or I remember that used to be this. Being able to relate to people I think goes a really long way, and to being able to share that common experience too.
Jaisal Noor: So yesterday we got to spend time with Anita and Joanne, two BLOC ambassadors who’ve been at it for a while.
Angela Lang: Yeah.
Jaisal Noor: So talk about what organizers like Anita and Joanne do, how they’re mobilizing, and sort of like what impact that’s had in the last four years in Milwaukee?
Angela Lang: Yeah. So for them they want to make sure that they are going around and educating our team and our communities. And so their role is to make sure that they have as much information as possible to guide these conversations. So we have a mix of different conversations. Some of them are political in nature. Hey, vote for this candidate. Do you know what this role of office does? Do you know what a state Supreme Court justice does and why we should care if we’re never going to go in front of them? Being able to have that type of conversation. And those conversations are big conversations. So that means we have to put our folks through at least 30 hours of training so they know how to have those conversations instead of just showing up and saying, hey, vote for this person. That doesn’t do anything.
Jaisal Noor: You’re not just asking for someone’s vote.
Angela Lang: Exactly. We see people as full people. People are more than their votes. They’re more than just votes and commodities to be extracted in election season. People have very real issues, and so we want to engage around those issues. And that’s why we continue to talk to them in between election cycles, even around mental health or asking people, how has the pandemic impacted you? Do you need to be connected to resources? Or hey, we’re going through the process to get a new police chief. What are some of the questions that we can help relay and try to ask on your behalf?
So there are so many other ways to get people involved too. I think a lot of times people vote because they want to see some sort of change, but we can only do that if we see our vote through. We can’t just elect people and assume that they’re going to run with our agenda and know how to govern. We need to see our vote through and hold people accountable and make sure that we’re showing up every step of the way. And I think being able to have that year-round presence really does have that impact. More and more people are paying attention to things like the city budget. People are asking questions. Especially now in COVID a lot of things are virtual, so they’re more accessible. People are paying attention, they’re asking questions. And then people are having conversations with their friends and family as well and trying to get new voters to be involved too.
Jaisal Noor: One of the things that we witnessed the BLOC ambassadors do was ask a very simple question, but that’s actually deeply profound and people were sort of taken aback that they were being asked by strangers knocking on their door, what do you need to make your community thrive? Which is something that is sort of beyond the rhetoric that we use in our society, because we’re sort of told to take what we get and accept it and sort of pull ourselves up from the bootstraps. And –
Angela Lang: Yep.
Jaisal Noor: This idea of collective organizing is extremely foreign to our society. So talk about why you ask those questions and what that sort of goes towards.
Angela Lang: Yeah. So that’s a question that we start virtually every time, whether we’re canvassing for a Halloween event or we’re talking about politics. One, I think it’s a good icebreaker. If we’re leading and saying, hey, I’m knocking on behalf of this candidate, people may already have preconceived notions about that candidate and that conversation could end because people don’t want to engage. But asking people what they want to see is so important because there are so many times our folks have not even gotten that door knock. And if they did get that door knock, how many times were they asked a question like that? What are the issues you care about? What do you need to thrive?
A lot of times – And I’ve been a part of this in previous jobs – I’m knocking on doors and I’m saying, hey, I’m with so and so. Sign our petition. I need you to vote for here or this person and show up there. And what does it look like instead of coming to a resident with your own agenda, what does it look like to ask them, hey, what do you need? Instead of trying to get them to buy into my agenda, ask them what they need and that actually guides our work. And that is, I think, one of the reasons that we’re successful and that we’re different. It’s because we take that time to listen where maybe other people aren’t able to.
Jaisal Noor: So Black voter turnout dropped in Milwaukee in 2016 considerably, and it dropped again in Milwaukee in 2020 even though it increased nationally. And there was historic voter turnout across Wisconsin. So why do you think that is? And what are the other metrics that BLOC uses to judge its effectiveness considering that voter turnout was still down, I think some 11% by one study I saw.
Angela Lang: Yeah. I think it’s important to talk about. We had an election in a pandemic in person in April, last April, and then to know that we still had all these challenges in the middle of a pandemic. And so I’m incredibly proud of the work that we were able to do because of that. Like we were able to hold the line as much as possible. And there was a little bit of an enthusiasm gap. Not everyone was excited for Biden. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. There’s all sorts of challenges. And again, that’s why we think about democracy in a holistic sense, because a lot of the challenges from the pandemic… People may want to vote, but they’re not necessarily thinking about it if they are trying to figure out how to survive or they’re an essential worker and they’re just trying to make ends meet. You may be political, but you’re having those extra challenges.
And so for us, I hate numbers-based organizing. Metrics are incredibly important, but it’s also important to figure out what are the right metrics. For us, being able to see more people that we’ve been engaging finally come around, to see people come to us and say, hey, I want to get involved with you all, I want to be a leader. I want to do what you’re doing. There are times now we’re knocking on people’s doors who at one point were skeptical of the work that we do and are like, hey, how can I do what you’re doing? And they end up getting involved with us and our work.
And so to see more people asking questions, seeing our own people internally climb the engagement ladder. Leadership development is so incredibly important to us. And so I think by being able to talk about how people are growing and expanding their own ideas of civic engagement, how they’re having these conversations with their friends and family in a time where they probably wouldn’t have. People are having conversations about politics over dinner, and that’s not something that would typically have happened in that household. And so we need to talk about all sorts of those things, seeing how there’s more people that are starting to show up and testify at common council meetings, or at least making their voices heard. We should really be thinking about civic engagement in a broad sense. If we want to talk about civic engagement, it’s more than just voting. And I think we need to measure our metrics and our definition of success more than just those metrics too.
Jaisal Noor: This conversation wouldn’t be complete without talking about gerrymandering.
Angela Lang: Yes.
Jaisal Noor: So gerrymandering, for those that don’t know, gerrymandering is when you redistrict a political map that intentionally disempowers communities, such as in Wisconsin. Specifically Black and Brown communities in Wisconsin. And to give an example of how bad it is in Wisconsin, in 2018, Democrats won a majority of votes statewide, but they only won something like 33 out of 99 seats in the assembly. So that is a majority. So this is essentially what it looks like to have a minority rule in a country. And some would argue, I think correctly, that that was how this country was founded, and so this is a continuation of this American legacy of white supremacist rule. But so it’s just crazy to think about.
Angela Lang: Yeah.
Jaisal Noor: So explain what that looks like and what can organizers like you do against this? Is it possible to out-organize this level of rigging the game?
Angela Lang: Yeah. So for us, as much great organizing that we do, we’re not the ones setting policy. We’re not the ones actually signing the legislation or voting on the legislation that becomes policy. We can do the best that we can to push. We are also a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits around redistricting. And so we’re using all sorts of aspects. But at the same time, if we were able to out-organize voter suppression, we would’ve done it already. There’s so many talented, amazing people, not just in the city of Milwaukee, across the state and across the country. I guarantee you, if we were able to out-organize voter suppression, we all would’ve put our heads together and have done it.
And specifically gerrymandering in Wisconsin, the way it shows up and the way it impacts Black and Brown folks specifically is, take something like legalizing marijuana or raising the minimum wage. In the state of Wisconsin our ballot initiatives more or less are surveys. They’re not binding referendums, which kind of sucks sometimes. But it also can be valuable insight on what the voters think about a particular issue. All of the times that marijuana or raising the minimum wage have been –
Jaisal Noor: And the minimum wage today is?
Angela Lang: $7.50 in Wisconsin. Yeah.
Jaisal Noor: So that is not a living wage probably anywhere in Wisconsin.
Angela Lang: Right. Exactly. So raising the minimum wage, all of those things pass. Every time that they’re on the ballot, they always pass overwhelmingly, like widely popular, but yet these are also the first things that the Republican majority said that they were going to remove from the governor’s budget because they were too controversial. And so people don’t have to do the will of the people these days, they can put forth their own agenda because they’re gerrymandered into such safe districts that they can have policies that only impact Milwaukee. They can have a lot of anti-Milwaukee sentiment when it comes to policies, which tends to be very racist. And so that’s how it impacts us on a daily basis. If we want to put forth policy around criminal justice it’s really at the will of whatever the Republicans want. And that’s not how a true democracy should function, especially given how you outlined how the votes actually lined up.
Jaisal Noor: So we’ve been talking about Republicans a lot. In our next segment we’ll talk more about Democrats. But the reality is that Democrats control the White House. They control the Senate by the thinnest margin and they control the House, something they could lose if they don’t address these issues like voter suppression. And they have a proposal to do that HR 1.
Angela Lang: Yeah.
Jaisal Noor: And SR 1 in the Senate which would ban gerrymandering, which would stop these voter restrictions. And a lot of this would take place for the next election, for ’22. So it’s sort of, yeah, it’s curious that the Democrats won’t do this and the excuse that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have is that we have the filibuster, which is this rule which was actually created in the Jim Crow era to block civil rights legislation. But are the Democrats sort of shooting themselves in the foot by not using their power to defend the rights of Black voters in Milwaukee, who they rely on every election to turn out and to vote for them so they can win states like this, which are crucial to winning the White House.
Angela Lang: Absolutely. We understand that in order to have a Democratic majority you need people to turn out, which means you need to eliminate things like voter suppression. And so it’s incredibly unfortunate and a little mind boggling that Democrats have this power but for whatever reason are unable to actually wield it and to use it for something effective. And it’s going to come back, probably sooner rather than later, it’s going to come back to bite them because people have showed up. We’ve always said, we have to just vote. Even if you’re not excited for Biden, we have to do it because there’s all these things that we need to try and stop or protect. And then we actually vote for these people, people that we may not have been super excited about, but we understand our political analysis and understand the long game. And then Democrats don’t come through, and then it’s going to be so much harder.
And so I don’t understand how Democrats are going to win if people are starting to feel hopeless that, well, why should I vote, my life doesn’t change. And then on top of it, they’re still hit with more challenges around voter suppression. You’re actually limiting the ability of your own base to vote for you. And you’re limiting the reason that they will vote for you. People are going to be turned off if they keep voting and they’re not seeing any tangible results.
Jaisal Noor: All right. So we’ll have a lot more in part two, but Angela Lang, executive director and founder of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Thanks so much for joining us.
Angela Lang: Thank you.
Jaisal Noor: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.