Voter suppression has been on the rise throughout the country for years, but there are other ways to keep the nation’s working poor from the ballot box. The daily grind of surviving poverty itself can shut potential voters from participating in elections. In Georgia, activists were forced to confront this reality while canvassing for the 2020 elections—and still managed to flip the state and achieve record voter turnout. As part of our ongoing series about grassroots efforts to fight voter suppression ahead of the 2022 midterms, The Real News Network journalist Jaisal Noor speaks to community organizer Auburn Wideman of the group Song Power about how they helped flip Georgia blue through mutual aid and ensuring their members had their basic needs met.
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.
NBC Host: With the midterm election season heating up, tensions are mounting inside the Democratic Party and White House.
Jaisal Noor: Many observers are warning the Democrats are courting disaster in the approaching 2022 midterms. President Joe Biden’s approval rating is tanking as the administration struggles to deliver on many of its campaign promises.
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez: This is really about the collapse in support among young people, among the Democratic base, feeling like they worked over time to get this president elected, and they aren’t necessarily being seen.
Jaisal Noor: To make matters worse, since the 2020 elections Republican-controlled states have passed dozens of bills aimed at restricting voter turnout and making it more possible for partisan officials to subvert election outcomes.
Auburn Wideman: What we are seeing is just literal suppression, literally figuring out new ways to tie people’s hands to keep them from getting to the polls so that our voices cannot be heard.
Jaisal Noor: In response to this onslaught of voter suppression Democrats have done next to nothing. After Democratic senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin blocked efforts to pass federal voting rights legislation that could have protected access to the ballot, the Joe Biden White House reportedly told civil rights activists they need to quote, “Out-organize voter suppression.”
Auburn Wideman: I think it’s unfair to expect the labor of us constantly having to figure out how to get around things when we could have the federal protections that we need.
Jaisal Noor: Voting rights organizers and communities of color did out-organize voter suppression in 2020, helping Democrats notch historic wins like flipping Georgia blue for the first time in nearly two decades. One key focus of those organizing efforts was helping people meet their material needs.
Auburn Wideman: You can’t think about voting if you know that your lights are going to get turned off. You can’t think about voting if you’re thinking about feeding your kids.
Jaisal Noor: As we wind down our months-long series, supported by Solutions Journalism, examining the fight against voter suppression across the country, we speak to Auburn Wideman of the grassroots group SONG Power. We started by asking what key lessons they learned in the 2020 elections that organizers everywhere need to understand.
Auburn Wideman: I think what’s so important about SONG Power is that our theory and approach to electoral organizing is to be transformative and not transactional. And so I’ve worked on campaigns in the past, traditional Democratic campaigns where you come into town, you come into the state, and then everybody works here, and then you go. And it’s like you promise folks, you ask folks for their votes, and then you just disappear. You don’t really ask people what they need, what they’re going through, what obstacles are keeping them from voting. You’re just like, hey, show up, I think I’d be a really good person for you, vote for me. And it’s just like the election happens and people bounce. And that’s just not our MO in SONG Power, we believe in one, building infrastructure, building relationships, but being transformative in a way where we’re not coming through, like elections, we don’t just want you to vote for a candidate. We are voting for changing real material conditions, and we want to know what those conditions are for our people.
So even before we jumped into the runoff race and partnered with People’s Action in Georgia, in our South Carolina race we did a lot of deep canvassing. But deep canvassing for us was just calling people and just being like, hey, what do you need right now? COVID is going on, how are you? What access do you have? What access don’t you have? Do you need some mutual – What resources can we point you to? And we had these lists for mutual aid. After the runoff we ran a separate mutual aid campaign called More Money, More Power, where we were paying people’s electric bills. Because Georgia has some of the most astronomical energy bills in the country. And so really for us, it’s like outside of getting people to vote, what do you need? We are telling people, outside of giving us your vote, or not even us but your candidate this vote, what are you asking for in exchange? What real material changes can your vote materialize for you? And so that is where we’re coming from as far as our deep canvassing.
We really deeply care about our beloved community and building beloved communities when we’re engaging in electoral organizing and politics in this way. And so our deep canvassing is very much we call people in Georgia like, what do you need? What resources can we get you? How are you on groceries? We have these mutual aid projects going on, we can pass your name along. Some of our canvassing was just mutual aid canvassing. So while we did have a team of people out there knocking [inaudible], a majority of our canvassing was, hey, how are you? We know in this neighborhood, how resources are, this is the mutual way we have available, can we get your information? Do you need it? And just really talking to people and learning what people need.
It’s so crucial because we believe in ideas and policy over people and candidates. And so no matter who is running we always want to make sure that our people get taken care of and we know what our people need on the back end. So once these people get into office we know what we’re demanding. Because our work doesn’t stop at the election, it goes beyond that. And so it starts before we ask people to vote too, so what do you need to be able to vote? You can’t think about voting if you know that your lights are going to get turned off, and you can’t think about voting if you’re thinking about feeding your kids. And so getting to that first and then being able to push people into voting and giving people the information they need to vote after we’ve made sure that they’re okay.
Jaisal Noor: Were there any particular conversations or moments from that that you think about or that stay with you? Any particular conversations?
Auburn Wideman: I think one of my favorite moments from the runoff is just how we expect people to kind of just oh, it’s time to vote, I gotta vote. But people really are thinking about their survival and what they have going on. And I remember there was a canvasser, our canvassing team was out and they met this guy, and they were talking to him, and they were really just our mutual aid team so they were just talking mutual aid. For SONG you should throw down with us, this is kind of work we do. He was like, I’m good but I’ll pass your mutual aid information along. And then in the next couple of weeks he had joined one of our new member calls. And so even just that contact of okay, we went, we made sure this person was okay. They were good, they passed our information along, we were able to help more people because of this person. And then this person has also decided to join our organizing world and become an organizer and figure out how they can also be a part of this movement that we’re trying to do.
And so it was a lot of that, people being like, thank you so much for these resources, I don’t need them, or yes, I’ll take them. Also I can pass them along, but also what can I do to help you all steward these resources? What can I be doing to also help and move this movement and this conversation along? And so we had a lot of conversations like that. A lot of people being like, thank you so much for hearing the things that we want and the things that we need over just telling us to vote, vote, vote. And that came up a lot. And even just the kind of content we put out.
Even the emails we sent. We sent an email that was just like, we just need two seats. We also believe in SONG Power that elections aren’t the end all be all, these candidates aren’t perfect. And really trying to reframe the conversation in Georgia that a lot of people were having like oh, these people are going to save our democracy, and the Senate’s going to be so amazing, they’re going to save us. And we were just like, we just need these two seats so we can get some COVID relief. In Georgia, there’s whole swaths of the state with no medical access. At one point Georgia had more people dying per capita from COVID than they had in the entire world.
And so while people are flooding to the state and giving all this money to get on the airways and tell people to vote and we’re not. We’re taking that same money and putting it into our community’s hands by giving them mutual aid, by paying off these bills, by making sure when we go into the community we’re investing in our people, we’re investing in our businesses, we’re investing in the infrastructure of building up an actual community of people who can move politically together in the future because they’re taken care of.
Jaisal Noor: What are the biggest challenges to your work?
Auburn Wideman: I think see answer one. But the suppression. I think the idea that we’re constantly fighting an uphill battle. Like we’ll get one win to be knocked back and then have to rebuild to get another win again, like the runoff. The runoff was such an amazing feeling to win something like that, to get those two seats, to deliver something to your people, and then the next day you see that the Capitol is being besieged. And so I think it’s this idea that we are constantly having to do this uphill battle. But I think the work of trying to jump over these obstacles is so rewarding because we are bringing material change to our people. And even if we didn’t get every single thing that Biden promised, there are kids in Georgia who ate, who got to eat consistent meals because of the child tax credit being reconfigured, and the extra money that went into food stamps, and the extra money that got to Georgia because of Biden or because [inaudible] were there.
And so I think some of our biggest limitations are one, we are trying to reach our people and we are constantly being fragmented by suppression, by misinformation, by disinformation. So there’s always obstacles to jump over. It’s never as easy as just knocking doors and being like, we need you to vote in this election. We have to constantly fight. Almost like pulling every single win that we can, and we’re just constantly fighting a battle where it feels like we’re being pushed back with every win, and we have to overcome. Now we’re overcoming, this year we’re thinking of how do we overcome everything we had to overcome in 2020 and 2021 plus new obstacles? And so it’s just this constant configuring of how do we get to our people to get them to where they want to go?
And so I think that’s our biggest limitation. I think especially for SONG Power we think so big about what we can do, and we try so hard to grow our hope muscle that we don’t feel limitations of what we can do, we just feel the limitations of what people are trying to put on us. And so that is the biggest fight for us, I think, is just trying to get past those shackles and things that they’re putting on us so that we can’t do the good work that we’re trying to do.
Jaisal Noor: And of course there’s the fact that, in terms of limitations, there’s the fact that the voting rights legislation, the federal voting rights legislation isn’t going anywhere. There are no federal protections when it comes to access to the ballot anymore, really. And so talk a little bit about that, the fact that yeah, you got the majority, thanks to Georgia, but that didn’t equal voting rights.
Auburn Wideman: Yeah, I think, for me, I think it’s this idea that… It’s kind of like when a baby throws something. You don’t want to keep giving it to them because then the baby’s like oh, well that person will always do it. And when you have people in Georgia mobilizing and doing so much to overcome voter suppression, I think the idea is these same people will keep doing it. They’ll just keep figuring out how to jump over all these obstacles and figure out how to protect the voting rights on a state level without any federal protections. And I think it’s unfair to expect the labor of us constantly having to figure out how to get around things when we could have the federal protections that we need. And I think it also comes from when we talk about what we can do and what government can do, I think we have to be more honest about the entire system as a whole. And that’s what we try to do via SONG Power when we talked about the election.
Forget what you’re hearing about the election overall. Yes, we’re going to get these two senators and we’re going to have this tie, but that is not going to be the end all be all, that is not necessarily going to save us. And so we have to figure out other ways that we can begin to work it out. And I think it’s definitely unfair to ask organizations, to ask individuals to overcome what the government could do. But that’s just the nature of government and the nature of us being Black and Brown and oppressed people, we’re constantly overcoming things that the government could just do for us. That should have been one of the biggest things, getting that done, knowing what we’re fighting, knowing that democracy is hanging by a thread, knowing that these legislators were going to have it out, that should have been the focus. But I think they felt because they did it in Georgia before, they can do it again and these same people will figure it out and continue to save us so we don’t have to do the hard work of giving people what we promised them.
Jaisal Noor: So as an organization, what metrics do you use to measure success or effectiveness or your impact?
Auburn Wideman: For SONG specifically I think it’s the amount of people who we feel we’re bringing something tangible to. And a lot of our theory and approach is real material, tangible change, which is why even in the election we focus so much on mutual aid and giving people resources and making sure they’re getting something out of the electoral process that is more than just talking points. I think even with the example of the guy that we met, Devon, who we met at the doors and then he ended up becoming a new member, is how many people are coming into our ecosystem of SONG at SONG Power? How many people after we touch them are saying, you know what, I really want to figure out how to be a part of a political home, I really want to do these things? Because a lot of our campaigns are aimed at not just candidates getting into office, but building an ecosystem where we’re training up people to run campaigns to do this work in their own communities on their own. That is the whole foundation of what our C3 arm does, which is finding our people, training them up so they can become organizers, activists, leaders in their own communities.
And so that is our same thing with SONG Power. Going into the communities, doing our electoral work, but how many people are we not just getting to vote but who are coming back into our ecosystem to throw down with us, be a part of our chapters, show up at our events, and go farther beyond the work of just voting? Because that’s what we believe in. Everything goes beyond voting, that’s not where we end our work. And so how many people are still rocking with us after the election period, and what that looks like is a really big key indicator for us. Of course, doors knocked, and text sent, and conversations had, like in a traditional organizing campaign, but a lot of it is how many people are we moving from just general I’m going to vote to being a part of the SONG infrastructure too? I want to be trained up, I want to throw down, I want to come through and fuck shit up the SONG way. How many people are coming into our ecosystem like that is a really big measure for us.
Jaisal Noor: And I also wanted to ask you what you’ve learned with the lessons you’ve… And you’ve spoken a lot about this, but the lessons that you’ve learned that would be relevant for other communities? Because there’s a lot of communities that are facing the same sort of obstacles that you’re facing in Georgia. What are the big lessons you’ve learned, and what do you hope to share with other organizations?
Auburn Wideman: That’s really good. So SONG, we’re based in Georgia, we’re a regional org, so we cover the entire South. I actually live in South Carolina, and I am from Charleston, South Carolina. And South Carolina is like Georgia 10 years ago. People are trying. It’s still very red but there are a lot of pockets for opportunity. And I think what we have done in Georgia and tried in South Carolina, we are actually trying more in South Carolina and North Carolina. Because what we’re learning is that one, we have five prongs in our transformational versus transactional organizing theory, and one of them is electoral organizing is all year long and not just during campaigns. So the work that we do is not just for people to vote, but for people to work all year long creating these civil minded, voter-like behaviors, getting people more politically involved.
Two is the local. Instead of doing a trickle down effect in politics, things need to trickle up. You have to get people locally involved for them to then be able to be like okay, I can think now about my state rep, or their individual local problems, local issues are much more important than what’s going on in the national news. And knowing what people’s pain points and issues are in their local vicinity is really important.
Three, we believe in mutual aid and building beloved community. Deep canvassing is so important because you need to know what people want and what people really need before you can tell them to move for these things. Sometimes I think candidates’ campaigns have it in their minds like oh, this is what the people want and I’m going to run for that, without actually hearing what the people want and need, and that’s so important to figure that out.
And really just being transformational versus transactional, building infrastructure, building people power, building organizational power like political education, giving people things to do, giving people a space to come together and build and congregate together, and build community so they can move as a political force. All the things that are foundational to the work we’ve done in Georgia that can be done anywhere. Really just understanding your neighborhood, your people and what they want, and then you can move however you want. But in Georgia I have learned so much about locality and really just understanding how to reach people and talk to people.
And the same here in South Carolina, people forget… Like in Georgia during the runoff race for instance, a lot of people spent money on digital ads not realizing that a great percentage of Georgia doesn’t have broadband access. It’s a rural state.
So knowing the local feel of your place, how people are connecting, how people are talking. We do a lot of organizing on WhatsApp because we have a very strong Latinx community, very strong language justice approach, and so a lot of our people are on WhatsApp. So just really learning who your people are, how to meet them and where to meet them, and what they want. And I think that is very central to building a campaign or to building transformation and finding your people in the margins. We always say our people are in the margins, our people are Black, Brown, queer, live in the South, live in rural areas, those people are not your mainstream voters that are going to be in your voter file. We are looking for our people in the margins and bringing them into the mainstream via SONG, SONG Power, and the work that we do.
Jaisal Noor: And yeah, it’s interesting you mentioned South Carolina is Georgia 10 years ago, because in the last 10 years Georgia has really transformed in terms of political power, the balance of power has changed. And I think that speaks to the voter suppression, because the system evolves. It’s constantly evolving to maintain the current power structure. But I know you said that SONG Power is a newer organization. Do you have thoughts on what that, I mean I guess decades long fight, but especially in the last 10 years, what changed in Georgia to make this possible?
Auburn Wideman: I think what changed in Georgia was honestly the work done around the ACA [Affordable Care Act]. So 2014, 2016, before people were even thinking about Georgia in that way, there was a lot of organizing around getting people just to buy into ACA. Getting folks to be like ACA is out there, your state reps are not trying to bring it to Georgia, they’re not trying to let you have it, this is what it could do for you, and this idea of organizing around issues and getting people involved around issues. Like medical care, healthcare access really matters a lot in Georgia to all people, but especially Black and Brown people. They were able to be like okay, you need ACA, you need medical access. Are you registered to vote? Because this is your way you should be able to get your voice heard on this particular topic.
And then out of that, Fair Fight Action and Stacy Abrams, and so this idea people who have been organizing on the ground in Georgia for decades, SONG, Fair Fight Action, other orgs like that, New Georgia Project, which are newer but still have ties to organizations that have been organizing in a very grassroots way is what has allowed Georgia to be able to tip the balance of power. What we’ve learned and know in our Southern states is that the belief is these states are red and will never be blue. So I live in South Carolina and I try to tell people like oh my God, South Carolina could be blue. They’re like, how could it possibly? That doesn’t make any sense. And it takes a lot of convincing people one to one very locally, no, your voice matters, you need to register to vote.
And tying things to issues instead of people, instead of politicians, and issues that people actually care about was the groundwork of getting people into the system and getting people to vote, and that was able to build into a groundswell for Georgia. And that’s what I think it’ll take in other places. Finding people in the margins, finding creative ways to reach people. SONG, before we had SONG Power, the way SONG got into electoral organizing was that we had a very strong abolitionist view on our politics. And we were trying to figure out how do we get into the jails? And what is going on here? Why can’t voting happen in jails? They found out voting can’t happen in jails because you can’t record people in Georgia voting, jails have cameras everywhere.
And so we started ordaining people as pastors so they could go into the jails and talk to people, because who can go into the jails freely? Pastors. Ordaining people as pastors to go into the jail and get people registered to vote. Because as long as you haven’t been convicted and you’re just sitting in county jail, you can vote. These people can get ballots, their voices can be heard. So finding where your people are, how can you access them, being creative, being able to not be confined by traditional or what you feel might be political work, we are very outside of the tradition, we do whatever we want, we say whatever we want, and we’re very authentic to our people.
So I think that in Georgia it was the work of people doing the work for years and years and years, really it’s the work of registering people, convincing people to vote, mobilizing people, persuading people. And it is not an overnight thing. You cannot register 300,000 people in four weeks. But you can, over the course of elections, you can get people slowly to be more into elections when they’re locally based. When you know that if I vote for this state rep, these things are going to happen for me. And so really being able to tie issues to people and getting people to galvanize around issues that mean something to them I think is the first step to being a Georgia. Because that is what happened in Georgia. It was an issue that they could get people to organize around that wasn’t people as… It wasn’t about Obama or anything, it’s just like, I want healthcare access, how do I get healthcare access? I need to be able to vote these certain people in who have these ideas and build on that.
Jaisal Noor: I just want to be clear about the organizing work you do. Do you target… Like I know some of the other organizations that do deep canvassing, they’ll go into Trump country, they want to target everybody. And they want to deep canvass Trump supporters, they want to canvass people with Biden signs, it doesn’t matter what their political perspective is, but they still want to deep canvass. Is that your approach? Or are you just targeting communities that are already of color and that are already sort of in the same areas?
Auburn Wideman: Mostly our people. So at our South Carolina campaign when we did deep canvassing, we did target [inaudible]. Some of them were more of our persuasive universes of the suburban educated young women. But in Georgia what we did was actually, we didn’t even pull a voter file in Georgia. We had a database of Georgia folks from SONG that have been a part of SONG in some way of like 30,000 people, and those were our people that we called to deep canvass. Those are people we knew probably wouldn’t be in the voter file, more than likely a lot of our folks don’t necessarily believe in voting or buy into voting in the same way. And we knew that with those numbers on our list that just calling and checking on our people who we already had in Georgia for deep canvassing was going to be our margin for us.
And so with Georgia, in the runoff race we did only target, as far as deep canvassing, our people. And then when we partnered with People’s Action we talked to a more diverse group. But when we did our own separate deep canvassing it was us calling our people, because we knew that those were the people that weren’t going to be touched by the Democratic Party, that weren’t getting the direct mailers, that weren’t being targeted via ads because they were outside of the Democratic system. And so we knew that calling our people, deep canvassing our people in that way would help us be over the margins in our numbers that we were projecting.
Jaisal Noor: That was Auburn Wideman of the grassroots group SONG Power, which played a key role in helping Democrats win Georgia in 2020, talking about the key strategies they used to turn out voters and the important lessons they learned for organizers in the upcoming elections. Go to therealnews.com for our entire series on how grassroots organizers in key swing states are preparing for the upcoming midterm elections. For The Real News, I’m Jaisal Noor.