LaTosha Brown Is Only Getting Started

The Black Voters Matter co-founder is organizing voters ahead of Georgia’s Senate runoffs, but her work doesn’t end there

Photo illustration; Image source: Getty Images for Supermajority

LaTosha Brown is exhausted after the longest election season in recent history, but she has no plans to take a breather. Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats are for grabs, and the runoff elections next month will decide which party controls the chamber. So Brown, co-founder of the organization Black Voters Matter, has been throwing herself into her work in the Peach State. The group has been holding voter registration drives ahead of the December 7 deadline to register, educating people on how to get an absentee ballot, doing socially distanced caravans throughout the state, and planning for a “Let’s Do It Again” bus tour to remind folks that the early voting period starts on December 14.

It’s a lot, and Brown knows it. But Georgia flipped blue in November for the first time in nearly three decades, thanks to the tireless work of grassroots organizers, so it’s only right to harness that energy into the runoffs. “It’s like what my grandmother said: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Brown told GEN. “We have an infrastructure in place that has been proven to work.” Ahead, Brown tells us about the challenges of the Senate runoffs, her hopes for a new South, and why organizing work must go beyond electoral politics.

GEN: Tell me about Black Voters Matter and how it works.

LaTosha Brown: In 2016, Cliff Albright and I founded the Black Voters Matter Fund and Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute. What we saw was untapped potential to really be able to change the politics of the South. The majority of Black people in this country live in the South. When you write off the South, you write us off.

We wanted to create a power-building organization that would help grassroots groups and Black communities. We focus on getting more resources on the ground to grassroots and frontline groups that are doing work. In this last election cycle, we were able to support more than 600 grassroots groups in 11 states throughout the country. We provided formal grants — anywhere from $5,000 to more than $300,000 — to various groups, depending on their size and their needs. We were also able to support them by mobilizing voters and helping educate folks about the importance and significance of this election. And we were able to connect communities with each other so they could share tools, strategies, and lessons learned.

The second thing is we wanted to help build out the capacity of leadership in the region. Many of the organizations that are doing work are led by Black women. We wanted to make sure that we were also creating a leadership pipeline by helping lift up the profile and support for them.

It was also really important to do a narrative shift. We were frustrated with how we were portrayed in the media. It seemed like we were an afterthought, and we only mattered when it came down to last three weeks before the election. We wanted to shift the narrative of who was a Black voter, their importance and impact.

Then the fourth part is advocating around voting rights. We just filed a lawsuit against the state of Georgia to have them immediately restore 198,000 voters who were erroneously blocked from the voting rolls. We also educate people around voter suppression and the need for expanding voting rights. That’s a core part of our work.

We did see the power of Black voters in the South this election season. Why did Georgia go for Joe Biden?

The work wasn’t overnight. It has been an ongoing process for more than a decade. The way I talk about community power is like electricity: Thomas Edison didn’t create electricity in the purest sense; what he created was a conduit to organize the energy and direct it. It was already there. That’s the same way I see organizing: We’re not creating power; the power is already there. This outcome in Georgia is a result of deep-seated organizing. It works. While I do certainly believe that Black folks, particularly Black women, were at the vanguard, we weren’t leading this by ourselves. There is a multigenerational, multicultural coalition that is rising up in the South and is really going to transform it.

There also was a perfect storm. We saw an environment where people were extremely frustrated. In the midst of the largest health pandemic that we’ve had in this country in more than 100 years, we had a lack of leadership in this state. We’ve not seen the kind of policy or leadership that would be able to effectively deal with Covid-19. As a result, Georgia has been one of the states that has had an unusually high number of cases. Many of our communities were disproportionately impacted. Albany, Georgia, was one of the communities that at one point had one of the worst per capita rates in the world. It has also impacted our businesses; many folks lost their jobs.

We were also ground zero in 2018 for voter suppression. It was open; it was abhorrent. Those who were bad actors, they were effective at using voter suppression efforts to get in office, but they grossly underestimated that there would be a backlash and a response to it. Our community in Georgia came out in response to that.

The last thing is you had a very divisive candidate leading the ticket. It’s one thing to be president. It’s a whole ’nother thing to be a racist and align yourself as a white nationalist. Those of us who live in the South, we are still smelling the bitter stench of what white supremacy has meant, of the burning of the bodies of our people. We can still taste the blood of what racism and white supremacy did, of the murders of our people in this community.

What challenges are you facing as the state heads into the Senate runoff elections?

The very institution of runoff elections is due to institutional racism. The history of its creation in the South was actually to give white candidates an advantage. It has its own historical barriers. We normally see in runoff elections that there’s a deep drop-off with the majority of voters, particularly in the African American community.

The second challenge to overcome is that this has been the longest election year ever. Politics has always been a factor in American life, but it has been the focal point for the past year. There’s some element of fatigue. I literally am only watching Netflix because the political commercials on TV are driving me crazy. I can’t take it. That’s also a barrier that we have to overcome.

Then, the majority of people in America cannot tell you who their senator is. It’s the most unknown, powerful position in the country. Really being able to let folks know the relevance of U.S. senators in their day-to-day life creates an opportunity, but it’s also a challenge.

You add that on top of, in between the elections, Christmas and New Year’s. Most of us check out. I know I do. Those are all things that create a particular kind of environment for the election.

How can organizers overcome these barriers?

One of the reasons a winning team’s fan base always grows after they win is because there’s a level of momentum. There was a victory based on turnout that flipped the state after 27 years. That created a wind under our wings that we can actually tap into.

And it’s like what my grandmother said: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We have an infrastructure in place that has been proven to work. This election cycle, out of all the years that I’ve worked in Georgia, I’ve never seen the kind of collaborative, collective work around civic engagement and getting people out to vote like I saw this year. There has also been a major demographic shift in the South, and that does change the political ideology of the state, because you have a larger pool of voters who are more aligned to progressive ideas.

What lessons should be drawn from the work grassroots organizations have done in the South?

Our work is around power building, not elections. You see the vicious cycle of all this energy and this work right before the election happens, and then it dissipates as soon as it’s over—you can never really build any sustainable community political infrastructure. We have to be transformative, not transactional. Our engagement can’t just be around the transaction of an election. Who’s excited to see the friend who only comes around when they want something? You have to show up for communities the way they need you and when they need you.

We also learn this in Poli-Sci 101: All politics are local. But for some reason, nobody follows this. What we’ve seen is, normally you see the resources and attention on the higher-level federal elections and, sometimes, the state elections like the governor’s race. Mighty rivers are built drop by drop. Oftentimes, it’s hard to get a community excited about presidential races when they’ve lost control of the school board or the county commission. A part of our model is also supporting folks so they can continue to win and sharpen their tools. A lot of the political organizing has been left up to political parties or candidates. The problem with that is you’re going to be limited by their agenda. We believe the political agenda should be set by the people. And so the people need to have the resources, the infrastructure, and the tools to literally be able to shape the political landscape.

A final thing people can learn is that politics is a traumatic experience for a lot of people. Our focus is not just on “let’s stop the bad thing,” but on helping people hack into the potential and the possibilities. We have to literally affirm communities. Politics has become so hard and divisive that we leave out the joy, we leave out envisioning the potential of what people can do when they collectively use their power. That’s what we try to do and integrate in our political work. It’s not about the politics—it’s about the people.

You’ve been organizing for a long, long time. It’s hard work and can be pretty heartbreaking. What’s the reason you continue to do this work every day?

This is going to be a corny statement, but it’s true. At the end of the day, for me, it really is rooted in love. I love to see people love their community so much that they organize themselves and others to help transform it. I love to see people who love justice so much that they’re willing to stand in the gap and fight for it. People who literally love this nation, who want the best for it, and so they push it and hold it accountable.

My love for humanity drives me. The politics to me are the means to an end, not an end in itself. I want to be a part of creating that world where every person — every child, man, and woman, or a person who does not identify with a gender — feels like they’re important, that they have value. They feel like they are respected, and they have a voice. That’s the kind of world I want to create.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Journalist covering politics, elections, immigration, feminism, and more. Puertorriqueña.

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