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Vote Your Voice: In Alabama, grants help grassroots organizations empower communities of color

In a cramped recording studio in Montgomery, Alabama, several rap artists, some gospel singers, a songwriter or two and a scattering of electropop artists and producers huddled around mixing boards, computer screens and microphones.

At first glance the gathering would not seem to have much to do with “voter empowerment.” But first glances can be deceiving. In fact, the power of the vote was precisely what the artists who convened in the studio earlier this year were there to harness.

The music-making sessions yielded two albums of songs being distributed on a broad range of streaming platforms designed to translate for listeners what is at stake for voters right now, when democracy is on the line. The innovative outreach effort is just one leg of a sophisticated, multipronged engagement campaign by a group called Alabama Forward, a fast-growing, homegrown organization designed to boost civic and political participation in the state by providing financial and institutional resources to grassroots, progressive nonprofit community organizations.

Alabama Forward Executive Director Evan Milligan calls producing the album, “Caregiver Road Trip,” an exercise in “translation” – a way to use things communities are familiar with, in this case music, to introduce them to new ideas.

That sort of creative approach has earned the organization a new $90,000 Vote Your Voice grant from the Southern Poverty Law Center, adding to a two-year $300,000 grant the organization received from the SPLC last year.

Alabama Forward is one of 39 voter outreach organizations across the Deep South that will receive a combined total of more than $4.6 million in funding as part of the latest round of Vote Your Voice grants.

The grants, announced today by the SPLC and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, will support voter education, registration and mobilization, especially among communities of color. The grants add to an earlier investment of more than $11 million in two-year grants awarded last year.

The SPLC has pledged $100 million to support Vote Your Voice through 2032.

Vote Your Voice is a partnership between the SPLC and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to increase voter registration, participation and civic engagement among communities of color in the Deep South. The initiative also is strengthening the field capacity of grassroots organizations through data and fundraising support and the testing of effective voter engagement strategies.

“With the recent wave of unprecedented attacks on civil rights and liberties that disproportionately target communities of color, women and people with disabilities, it is more important than ever to defend our right to vote and make our voices heard,” said Lecia Brooks, SPLC chief of staff and culture. “These grants will empower communities to get out to the polls, exercise their freedom to vote, and stand up for their right to an equal voice in government.”

Turning hope into action

Founded on little more than hope when it grew out of a meeting of progressives in 2017, Alabama Forward today has 32 member organizations, most of them representing emerging communities that have historically not received more traditional forms of support. The organizations represent Black, Latinx and Asian American and Pacific Island communities, among others. The organizations seek to mobilize new citizens, low-income families, LGBTQ+ Alabamians and young voters.

Between September and December 2020, Alabama Forward distributed more than $300,000 in technical assistance and grants to member groups and allies engaged in voter engagement and voter protection work. Between late September and Nov. 3, 2021, those groups collectively reported performing nearly 1.5 million voter engagement acts throughout Alabama, including 1.3 million text interactions, 23,000 voter registration attempts, 26,000 absentee ballot applications and 41,000 phone calls. The group’s members also knocked on more than 10,000 doors.

During the same period, Alabama Forward launched its Statewide Transformation Asset Mapping Project (STAMP), provided a series of publicly accessible Voter Activation Network (VAN) database trainings and facilitated a series of public events, including a biweekly virtual speaker series called “The Weekly Tune-Up” and a legislative summit focusing on redistricting, coalition-building and the connection between identity and movement building.

The need is urgent.

In the wake of record-high turnout among people of color in the 2020 election, Alabama state legislative efforts to limit voting – particularly targeted at Black and Brown voters – have intensified. In addition to enacting new laws designed to suppress voting by people of color and enable partisan interference in election administration, the Alabama Legislature also drew congressional redistricting maps that diluted the political influence of Black voters.

Against such obstacles, Alabama Forward draws from the conviction that underrepresented groups need year-round resources, training and collaboration to deepen their involvement in democratic institutions like voting, Milligan said.

A reason to vote

People in underserved communities also need outreach that speaks to them in a way that inspires.

“These are folks who are not coming to political rallies,” Milligan said. “They are not necessarily listening to traditional speeches, but these are the people that we need to help us save the country and to grow the country into the ideals it was founded on. If we don’t get ahead of this, if we don’t prioritize supporting these emerging voices and people coming in from the margins of society, we won’t be able to accomplish what is so desperately needed – expanding democracy.”

Angela Curry has such a voice.

And she leads a growing chorus of voices like hers. The 50-year-old Huntsville resident works for a rocket fuel company, rides a motorcycle and dreams of parachuting out of a plane to celebrate her half century. But as a Black woman who has experienced poverty, she remembers hard times when she and her husband, making the minimum wage, were raising four children and struggling to put gas in their car or pay to fix a flat tire.

Four years ago, she was sitting in a meeting, listening to well-meaning organizers who had come to her community to persuade people to get out and vote – but who, she said, exhibited more interest in dictating to people than in listening. She decided she had had enough.

“They wanted my color presence in that meeting, but not my color perspective,” Curry said. “I gave it to them anyway. I told them, you can’t be asking why people don’t want to get out and vote. You have to give them reasons to get out and vote. When you’re just trying to make enough money to put gas in your car, worrying about who is going to be next mayor of your city, say, is just not something on your mind.”

Soon after that meeting, Curry got five friends together and founded a new organization in Huntsville, United Women of Color. They bought six clipboards and started surveying people at a community barbecue. They asked if voting affected their everyday life. Overwhelmingly, the answer was no.

“So we knew that was where we needed to start,” Curry said. “We needed to show people how voting affects their everyday life.”

From the ground up

Curry launched the group with $1,000 of her own. Now it has a six-figure budget, a full-time staff, more than 100 contributing members and more than 220 volunteers. With the early help of a grant from the SPLC and subsequently from Alabama Forward, the organization has learned how to identify and apply for grants, how to text voters, how to build the bones of an organization, even how to write an orientation manual for new staff and volunteers.

Today, United Women of Color holds candidate forums and community discussions. It helps people sign up to vote and distributes absentee ballots. It has a quarterly book club to introduce community members to politics and civics and to the history of Alabama.

Conscious that people in marginalized communities tend to have limited free time, the group goes to where people are instead of asking people to come to them. It conducts surveys “so we’re addressing the needs of the community rather than dictating to them,” Curry said.

It is an organization solidly in charge of its own future but also grateful for the advice and resources from Alabama Forward and the SPLC that have helped fuel its growth.

“I have down moments quite often, but they just fuel the need to keep going,” Curry said. “We are Black women so, frankly, we’re used to oppression. We know it’s bad. That’s why we’re out here to make a difference. Eventually, something’s gonna give.”

Empowering immigrants

Micaela Oer, a program manager at ¡HICA!, an organization that advocates for the empowerment of Latinx people, including the right to vote, engages with a community member. ¡HICA! receives funding from Alabama Forward, a Vote Your Voice grantee. (Credit: Alicia Lavender)

In a library in Irondale, just over 100 miles from Huntsville, a different sort of community, composed mainly of immigrants and first-generation Americans, has been gathering on Saturdays to discuss the power of participating in civic life.

The workshops are run by another small organization given a leg up by Alabama Forward, the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice.

Founded in 2006, as the number of immigrants to Alabama from Latin America grew, the coalition was galvanized into existence to battle anti-immigrant legislation. Now, with the help of Alabama Forward, it’s using workshops to reach out to voters – and new immigrants – recognizing that many do not yet have the right to vote.

The message “is received well, because we have these relationships with the community and they trust us and they know that we are coming from a place where we want to empower community folk,” said Ana Delia Espino, the organization’s executive director.

At the workshops, run in English with simultaneous Spanish translation, the organizers provide child care, snacks and homemade cookies. They teach and hold discussions on the power of and barriers to voting, here and around the world. Participants share their own stories, and they learn about how their local governments run, about voter suppression and the history of voting in the U.S.

“A lot of people in our community, they feel pulled between two worlds,” Espino said. “They may have come here to work, but they dream of going back home. But usually, they don’t move back. For example, my parents have been saying for 42 years they are going home [to Mexico] and they have not gone back. I make the case that, we live here, we should be invested in actually defining the policies and practices that affect us and will affect our children.”

To that end, Alabama Forward has also helped the coalition learn how to register voters, how to fundraise and how to create data sets that help them build their membership, which has grown to more than 10,000.

“Investing in our community to help people who may not be voters yet is really emblematic of [Alabama Forward’s] progressive, proactive approach,” Espino said. “Because they see the future. They recognize that these communities will grow and have the potential to make a difference in Alabama in the future, and that they will become a voice in Alabama politics.”

Here is a look at the other Vote Your Voice grant recipients in Alabama this year and how they are using the funding:

Alabama Institute for Social Justice – Grant amount: $30,000

Fifty years ago, as the civil rights movement was reaping a series of legislative victories, a group of Black women in Selma, Alabama, banded together to push for equitable, high-quality child care options. Today, the Alabama Institute for Social Justice (AISJ), which grew out of that movement, is committed to achieving meaningful and sustainable systems change in support of under-resourced children and families in Alabama’s Black Belt.

Change means the power to make it. And that, particularly in the disadvantaged communities of Alabama’s Black Belt – a region named for the highly fertile, black soil, where slave plantations once dotted the landscape – means the ability to exercise the right to vote.

“Raising Black voices at the polls remains one of the most powerful tools we have available to us that can have a direct impact on the things that impact us the most,” said Lenice C. Emanuel, executive director of AISJ. “Voting is one of the great equalizers and we intend to use it to level the playing field in all areas of our lives.”

With its new grant of $30,000 from Vote Your Voice, which adds to its two-year grant last year of $100,000, AISJ is hiring community organizers to educate and register voters, and is able to buy basics, like signage, water and snacks, to make community outreach events successful. Over the past year, the group has held 26 voter registration events and four voter education sessions. It’s registering hundreds of new voters and offering rides to the polls to more than 2,500 registered voters.

“Before we received this support, we were really simply doing the best with what we had to meet the need in this particular area of our work,” Emanuel said. “However, VYV funding really elevated our efforts, allowing us to plan and have dedicated resources to make our aspirations a reality. That’s what it’s going to take, an ongoing commitment and dedicated resources to really turn things around in a state like Alabama, where statistically and historically, minorities have been outnumbered in advancing progressive change.”

The Ordinary People Society – Grant amount: $90,000

Two decades ago, an Alabama man named Kenneth Glasgow, just out of prison after serving 14 years for robbery and drug crimes, got the idea to start a revolution. Why, he asked – in an era when few did – were he and people like him, having served their time for felony offenses, told by authorities in Alabama they had no right to vote?

The state’s constitution, in fact, did not clearly include such a provision. Written in the Jim Crow era, as states across the South wrote new laws to deny Black people their standing as full citizens, the constitution did disenfranchise those convicted of felonies “involving moral turpitude,” an ill-defined category that does not apply to the vast majority of people with felony convictions.

Fueled by indignation and by the belief that people with criminal records should have an equal voice in society, Glasgow founded a small nonprofit, The Ordinary People Society, to help formerly incarcerated people restore their right to vote. In 2017, it advocated for and won passage of a bill that clarified which crimes are considered crimes of moral turpitude, ensuring thousands would no longer erroneously lose their right to vote. Until then, the determination of which crimes met the moral turpitude standard was left up to local election officials and could vary from county to county.

Along the way Glasgow became pastor of a growing ministry, and The Ordinary People Society, based in Dothan, evolved into a faith-based national organization with a mission to give people caught up in the criminal justice system a voice, to help them reintegrate into society and to increase voter engagement by bringing awareness to underserved and the most impacted communities.

This year’s Vote Your Voice grant of $90,000 from the SPLC, added to its 2021 grant of $300,000, is helping The Ordinary People Society catalyze grassroots organizers to register not only people released from jail but thousands of incarcerated people who, not convicted of felonies, can vote by absentee ballot while serving time. That includes people charged with, but not convicted of crimes, people convicted of misdemeanors and people formerly incarcerated. The grant will also fuel the organization’s efforts to advance its long-term mission of lasting criminal justice reform.

Photo at top: Volunteers for Rollin’ to the Polls, a nonprofit that engages potential voters and offers free rides to polling places in Alabama, pose at a get-out-the-vote block party. The organization receives funding from Alabama Forward, a Vote Your Voice grantee. (Credit: Zedrick Johnson)