The ground was still warm from the summer sun on the 2020 day when Shon Holsey planted collard greens on his farm in Leesburg, Georgia. But as he was laying down the rows, Holsey had a premonition he would need to plant more than usual.
When the Black farmer got a call several months later from a group called Black Voters Matter Fund asking if he had any collard greens they could use as part of a novel get-out-the-vote effort for crucial runoff Senate elections, Holsey wasn’t surprised.
Sure, the Collard Green Caucus, as the organization dubbed its effort, was a wildly inventive idea, a cheeky nod to the Southern New Year’s tradition of feasting on collard greens and black-eyed peas as a way to motivate Black voters to cast ballots in the January 2021 election in Georgia that would determine two U.S. Senate seats.
Holsey was ready for it.
The 500 bunches of collards the farmer sold to the organization helped him find a buyer for his produce. And by providing the literal raw material for the get-out-the-vote effort, Holsey and dozens of small-farm owners like him helped Black Voters Matter plant the seeds of Black power at the voting booth and beyond.
“He’s a farmer and whatever he has in his heart just goes to his planting,” Chiquita Holsey said of her husband. “I saw what he planted and I said, ‘What are we gonna do with all these greens?’ And he said, ‘I just know that somehow they’ll be needed.’ And it worked out with the caucus that we were able to be a good help.”
The sort of innovative approach that paired the organization with the Holseys has earned Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute, a division of Black Voters Matter Fund, an additional $180,000 Vote Your Voice grant from the Southern Poverty Law Center, adding to its earlier grant of $600,000 in 2021. Formed in Alabama in 2017 and now with offices in 11 states, Black Voters Matter is one of 39 voter outreach groups – four of them organizations with multistate operations – 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.
Spotlighting community needs
The Vote Your Voice grants, announced in late August, are a partnership between the SPLC and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to support voter education and increase voter registration, participation and civic engagement among communities of color across 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. The grants add to an earlier investment of more than $11 million awarded last year and more than $12 million awarded in 2020.
The SPLC has pledged $100 million to support Vote Your Voice through 2032.
Black Voters Matter calls itself a power building organization. Its goal is to plant the seeds of voting power by connecting the power of the ballot with the impact of policies on Black lives. So the Collard Green Caucus was about more than getting out the vote. It was about helping struggling Black farmers and about putting a spotlight on the lack of access to healthy foods in many Black neighborhoods.
With all its initiatives, the organization digs deep into Black communities, sharing resources, capacity and fundraising experience. But it seeks to learn as much as teach. The group understands that the small community groups it partners with are the experts in their communities.
“We know that as long as we strengthen those organizations, then our work overall for liberation and freedom for Black people becomes that much stronger,” said Wanda Mosley, national field director of the Black Voters Matter Fund, speaking while in the midst of a multistate “We Won’t Black Down!” bus tour to get out the vote for the midterm elections. True to the organization’s bold style, the bus was dubbed the “Blackest Bus in America.”
“A lot of times candidates just see Black votes as a means to an end,” Mosley said. “But the real work is not just about votes and elections. It’s about the people, the communities they live in, the issues that plague their communities and the change they want to see for these issues by building power.”
“The organizer of the organizers,” as Mosley likes to call it, Black Voters Matter shares its knowledge of how to seek grant funding, how to generate call lists, how to phone bank and how to effectively go house to house knocking on [potential] voters’ doors. The group has worked with Black sororities and fraternities distributing food boxes and with local groups battling for housing or climate justice. It has full-time staff members who live in the communities it partners with. They know when it makes sense to set up a table at a high school football game and when shifts change at a factory that is the main employer in a small town.
After a hurricane in 2018 exacerbated ongoing utility infrastructure failings that caused some rural areas of Georgia to experience rolling blackouts, even as the price of electricity surged, Black Voters Matter partnered with several local groups in Albany to unseat commissioners of the regional utility board, Mosley said. At the same time, it held forums to help residents understand their utility bills and how to seek federal resources for weatherizing their homes with new windows and better wiring, heating and insulation.
“We know that voting is one way to build power,” Mosley said. “Another way is to be able to understand issues like these utility problems. One of the reasons Black people often suffer with higher utility bills is just that their homes are not weatherized. We spend most of our time working on issues like this that are affecting people in their communities. Then we help them tell their local officials the issues they want addressed.”
Connecting voters with issues
Benton Harbor, Michigan, is far from the Southern states where Black Voters Matter was founded. But the problems plaguing the majority-Black city are sadly familiar. Deferred maintenance to the city’s water distribution system over the years has caused a water crisis there akin to the more well-known crisis in Flint or – recently – in Jackson, Mississippi. By 2021, the level of lead in the city’s water supplies had exceeded dangerous levels for six years.
Stung by what had happened in Flint, state health officials told Benton Harbor residents in September to use bottled water out of “an abundance of caution.” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also signed an executive order calling for a “whole-of-government” response, including access to free bottled water and a commitment to replace the city’s estimated 6,000 lead service lines within 18 months. But it was one thing for the governor to stand up an order and another for residents to get safe drinking water in their hands. Distribution of the bottled water lagged, even as concerns among residents grew.
That’s when Black Voters Matter stepped in. The organization had been working for several years with Abundant Life Ministries, a Black-led community organization in Benton Harbor. They helped the Ministries distribute the water. They brought in people and provided stipends for transportation costs. They delivered water to residents unable to pick it up themselves. They even brought gloves to workers handling water distribution in the cold. And perhaps most importantly, they minimized lines at distribution sites by developing an app that allowed residents to text their water needs and then access the indicated amount of water bottles when they arrived.
Marletta Seats, program director of Abundant Life Ministries, said the water crisis has been alleviated but is far from over. The state has worked to replace the majority of the lead pipes in the city but still has more than 150 to go. Meanwhile, her organization is getting residents water filters and teaching them how to install and use them.
But the work of Black Voters Matter, she said, has had lasting impact.
“The engagement in voting in the Black and Brown community has been lethargic simply because the community figures, ‘Well, we can turn out to the polls, sure. But where are the lasting policies that ensure that our people don’t suffer from the same issues that we’ve been having for years?’” Seats said. “Black Voters Matter is about getting the attention of the people in power, getting their attention before the water goes bad. Before bad things happen to a community that shouldn’t have to expect any less.
“That’s why I’m working with them, it’s because of their integrity. They support, they rally and they put in 100 percent plus. It’s extremely timely and it’s extremely necessary for the next generation to know that the fight is not over, the fight continues. And there is no quitting.”
Here is a look at the other multistate Vote Your Voice grant recipients this year and how they are using the funding:
Poder Latinx – Grant amount: $75,000
When a group of young activists founded Poder Latinx in Florida in July 2019, they jumped into the work of organizing and motivating Latinx voters fueled by the idea of embedding deep in their communities with lots of face-to-face interactions, rallies, concerts and music-filled gatherings.
Then the pandemic hit. So the small organization founded by five people had to make a quick switch. Out went the planning for rallies and concerts. Up online went innovative digital programs – art galleries and music videos highlighting the needs of the Latinx community and the importance of civic engagement. They brought in celebrities to increase clicks. Then they partnered with a comic book creator. He created a four-episode web comic series featuring his well-known Afro-Latina heroine designed to increase mail-in voting.
Now Poder Latinx is partnering with Spanish-language media giant Univision, using radio, television and streaming services to push turnout among Latinx voters.
The community Poder Latinx seeks to appeal to is multifaceted and votes across the partisan map. Poder Latinx says how people vote isn’t the point. What is critical to the organization is that the Latinx community is engaged. The SPLC grant supports its efforts to train, to build capacity and to grow its operation.
“Our approach and our strategy is to make sure that the message and the messengers are both connected to our community,” said Yadira Sanchez, the organization’s executive director. “We want to build political consciousness in our community year-round so the community knows to participate in every single election. We see ourselves as a way to facilitate that process, to reach them where they are in the language and in the ways they feel more comfortable.”
Vote.org – Grant amount: $60,000
Vote.org has partnered with former President Barack Obama, the National Basketball Players Association and WhatsApp. It was the subject of a 2018 Instagram post by Taylor Swift that helped register more than 65,000 voters in less than 24 hours. Since its founding in 2008, Vote.org has grown into the largest nonprofit, nonpartisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote technology platform in the country.
But despite its national success, the powerhouse voter registration and turnout organization has had difficulty in the past getting the funding to apply its technology and knowhow in the Deep South. Now, with the midterm elections around the corner, the SPLC is helping Vote.org increase its reach into Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.
“You are talking about states where there is a leadership that is not reflective of the population, that actively engages in voter suppression tactics, that has a history of less than fair elections,” said Andrea Hailey, CEO of Vote.org. “Often funding to do get-out-the-vote work in those states just doesn’t generate the same amount of interest. SPLC funding has helped us specifically, not only to register millions of voters in those states but to engage in deep work there and to dig in for the long haul.”
As the daughter of Indiana lawyers who led a case that bankrupted the Ku Klux Klan in that state, and as the first Black CEO of Vote.org, Hailey said she sees voting rights work as “deeply personal.”
“We have two types of people in our country right now: people who believe in a thriving, inclusive democracy and people who intentionally want to keep people from voting,” Hailey said. “I see this as continuous work to be done to make sure we have an inclusive democracy.”
Vot-ER – Grant amount: $36,000
Where do some of the most vulnerable people in the U.S. reliably seek help? At hospitals.
But while doctors and other medical professionals treat patients for a variety of ills, often what lies at the root of their problems is a lack of voice in their own society.
That is the philosophy behind Vot-ER, founded by an emergency room doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston to provide medical professionals voter registration resources they can offer to their patients.
Driven by a community of health care professionals, organizers, clinical students and technology specialists, Vot-ER programs now exist in more than 500 hospitals and clinics, where they have helped tens of thousands of Americans register and prepare to vote. The SPLC grant will go towards promoting the work of Vot-ER across the Deep South.
Picture at top: The Black Voters Matter Fund is among 39 voter outreach organizations receiving grants this year from Vote Your Voice, a partnership between the SPLC and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. Pictured, bunches of collard greens from the organization’s Collard Green Caucus, which gave away items for a traditional Southern New Year’s Day meal. (Courtesy of Black Voters Matter Fund)