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LaTosha Brown - Civic Engagement and Community Involvement

LaTosha Brown

Civic Engagement & Community Involvement

The first event in our Virtual Discussion Series was hosted with LaTosha Brown, a political activist and the co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund. We spoke to LaTosha at a pivotal point, right as COVID-19 began to spread further across the United States and the severity of the situation became clear. The day we spoke with LaTosha was the day of the heavily criticized Wisconsin primary election which went ahead even as many leading epidemiologists warned against holding the election. Our discussion, held amongst the backdrop of so much political upheaval, focuses on civic engagement, community involvement, political integrity, and much more. We are at an epochal moment in American history and LaTosha helped to show us the way forward

Transcript of our Virtual Event hosted April 7, 2020. Video found here.


LB - LaTosha Brown | BP - Bridget Provost | DR - Daniel Russell


BP: Hi, everyone, and welcome to Leaders in Lowell's new virtual discussion series. Today, we're lucky enough to be speaking with co-founder of the Black Voters Matter. Fund and political activist LaTosha Brown. Thank you so much for being with us today LaTosha.

LB: I'm really happy to be here. Thank you for hosting these discussions. We need community more than ever now.

BP: Would you mind giving us a little intro on who you are and what you do?

LB: OK. Sure will. So I like to tell people that I am an organizer. And what does that mean? I organize people, resources and ideas. Part of my life ever since my early 20s, I knew that it was really important to have people engaged around issues in their community and one that you needed to actually help folks understand what those issues are, to really be able to give some kind of call of action and really telling them what they could do.

And then three, try to find ways of creating these mechanisms for them to get involved and get engaged. And so on some level, my entire adult life. That's what I've tried to share information, try to get people enfolded an idea, and then also try to create some vehicles wether it is campaign or organizations for folks to be involved in. And so my work with black voters matter in 2016. I, along with Cliff, Albright, co-founded the organization because what we wanted to do is to work in communities and oftentimes or overlooked and most vulnerable in the South, in the deep south, black community in the deep south and actually work and work together to really organize grassroot groups and be able to provide some resources and support for them as they were working to build power.

BP: That's fantastic. So do you find that a lot of young people become involved in your organization?

LB: Actually, yes. You know, it's really interesting. I think it's. I came to this work as a young person. I came to this work in my early 20s. I did not know what I was doing. I'm not even clear if I really know what I'm doing now. But something is working. I know a little bit more than I did then.

So I think part of it. Even for young people, young people that are listening to this, like there is no exact science in how to be organizer. Being an organizer means that you organize you organize people towards an action. You go in a particular direction to be engaged on around a particular kind of issue. And I think part of what's really important, I can always tell good organizers is they believe in what they're organizing around. Right.

So it's not just the activity. It's actually helping people understand to feel your passion, to really understand why you're interested in something and want to learn more. I mean, oftentimes that's what happened to me. You know, if I see someone that's really, really into a book, I want to know, what are you reading? Or if I hear if I'm on the subway or I'm somewhere and somebody playing music on their their earphones and they just like jamming and they're just grooving. I'm always wondering, what is it that makes you move like that? Why do you like that song? What song is it? And I think that's part of human nature. Part of human nature is that we are very social creatures, even in the midst of the social distancing. You know, how we're created as social creatures. And I think organizing actually is the tool to use the best of that. What is it that helps me to be able to connect to other people?

What is it that I'm so passionate about and that I believe and that I want other people to know and be a part of whether that's a movement or a campaign? And so on some level, my entire life, the kind of work that I've done is really being able to the passion that I feel I'm very passionate about. I want human beings. I want all human beings to have a quality of life. I want people to enjoy life. And so whether that's health care or whether that's criminal justice reform, whether it's education, I find those things that really attached to my passion and really work very hard to do those three things.

One, to educate people around that issue, whatever I'm passionate about, two to enfold them. What that means is there's a little bit different than "I've got to convince You". You know, sometimes I'm trying to convince you like a pushy sales person who wants a pushy sales person. Right. But if that salesperson can actually show you the features, let's say you're going about car features of the car and really sell you on the car and then leave the decision up to you.

Then you feel more powerful. You feel you feel like you've got more choice. And so part of being a good organizer is not trying to convince people, but to really have a vision, be so familiar with the information around it, so passionate about it, that people are enfolded in the process, that they want to learn more, that they want to be a part of it. And I think the third thing is always having somewhere for people to go.

Like, what's the action? What is the opportunity? What can I do? Okay. Now, I found out about this issue. I really want to support it. I want to help. Now, what do I do? And so I think that both are like the three biggest pieces that I can say after 20, 20-something years of organizing that I've actually learned from what it takes to be a good organizer.

DR: So on the day of the South Carolina primary, I was watching MSNBC all day and I saw you a lot on MSNBC and on Joy Reid's show and I thought you definitely did a great job convincing people to be part of the process rather than trying to get someone to vote for a specific candidate. And so how do you think that that was happening right now with the pandemic is going to be affecting the November election, and part of the primaries that are happening even like today's primary in Wisconsin?

LB: You know, I think there's layers to this. And I think part of what I'm hoping with the people who listen to this podcast that we recognize that this is a moment that we need democracy more than ever.

This isn't a moment that we say let's suspend democracy. No, this is a moment that we need democracy more than ever, because we're talking about a complete collapse in many ways of the economic system. We want to make sure that there's equity and parity and fairness in this process of who gets help. Right. That comes out of this. After we come out of this crisis. We also want to make sure we're seeing it right now. How is it that we love to brag that America is the wealthiest country in the world and is the most ill prepared?

You know, here we are three weeks out and you still have hospitals saying that they don't have enough tests. That is incredible. If we think about it, it is ridiculous. It is incredible. But it is also symptomatic of a kind, it's symptomatic of a couple of things. One of the leadership that we have now to also around how we allowed we've advocated our power and just allow the market to regulate itself. Well, we see how that's working.

Right. And then I think three for people, half the population of America are not engaged in the elections that we've got to take on. The constitution says other people, we the people for the people. It doesn't say we the parties or we the candidate or we the stock market. It says we the people. And so I am hoping that a couple of things that we look at right now. One, I hope that first and foremost, aided by this listen this I wish you wellness. I pray that your family is protected and will in this moment.

That's what's critical and key right now. Also, being a good organizer is meeting people where they are. And so where people are at this moment is that we are feeling some sense of anxiety and some fear about our job, our livelihood, our health, our families and all of that we're dealing with. Right. And so part we've got to acknowledge that when we're doing this work and also help people to understand that the outcome of this particular crisis, that politics is going to shape the outcome of it.

It's shaped around who gets resources. It will shape how fast the government responds. It will shape whether the government responds or not. And so in light of that, we also got to have these conversations that there is an election coming up in November.

And it is critical, more critical than ever for you to participate. And so what does that mean? That means in many places right now where we're at home, we're particularly students. I really want to do this call to action for students.

You know, we at our computers, we've got our cell phones. We've got Wi-Fi. Most of us have a lot of us have have access to Wi-Fi. We cannot stop with our activism. We've got to take our activism, like from the streets. We've got to bring the streets on the screen. And what does that mean? That means that we should be flooding the congressional offices from our senators to our representatives right now, specifically around demanding that the commute that communities are the first priority, not the stock market, but the people of America are the first priority, the second thing that we can do is we can actually create political networks, we can create networks and talk to each other.

You know, this isn't the moment that since we're all isolated like we're social creatures. It is really important you all for us to have these discussions. We don't always have to think the same or have the same ideas, but we do need to talk to each other. And so I am hoping that if they're youth organizations or leaders that are listen to this, host some conversations, hosts your own fireside chat hosts your own Zoom meetings, whatever that is. But so that you can have some conversations around these critical issues that were deal with, like health care, the economy, safety, even education.

I'm sitting here and I'm thinking about here we are in in a country that we have some of the most resourced institutions in the world. Why don't we have a tele-education system? Right. Why don't we have a telemedicine system? But as young people, I think that this is a moment I want to push this. I think this is a moment to tap into your radical re-imagining of America. That when come out of this. We won't be the same. The question will be, will we be better?

And so. Or worse? And so I am hoping that we take this opportunity to take care of ourselves now in the moment, but to also start thinking and having conversations so that we are literally forcing, our elected officials to respond very differently so we won't ever be in this circumstance again.

BP: Right. So you've talked about the young people being involved and things like that. So how do you think specifically when we come out with the best ways are for young people to take charge and make change even in like a whole new society, that money will come out of all this?

LB: I think young people should be having conversations now because I think. Let me let me say this. I don't think that there's anything special with being twenty five. No more than I think especially being 70. I think it's really based on who you are as a person and how you're cultivating your belief system. So what I mean by that is there's nothing. I mean, there is something special about our different ages. I understand that. Right. But but there's nothing that makes you novel because you're old or you're young.

What makes you important is that you care enough about the issue, that you educate yourself and that you're willing to engage others and take leadership. That's what makes the difference. And so given that, I am hoping that a couple of things happen now and when we're seeing that we'll come out of this crisis, because in some ways it's kind of an oxymoron to say, as I'm saying it like "we come out of this crisis." I don't know where it will come out of this crisis. I think we'll just transform. We'll just evolve. I will evolve to the next phase. But when hundreds of thousands of people will be victims, to die, this is what this is going to change. This is going to change our country in many ways. And so I think what we should be doing now is just like you all a host, I'm really proud of you all for really taking a leadership, stepping in. We need young folks to step in these spaces, young people who are grounded in history, who are grounded in these issues to take leadership.

It is clear that we need some new leadership on all levels in this country, on the on the local level, on the state level, on the federal level. I am not saying this in any way to be partisan. I am saying that it is unacceptable that right now in Wisconsin, you've got people waiting in line for hours to fear whether they will get sick or not. And I can guarantee you it's probably very likely that someone is going to get exposed to the virus.

It does not need to be exposed to the virus because we don't have our stuff together as a country. And so I think there's a number of things. One, I'm hoping that young people are organizing right now online. I mean, you've got this social media thing down pat. Right. In this Internet thing down pat, use it as a platform to leave off discussions. Use it as a platform to support each other. Use it as a platform to really to start driving the issues.

We're at the first time in America's history in the last 40 years. What we have a young people have now eclipse the baby boomers. You all have the largest potential voting base. The challenge is that young folks are not voting at the same rate as your older counterparts. And so I think this is a moment right now that I know in the context, of just leaders saying "you got to vote is your responsibility. No, you need to vote because we want to live" Right. Someone has to literally make it that critical and key.

And so the young people that are listening to the young people in your network organize, organize your friends right now, organize each other, have these conversations. Right. I do think that as we're moving forward, I want to see more young folks run for office. You, take this power like literally take the reins, run for office. And in doing that, talk to people now.

Find your mentors. They've got tons of some folks got time on hand that they may not have in a couple of months that you can actually get a hold do so by literally find a political find a political home. I got three things. Find A political home. You should join some organization. I don't care what it is with some organization that is helping to keep you in the know join and find a political home. Secondly, find a mentor. Find someone who is doing something that you are interested in learning more about or interested in doing that is actually going to help you develop and sharpen your leadership skills.

Find someone to help you with that. And third. Do the work. What does that mean? That means that we've got to, Actually, we can't be afraid right now. We're in this almost. And we've never experienced this beautiful. None of us have experienced this before. I think this is the prime opportunity for young people to really, really be able to make a mark and to help it in ways of shaping how we go forward.

We need you need your voices. We need your energy. We need your insight. One of the things that I was always impressed with with the students I work with at Harvard is that the amount of insight in how clear young people this generation is very clear around what exists, analysis of the parties, whether is Republican or Democrat. Your analysis of the systems. And so let's take that and translate that potential into power. I think that that's the most important thing.

DR: And you're talking about translating this into real power. What do you think are the biggest issues that we can try to be focusing on to organize around as we get closer to November even while this is happening?

LB: Well, the one thing that we have done that we have tried to skate around, and skate around and it's right in our face. Is health care y'all? It's health care, right now there are 32 million people without health care in this country.

Right. And regardless of what political position you want to take, the truth of the matter is it is becoming very apparent that my neighbors health actually can impact my own. No. And so I not only want to be healthy, I want my neighbor to be healthy. I want the country to be healthy. Because when we are collectively healthy, the healthier. The population is healthier. We all are. And so some reason I don't think that that has has has been in the public discourse.

I think we're forced to see that we're forced to really reckon with the fact that we're interconnected and how and how interdependent we are. And so I am hoping that center in this, the largest pandemic health crisis that we've ever experienced in our lifetime will open up a space for us to have honest conversations about the need to recall this health care system, the need for people to have access to quality health care, the need for us to have affordable and quality health of hospitals and clinics.

That's what I am hoping that we are able to lead that conversation on, since it is so pertinent near us right now. And some of this we've got to strip away the politics. No, we've gotten so used to some of the even the political pundits and I'm a pundit myself on on several shows. But listening to kind of these these sound bites, that it's almost been very difficult. You're either Republican or Democrat.

And we believe this and We believe that, and were not really have an honest conversation about just fundamentally, I don't care who you are. There is a major health deficiency in this country as it relates to as it relates to hospitals, affordable care, and people have insurance. So I am hoping that the first thing that we really talk about and go deep in is around health care. The other two issues, I think is really important. I think we see that now as well is economically.

We've got to deal with those who are most economically vulnerable. What's so interesting is we recognize that when those who are most economically vulnerable, the workers in this country aren't able to work, things shut down. Right. And and it's ironic that they're the ones that are most vulnerable and they're the ones that are taking the biggest hit right now. And so I think it's really important for us to have a conversation and to really think about policies that there's more parity there's more equity around how we think about wages and how we think about income and economic opportunity.

And I think the third thing which is really relevant is I mentioned it earlier. What are we gonna do about education? Like how are we going to you know, with the majority of I would anticipate that the majority of America's students are going to be out of school for the rest of the semester. And I know that they're wonderful programs that people are putting online right now. But if we're honest, we know that we're not prepared for this and that at best, people will be able to just kind of maintain some engaged in the education system.

But, but literally, our students going to be at least a half year in many ways behind. And so there's an opportunity for us to really figure out how can we make a quantum leap? What do we need to do and prepare so that we can always have, regardless of what the circumstance is, that we always have access to quality education for our students. And whether it's tough love of tele education or whether it's in their physical space, I think, you know, the the gift of this tragic moment is that it is forcing us to slow down.

I hope that is also allowing us to be reflective. An imaginative and be a little bit more honest about where we are and what we need to go to the next level.

BP: You know, I definitely agree, especially being in school right now, even doing online school. You're not getting the same experience. Definitely. I can see all of us being a little behind entering college and during high school in different grades. But kind of putting that aside and telling us a little bit about the Black Voters matter fund and how you do engage everyone to make sure you're involved.

LB: Absolutely. So why vote is matters of power build an organization? We were we're working in eleven states, mostly in the south, and we call it two up south states. We have Michigan and Pennsylvania so we're working in, I hope I get this right. I remember Alabama, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Michigan and Pennsylvania. I think I did it. And those are all the states that we're operating on.

Our our approach is to support. We're not trying to do Black Voters Matter chapters, what we call Empire Building. We have no interest in that. Our contribution is we think of ourselves kind of like special ops is to come in and be reinforcement to the folks who are on the ground that do this work day in and day out and be able to provide some reinforcement and support for them. So what does that look like, Brick? The three big buckets.

One, we provide grants and support to grass wetland groups that are in these states. And so they can be a small organization that could be a towards a might be a civic engagement group. It may be a group that's been an issue organizing. But as long as they are doing some kind of power building work, they can apply and get support from us. So we provide grants. We also provide support around tools, whether that's doing text messaging campaigns, whether that's how you set up a phone bank.

How do you do canvassing? Right. Those kinds of things like specific tools that they can work with. And then the third piece is that we lift up the stories of those communities and ship the narrative. So oftentimes, particularly in rural areas in the south, there's this idea that, oh my God, everything is bad and everybody's poor and all these, you know, and it's all these stories that that make these communities seem as if they're powerless.

And there's really some really good work in many of these communities. There really is some transformative work happening. And so we also lift up we use there, too, as a way to lift up lift up our work. One of the things that we we can't do right now, which is one of my fun, which I think is my one of my favorite parts of our outreach work, is we have the blackest bus in America that we actually take around the road.

We have a big black voters matters bus that we usually have a lot of music and culture. When we get in the communities, we go and ride around on a bus and we connect with voters and usually have rallies and different activities around. So we don't have the bus on the road right now visibly because we can't. But we are cooking up some things where we're going to get back in cyberspace. So y'all listen was real, real soon in cyberspace because cause can't stop wont stop, that's that's our phrase can't stop, won't stop.

So that's kind of what we do. Ultimately, what we are doing is connecting and strengthening the capacity of grassroots groups on the ground. However, as they determine that they are building power, sometimes it's a young group, a youth vote or college groups that want to organize themselves around a particular issue. And so that's the work that we do in black voters.

DR: Are there any experiences, that you went through when you were younger or right now that really helped you on your path to founding Black Voters matter and all these different, all the work that you're doing now? What led you on that path to get here?

LB: You know, thank you for asking that question. You know, it's weird what popped up in my head when you said The question, I thought about three particular or three particular quick stories about you. The first one is when I was in kindergarten. I think it was in nineteen seventy six. I noticed as long before I was born I was in kindergarten I believe, and there was a we will have this old soul train with real big then and we had these Soul Train lines and I had I was a little skinny child but I have a lot of hair.

I always had a lot of hair. So I had this big afro and I was going down a soul train line and I felt, I felt terrible. I felt like I look like a lollipop because I did. And I was a skinny girl with a big afro. Right. And so I was so embarrassed. And I didn't feel cute. I just felt horrible. I felt like a lollipop, I do want to do it. And as I was getting down this soul train line, there are two women that's stood on the side of it. There was two adults who were watching us and they kept they were like, oh, she's so cute. Oh, how nice you is cute as can be. And I remember I heard it. And it was like I got a superpower. And then I started out probably with the other extreme and embarrassed myself because I think I was doing splits and everything. And in the next five minutes going down the lane. I raised that incident because that incident really to this day when I'm having a bad hair day, I like today when I'm having a bad hair day, I think, and draw strength from that moment.

Why? I think it's important that hope and encouragement is powerful is a powerful thing. And so part of our work, the part about work, we've been very intentional to not just go and organize around all this is the problems. This is what we should do, but really organize from a place of power and love and hope. And so we start from the framework of hope because we think that that can drive people differently. On the second quick, quick story was that another story was that I was.

I was working at a clothing store. I was in college. I was working at a clothing store. And I would read books. And every time I read books, I would share the books with the customers in the store to the point where they would ask me, what did you read today? And this particular day, I'd read this book called Before the Mayflower and found out some amazing things around about the enslavement Africans and the slave trade that happened here that I'd never been exposed to.

And in the process, there was a woman that heard me and she said, you know, maybe you should think about being an organizer. Up until that point, I had never heard the term that or if I heard it, never stuck with me. And I was like, what is I don't understand. She's like, you know, you have a certain way of really sharing your experience with people. People want to hear. They want to learn.

And, you know, you should just talk about. And so ultimately, fast forward as she recruited me. And I wound up that's what was my first organizing project I did. And led to this. That leads to the third quick story, which was there was a older woman who I was trying to organize for for to sign a petition. And every day I would go to a house like consistently I would go to her house to get her to sign a petition.

I went to her house to get her to sign a petition. And she would only look at young and restless and would ignore me, would not sign my petition. Right. And so I kept going over there to one day. I just I would one day I was like, she not go sign it, but I'm just gonna go talk to her because i've been seeing her. So I went in and I talked to her.

And while I'm sitting there, she asked me, she's like, where's your paper for me to sign. I was like What do we what do you what do you mean? What does your paper sign? And she said the paper the paper that you always bring, girl, you got to have your papers. I can sign it. So I look at my paper, I got it in my bag and I gave to and she signed it. What was powerful is that she had so much influence in that community that the next meeting we had, not only did she come, but she had organized 20 other people from that community to come.

Twenty 20 plus people to come. And I'll never forget. She said, you know, one thing you've got to always remember is let people know that you care about them first. I'll never forget it. And so all three of those stories that.

The first story is really about, I think, the role of encouragement and inspiration and hope. The second story is really about how important it is, how it is a gift to be able to share in people wanting to to hear what you've got to say, that that if you experience that, then that that probably is pointing you to really be a leader and really think about how you show up in the world. And then the third part is being a good organizer. It was always centering people first. where they are. And when people feel that, then they're open to hear the other things that you work with. So all of those kind of little, short stories are all part of the shaping of how I think about organizing and how I hope to show up.

BP: So obviously you do. You have all these great stories and things like that. How when you taught at the Harvard program, did you incorporate that? How did you incorporate the experience you've had with leadership, with different people into your course?

LB: Oh, I bring all of who I am, hopefully in those spaces, so at Harvard. What I did is we did a lot of singing, I sing, I'm surprised I did't sing on this call. Because I do believe culture, and I talk about it in the south. Cultural will eat strategy for breakfast. You can have the best plan, right? But if it is not in alignment with people's culture, it will eat.

It will each will strategy for breakfast. I can tell you. Right. The second thing is, I think sometimes we look at this work and organize and in politics, as hard work and as policy when at the center of all of this is People right. And so part of the work at Harvard, part of my group and we're going to do it at Harvard and continue to do is really engaging the students. I am as interested in learning about what you all have to say and how you see the world.

You know, as as much as I am interested in sharing, I love to hear the perspectives of young people and students in particular around where do you see the world going? What is your radical re-imagining of America? Right. What does it take? What do you envision? You know, that is that makes me excited. So part of even my work at Harvard. I incorporate my own experiences, incorporate my stories. I incorporate culture in specific lessons because I'm teaching on specific lessons.

But I also make sure that I'm creating and incorporating space so that I'm going to this process being shaped and I'm learning and I'm actually being able to absorb and it sharpens me. Let me just tell you things. Keep me on my toes.


LB: Thank you. And thank you all for being a light. [Singing] “This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine, Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine”. Be a light.

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