Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the chair of the Department of African American Studies and the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies was joined on stage by LaTosha Brown, an award-winning organizer, philanthropic consultant, political strategist, and jazz singer. Brown is the co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, a civic engagement organization, and principal owner of TruthSpeaks Consulting, a philanthropy advisory consulting firm. Additionally, Brown is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics where she also teaches graduate courses.
Glaude and Brown were introduced by Imani Perry, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies and faculty associate in the Program in Law and Public Affairs and Gender and Sexuality Studies. Perry contextualized 2020 as “a challenging political season in the throes of what may be the most consequential election cycle of our lives” in which, like every cycle, much of the talk in the news media about black voters as the “most consistent base of the Democratic party” lacks the necessary nuance to capture the “spectrum and complexity of black communities and constituencies.”
In response to Glaude’s first question about how the idea of BlackVoters Matter Fund came about, Brown opened the event with a song called “Keep Your Eye On The Prize”. “My work comes out of that song,” Brown explained as she recounted her early life in Selma, Alabama, where despite not having government on their side people had a “hope and a faith and a belief… in themselves and in their own power to organize.”
Brown described how her experience organizing in the South shaped her current projects. While Black Voters Matter Fund was founded in 2016, “this has been work that’s been thirty years in the making,” Brown said. She explained how her experience organizing both within and outside government revealed how black voters were constantly taken for granted and kept out of electoral politics by those in power. While her interest in organizing black voters was “accelerated” by Donald Trump’s campaign in 2015 and 2016, the “erosion” of black Democratic organizing in the last twenty years drove Brown’s decision to start her own organization.In developing Black Voters Matter Fund, Brown sought to create a mechanism that focused on power-building on the local level in the South to sustain black voters’ power over time. To do so, Brown discussed how “we’ll show up differently” than other mobilization groups by working 365 days a year and investing in local and down-ballot races that are frequently overlooked. This strategy, Brown says, would allow them to “build independent black political infrastructure” that operates outside the interests of the Democratic party and persists beyond a single election cycle.Homing in on the importance of focusing on organizing in the South, Brown emphasized the difference between representation in government and changing the system of power that disenfranchises black voices.
Brown explained that “we think that if we’re getting representation in those positions, that in some way that is going to make that system metamorphize, when that’s not the case. The system will function as the system is designed to do. Ultimately, what we have to do is really have a much greater analysis of how structural racism is embedded in these systems, that it’s not just about the replacement of a face or putting a person in office, but we have to seriously restructure how things are happening.”
“The challenge with politics in America is not just representation. It is also the actual structure of how power is distributed, how resources are distributed.”
Echoing the importance of the intransigence of structural power, Glaude noted “the blueprint is what it is and the country has been built true.”
The challenge thus becomes how to shift the power structures to empower black Americans. Brown pointed to two strategies: “harm reduction” in the short term and a “paradigm shift” in grassroots organizing in the long term.
Confronting the urgency of politics under Trump, Brown described her short-term strategy. “Recognizing that with the current political system that we have, the way that I see it is that our engagement as voters is around harm reduction. I’m very realistic that part of our engagement is to get some pressure off our communities or to slow down the assault. We have not had the option of picking the perfect candidate."
Emphasizing the gravity of this election cycle, Brown highlighted the particular perspective of black voters. “We know what it means, particularly us from the Deep South, we know that when you’ve got a person in the highest office that is basically giving the okay to white nationalism, and aligning himself with that position, we know what that means for us. And so there’s a particular danger around that and so we know with the policies what kind of impact that has on our communities. So yes, we are practical voters in the sense that we use voting to reduce harm for ourselves.”
But at the same time, Brown highlighted the importance of this “new era” in American politics, where younger people are looking for a different direction. The flaw in most organizing, Brown believes, is that “we’re basing our politics on a Blockbuster model when we’re in a Netflix era.”
In this new stage, the diffusion of influence from formerly powerful community figures like pastors, teachers, and politicians, requires a different organizing toolbox. Brown explained that while the establishment fails to recognize the significance of this diffusion of influence, grassroots organizing groups are “shifting the paradigm.”
“There’s a whole other organization that is being created on the ground that is actually building infrastructure, doing work, going back to some of the basics, which is just straight-up good old organizing and door-knocking, conversations, and listening that is actually shifting the framework.”
This grassroots work gives organizers a better sense of how to activate voters and achieve change, as Black Voters Matter proved in the 2017 Alabama Senate race. “The bottom line is, those of us on the ground have more of a pulse of what’s happening, we’ve got more of a pulse and an ear and the relationship capital that we’ve been building.”
In the question-and-answer period, Brown fielded a question about elections to pay attention to in 2020 outside of the presidential race. She emphasized the importance of down-ballot local races in driving turnout, rather than the top of the ticket. “If you activate local politics, people are about where they feel the pain most.” This fuels Black Voters Matter’s strategy wherein “we intentionally use our strategy to focus on building local power and we do that by investing in local races.”
Through her organizing, Brown has found that “if you invest, if there’s strategy, if there’s investment, and there’s organization, that it’s not that people are apathetic—you’ve got to find a way to get folks engaged.” When organizers can do this, Brown has found, they can increase turnout. Brown also emphasized the importance of this organizational infrastructure moving away from a “candidate-centered” model to one centered on issues and messages that transcend a single campaign.
Glaude noted how “campaigns can be a source of mobilization and demobilization… When the object of organizing is the election of a particular candidate, if you win or lose it guarantees demobilization. So it has to be something greater.”
Expanding on how to sustain energy, Brown highlighted the importance of organizing around hope rather than fear. She sees Democrats as making a “critical mistake” by framing 2020 around the “big boogeyman” of President Trump.
“Ultimately if you know anything about organizing, you can use fear to organize but you can’t sustain it. Organizing out of fear does not sustain itself, there's only so much people can take—at some point they shut it off. But hope has a much longer life, that ultimately when you really center a message around hope” you can sustain the energy over time.
Brown then shifted to a broader view of the path forward for American politics. She discussed the need to “shift the paradigm of where this conversation is, so it’s not rooted just in this idea of fear about Trump—we’ve got to have a different conversation about what is possible, what is your radical reimagination of America? What is possible?”
Brown challenged the audience to think beyond the Founding Fathers when they imagine a better future. The founders “could not imagine the fullness of what democracy meant… we’ve got to have a conversation that takes it out of ‘what did the founders of that America intend’ and figure out how we, the founders of the new America, what is our ideology or where we go forward?”
Looking ahead, Brown reminded the audience of the work ahead. “Ultimately, if we really want democracy, we have to make it be so and we have to push America in that way so that we can expand our opportunities and the possibilities that are here. I think we haven’t even scratched the surface.”