By Staff Writers Mirishae McDonald, Jasmine Williams, and Jackie Byers
In 2016 BOP joined California Calls– an alliance of 31 community-based organizations across the state which purpose was to engage and educate voters from poor and working class communities of color. Within the California Calls coalition the African American Civic Engagement Project (AACEP) was birthed, and designed as a three-year initiative with the purpose of; strengthening the scale of civic participation amongst African American groups in California, contributing to the increasing voice and power of communities suffering from social and economic inequalities, and supporting the on-the-ground work organizations across the state were already invested in. Despite blazing ahead toward unfamiliar territory, we chose to see the opportunity of intentionally participating in civic engagement as a tool to build Black power across California in the following ways: 1) As a learning opportunity and access to the technology and tools that can allow us to reach greater scale and develop strong tracking system 2) Participation in a statewide Cohort of Black organizations was a space that could lead to deeper relationships and movement building opportunities 3) Having the resources to train and develop community members who are often marginalized out of voter engagement and electoral jobs allowed us to create a leadership pipeline 4) to influence policies that would have significant material impact on our community by providing access to information and education.
Eleven Black led community based organizations across 5 California counties, joined us in the cohort, receiving training and technical assistance with the hopes of integrating the methods and learned systems into ongoing organizing efforts. Over the last three years groups within AACEP have outreached to nearly 150,000 folks and registered 12,000 to vote.
Building New Relationships
This project has truly been a transformative journey for BOP. During our time participating in the program we have successfully completed 5 voter education outreach campaigns, allowing us to hire 25 Black canvassers and gain 15 new members. Additionally, we were able to utilize the access to technology to make our street outreach more efficient; instead of the traditional clipboards and paper we use to conduct our outreach, we embraced tablets and smartphones that allowed us to gather and track information at a higher capacity. Also, throughout the 5 campaigns we outreached to over 5,000 Black folks and surveyed 2,289 Black people in District 6 and 7 of East Oakland.
Most of the time, our outreach team was enthusiastic about our presence in the community. We were greeted with hugs, thank you’s, and even invited in homes for food. However there were opportunities to have real internal conversations about the harm inflicted on our community due to years of oppression and white supremacy and how that has manifested in internalized stereotypes of our community and even apprehension or fear when walking through and talking to our own people. For us, each day was an opportunity to break down the barriers, connect with our folks and remember who we are as a a people. Every evening each team member had time to tell stories and debrief what happened while they were doorknocking. All the canvassers were surprised that they were received so well; some who never did doorknocking or outreach did not expect the community to be interested or even kind! Without fail night after night, the stories would come in and the canvassers learned that the more they shared about themselves and BOP’s important work, the more folks would want to share about their experience in the neighborhood and their thoughts and ideas on what’s going on in the world. In the end, the conversations in the community were entry points for relationship building that allowed each person to share in a unique moment in history where a distinct connection to the community was made as well as with one another.
Developing New Leaders
Integrated Voter Engagement work for BOP was a way for us to use civic engagement as an additional strategy to develop leadership skills. During their short time in the field the canvassers learned so much about what was happening to our people block by block. The people we hired were usually a combination of members and people in our networks who were both across generations and in some cases, with little job experience or experience in electoral organizing. Some of the folks were formerly incarcerated or those who may have had trouble getting jobs and were curious about voter engagement work. Half of the canvassers we hired became members of BOP soon after. An intentional pipeline was created from the IVE program funneling in folks from an intense, rich outreach experience. One thing they all had in common is that they were Black people who reflected our diverse community– in that short time unified by the work, our teams became family.
Impacting the State and The City
In addition to the wonderful relationships we built, conversations had, and information shared, being out in the streets day after day produced some tangible successes that have supported our work outside of voter engagement. Participation in this cohort has played a critical role in the continued importance of civic engagement of the Black community to win local and statewide elections. In 2016 we had several wins that focused on mitigating the immediate harm of oppressive systems on the most impacted folks. Some examples would be , proposition 51 passing that provides $9 billion in bonds for education and schools. Locally in Oakland ballot measures were passed such as Measure LL, the civilian police commission– a community elected body of Oakland residents who oversee the police department policies as well as the Community Police Review Agency that investigates police misconduct and make recommendations for discipline. Another groundbreaking piece of legislation that passed was Measure JJ which requires landlords to petition the city for rent increases and expanded “just cause” evictions to 12,000 Oakland units covering units from 1995.
As we reflect on the last 3 years we have learned a lot about ways that the tools of electoral organizing can be integrated into community organizing and we have built systems and structures that we will continue to utilize. While not every aspect of the project was a perfect fit, it certainly pushed us to be more structured and to take the parts that we found most helpful and add our own BOP seasoning to it.