“We are just five days away from something that will be one of the most consequential days, consequential moments, of any of our lives. Everything that we do, everything that we are passionate about, everything that we work on is going to be shaped, defined, made easier, made harder or made impossible by what is about to happen in just five days.”
This is the no-holds-barred belief of Wes Moore, the best-selling author, Army combat veteran, social entrepreneur and CEO of The Robin Hood Foundation, expressed just days before Election Day. Moore holds frequent virtual convenings he calls “Critical Conversations” to bring together community leaders and “everyday citizens.”
The theme of Thursday’s conversation, called “We Need to Vote Like Our Future Depends on It,” was reiterated throughout the hour-long Zoom meeting by Moore and his four panelists: Freeman Hrabowski, the president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County; Bianca Shah is a 20-year-old student activist and a first time voter; Yvette Lewis, chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party; and Nia Duggins, co-chair of the Maryland Democratic Party Voter Protection Committee.
He started by asking a fundamental question of the participants: “Why Do I Vote?” For some it was their personal experience as a Black American as well as remembering the struggles of family members who went before them.
Hrabowski spoke of growing up in Birmingham, Ala., over 50 years ago and having had the experience of being a child leader at 12 and marching and going to jail.
“I could never have imagined 50 years later we’d still be separating kids from their parents,” he said.
Hrabowski said his grandmother’s story resonates with him. Born in 1890, she was 30 years old when women received the right to vote. But it took her 40 more years before she could vote in her town, Wetumpka, Ala., outside of Montgomery, because she couldn’t pass a literacy test.
With friends she went again to memorize the test, and had Freeman drilling her. “The third time she came into our house and said ‘I am now a voting citizen of the United States of America.’ The whole family cried.” He added, “I have her picture on my wall and I pass it every day and I think to myself, ‘how dare I not vote? People have died so that we can go and vote. … That’s the message.’”
Shah, too, said she is motivated to political activism by her grandparents, who immigrated from India in part so they could enjoy the right to vote.
“Now we see a candidate who is threatening the right of those traditionally disenfranchised such as the groups and identities we represent,” she said. “And how can I look at that and decide ‘I don’t want to be political?’ That’s just a slap in the face to my ancestors, my grandparents and your grandparents and all who struggled so hard just so we have this right.” She added, “I am not voting for just myself. I’m voting for my kids, my grandkids because this election … is changing the trajectory and the values of this nation.”
Moore reflected, “I feel that people are looking at us, and some are looking down on us from high, and they’re wondering how are we going to respond to this moment now that we have a chance to do something where your voice can be heard throughout history.”
Hrabowski added, “We will never forget the four little girls blown to pieces at that church in Birmingham…. We know they are saying to us all, ‘Don’t let us die in vain.’” In an emotional voice he said, “We must vote to have people in office who can be held accountable, who can change the racist laws and help our children never to have to go through this.”
Lewis said the Democrats’ voter turnout strategy has changed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“One of the things that COVID has shown us in this new reality is how important conversations are,” she said. “Now we are forced to listen to each other. We begin the conversation of what’s at stake in this upcoming election.”
Answering Moore’s question on the importance of voting, Lewis replied, “Because we are trying to impart on everyone within the sound of our voice that you can no longer be a passive consumer of your democracy. You’ve got to be an active participant.”
Lewis remembered the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election and seeing people on television crying. She felt she couldn’t participate “because all I had done was cast a vote.” That election convinced her to become more engaged.
Duggins warned the virtual audience that “voter suppression is real … People across the country are waiting in line, some for 10 hours, to vote. This is because some laws in some of these states are so restrictive that vote centers have been reduced, staffing has been cut, hours have been cut.”
Duggins said Black women have been the bedrock of the Democratic Party and deserve prominent places up and down the ballot. The presence of California Sen. Kamala D. Harris as the Democratic vice presidential nominee “is not only making history but she’s a woman who understands our experience. Now she is the only Black woman in the Senate and it inspires a whole generation of women to say ‘Power is in policy.’”
Shah added that her shared identity with Harris, whose mother is from India, possesses “something that somebody born into white privilege might not understand, of how important it is, how special it is, that makes my vote for this election that much more special, the fact that it is an historic election.”
Hrabowski and Lewis said Maryland is setting the standard with women of color in prominent positions, like House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and the top leaders in Prince George’s County. Lewis noted that among Democratic Party organizations in the U.S., “we are the only state party in the nation that has two African American women running it: me as the chair and Eva Lewis [no relation] the executive director.”
Hrabowski observed: “My grandmother could not have imagined a Black woman lawyer. As a child I had never seen a Black woman lawyer or head of a party.”
‘We will rest later’
What happens after the election? Hrabowski looked to history: “In the 60’s, activism went from social protests to voting so people could be in place to get the legislation that led to the Higher Education Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, all those acts that made a difference and now we have to do the same kind of thing… If we get the right people in office we can change legislation that can change lives.”
Lewis added, “We need what I call the CANE principle — constant and never ending — because it doesn’t just stop with the vote. After you put people in office then you hold them accountable, you go to their town halls, take their newsletters, you become engaged, go to Annapolis, you understand how your government works.”
Shah put it succinctly: “You can’t avoid talking about politics.”
Moore ended this portion of the discussion on an optimistic note: “It’s important to celebrate whatever it is that is positive and what we have achieved, even as we talk about what else we have to do. What is so beautiful about this moment is we are asking each and every person to represent your better angels. We know this isn’t just about policies that are on the ballot, this is humanity, this is integrity… This is our lives, it’s so important.”
Finally it was Moore’s turn to answer Why I Vote?: “I think about this idea of who I fight for and who I’m voting for through almost a triple lens – first I’m voting for those who don’t yet have the right to vote, and I’m voting for my kids, 9 and 7, because their futures are as much on the ballot as anyone else’s. The type of society they’ll grow up in, the opportunities they are allowed.” His third reason was his grandfather on his mom’s side. “He left this country when he was a toddler because the Ku Klux Klan ran him and the rest of our family out. But later he did come back and became a minister, the first Black minister in the history of the Dutch Reformed Church and went to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Had a deep Jamaican accent but was maybe the greatest patriot I’ve ever met in my life.”
Moore ended by exhorting everyone to “not be weary in this, not be tired, we will rest later…We know that election day is just the beginning, after that we’ve got some rebuilding to do and after that we have to to make sure we are protecting our institutions and right after that we go about the process of building for our future.”
Marie Robey Wood is a freelance writer.