by Dr. Sharon Griffin (as told to Lee Eric Smith)
(The following is based on a lightly edited transcript of an exclusive interview with Dr. Sharon Griffin, the superintendent of the Tennessee Achievement School District. Griffin recounts how going to vote wasn’t just a civic duty but a family responsibility. It has been edited for length and clarity.)
I can remember as a child – I grew up in South Memphis – I had ten sisters and brothers. I am the youngest of eleven. And I was fortunate to be born at a time, in 1968, when the Civil Rights Movement was alive. I also had parents who lived through times that were really, really challenging, not only for people of color but for women in general.
I learned early as an African American female that I needed to do everything I could to not only be personally responsible (for myself) but to also live up to my civic duties of being a responsible citizen.
That started early for me. At just 5 or 6 years old, I remember my parents who, every single time that there was an election – no matter how small or large –would take me to the Glenview Community Center. I lived in the same house where I was born for all of my life and so the place where we voted never changed.
And it was just like a field trip. Three or four times a year I got the opportunity to go with my parents and actually experience a day at the polls. They talked to me continuously about my responsibility to vote. And I couldn’t wait to turn 18 years old (so I could vote).
The whole family would go. Sometimes we all trailed in four or five cars and went to vote. And not only was it a family trip – I remember seeing the next-door neighbor, I remember seeing the Lewis’s off the street and the Cades around the corner. You almost were a sore thumb in our neighborhood if you did not vote.
I joined the NAACP as a 16-year-old, and worked with getting people registered to vote. In fact, I still do that now because the importance of being “civic ready” is going to be part of my platform as well as meeting the academic needs of our students.
So it became as important as your religion to vote. Not only was it the right thing to do, it was what you were expected to do. It just was a part of our every day, of our every month, every election lifestyle.
When I hear people say don’t vote because their vote doesn’t matter, what I try to do and have done with some of my own relatives, is that I try to share with them that the “luxuries” they now enjoy would not have happened if not for the shoulders of the giants that even sacrificed their own lives for us be able to vote.
I’ve also learned with young people now is that you almost have to connect an example to the cause. And even rallying around The #MeToo Movement and Black Lives Matter, and making sure that equity and equality is at the front of everything – even that would not be possible if not for people who voted and put the right people in the right positions.
I think we’re going to have to introduce civic readiness early in our student’s lives. It’s as important as our academic and our social well being. I don’t try to convince them in 10 minutes or 10 days.
I have to model the expectation of what it is I want to see them do. What I know is this: The strongest example and the loudest voice to me was seeing it in action. At 5 or 6 years old, I didn’t need convincing. I saw role models in front of me doing it.
The way we do that is to go to the masses, get the 10 or 12 people who are going to be the most influential. Who are those informal leaders who are carrying the right message? We almost have to go through people (young voters) respect — whether that’s a celebrity, or faith-based community or an informal leader in a high school who can rally the youth and the young adults to follow him or her.
I know we can’t just talk about voting. I can’t just put you down because you don’t vote. I need those young people to continuously see us – those of us now in our 50s – it’s time for us to stand up now and hold those same students and children on our shoulders. They are now the next generation. And I think with the next presidential election, we’re going to see a new age group really make an impact.
Sometimes it seems like we have to go backwards to go forward. But I can see through the positive that’s coming out of so many negative things that we’re on our way.
We’re on our way!
(Dr. Sharon Griffin is Tennessee’s First Assistant Commissioner of School Turnaround and Chief of the Achievement School District. She is an alumnae of Hamilton High School, LeMoyne-Owen College and The University of Memphis. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)