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Reflections from #UPTheVote901: What the 2018 election cycle taught us

Sijuwola Crawford
Rev. Earle J. Fisher

by Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher and Sijuwola Crawford

#UPTheVote901 was launched in November 2017 to increase voter turnout in Memphis and Shelby County. The last 12 months have been spent engaging conversation around political power, information and representation and there is a lot more work that needs to be done.

To be most effective in the work moving forward, it is important to take a moment of reflection and share what we’ve learned in the past year. Hopefully, these lessons will guide our most aggressive and progressive initiatives to ensure Memphis and Shelby County reflect the will of the majority of its citizens and provide equitable opportunities for everyone.

In no specific order (but deeply correlated) the lessons learned are:

1. Our country remains committed to a white supremacist ideology and hyper-capitalist philosophy. We still think big businesses (most often run by rich white men) are going to save us. They haven’t. They won’t. In fact, at the deepest levels of our society, these thought patterns are the culprit for so much of the poverty, pain and plight we’ve experienced. #UpTheVote901 is betting on the people to be the change we need rather than depending on powers to amend the structure they implemented for personal benefit.

2. Progressivism is possible, even in the South. People power is moving the political apparatus toward progressivism. There is no conclusive research to prove that conservatives and “regressives” will be moved in 2018 by 1998 strategies – “reaching across the aisle” or “finding common ground.” Meanwhile, we witnessed Memphians openly express frustrations with the moderate postures of Democratic Party candidates Karl Dean (for governor) and Phil Bredesen (U.S. Senate.) Many clearly were more excited about the gubernatorial campaigns of Democrats Stacey Abrams (Georgia) and Andrew Gillum (Florida) than those in our own state. Adams and Gillum demonstrated the viability of more dynamic, progressive platforms and signal that the ship of moderate (and mythical) centrism has sailed. We expect 2019 and 2020 will see the pushing of all parties and politicians toward more progressive platforms and policy practices.

3. The Shelby County Election Commission has been more harmful than helpful regarding making voting more accessible. #UPTheVote901 has (arguably) done as much, if not more, to give Memphians more equitable access to the ballot box than the Election Commission, which exists to manage elections and aide in making the voting process easier and most timely. And while Executive Director Linda Philips maintains a six-figure (tax-payer-funded) salary, her complaints about the workload smacks of a type of privilege most of us have never experienced.

How many of us can maintain mediocrity at our jobs, receiving a salary five times the average citizen and pass the buck of responsibility onto those our job requires us to help? In the courtroom, county commission meetings and the community at large, the last seven months have shown a deep resistance from the election commission to fulfill its duties in poor, low-income communities of color. We need more oversight from the county commission (and civilians) if our election commission is ever to become an ally and not an adversary to everyday people.

In light of these lessons, we propose a recommitment to civic education. Our time in the community engaging citizens has yielded a catastrophic reminder that too many people, by structural design, are disenfranchised from the political process. Civics education as part of the public education curriculum and available to the public at large is essential to protecting and promoting democracy.

Too many elected officials have exhibited a vested interest in campaigned and capitalized off the ignorance and fear of the public. Therefore, we have taken on the challenge to help educate potential voters. #UPTheVote901 is willing to partner with any groups willing to host voter empowerment and voter engagement symposiums over the next several years to ensure our people have greater access to information.  

We believe the time for us to build political power for all the people is right now.

(The Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher is senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Whitehaven and founder of #UPTheVote901.  Sijuwola Crawford is a musician, educator and lead organizer of #UPTheVote901.)

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