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Vote Your Voice

First grants awarded; second round application process underway

The Southern Poverty Law Center today announced the first 12 organizations to receive grants from its Vote Your Voice initiative – a program investing up to $30 million in organizations across the Deep South working to conduct voter registration, education and mobilization activities among people of color over the next several election cycles.

The initiative is focused on increasing the number of people who vote, specifically in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi – the Deep South region that is the focus of the SPLC’s work. The first round of grant recipients includes an array of groups working in meaningful and measurable ways to empower communities of color and ensure equitable access to the ballot box.

“This country has a long history of denying voting rights to its citizens, especially Black and Brown people, returning citizens and young people,” said Margaret Huang, SPLC president and chief executive officer. “While we have seen gains in voting rights and access in recent decades, since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, there has been a blatant effort to deny voting rights through state actions.

“Those actions include purging voter rolls, blocking rights-restoration efforts, eliminating polling places, scaling back early voting, instituting onerous voter ID laws, limiting access to voting by mail, and other measures. The prospect of the pandemic being used as an excuse to further suppress the vote is especially worrying. That is why nonpartisan efforts to ensure everyone’s voice is heard at the polls are so important.”

Vote Your Voice is a partnership between the SPLC and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta.

“These grants will lift up organizations working at the ground level, and those maximizing mobile technology and social media in this time of social distancing, to overcome long-standing policies and practices that have stifled the voice and vote of Black and Brown communities,” said Clare S. Richie, public policy specialist at the Community Foundation. 

Organizations with a deep knowledge of the communities they serve are well positioned to make a significant impact in voter education and registration, explained Michael Lomax, president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund.

“We are at a point in our history as a nation when the hard-won victories in the voter struggle for Black people are being compromised,” he said. “We have to fight for that. As a parent and a grandparent, I do everything I can to make the young people in my family understand that this is really, really important.”

Lomax’s organization serves college students, many of whom, as a result of the pandemic, have been displaced from campuses where they are registered to vote. Students, he said, must make a plan to vote, just as they make plans to take their classes online.

“If young people are in the streets demonstrating for Black Lives Matter, they’ve got to be voting because Black votes matter,” Lomax said.

Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director of the SPLC’s Voting Rights Practice Group, noted the program is especially critical at this time.

“The magnitude of social justice problems facing communities of color, especially in the Deep South, can often feel overwhelming,” she said. “The SPLC’s partnership with trusted and successful community organizations is a serious effort to leverage political power through the ballot box to promote community empowerment and self-determination in a way that leads to a more equitable and just society.”

Starting today, Vote Your Voice also invites groups working across the five states to apply for a second round of grants, with applications due on Aug. 14.

Together with the first cohort, Vote Your Voice organizations will engage millions of voters across the South to exercise their basic right to vote and ensure that they are able to elect – and hold accountable — candidates who represent their values. Additional application information and guidelines can be found here.

Here is a closer look at the first-round grant recipients.


Black Voters Matter

Grant amount: $500,000

The Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute strives to increase civic engagement and build power in predominantly Black communities. Its program, according to the group, “amplifies the work of local partners and helps to change the narrative regarding Black voters.” The organization works year-round with a footprint that touches 11 states, primarily in the Deep South.

With the Vote Your Voice grant, the group plans to conduct voter registration, education and mobilization focused on Black voters in 17 Alabama counties and 24 Georgia counties through mini-grants to community groups and outreach via texting and other digital and social media strategies.


Dream Defenders

Grant Amount: $200,000

Dream Defenders, a group composed of youth, young adults and students, was established in 2012 in response to the death of Trayvon Martin. Dream Defenders organizes campaigns, services and political education events to improve community outcomes.

“Today, Florida’s young people are experiencing ever-increasing violence, incarceration and poverty,” the organization’s grant application states. “Tomorrow, through building deep, local power in our communities, we will make our state a place where everyone’s most basic needs are met and all are able to thrive.”

Dream Defenders has 10 chapters throughout Florida. In June, it moved its voter registration program online to engage young people in the August and November elections.

With the Vote Your Voice grant, organizers plan to use digital advertising, social media, online events and mutual aid programs, texting and phone banking to push people toward the group’s voter registration website.

Florida Rights Restoration Coalition

Grant amount: $1 million

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) is operated by returning citizens with the mission of ending disenfranchisement and discrimination against people with convictions. The group also seeks to create a comprehensive and humane system that promotes successful reentry and reduces recidivism.

Desmond Meade, the group’s executive director, is a formerly homeless returning citizen. He is a graduate of Florida International University College of Law and has served as chairman of Floridians for a Fair Democracy.

In 2018, the group led an effort to successfully pass Amendment 4, legislation that restored the voting rights of over 1.4 million Floridians with past felony convictions. In 2019, the FRRC’s pilot voter registration program in Orlando employed returning citizens from FRRC chapters to engage their peers in the community. The organization has built a statewide movement to transform the conversation about criminal justice reform. 

With the Vote Your Voice grant, the FRRC plans to conduct voter outreach focused on 1.1 million low-propensity Black & Latinx voters in the most heavily incarcerated precincts across 35 counties. The group aims to register returning citizens and mobilize voters via mail, relational organizing, digital and radio advertising, and Souls to the Polls.

New Florida Majority Education Fund Inc.

Grant amount: $500,000  

The New Florida Majority Education Fund is an independent racial justice organization focused on issues facing people of color. The group uses a community-based approach to educate and empower voters in meaningful ways and to train next-generation leaders.

Photo courtesy of New Florida Majority

The group was founded in 2011 out of a need from the Miami Worker Center and the Florida Immigrant Coalition to have a nonprofit organization dedicated to democracy work. Its core mission is education on criminal justice, gender justice, climate justice, and expanding democracy in diverse communities throughout the state, but primarily in Duval County, Leon County and Miami-area counties.

The organization aims to unify Florida’s historically disenfranchised groups by serving Black and Brown communities in English, Spanish and Haitian-Creole. “Our demographic focus is on African-American, African-Caribbean and Latinx communities; low-income … communities; LGBTQIA folks; immigrants, women and youth,” said Maybelyn Rodríguez Laureano, the group’s development director.

With the Vote Your Voice grant, the organization will take its online voter registration efforts to the next level. It plans to make more than a million wellness voter calls through Nov. 3, register thousands of people using online voter registration; secure pledges to vote from tens of thousands of people for the August primary runoff and the Nov. 3 general election.

Organize Florida

Grant amount $310,000

Organize Florida describes itself as movement of community leaders coming together to fight for real change across the state. The group is also committed to finding and training leaders who will ensure its mission is carried forward into the future.

“This kind of progress is never easy,” the group says on its website. “However, we’re not here for the easy fights. In the face of partisan gridlock and powerful, deep-pocketed interests across Florida, we refuse to be cynical about what we can accomplish. We have a history of building intentional and dedicated leaders.”

The organization is headquartered in Orange County and operates in multiple Florida counties.

With the Vote Your Voice grant, Organize Florida plans to support voter registration, education, mobilization and protection with a focus on low- to moderate-income people of color with a vote propensity score of 50% or less along the Interstate 4 corridor in Florida.


Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda

Grant amount: $75,000

Founded in 1988 by the late Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda is one of the oldest civic engagement organizations in the state. Other organizers were Richard Bright, Earl Shinhoster, Rita J. Samuels, Walter C. Butler, Jr. and Joe Beasley.

Photo courtesy of Georgia Coalition for the Peoples' Agenda

The group’s mission is to increase citizen participation and engagement in public policy. It has offices in more than 50 counties.

The communities we serve are people of color, primarily African American, African and Caribbean, young people, single women and low-income Georgians,” said Helen Butler, executive director.

The organization includes representatives from human rights, civil rights, environmental, faith and labor organizations. It also has leaders from peace and justice groups throughout Georgia and the South.

With the Vote Your Voice grant, the group will use phone banks and texts to reach hundreds of thousands people purged from voter rolls – re-registering and mobilizing them. The organization also plans to reach thousands of unregistered voters. “Our goal is to increase turnout by 5% in our target areas,” Butler said. “We will also be able to recruit and mobilize additional poll monitors to provide assistance to voters during early voting and on Election Day as a part of our voter protection activities in 88 of the 159 counties in Georgia.”

The New Georgia Project

Grant amount: $750,000

The New Georgia Project (NGP) takes a holistic approach to helping new registrants become permanent voters and amplifying the voices of Georgians of color who have been disenfranchised.  

Founded in 2013, NPG set an initial goal of registering at least 120,000 minority voters across the state by the 2014 midterm elections. As a result, more than 123,000 voter registration forms were submitted. By December 2018, the group estimated it had independently registered nearly 350,000 citizens of color: 25% of the target population.

The organization’s chief goal in 2020 is to mobilize low propensity voters, voters of color, and young voters. NGP works with communities across the state, from rural counties to cities.

With the Vote Your Voice grant, the organization will increase its reach to engage these voters. Additionally, the group will not only continue to engage and organize new registrants, but inform them about effective advocacy actions, as well as the state’s registration and political processes.


Grant amount: $750,000

ProGeorgia is a diverse collaborative that champions an equitable and inclusive democracy, for and with traditionally underrepresented communities across the state.

The organization began in 2011 when a group of 12 nonprofits – all with civic engagement and voter mobilization as part of their missions – united. Two-thirds of ProGeorgia’s table partner organizations are led by people of color and just over half are led by women of color.

“We support and coordinate the civic engagement programs of our diverse partners,” said Tamieka Atkins, executive director. “We develop the infrastructure, execute joint strategies and employ new tools and technology to ensure a government that is more responsive to the needs of our constituencies.”

Atkins added: “ProGeorgia is committed to achieving racial, economic and gender equity in Georgia through our civic engagement work. As Southern leaders, our partners work across a broad spectrum of issues to resolve historic disparities created by white supremacy, colorism, gender-bias and classism.”  

With the Vote Your Voice grant, the organization will reach hundreds of thousands of people of color through a census-integrated get-out-the-vote campaign; increase the number of women of color who turned out to vote in the 2016 presidential primary; and complete one experiment to improve engagement methods. ProGeorgia also plans to continue defending voting rights and combating barriers to voter access through election monitoring and reform advocacy.


Power Coalition for Equity and Justice

Grant amount: $500,000

The Power Coalition for Equity and Justice is a statewide civic engagement table serving communities that are systematically blocked from opportunities and resources such as housing, employment, health care, democratic participation and due process.

The organization was founded five years ago with the goal of building a pathway to power “to actually move the needle on the issues we care about,” said Ashley K. Shelton, executive director. “Our table is anchored by base building groups who work on the ground in community and then work in partnership with advocacy groups to do people-centered policy action.”

Shelton noted that people of color were the deciding factor in Louisiana’s Nov. 16, 2019, runoff election, turning out at historically high rates across the state.

“That turnout was especially high in the places where the Power Coalition and our partners – including Voice of the Experienced, Step Up Louisiana, VAYLA, Black Voters Matter, the Movement Voter Project and many others – focused our efforts,” she said.

With the help of the Vote Your Voice grant, the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice will have the necessary resources for its 2020 get-out-the-vote effort which has more than 1.3 million contacts across Louisiana. The group’s engagement program will focus on young people, returning citizens, seniors and immigrants who are infrequent voters.

Voice of the Experienced (VOTE)

Grant amount: $300,000

Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) began when a group of men at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola, created the Angola Special Civics Project. In 2004, one of the men at Angola, Norris Henderson, founded VOTE after he was released.

The group is now the leading criminal justice reform organization in Louisiana operated by formerly incarcerated people, their families and allies. It has chapters across the state.

Henderson outlined issues that must be addressed in Louisiana.

The people in state and local prisons are two-thirds Black, while the state population is only one-third Black,” he said. “Meanwhile, 70% of all Louisiana coronavirus deaths are Black people. Among people in federal detention, including 10,000 [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] detainees, the percentage of Black and Latino people is nearly 90%.

“These people are located throughout the state and many detained in northern and central Louisiana, while their families are disproportionately from New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and, for some, across the border.”

With the Vote Your Voice grant, the group will focus on registering people to vote who are formerly incarcerated, have a conviction, or have never voted before. “Then, it is our goal to ensure that they cast their vote on Election Day,” Henderson said.


Mississippi Votes

Grant amount: $200,000

Mississippi Votes is a nonpartisan organization targeting people ages 18-35 in 12 counties across the state.

Photo courtesy of Mississippi Votes

Started by college students in 2016, the organization’s leadership is made up of millennials and Generation Z. It has groups or liaisons on 15 college campuses.

Like many organizations, Mississippi Votes has had to reimagine its programming due to the pandemic. The group continues its advocacy work to ensure every Mississippian has access to, and information about, the state’s electoral process. Group leaders have been at the center of many conversations about the possibilities and future of Mississippi’s electoral landscape.

“The modern outreach strategies of Mississippi Votes not only make our work cutting edge, but effective,” said Arekia Bennett, executive director.

With the Vote Your Voice grant, the group will be able to increase its programming size and digital organizing goals given the logistical challenges COVID-19 presents.

One Voice

Grant amount: $350,000

One Voice convenes grassroots efforts to enhance civic participation and move progressive policy throughout Mississippi. The organization includes multiple coalitions and hosts several leadership pipeline programs with the goal of building progressive leadership in the state.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the group was launched by the Mississippi State Conference NAACP. One Voice works with communities of color and underserved communities in the state, most of whom are rural and African American.

With the Vote Your Voice grant, the group will “increase the capacity of the organization’s civic engagement roundtable by providing support to member groups in their local work and by activating phone banking and text messaging programs to reach voters, and potential voters, virtually,” said One Voice Executive Director Nsombi Lambright.

Learn more about the Vote Your Voice initiative

Lead photo by Getty Images / Ira L. Black