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Redrawing the Map: Grassroots organization trains Black college students and young professionals on the importance of redistricting

Sometimes making change means playing the long game. And Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder of the Florida advocacy organization Equal Ground, knows this well.

As a young girl, Burney-Clark grew up in Orlando, in a congressional district so gerrymandered that it jigsawed unevenly across Central Florida and was represented by one of the few women of color in Congress. As a young leader, she founded Equal Ground in 2019 to ramp up the political voice of underrepresented communities of color.

Right now, even as the immediate battle for representation plays out with the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature convening to redraw the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts, she is keeping her focus on the future.

The result? A brand-new Redistricting Fellowship program that engages Black college students and young professionals about the crucial redistricting process that is taking place this year. Funded in part by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the program is giving a new generation the tools to monitor the redistricting process, and to fight back against a system that, if history is any guide, is skewed against communities of color.

“As the founder of Equal Ground, this work is tied deeply and closely to how I was raised in a gerrymandered district the majority of my life,” Burney-Clark said. “That defined my political existence. I saw from a young age how it kept my community from having a proper voice. And I saw that affected everything. It meant a lack of opportunity for housing, for community development, for education. It meant more often than not that Black people were laborers in the places they occupied, rather than leaders. It meant that had to change.”

Energizing young leaders

To learn how to direct such opportunities to communities who need them, seven fellows from the northern, central and southern areas of Florida are meeting virtually now through November with advocacy leaders, legislators, local and state policymakers and others. They are undergraduate and graduate students from historically Black colleges and universities, and some are young professionals. They have each demonstrated leadership on various levels, and they come seeking equal representation with a level of energy that inspires.

One of the fellows is Jaliyah Cummings, 22, who learned early on how much your neighborhood can determine your future. The daughter of two police officers, she grew up in a middle-class suburb of Orlando, attending fine public schools that she said were well-resourced and gave her every opportunity to succeed.

But her cousins grew up in a more urban area not far away, and she watched with pain and dismay as their friends dropped out of poorly performing schools and ended up in prison. In 2013, when she was 14, she watched in disbelief as George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

“As a younger child I can say that I was kind of sheltered, in a sense, but being able to be that age and watch that trial and to see the verdict, it was just so wrong,” Cummings said. “I realized I wanted to be an attorney. That is where I need to be. That is my purpose.”

Now a senior at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Cummings is completing her coursework for a degree in criminal justice and plans to attend law school next fall. She said the fellowship with Equal Ground has given her the tools to understand just how critical securing real representation is for minority communities.

“We are not angry, we are exhausted,” Cummings said. “There is so much that hinders people from reaching their full potential. And what we are learning is that so much of it starts with who is out there representing us.”

Dierre Johnson, 22, another Equal Ground fellow, is a recent graduate in human resources studies at the University of West Florida. Now pursuing a Master of Business Administration degree, she has learned through the fellowship that “redistricting is basically foundational.”

“My parents always told me not to be a spectator but to be a participator,” Johnson said. “How can your vote be your voice, how can you be a true participant when it’s muzzled or diluted from the effects of gerrymandering? That is what flipped the switch for me, when I actually learned what redistricting is and how it has been used to silence Black communities.”

Drawing new lines

All members of Congress and state legislators are elected from political divisions called districts. Redistricting is the process of enacting new congressional and state legislative district boundaries. The states redraw these district lines every 10 years following completion of the U.S. Census, which tracks population shifts. The federal government requires these districts to have nearly equal populations and not to discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity.

However, some politicians have used gerrymandering – the process of drawing district lines to favor one political party, individual, constituency or race over another – in order to advance their political objectives.

Redistricting is just one of the issues Equal Ground has taken on. Along with other, more established organizations throughout the state, it works to protect voting rights across the board. It also educates voters, particularly in the Central Florida communities where the organization got its start, on registering to vote, casting ballots and getting involved in their communities at all levels.

“Equal Ground represents what a new social justice movement needs to look like to really effect change,” said Nancy Abudu, interim strategic litigation director for the SPLC. “Yes, there are bigger, more established groups like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, but it’s often the smaller grassroots organizations that are nimble enough to reach voters in an even more impactful way. And in the case of Equal Ground, you have a Black-led organization making sure that Black people are politically engaged to change the system.”

For its grassroots work to empower voters, Equal Ground received a grant of $200,000 from the Vote Your Voice campaign earlier this year. The campaign is investing up to $30 million from the SPLC’s endowment to engage voters and increase voter registration, education and participation.

‘They are being watched’

The SPLC’s Voting Rights Practice Group has made redistricting a priority.

The process will determine the allocation of political power and representation at every level of government across the country for the next 10 years. Equal Ground and other organizations like it want to ensure that redistricting is not used to exclude communities of color from attaining political power.

The stakes are high. State legislatures have an obligation to ensure fair and equal representation for all people, upholding the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law and complying with the requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But historically they have often done the opposite.

The last time Florida’s Republicans were tasked with redrawing the state’s political districts, in 2012, a judge concluded they turned it into a “mockery” by secretly and illegally working to enhance their command of the state. After years of litigation, the Florida Supreme Court threw out the Legislature’s map and set the state’s current congressional boundaries.

This year, an even more powerful GOP-led Legislature is again preparing to begin the recasting of state House, Senate and congressional district lines. That means it can dictate not only who runs for public office and who is elected, but also how financial resources are allocated for schools, hospitals, roads and more.

And the representatives who are elected have the power to make decisions that greatly impact the communities they represent, from ensuring safe schools to adopting inclusive immigration policies. The people who live in a district can then influence whether elected officials feel obligated to respond to a particular community’s needs.

To make matters still more fraught, Florida’s population has grown, so the state will be allocated one more seat in Congress. Whether that seat will be held by a Republican or a Democrat – and whether the district will fairly represent the people who live in it – depends largely on how the Legislature draws district boundaries.

Against that backdrop, Equal Ground is working with other organizations around the state to train Black and Brown communities on how to reach their elected officials, how to vote for officials who will better represent them, and how to hold legislators responsible for conducting a fair redistricting process.

“The more we’re able to educate folks, the more powerful they become,” said Jamara Wilson, redistricting program manager for Equal Ground. “We understand that this process right now is in the hands of the Legislature, but they need to understand that they are being watched carefully.”

Read more stories from the Battle for Representation: The Ongoing Struggle for Voting Rights series here.

Photo at top, from left to right: Kristin Fulwylie, Jasmine Burney-Clark and Jamara Wilson.