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Vote Your Voice: In Florida, grants help grassroots groups mobilize people to seek a more equitable future through the ballot

Young people in Florida, under attack these days by their elected officials for everything from the books they read to the gender identity they express, can sometimes feel like the character Mirabel from the Disney hit Encanto – trapped by perceived limitations, desperate for the transformative gift of magic.

That’s the way it seems to Luzcarina Nuñez, a 21-year-old Florida International University theater student who juggles a gig dressing up as Mirabel at children’s birthday parties with another registering young people to vote. The jobs may seem unrelated, Nuñez said. But they are both about harnessing magic – the magic of young people who believe in themselves and in their power to effect change.

“I believe that art affects society in a way that other mediums don’t, and I believe that any little effort to effect change in your community helps,” Nuñez said. “I see voting the same way. People in Miami are discouraged with local politics in general. With so many powers that are working to suppress our voices, they feel they don’t have a voice … but I do see a glimmer of hope, especially among younger people who do want to be involved and do want to make change.”

Nuñez is among the thousands of young people working with Engage Miami, a nonprofit founded in 2015 to harness the magic and energy of youth to bolster democratic institutions and to advocate for investment in social services and local climate, housing and transit solutions.

Engage Miami is among 39 voter outreach organizations across the Deep South that are receiving more than $4.6 million in funding as part of the new round of Vote Your Voice grants announced last month. The initiative is a partnership between the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to increase voter registration, participation and civic engagement among communities of color in the Deep South.

Vote Your Voice is also strengthening the field capacity of grassroots organizations through data and fundraising support and the testing of effective voter engagement strategies.

This year’s awards add to an earlier investment of more than $11 million in two-year grants that were sent last year. The SPLC has pledged $100 million to support Vote Your Voice through 2032.

Engage Miami volunteers
Engage Miami focuses on registering and engaging Latinx, millennial and Gen Z voters at South Florida college campuses throughout the year. Pictured, Engage Miami student fellows and volunteers at the North Campus of Miami Dade College, from left: Kimberlee Downer, Augusta Jerez, Briyana Joseph, Emilee Garcia and Megan Di Russo. (Credit: Engage Miami)

‘The power that we deserve’

With a focus on registering and engaging Latinx, millennial and Gen Z voters, Engage Miami, which recently received a Vote Your Voice grant of $90,000 that supplements its 2021 $300,000 grant, has organized at the city, county and state levels. Since its founding, it has handed out more than 250,000 voting guides geared to young people and made more than 1 million calls resulting in 60,000 conversations with 25,000 pledges to vote.

Engage Miami has representatives on every college campus in the state, partnering with local municipalities to ensure that voter registration is visible and accessible. Its communications with young people remind them when and where to vote, inform them of their rights and break down where individual candidates stand on issues of importance to young people. Earlier, Engage Miami reached out to young people to ensure they were counted during the 2020 census.

The group is making a difference.

Average youth voter turnout in Miami-Dade County in 2020 was 68%, but Engage Miami leaders say the voters it pledged turned out at a rate of 75%. Voters organized by Engage Miami, according to its leadership, are 11% more likely to vote than their peers.

Engage Miami’s efforts are impressive amid a local political environment that is challenging at best. Infrastructure in the Miami region is crumbling in places, with floodwaters rising. Schools are facing challenges to the books they can stock in their libraries and the subjects their teachers can present to students. Voting is getting harder, with early voting sites closed and new restrictions in place.

Elected officials from the governor down have instituted new limitations on the hard-won voting rights of formerly incarcerated people. Posters of Martin Luther King Jr. are being ripped down from schools. Rainbow stickers are being pulled off classroom windows. And some school boards are even trying to ban the use of textbooks that were long a part of the sexual education curriculum.

“It’s hard, it’s really hard, it can feel hopeless,” said Rebecca Pelham, who first got involved with Engage Miami as a 25-year-old in 2015. Today, she is the group’s executive director.

“Young people in South Florida face so many existential crises, from being able to afford day-to-day life, to knowing that climate change is happening, to getting an education,” Pelham said. “But we look back at all the movements for social justice and all the young people who said, ‘This is not going to be our future.’ And that is the energy we draw on. We just want young people to have the power that we deserve.”

The ‘smallest conversation’

One of the organization’s early triumphs came in 2018, when it teamed up with a coalition of voting rights groups to ensure the establishment of early voting sites on two college campuses where students previously faced significant travel to vote. In the years since, more than 40,000 ballots have been cast at the voting sites, one at Miami Dade College North Campus and the other at Miami Dade College Kendall Campus.

“When voting is off campus, it’s less visible, it’s less accessible,” Pelham said. “Students are working. They don’t have reliable transportation. They are taking care of their families. This is how we build a culture of voting from the bottom up.”

Engage Miami is using funding from the SPLC in part to create 25,000 new voting guides that will be mailed out to young voters, focused on priorities in their districts that young people care about. Designed by artist Caro Gutierrez to be bold and colorful, the cover depicts a map of Miami from the Everglades to the beach, highlighting landmarks with meaning to young people.

“A lot of people don’t vote because it feels to them like a standardized test and they’re going to fail it,” Pelham said. “It’s not that young people don’t care or don’t want to vote, it’s that they are not invited into it. We make those conversations happen.”

Kimberlee Downer is just 18, but she is embracing that task. A first-year student at Miami Dade College, she learned about Engage Miami from friends who, like her, are part of the community college’s Rising Black Scholars program.

Living at home with her parents and brothers, Downer, a nursing student also considering a career as a crime investigator, says it can be a struggle to feel a part of campus life. But working as one of 50 paid Engage Miami fellows across the state has made her feel more than a part of things.

“I feel like even the smallest conversation can make a change in your life,” Downer said of her work registering voters. “People stop, I have a conversation with them, and by the end, I actually get them to want to register. Even if they don’t want to vote right now, I tell them, ‘Just register! You can make voting a habit.’”

‘This matters’

On the campus of Florida International University, Nuñez, also a fellow, is out two days a week, standing in a breezeway underneath a main library. Her parents, immigrants from the Dominican Republic, raised Nuñez and her siblings in Miami amid difficult circumstances. For a time her father had a stable job, Nuñez said, but when the 2008 housing crisis sent the family’s finances into a tailspin, they had to rent out their house and move back to the Dominican Republic.

Even now back in Miami, Nuñez lives at home to save money, and the family struggles to pay rent and put food on the table. The job with Engage Miami, along with the gig working children’s parties, helps. But registering voters, Nuñez said, also means much more to her.

On a recent day, Nuñez recalled, she was out in the campus breezeway, clad in a gray Engage Miami T-shirt and shorts, wearing a hat and sunscreen against the brutal Miami summer sun. Her big blue clipboard was covered in stickers: “The Love Vote,” “Friends Don’t Let Friends Miss Election,” “Slay the Vote.”

A young man walked by. When she called out to him, he kept on walking.

“He said he didn’t want to vote, said he didn’t like government,” Nuñez recalled. “I said, ‘OK, if you change your mind, I’ll be here.’”

Three hours later, he came back.

“I asked what changed his mind,” Nuñez said. “He said, ‘I had a conversation with a friend. I felt that voting was useless, but he talked about local voting and how it matters.’ I felt that day that I really helped this guy in some way, just by being here. This matters.”

Gracey Jean-Bernard registers voters at Pride
Gracey Jean-Bernard, right, Engage Miami’s director of voter engagement, registering voters at Pride in Miami in June 2022. Engage Miami will use part of its Vote Your Voice grant to create 25,000 voting guides that will be mailed out to young voters. (Credit: Engage Miami)

Here is a look at the other Vote Your Voice grant recipients in Florida this year and how they are using the funding:

Florida Rights Restoration Coalition – Grant Amount: $180,000

When hundreds of key leaders and activists of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) convened in late August to mark 10 years since the organization was founded, they had a great deal to celebrate. Since a formerly unhoused returning citizen named Desmond Meade started the homegrown campaign to abolish the Florida law that prohibited people previously convicted of felonies from voting, the coalition has become a major force for justice. Amendment 4 – which restored voting rights to 1.4 million Florida residents – was approved in 2018 by more than 64% of the state’s voters.

Since then, Meade and the community of returning citizens, their families and their communities have faced down obstacle after obstacle. First, Florida added a legal requirement that formerly incarcerated individuals have to pay off all fees, fines and restitution they owe before they can legally register to vote. Then, this summer, Florida officials went after a handful of returning citizens who had stumbled into violating the letter of that law.

With the help of the SPLC, the organization with 20 chapters across the state has been waging legal battles in the courts in support of Amendment 4. It has created a bail fund, and it is working to reach deeper into communities to take on aspiring voters’ cases on an individual basis, to guide them through the process and the fear and anxiety that state officials’ actions have engendered.

“This is a moment of urgency and peril. But Desmond says that rather than see obstacles, we see opportunities,” said Eric Brakken, director of programs for FRRC. “There is a need to reach as many returning citizens as possible to get them to register to vote. There are 1.54 million people eligible to be impacted by Amendment 4. We have registered something more than 100,000. That’s the tip of the iceberg. When they actually register to vote, it is always said, Florida will change. This state will look different with the voices of returning citizens organizing in their communities and bringing their family members out to vote.”

Florida Rising – Grant Amount: $180,000

With the cost of rent skyrocketing and the pandemic deepening an already extreme housing crisis in Florida, Black and Brown communities are feeling the pain.

Organizers with Florida Rising, a statewide grassroots organization dedicated to building power in these communities, responded quickly, going door to door to educate people about their rights as renters, how to access federal assistance and how to fight off evictions.

But Florida Rising didn’t stop there. Along with a number of other community organizations, it pushed for a ballot initiative in Orange County that would limit how much landlords can increase rents. On Aug. 9, the Orange County Board of Commissioners voted 4-3 in favor of placing the initiative, the Rent Stabilization Ordinance, on the November ballot. If passed by voters, the proposed ordinance would protect about 100,000 renter households from profit-driven rent increases in excess of the consumer price index, a measure of inflation, for 12 months.

Now, with the SPLC grant, Florida Rising is building its organization further, establishing leaders in communities of color across the state to connect the dots between voting in an election and holding leaders accountable once they are in office. It has more than 2,000 dues-paying members and many more volunteers. It is seeking local and statewide tenant protections. And it is moving aggressively against what it sees as attempts by some political leaders to diminish the voting power of communities who most need a voice.

Faith in Florida – Grant Amount: $90,000

In the churches, synagogues and mosques from which Faith in Florida draws its membership, one phrase rings out again and again: “Beloved community,” a term popularized by Martin Luther King Jr.

That simple phrase is what gives the multifaith organization formed in the 1990s its direction and its strength. Building a beloved community, said Genesis Reyes, chief of staff of the social justice organization, means protecting democracy. It means protecting immigrants, fighting racism and working against the scourge of gun violence. But at its heart, there is no beloved community unless people have a voice, she says.

“We see the world through a multifaith lens and our goal is to ensure that every person has a feeling of belonging,” Reyes said. “We believe that we can find that bridge that will allow us to come together.”

Over the past several years, Faith in Florida has spread to more than 800 congregations in 35 of the 67 counties in Florida. Bolstered by funding from the SPLC, the organization is giving voice to voters central to its mission. This year, more than 200 people have attended a series of virtual education sessions that Faith in Florida has developed for new voters. Volunteers have distributed more than 10,000 flyers at regional conventions and congregations that explain the state of legislation in Florida that restricts voting rights. And in sessions at churches, community centers and parks, clergy associated with Faith in Florida hold listening sessions, encouraging potential voters to share their personal stories.

“We have built a community where we have been able to lock arms together,” Reyes said. “All of our work circles back to that.”

Alianza Center – Grant Amount: $75,000

Show up at the offices of Alianza Center on the first Friday of every month and you are likely to meet people from all walks of life. Among spreads of rich food and amid the rhythms of salsa and bomba, artists, entrepreneurs and community members mingle with elected officials, policymakers and community leaders.

The gatherings, a combination of meet and greet, information session and multicultural conclave, are emblematic of the way the small organization goes about advocating for the rights of Puerto Rican and other underserved Latinx communities in Central Florida.

Founded in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2018, Alianza operates with a staff of fewer than 20 people. But its impact belies its size. This week, for example, it is busy working with a coalition of groups to respond to a new crisis devastating Puerto Rico – Hurricane Fiona. Within hours of the storm making landfall, Alianza had set up a donations page on Facebook to collect aid for victims of the storm and to begin the process of rebuilding.

Fueled by its own enthusiasm and aided by the SPLC grant, it is marshaling a small army of volunteers to register and educate voters, to recognize members of the Puerto Rican community who excel in all fields and “to help those that need a new path, a better one, and to create leaders in our communities,” said Zulma Velez-Estrada, interim executive director.

“Sometimes good ideas are lost because people don’t know their rights, don’t know to ask questions, don’t know how to vote,” Velez-Estrada said. “We knock on doors. We answer their questions. And we collect information from our community. … We also present the possibility of working to create a better world.”

NALEO Educational Fund: Grant Amount – $60,000

NALEO (National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials) Educational Fund is no novice at advocating for policies that protect voters. The national organization has played a key role in growing Latinx political participation and representation since 1981.

But in recent years, NALEO has moved, particularly in Florida, more strongly than ever before into a focus on defending not just policies that help the Latinx community, but democracy itself, NALEO Southeast Regional Director Jackie Colon said.

“Our mission is even more focused on making sure that defending our democracy is really at the forefront of our efforts,” Colon said. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s where we are.”

The SPLC grant is allowing NALEO to marshal sophisticated digital tools to micro-target Latinx voters in central Florida. Using ads on the internet and on radio and television, as well as events on campuses and mailers, NALEO is finding potential voters, helping them register to vote and holding question-and-answer sessions on how new voting laws have affected Florida. On Sept. 20, National Voter Registration Day, NALEO, election supervisors from three major Florida counties and leaders of about 40 social justice organizations representing a broad range of communities and faiths held a press conference to foster trust in the voting process.

“This is crucial because we are all coming together for the love of our community,” Colon said. “These SPLC grants have allowed us to really think outside the box.”

The Common Ground Project – Grant Amount: $24,000

How do you build trust and confidence in the voting process in an era when political leaders are fomenting the opposite? How do you convince citizens that nothing nefarious is happening in their elections office?

Bolstered by funding from the SPLC, The Common Ground Project Florida, a nonprofit voter engagement organization, came up with an obvious answer: Let people see from the inside how those local elections offices work.

As part of what the Project is calling The Florida Trust Local Initiative, this month and next it is inviting a bipartisan group of local influencers to town halls across 10 of the biggest counties in the state – and then taking them on tours of their local election supervisor operations.

“If any of the issues that come up undermine voter confidence in the electoral process, then we will have community validators who are able to say, ‘Hey, I went and saw the process. I trust the process,’” said Executive Director Lisa Perry. “We decided the most important thing we could do right now to protect democracy is to ensure that voters have faith in the democratic process. Undermining it is, to us, a very clear tactic to intimidate voters. We are pushing back.”

Engage Miami, a nonprofit founded in 2015, is among 39 voter outreach organizations receiving Vote Your Voice grants this year. Pictured, Engage Miami staffers, back row from left: Briyana Joseph, Daphnee Arana, Yanelis Valdes, Jessica Saint-Fleur, Gracey Jean-Bernard and Andrea Azalia. Front row from left: Nadjeda Cherilien, Alexandra Contreras, Isa Zuluaga, Caro Gutierrez and Rebecca Pelham. (Credit: Engage Miami)