Lyord Watson Jr. thought he was well versed in the history surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation.
He had every reason to be. A preacher who is founder and CEO of Penny Foundation Inc., a Birmingham, Alabama-based community chest working to eliminate economic inequality in the Black community, Watson has made understanding the American story, particularly where it concerns his people, something of a mission.
But a documentary film Watson viewed at a retreat this past August, organized by the nonprofit Mosaic Changemakers, gave him new perspective on how much he didn’t know.
The film, “Lakota Nation vs. United States,” was about the execution of 38 Indigenous people who fought white settlers over the loss of their homeland in the Dakota War, also known as the Sioux uprising. Convicted of murder or rape after a series of cursory trials in which they were denied counsel, the Sioux fighters were hung on the orders of President Abraham Lincoln on Dec. 26, 1862 – just six days before the so-called champion of oppressed people signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“I’m still grappling with how these two things could have been true at the very same time,” Watson said. “You’ve got two different peoples – one fighting to keep their land, one fighting for freedom – and the timelines are overlapping. … I don’t know everything, but I try to study what is generally not out there and know something about it. Yet I never put these two timelines together before.”
In screening the film for Watson and about 20 other leaders of color from across the South, Mosaic Changemakers was making its foundational argument – that by learning how the experiences of the diverse peoples they represent crossed in the past, people of vastly different backgrounds can influence their collective futures as they work for change.
To boost its efforts, Mosaic Changemakers was awarded a $200,000 field strengthening grant from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Vote Your Voice initiative in October. It is among 68 organizations in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi selected to receive grants this year through the initiative, which is a partnership between the SPLC and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta.
The mission of Mosaic Changemakers, based in Nashville, is to bring together changemakers of color for a yearlong, intellectually rigorous fellowship of retreats and regular in-person and virtual gatherings. The fellowship has a simple goal for participants: to learn from each other, strengthen each other and enhance their power to lead in a multiracial, multicultural society.
‘A shared struggle’
Vote Your Voice was launched in 2020 with $30 million in SPLC grants to help ensure voter participation and representation for Black communities and other communities of color across the Deep South. The program helps grassroots organizations and coalitions expand voter outreach, civic engagement and leadership development activities in communities of color. In 2021, it was expanded to a 10-year, $100 million initiative.
“State officials across the South have tried in recent years to deny voters – especially Black and Brown voters – a voice in government and in shaping our future,” said SPLC President and CEO Margaret Huang. “Despite all that, a new majority is clearly emerging in the region, one that is ready to restore and expand the rights and opportunities so critical to our communities. Transformational change is possible in the South, which is why the SPLC is thrilled to invest in organizations on the ground that are working with Black and Brown voters to build power, push back on these suppressive tactics and build a multiracial, inclusive democracy for all.”
For Mosaic Changemakers, building an inclusive democracy includes challenging the people engaged in democracy building. Thus the screening and the retreat of which it was part.
“Maybe the strongest reason why Mosaic exists is to combat the zero-sum narratives between different communities of color,” said Renata Soto, Mosaic Changemakers founder and president.
Soto emigrated from Costa Rica to the U.S. as a student and got her start in community organizing while working to advance immigrant rights. Her launch of the organization grew out of the recognition that advocates need opportunities to recharge, share perspectives and find ways to work collectively. That recognition came after a crushing defeat for immigration reform efforts.
“Despite the different journeys of how we ended up in this country, there is also a shared struggle to fight for the full recognition of our shared humanity,” Soto said. “We leaders of color need to create our own space to get to know each other, to confront tensions, to combat colorism and anti-blackness in our own communities. We need to engage in learning together and unlearning together.”
Carlos Alemán is the CEO of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, a community development and advocacy organization in Birmingham that champions economic equality, civic engagement and social justice for Latinx and immigrant families in Alabama.
Alemán’s organization helps Latinx entrepreneurs get business licenses. It also helps community members navigate the justice and immigration systems. It provides language and civics skills and encourages Latinx people to register to vote and cast ballots.
But even though he dedicates himself to social justice in the same city as Lyord Watson Jr., Alemán said their paths rarely crossed until they both received Mosaic Changemaker fellowships this year.
At one gathering, the fellows viewed a film about Black author and civil rights activist James Baldwin and were assigned to read the autobiography of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose parents were from Puerto Rico.
“You saw the lightbulbs going off among the Latino leaders, myself among them, who have never really engaged deeply with Baldwin,” Aleman recalled. “Then we had to read Sotomayor’s memoir, and our Black counterparts had to engage deeply with people of our background and what the challenges are that we face.”
For Jamarah Amani, a licensed midwife who is executive director of the Miami-based Southern Birth Justice Network, the respite and nurturing environment offered by the fellowship matters almost as much as the learning. The pandemic and the years that have followed have been particularly brutal for midwives and other health care professionals, she said, and for the mission of making midwifery and other forms of birth care accessible to Black women, who suffer disproportionately high rates of mortality in childbirth.
“It’s an investment in myself,” Amani said. “Mosaic is investing in me, and I’m investing the time to be present for what they are creating. It is a game changer in terms of being able to shift out of our perspective. I can ask, ‘What are the preconceived notions that I am holding about people of Latino descent? What have I failed to understand about the plight of Indigenous people?’ If we are trying to generate a value shift in our society, then we first have to be it.”
What lies at the heart of the fellowship experience is the freedom and the opportunity for people working hard to make change to be frank about what they need to know to make that change happen.
“In that room together, we can be really honest about what our knowledge gaps are and how to work together to strengthen what we are doing,” Alemán said. “It’s not that we have the same struggles, but we have parallel struggles, and that understanding can really inform all of our work.”
Here is a look at the other multistate Vote Your Voice grant recipients this year and how they plan to use their funding:
Action for the Climate Emergency – Grant Amount: $500,000
Founded in 2008 to educate young people about the science of climate change and empower them to take action, Action for the Climate Emergency has a record of building diverse youth participation in democracy, reaching tens of millions of student and youth voters via digital campaigns, calls, texts, door knocks and voter contacts. The nonprofit will use the Vote Your Voice grant to fund a wide range of voter mobilization strategies, establish a field team in Georgia and grow its existing team in Louisiana in preparation for the 2024 election. It also plans digital campaigns to increase online registration and youth civic engagement.
Urban Strategies Inc. – Grant Amount: $500,000
Based in St. Louis, Missouri, Urban Strategies Inc. has been instrumental since its founding in 1971 in revitalizing dozens of neighborhoods in 25 cities. With the SPLC grant, it plans to build on relationships with more than 30,000 families in Black and Brown communities, particularly in New Orleans, Miami and Fort Myers, Florida, to grow participation at the ballot box. It plans meetings with families at case management check-ins, digital outreach, public signage and printed flyers. It also plans to develop the skills of community leaders to encourage voter registration and participation.
Vot-ER – Grant Amount: $425,000
Founded by health care professionals who believe that increasing participation in the voting process leads to healthier communities, Vot-ER develops nonpartisan civic engagement tools and programs for the health care system – from private practitioners to medical schools to hospitals. Working in more than 500 hospitals and clinics across the country, Vot-ER has helped tens of thousands of Americans register and prepare to vote. The Vote Your Voice grant will help Vot-ER engage and train more than 4,000 doctors, nurses and medical professionals to incorporate voter registration, mobilization and education into their daily patient intake, outtake and care procedures in Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi hospitals, medical schools and community health centers.
Asia and Pacific Islander American Vote – Grant Amount: $400,000
Founded in 2007, at a time when voter participation among the fast-growing Asian American population in the U.S. was historically low, APIAVote has built a national system of 80 trusted community partner organizations in 29 states to reach millions of Asian American and Pacific Islander voters. The SPLC grant will help APIAVote expand its network to communities in Alabama and Florida by conducting a landscape analysis to assess community needs, funding field interviews with and training of community leaders, and helping bankroll digital and in-person voter engagement activities.
Students Learn Students Vote Coalition – Grant Amount: $400,000
More than 800 higher education institutions have turned their campuses into centers of student voting and engagement over the past decade thanks to their partnerships with Students Learn Students Vote Coalition, based in Washington, D.C. To help the coalition ramp up voter engagement efforts on campuses before the 2024 elections, the Vote Your Voice grant will provide money for administrators and faculty at colleges and universities throughout the Deep South to engage directly with students and boost campus registration drives. It also funded travel for students in need from Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi to attend the National Student Vote Summit, held in November at the University of Maryland, College Park and in Washington.
Poder Latinx – Grant Amount: $400,000
Founded in 2019, Poder Latinx was created to build voting power among Latinx communities in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Texas and Washington, D.C. Its teams in Georgia and Florida, made up entirely of Latinx women, have played pivotal roles in registering and mobilizing Latinx voters in both urban and rural areas. With the Vote Your Voice grant in Georgia, Poder Latinx plans a campaign to register and mobilize voters by working with community organizations, knocking on doors, texting, phone banking, emailing and through social media engagement. It will focus on non-metro areas, engaging and educating hard-to-reach communities that face systemic challenges to access the ballot.
Mi Familia Vota Education Fund – Grant Amount: $400,000
With a mission to build Latinx political power by expanding the electorate, strengthening local infrastructures and engaging with voters, Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, established in 2003, has created youth development and family programs. It also advocates on immigrant rights, the environment, workers’ rights, education and health care. It plans to use the SPLC grant to support voter and civic engagement in youth and rural communities in Florida and Georgia. The work will include youth workshops, as well as large-scale vote-by-mail, digital engagement and social media campaigns.
Civic Nation – Grant Amount: $300,000
As a funder and partner of high-impact organizing and education initiatives since 2018, Civic Nation is focused on increasing inclusivity and equity throughout the U.S. Its programs to register and educate voters and drive voter engagement and turnout are central to its mission. The Vote Your Voice grant will help fund its investments in voter education and turnout in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Its goals include registering at least 500,000 new voters and organizing hundreds of partners to build a culture of voting, including educational institutions, community partners, and leading brands and voices in music, sports, entertainment and media.
Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Families Movement – Grant Amount: $300,000
A national network of more than 60 civil and human rights organizations in 21 states and Washington, D.C., the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Families Movement fights for criminal legal reform and advocates for people impacted by incarceration. The SPLC grant will help it guide formerly incarcerated individuals or those no longer on probation or parole on how they can register to vote and cast ballots. The funding will be directed toward efforts in Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Mississippi to harness data that will empower target communities and quantify impact; to drive people to the polls and provide bilingual information to voters; and to grow the organization’s network of civic engagement and grassroots mobilization.
Boat People SOS – Grant Amount: $240,000
The largest and longest-serving Vietnamese American community-based organization in the U.S., Boat People SOS uses its citizenship services and a network of clients, volunteers and media partners developed over 43 years to mobilize community members to register to vote, develop voting plans and cast ballots. It also leads community educational workshops, canvassing, phone banking, media outreach and voter registration events with highly trained, bilingual and bicultural staff. The SPLC grant will help fund communication campaigns in Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama using social media, e-newsletters and mass emailing to reach at least 10,000 Asian Americans, recruit and train volunteers, and provide transportation, cultural, financial and linguistic help to get out the vote.
New Disabled South – Grant Amount: $200,000
Started two years ago in Atlanta by a man with cerebral palsy who recognized the need in the South for advocacy for people with disabilities, New Disabled South has developed the first disability engagement program in political campaign history, building a fully accessible field operation with the goal of turning out voters with disabilities. New Disabled South now serves people with disabilities across 14 Southern states. The SPLC grant will help it hire organizers with disabilities, educate voters with disabilities online and in person, translate important election information into easy Braille and American Sign Language and provide accessible transportation to and help at the polls for voters with disabilities.
Progressive Black Men Inc. – Grant Amount: $35,000
Since its founding on the campus of Florida State University in 1989, Progressive Black Men Inc. has promoted academic excellence, professional guidance and the eradication of negative stereotypes affecting people of African descent. The Vote Your Voice grant will bolster its capacity to increase the involvement of Black voters, particularly students, in democracy-building through voter registration initiatives, voter education workshops, social media campaigns and community improvement projects. The organization will also use the funds to engage Black students at colleges and universities in Florida and Georgia through town hall forums, leadership training, mobile voter registration units and other online and in-person political awareness campaigns.
Photo at top: A Mosaic Changemakers cohort at a seminar in Bailey, Colorado, in December 2023. (Courtesy of Mosaic Changemakers)