At a recent listening session, Ashley Shelton, founder and executive director of the New Orleans-based nonprofit Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, learned something about why Louisiana’s Black vote in November’s statewide general elections was the lowest in more than a decade.
“Nothing is changed in my life,” a Black, middle-aged contractor told the group, beginning an exchange with Shelton about how the 2024 elections will affect his life.
“I asked him if his homeowner’s insurance went up,” Shelton said. “He said, ‘yes.’ I told him, ‘Homeowner’s insurance went up $500 to $700 a month because the state has not prioritized those most in need.’ Who can just find $500 out of thin air?”
That only fueled his discontent. He told Shelton that no matter who is in office, the government will take advantage of people like him.
“That’s just one example of what they always do,” he said.
The conversation may highlight one reason for the low turnout in 2023 for Black Louisianans, who make up nearly one-third of the population in this disaster-prone, impoverished state but vote in low numbers. It’s a lack of faith in government despite notable advancements.
Even with a conservative supermajority in both houses of the state Legislature, the state ended the racist practice of nonunanimous jury convictions in felony trials, re-enfranchised returning citizens, expanded voting rights and early childhood education, and protected people with disabilities – positive changes influenced by the Power Coalition’s longtime advocacy.
Despite these improvements, only 28% of Louisiana’s registered Black voters participated in the primary election and only 18% in the runoff, according to Shelton. These figures are down from 40% and 50%, respectively, in 2019, she said.
The grim turnout comes despite eight years of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ progressive leadership. And his successor appears poised to reverse the positive tide.
The newly elected governor is former state Attorney General Jeff Landry. A hard-right politician who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, Landry has promised to undo the reforms of his predecessor in a special session during his first month in office.
“Black voters had the most to lose,” Shelton said. “That’s why it’s surprising that they didn’t show up. We have to understand where folks are before we face future elections. We need to reconnect people with democracy.”
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to get out the vote, too. Shelton is building that village with funding from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The three-year, $750,000 field organizing grant will support voter outreach efforts for the Power Coalition’s statewide anchor partners.
The Power Coalition is among 68 voter outreach groups across the Deep South that are receiving a portion of more than $20 million in SPLC funding as part of the latest round of Vote Your Voice grants.
Vote Your Voice is an SPLC initiative, conducted in partnership with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, to increase voter registration, participation and civic engagement among communities of color in the Deep South. The SPLC has pledged to award $100 million in Vote Your Voice grants through 2032.
“Nonpartisan efforts to ensure everyone’s voice is heard at the polls are critical,” Robin Brule, SPLC Vote Your Voice program officer said.
“Organizations working at the ground level with a deep knowledge of the communities they serve well, such as the Power Coalition, are positioned to make a significant impact in voter education and registration and leverage political power through the ballot box. They promote community empowerment and self-determination in a way that leads to a more equitable and just society.”
To reach 600,000 Black and Brown voters by 2026, the nonpartisan Power Coalition will scale up its relationships with faith leaders, college campus leaders and grassroots community leaders working on issues including climate change, criminal legal and youth education reform, affordable housing, maternal health care and pay equity. The coalition uses the grant money it receives to fund anchor partners.
“Two years after COVID, and we are the second-poorest state in the nation,” Shelton said.
She mentioned a litany of issues creating voter apathy including debt and the fact that Black workers, especially women, account for more than 8% of jobs lost.
What’s more, parents and guardians are still coping with children who have behavioral issues stemming from isolation during the pandemic.
“People are drowning,” said Shelton, who believes people need to see a government that works for them. “Now we have to stand in that battle and win.”
Partners in democracy-building
The Power Coalition’s strategy to defend and advance much-needed reform lies in two major areas. One of them is through its redistricting map lawsuit, Robinson v. Ardoin, which seeks to create a second Black congressional voting district running from the Mississippi River Delta to North Baton Rouge. The second is major investment in its 11 anchor partners that are devoted to civic engagement.
In the field, these grassroots leaders stress “why things are the way they are,” as Morgan Shannon, Power Coalition’s director of strategic partnerships, puts it.
“We use that to register people to vote and get them involved in civil engagement, to break down civilly the reasons we have the outcomes we have,” Shannon said.
Through its Prophetic Power program, the organization will re-grant Vote Your Voice funding to influential church leaders who will engage parishioners. They, in turn, will go out and vote.
“We want to bring the social justice mission back into the church,” Shelton said.
Women of color play a fundamental role. Thirty percent of the SPLC grant will enable the expansion of the organization’s leadership-building She Leads! Community Activist Fellowship Program to new districts.
Since the core program’s inception in 2019, it has trained 125 people of color, including Vietnamese women, Indigenous women, Latinx women and people who identify as transgender and nonbinary. The program provides effective leadership and issues training, as well as technical, strategy and capacity building, such as grant-writing assistance for the trainees’ organizations.
Shelton hopes She Leads! will develop political candidates for future elections, noting that 50% of state House and Senate seats in the October statewide primary were unchallenged.
“Intentional investment in women of color, their family and community bring lots of return,” Shannon said.
A close look at two former She Leads! fellows who are current anchor partners shows exactly how these partnerships work.
Bree Anderson founded the A’sani Heartbeat Foundation for maternal health and well-being in 2022 after her infant daughter, A’sani, a fraternal twin, died eight days after premature birth. Her surviving twin, A’sir, required major surgeries before leaving the hospital nearly six months later.
Anderson knew that pregnant women in Louisiana received dismal maternal health care and that racial inequality in medical care disproportionately disadvantages Black people. According to a 2020 report from the Center for Reproductive Rights, Black women in Louisiana were four times more likely to die during pregnancy than white or Latinx women, and Black infants were twice as likely to die as white infants.
“As a young woman, I heard so many stories about women dying in childbirth, that my worst fear came true,” Anderson said.
The A’sani Heartbeat Foundation’s events, workshops and seminars are co-hosted by the Power Coalition. Shelton’s staff educates attendees about the legislative process and the impact of laws on reproductive rights, as well as how voting shapes policies and legislation.
And that legislation, even if it isn’t directly related to reproductive rights, affects families. For example, Louisiana incarcerated people at nearly twice the national average in 2017, leaving thousands of empty seats at family dinner tables.
Anderson’s family was among those affected. Her father was falsely convicted of murder charges and spent over 23 years in prison before the Innocence Project secured his release in 2015.
“Reproductive justice intersects with mass incarceration justice, criminal justice and voting rights,” Anderson said. “People of color aren’t educated on their reproductive rights, don’t know what questions to ask doctors and nurses or how to advocate for themselves and their babies’ well-being, and they aren’t educated on their rights to vote or the issues. We need autonomy, equity and fair representation.”
With the Power Coalition’s Vote Your Voice re-grant, Anderson hopes to expand her youth advocacy program to adults.
Bike N Vote
Morgan Walker, 33, founded Bike N Vote in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. An event organizer and marketer in New Orleans, Walker had not previously been politically active but was raised in a voting family. She was also a bicycle rider.
“I noticed people would say, ‘I’m gonna vote. I’m gonna vote,’” she said. “I thought, ‘How can we go together and make it fun?’”
In a city with insufficient public transportation and an ingrained bicycle-riding culture, Walker had the idea to rent bicycles, gather riders at a central location with music and vendors, and ride together less than two miles to New Orleans City Hall to vote. It seemed like the solution to getting young voters, 18 to 35, safely to the polls.
When about 100 people turned out just on word of mouth and social media announcements, it became clear to Walker: “I had something bigger than me,” she said.
With a re-grant from the Power Coalition’s Vote Your Voice funding, Walker will increase the number of bicycle rentals from 60 to 100. She plans to hold 10 to 12 rides a year. The state holds more frequent elections annually than all but three other states.
Riders assemble about 30 minutes before departure when Power Coalition staff conduct voter education. Sample ballots are distributed by QR codes.
At least twice a year, Walker rents space in New Orleans, where she hosts panel discussions with candidates and elected officials. Her riders are mostly people of color. According to the Power Coalition, 20% of the riders are first-time voters.
“The education piece is very important to provide to riders,” Walker said. “The main issue with youth is their lack of information. They don’t know who’s running, where their polling location is, and voting is just not appealing to them. Life is full. Some of them have two or three jobs, or they’re trying to start their own business. They’re in college, in a new city and don’t have the information.”
Walker will also use the new funding to expand across the east bank of the Mississippi River to the Algiers section of New Orleans in 2024. Bike N Vote is already in Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish.
“As advocates and organizations, we have to be creative in connecting to young people and meeting them where they are,” Walker said. “TV commercials aren’t that attractive to young people. Bike N Vote empowers millennials and young voters by creating new, eye-catching events and advertisements around elections to get out the vote.”
Here is a look at the other Vote Your Voice grant recipients in Louisiana this year and how they plan to use their funding:
Operation Restoration – Grant Amount: $150,000
Operation Restoration serves women and girls who have been affected by incarceration, particularly in housing, higher education and voting. The New Orleans-based nonprofit advocates for policy reform statewide and nationwide. It will use its two-year grant to launch a year-round voter education and registration campaign throughout Louisiana; add a lead, full-time organizer for statewide field and digital voter outreach; train staff to maintain nonpartisanship across all activities and communications; create and distribute voter education materials; and host community outreach and voter registration events to build collaborative power among civic leaders throughout Louisiana. Through its Operation Girls program, it will provide civic and voter engagement education and leadership development among Black girls and LGBTQ+ youth.
Together Louisiana – Grant Amount: $400,000
Together Louisiana (TLA) works to get out the local, state and national vote among urban and rural communities of color, adults ages 18-35 and economically vulnerable people. TLA is using its two-year funding to segue from its own door-to-door, phone and text canvassing outreach to a pledge-to-vote campaign strategy in partnership with 75 community and civic institutions with direct voter contact, such as houses of worship, fraternities and sororities, neighborhood organizations and unions. Its goal is to have 200 participating statewide voter engagement organizations by the end of 2025. With this new strategy, TLA plans to reach nearly 200,000 voters by December 2025 when the grant period ends.
Urban League of Louisiana – Grant Amount: $150,000
For most of its 85 years, Urban League of Louisiana has conducted statewide voter registration, mobilization and civic education serving communities of color at churches, high schools and college campuses, candidate forums, voter education and voting events and social media campaigns. Now with over 100 partners, including the SPLC, the nonprofit fights historic voter suppression and racially unfair gerrymandered legislative maps that dilute the power of their vote. The nonprofit, with community organizations, will use its one-year grant to conduct door canvassing, community meetings, registration drives and telephone banking in seven major metro areas and a statewide donor communications campaign of billboard ads, digital, text and mail messaging. Its goal is to register 10,000 to 15,000 voters in those seven areas by the presidential election in 2024.
Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) – Grant Amount: $300,000
Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) is devoted to criminal legal reform in Louisiana, the expansion and protection of voting rights for currently and formerly incarcerated people and support for returning citizens’ reentry into society. The nonprofit advocates, litigates and conducts voting registration in jails, prisons and courthouses. VOTE will use its two-year grant for strategic voter outreach and mobilization for local and congressional elections, with a focus on the state’s two Black-majority congressional districts. The organization will also educate communities on its ongoing federal litigation in VOTE v. Ardoin, which challenges part of Louisiana’s block on voting for people with felony convictions. VOTE will also educate communities on the importance of their vote. What’s more, it will increase its in-house legal team with interns and externs and expand statewide outreach to people who are on probation and parole.
Photo at top: Members of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice at the NOLA Zydeco Festival in New Orleans in March 2022. (Courtesy of Power Coalition for Equity and Justice)