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Vote Your Voice Alabama: Building a better democracy through community action

When you ask people about Angela Curry, founder and executive director of United Women of Color (UWOC) in Madison County, Alabama, certain words come to mind: strategic, detailed and committed.

“She taught us the significance of why every little step, every little thing – even the small details that you thought were insignificant – she made us realize why they matter. She’s always connecting the dots,” said Aneesah Saafiyah-Lige.

She met Curry in 2019 at a community meeting held by the NAACP chapters of Madison and Limestone counties in response to the police killing of Dana Fletcher, a 39-year-old Black man in Madison, Alabama. Saafiyah-Lige had traveled there from Decatur, less than 20 miles west, to support the community’s quest for justice.

Curry spoke at the meeting. Impassioned by the community’s collective pain and need for accountability, she trained her focus on something actionable.

“The pain in this room is real. … There needs to be a place where this pain can be expressed. Because it doesn’t do any of us any good to keep having to suppress it,” Curry said. “The Legislature has not designated an objective timeframe for when bodycam footage has to be released. So that’s something that all of us here can advocate to our legislators.”

Saafiyah-Lige and Curry took to each other right away. After learning more about her background as an organizer, Curry encouraged Saafiyah-Lige and a tight-knit group of friends to lead a community organization of their own.

“She said you’re doing the work already,” Saafiyah-Lige said. “You all need to form and become a unit, and I’ll help you do that.”

Curry taught the group everything from organizing principles and community engagement to networking and media training – at one point even instructing them on the minutia of putting together an email to supporters.

It’s this kind of on-the-ground democracy-building that the Southern Poverty Law Center is supporting through its Vote Your Voice grant program. In October, the SPLC announced that UWOC has been awarded a $90,000 Vote Your Voice grant over three years to support its work empowering, connecting and organizing Alabama women and the communities they serve.

“Building power to advance racial and civic equity in the Deep South is day-to-day,” said Robin Brule, the SPLC’s Vote Your Voice program officer. “Groups like United Women of Color are working with their community members around local engagement where folks can recognize that they do have a voice and they do have power to change things in their communities.”

The Vote Your Voice initiative, created by the SPLC in partnership with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, supports local, community-based organizations that are working to strengthen civic participation among people of color in the Deep South. The SPLC has pledged $100 million in grants over the next decade to support grassroots organizations in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.

a woman speaks into a microphone
Angela Curry, founder and executive director of United Women of Color, speaks at the United and EmpowHERed event in 2023. (Courtesy of UWOC)

Supporting women and communities

The education Saafiyah-Lige received when she met Curry would be put to use sooner than she imagined. She and the members of her nonprofit, Standing in Power, have led the charge for justice in the September police killing of 39-year-old Decatur resident Stephen Perkins.

“Ms. Angela, we call her our Ella Baker,” Saafiyah-Lige said, referring to the community organizer and political activist known as the “mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Since its founding in 2018, UWOC has aimed to amplify women’s voices by fighting for higher wages, more expansive health care and greater transparency from local government leaders and law enforcement.

“Voting is one slice of the civic engagement pie,” Curry said. “So, we go about teaching people all the different ways that you can be civically engaged, even if you never vote. That includes speaking up at city budget meetings, holding candidate forums, training people to run for local offices, and advocating for policies that directly impact our lives.”

While women account for 52% of Madison County’s population, they are underrepresented in government leadership. They are also more likely to be living in poverty, a voting barrier that Curry’s organization seeks to address.

In 2019, UWOC launched a free interview skills workshop for women seeking professional development and last year made available a Grow with Google Scholarship program that provides free online certification programs in information technology, project management and other STEM careers to unemployed and underemployed people seeking stable jobs. There are more than 60 people currently enrolled.

“It’s hard to talk about civic engagement when you’re worried about paying your light bill,” Curry said.

Turning voters into advocates

This summer, when The Arc of Madison County, an organization that provides support to people with intellectual disabilities, contacted UWOC about engaging the people they serve to vote and advocate for policies that impact them, the group held a voter clinic on site. Curry and UWOC staff educated participants about how to fill out voter registration forms, how to cast their ballots in person and knowing their rights at the voting booth.

The group is currently seeking a voting machine that it can use to hold mock elections to further demonstrate the process to first-time and infrequent voters who will be the focus of its civic engagement campaigns.

For Arc participants like Vonda Lang, who has voted previously in multiple state and presidential elections, the clinic offered a chance to get more people involved in the political process and to address some of the issues people with disabilities face at the voting booth.

“Getting around isn’t easy,” Lang said. “Like with me, I’m in a group home and they will take me to vote. But, if I wasn’t, it would be difficult, even with public transportation.”

With the Vote Your Voice grant, UWOC hopes to increase the county’s 40% voter turnout rate by mobilizing people ages 18 to 45 in Black and Brown, LGBTQ+ and other underserved communities through mentorship and voter education programs.

“If there aren’t nonprofit groups out here informing people about voting, you don’t really see it on television, people don’t receive a card in the mail. There’s a lack of access to information,” said Curry.

The organization plans to expand its operations into bordering Morgan and Limestone counties. Together, the counties comprise the greater population of the state’s 5th Congressional District.

The Vote Your Voice grant will allow UWOC to hold mock elections at community centers throughout the three counties; recruit and train more than a dozen civic engagement leaders to participate in community outreach and host voter education events; and provide residents with legislative scorecards through direct mail.

This kind of work is central to the Vote Your Voice initiative’s objectives.

“Our overall goal is to strengthen the infrastructure and support for organizations that are doing the day-to-day work of engaging community members to participate in our democracy,” said Vote Your Voice senior adviser Amy Dominguez-Arms.

“This is a decade-long effort to achieve a more equitable democracy in the South. By lifting up the impact of these organizations and sharing with others, we hope to direct more funding to the South to support this work and to encourage other partners to join us in this effort.”

Here’s a look at Alabama’s other Vote Your Voice grant recipients and how they plan to use this funding to strengthen democracy:

Alabama A&M University – Grant Amount: $100,000

Alabama A&M University is a community-focused institution founded in 1875 by a formerly enslaved man, William Hooper Councill. With a strong commitment to academic excellence, service and civic engagement, the university functions as a teaching, research and public service institution – including an extension program that provides educational resources to Alabama residents – with over 6,600 students currently enrolled in the university. The grant will help the institution, which is among the historically Black colleges and universities in Alabama, to expand student voter registration and civic engagement and grow the number of faculty members involved in engagement and social justice activities.

Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice – Grant Amount: $150,000

The Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice is a statewide network working to move Alabama toward a more equitable multiethnic, multilingual future from the ground up. Its efforts are centered in Madison, Morgan, Jefferson, Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, Baldwin and Mobile – Alabama counties with the highest combined concentrations of Latinx and Black voters. With the grant, the group will educate Latinx community members about voting rights, the history of voter suppression and redistricting. It aims to register and mobilize Latinx and Black voters with a low propensity for voting in the lead-up to the 2024 general elections and for 2025 municipal elections in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Mobile.

Alabama Institute for Social Justice – Grant Amount: $100,000

The Alabama Institute for Social Justice works to remove barriers to economic justice for women and people of color through leadership training and development, public policy advocacy, racial healing and reconciliation. It partners with organizations across the state to engage communities at the grassroots level. The grant will ensure that eligible Black Belt voters from traditionally underrepresented or underserved communities – including first-time voters, non-college youth, new citizens, elderly people and people with low incomes – have the opportunity and the information they need to vote.

Destiny Driven – Grant Amount: $65,000

Destiny Driven advances youth advocacy through education on public speaking and debate, empowering young people to communicate effectively, think critically and resolve conflicts. With the SPLC grant, Destiny Driven will increase voting restoration awareness among returning citizens and first-time voters, particularly for people leaving youth detention in Alabama. The organization will create a youth policy council to encourage leadership development; engage students to participate in voter registration drives by partnering with local colleges; and host regional youth summits to collaborate with young adults throughout the South.

Faith in Action – Grant Amount: $150,000

Faith in Action is a multiracial, interfaith community organization that seeks to dismantle systemic racism and create pathways of opportunity for all Alabamians through racial justice. It will use the grant to engage Alabamians in voter participation and civic engagement, particularly among voters of color. The group seeks to engage youth of color; strengthen voter engagement capacity in Montgomery, Mobile, Birmingham and Huntsville; and leverage local elections in 2024 and 2025 to build capacity for voter turnout in communities of color for the 2026 gubernatorial election.

Foot Soldiers Park – Grant Amount: $300,000

Foot Soldiers Park’s mission is to preserve and celebrate the civil rights history of Selma; economically and culturally revitalize the city and its residents; and train the next generation of activists to continue to fight against racism and voter suppression. With its grant, the organization aims to build capacity for civic engagement; increase voter enrollment and participation among unregistered non-participants by 20% each year for the next three years; empower citizens to influence local government policy; and assist them in shifting the distribution of power through new representation in the city council, county government and the state Legislature.

Friends of the West End – Grant Amount: $300,000

Friends of the West End is a community-based organization that serves as an advocate for Birmingham’s West End neighborhood, a community that is 98% Black and suffers from high unemployment and low economic investment. The group seeks to improve incomes, provide access to safe and affordable housing, and fight crime. With its grant, the organization will increase civic education and voter participation in the West End and within a 40-county network of Alabama’s underserved and frequently ignored Black and Brown communities – particularly for individuals between 18 and 27. Its goal is to enable these communities to better understand the systems that have perpetuated the conditions in the places they call home.

Limestone County NAACP – Grant Amount: $50,000

The Limestone County NAACP advocates for Black people from all walks of life living in Limestone County, Alabama. Currently, there are about 13,000 Black residents in the county and about 9,500 active Black voters. With this grant, the organization seeks to increase election participation among Black nonregistered and nonactive voters; increase awareness and understanding of voting procedures throughout the community; and increase the resources available to help voters of color participate in elections.

Stand-Up Mobile: A Blueprint for Us – Grant Amount: $45,000

Stand-Up Mobile: A Blueprint for Us aims to strengthen democracy in Mobile, Alabama, by building an engaged, informed and active electorate to ensure that all people have their voices heard. With this grant, the group seeks to increase voter turnout among communities of color throughout the county and city of Mobile – particularly in rural areas and older parts of the city where the needs of communities of color have long been neglected. It aims to increase the number of young adult voters and encourage greater citizen engagement and action in these communities. Stand-Up Mobile and the SPLC won a historic victory in 2022 when the city council adopted a redistricting map that could give voters the opportunity to elect a majority-Black council for the first time.

The Ordinary People Society – Grant Amount: $500,000

The Ordinary People Society is a faith-based community program that supports individuals and at-risk youth by fostering an environment of acceptance and care to people who suffer from the effects of drug addiction, mass incarceration, poverty, unemployment, hunger and illness. Through this grant, the nonprofit will assist in removing barriers to vote and will develop and distribute voter information relating to voter rights restoration, registration, absentee voting and poll-working with the goal of increasing voter turnout in historically underserved Black communities and building a permanent framework for future elections.

Alabama Forward – Grant Amount: $200,000

Alabama Forward is a statewide network of organizations working to champion progressive values, increase democratic participation and achieve racial equity. The organization works to advance solution-oriented policy and build capacity within its coalition of nonpartisan organizations. With this grant, Alabama Forward will work to boost voter engagement among infrequent registered voters, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and rural residents in 13 counties throughout the state. Its efforts will center on civic engagement, election reform and support for emerging leaders and organizations that have been traditionally under-resourced.

Alabama Alliance – Grant Amount: $45,000

Alabama Alliance is a progressive statewide funding collaborative committed to building a more equitable and inclusive political infrastructure in Alabama by electing leaders who are focused on systemic change, and upholding government accountability and transparency. With this grant, the nonprofit will undertake an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the current political infrastructure and gaps in existing capacity to identify how it can be improved; create recommendations for areas of investment; build field strategies; and expand digital communications and staffing.

From left: Angela Swain, Erica Washington and Rosie Landers at the United and EmpowHERed event, UWOC's five-year anniversary celebration, held at the University of Alabama in Huntsville on Women's Equality Day in August 2023. (Credit: Jim Teed)