“We Know What We’re Doing”: How To Engage With Black Women Organizers Ahead of the 2022 Midterm Elections

Shenita Binns (center left) and her daughter Ysrael Binns (center right) of Atlanta participate in a “Freedom Friday March” protest at the MLK Memorial in D.C. on Aug. 6, 2021—the 56th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. Activists urged the Senate “to end the filibuster so we can pass legislation to solve the urgent crises confronting our nation, voting rights, D.C. statehood and reparations.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Georgia has become a playground for political strategists and influencers to stake their claim in shifting the politics of the South since 2018.   

Before 2018, Georgia was routinely dismissed outright by national organizations as a waste of resources. By the 2020 presidential election, Georgia was solidified as a battleground state with millions of dollars pouring in, seemingly overnight.

Despite the groundwork laid by decades of grassroots organizing, national civic engagement organizations and nonprofit funders treat Georgia as a toy of the moment—dropping in at the last minute and deploying ineffective strategies in an attempt to attract voters of color. This tactless behavior often completely ignores or outright contradicts the work of grassroots organizations with experienced state leadership, in the lead up to each and every election.  

These outside forces may be filled with good intentions to increase voter engagement and participation, but deploying truly successful voter outreach tactics in marginalized communities requires year-round organizing and funding. 

ProGeorgia is made up of over 30 organizations working to advance civic engagement in the state, and we have had our feet on the ground long before national civic organizations, funders and even mainstream media took notice of Georgia and the Black women leading those efforts.

We provided the tools and resources required to canvass neighborhoods across Georgia and support early voting and Election Day efforts. 

We also stepped up to make sure the pandemic didn’t deter people from registering to vote. We handed out PPE and updated our outreach tactics. During the 2020 pandemic, ProGeorgia partner organizations registered almost 30,000 people, and 91 percent of the newly registered voters are people of color. 

None of this work is new. 

For decades, Black women organizers have worked on the ground to increase voter turnout. We’ve worked within churches, sororities, local centers, neighborhoods, and anywhere communities gather to develop deep community relationships. As a result of that labor, love and commitment, most of Georgia’s voting-eligible population is registered to vote

January 2021 in Decatur, Ga. (Nicole Guidotti-Hernandez)

The results didn’t come overnight, but the national spotlight that followed did.  

Names of Black organizers such as Deborah Scott, executive director of Georgia Stand-Up, and Helen Butler, executive director of Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, began to rise to national prominence.

These leaders and Black women organizers were lauded in 2020 when they delivered historic voter turnout numbers in Black and Brown communities. 

Political analysts went on national television attempting to dissect Georgia’s tremendous voter turnout in both the presidential election and Senate runoff race

But just like that, as quickly as the national spotlight on Black women organizers shined brightly after the 2020 elections, it has dimmed two years later. The financial investments, resources, and above all, trust in our work is nowhere to be seen as this year’s election cycle gears up.   

However, there are ways national civic engagement groups and nonprofit funders can best engage with local organizations led by Black women organizers. 

Acknowledge the Work of Black Women Organizers

These groups need to include the expertise of Black women organizers in their strategies year-round in order to effectively engage communities of color. 

National civic engagement organizations are quick to forget our impact. Yet, we have proven that Black women organizers are a large portion of the formula needed to increase voter turnout in Georgia.

The financial investments, resources, and above all, trust in Black women organizers’ work is nowhere to be seen as this year’s election cycle gears up.   

Grassroots organizations such as ProGeorgia have worked for decades in the state to increase voter turnout. We’ve created successful strategies centered around the communities of color we serve. We have authentic community relationships and a track record of impact.  

Trust me, we know what we’re doing and you need us to maintain high voter turnout rates. 

Work Together as Equal Partners

Many campaigns and national civic engagement organizations come to Georgia without the foundational understanding of the state’s vulnerable and often marginalized communities. Outsiders arrive with prebaked plans that they expect we implement at their beckoning. 

That needs to end. 

Campaigns need to stop parachuting into our communities of color with buzzwords around racial and economic issues that are often discussed with a national level frame rather than a local one. 

Instead, they need to work in partnership with those already on the ground to come up with an effective strategy.

We need to be trusted as experts in our state.

By building true partnership between state-based organizations led by Black women organizers and national civic groups, we can succeed in increasing civic engagement and serving vulnerable communities. 

If You Want Our Full Capacity, Let Go of Busywork

Once national civic organizations and nonprofit funders decide to work with us, we become the recipients of an onslaught of busywork from tedious paperwork to time-consuming trainings, and other requirements that distract us from the true goals at hand.

Funders often require paperwork akin to a term paper that outlines our funding needs. Yet, most organizations led by Black women are small and lack the capacity to meet this strenuous requirement. This obsession with frivolous paperwork, which could be resolved with a brief discussion, stems from a lack of trust in our leadership. 

Funders’ obsession with frivolous paperwork, which could be resolved with a brief discussion, stems from a lack of trust in our leadership. 

To be most successful, grassroots organizations need space to experiment and develop new approaches to engaging communities, but that can’t be done if we’re spending time doing unnecessary administrative work. Capacity is limited and we must focus on the real goals at hand: engaging communities effectively and mobilizing voters. 

Acknowledging our work, approaching projects as equal partners, and limiting unnecessary assignments are a few starting points for outside organizations to keep in mind in order to respectfully and properly engage with Black women organizers.

Before funders and national civic engagement groups come to Georgia, it’s worth remembering that the increase in civic engagement and the successful voter turnout in recent elections in the state is due to the work of Black women organizers.

We have built a network of on-the-ground organizers and developed well-executed outreach strategies in the state, and if Black women are empowered to lead the conversation without hurdles in the way, we can create a more inclusive democracy.

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Tamieka Atkins is the executive director of ProGeorgia, a nonpartisan civic engagement table made up of over 30 organizations working collaboratively across issue areas to advance civic engagement in the state of Georgia.