While the presidential election on Nov. 8 looms large across the nation, St. Louis activists and community organizers are trying to refocus the conversation on local politics. Black & Engaged is a national project for mobilizing black voters under 40. Organizers held its final civic engagement training in downtown St. Louis as part of their four-city tour this month.
“The idea for [Black & Engaged] was to take the passion that we saw a lot of young people having on the streets around Black Lives Matter — Trayvon Martin — and give them a political grounding in it,” said lead organizer LaToia Jones. “One of the trainers said earlier, 'Instead of shutting sh*t down we want to teach them how to build sh*t up.'”
Before convening at St. Louis’ T-REX co-working space, Black & Engaged hosted trainings in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Philadelphia. Each city received region-specific conclaves hosted by experts from the area as well as across the country. St. Louis’ weekend included instruction on everything from building campaigns through street protests, to pushing for change in city hall, to teasing apart the meaning of proposed ballot measures.
Trayvon Martin’s brother, Jahvaris Fulton, attended the conference as well State Rep Candidate Bruce Franks and St. Louis activist Kayla Reed.
Tara Tee, director of Hands Up United, co-moderated a training highlighting how everyday community engagement is just as important as turning out at the polls during election season.
“Showing up to vote and then never talking to anybody or trying to get the village back any days in between — I can’t do anything with that,” Tee said. “You have to do something. If you’re not going to be voting, I expect your community garden to be poppin’. If you’re not going to have a community garden, then I expect you to be somewhere in a room, reading to some kids.”
Tee and other St. Louis organizers are planning more events around the upcoming mayoral race and the voter-ID related ballot measure, Amendment 6.
For Dr. Eniola Tammy Lynn Burton-Smith, learning about how tricky legislative language on the ballot can be has inspired her to reach out to others in her community.
“Before this, I have not been thoroughly engaged in the political process,” said Burton-Smith. “But this meeting has caused me to realize that I need to be on the front line. If people in my community don’t understanding the way an amendment is written, it’s my responsibility to be out there explaining it to them in plain and simple English.”
A common theme from the trainings was convincing participants to not wait for someone else to start the work they want to see happen in their communities.
“Don’t feel like you have to have this massive amount of people to start moving. Don’t feel like whatever you’re doing is not going to count,” Tee said. “Just grab some people and y’all start moving with principle and integrity — and they’ll come.”
Follow Jenny on Twitter @jnnnsmn