On the Ground: Michigan Liberation

Note: I had intended to write a light-hearted little post to close out the month here on Shrinkrapped, but with all the horrors in our country right now–particularly those visited upon people of color–I just couldn’t. Nor could I find new words to channel my heartache and rage. Instead, here is my latest piece for Airlift, an organization that supports grassroots organizations to engage and expand the electorate in key areas around the country. This post features Michigan Liberation.

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Turning non-voters into voters: Airlift’s mission aligns perfectly with Michigan Liberation, one of several grassroots groups our “Lift the Midwest” fund supports. Founded in 2018, Michigan Liberation is a statewide network of people and organizations organizing to end the criminalization of Black families and communities of color in Michigan.

One of the group’s first endeavors was a series of listening sessions that revealed just how widespread the impacts of archaic and discriminatory laws and policies have been among poorer communities, especially among people of color. As one participant noted, “Too often, people are caught up in the system because of financial instability. Between cash bail, court fines, legal fees, and other costs, it seems impossible to escape from under the load of expenses that start to rack up, further oppressing marginalized people. How is that about justice? A wealthy person could pay up and be done, but that’s not true for most of us.”

Those who have been incarcerated and their loved ones—which includes over half of Michigan Liberation’s staff and volunteers–know all too well the long-term devastation caused by criminal-legal involvement. Their leadership is key in healing communities from the pain and trauma of incarceration, and in transforming a broken system.

One such leader is Kimberly Woodson, Canvass Team Leader extraordinaire who was sentenced for life as a pregnant 17 year-old. After the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles serving a life sentence could apply for case review, Woodson was released in 2017, having spent 29 years behind bars. She started the non-profit Redeeming Kimberly to assist other returning citizens with housing, food, clothing, and jobs. Woodson facilitates forgiveness sessions, and inspires everyone at Michigan Liberation with her incredible energy and warm-heartedness.

Deep engagement and multiple conversations with low-propensity voters about issues that affect their daily lives were key to the electoral successes up and down the ballot in the 2018 mid-terms. In just five weeks, Michigan Liberation knocked on nearly 28,000 doors and talked personally with more than 5,000 people in three counties. Those for whom every day is a struggle may not pay much attention to national politics, but they care deeply about who’s elected as local sheriffs, prosecutors, and judges. Michigan Liberation’s education, endorsement, and empowerment efforts create powerful community advocates, and get people to the polls.

Michigan is one of the few states that automatically restore voting rights once people who have been convicted are released from jail or prison. But as Co-Director Meredith Loomis Quinlan explains, returning citizens often don’t know they can vote. Many probation and parole officers tell them it’s illegal, and people are too afraid to do anything that jeopardizes their freedom. Michigan Liberation works hard to change this through education and voter assistance. They’re  advocating for registration forms in every release packet in the state. Quinlan even imagines the day when packets include a letter from the Governor saying, “Welcome back to the democratic process!”

Such long-ignored voices matter in rebuilding an engaged citizenry and achieving electoral success up and down the ballot. In 2018, Michigan Liberation helped flip four state Senate seats, three State House seats, three County Commission seats, and a US Congressional seat. Statewide offices turned from red to blue in the Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State races.

“A Vision for a Liberated Michigan” was launched in November 2019. The agenda highlights eight themes vital to resolving the state’s mass incarceration crisis, including the school-to-prison pipeline; police and surveillance; mental health; sentencing; jails and prisons; and re-entry services after release. An example of the latter is Michigan Liberation’s Technology Empowerment classes for returning citizens.

These amazing successes by an increasingly effective movement not only have been transforming families, individuals, communities, and the state; they‘ve also paved the way for even greater voter engagement and turnout for 2020.

Then came COVID-19. The virus has had a particularly devastating effect on incarcerated populations, where overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and inadequate health care are routine. High rates of infection and even death among inmates and staff have catapulted the crisis into the news. Michigan Liberation and others are calling for immediate steps to stop the spread and save lives. On March 30, Governor Whitmer issued an executive order permitting (but not mandating) the early release of vulnerable inmates who pose no risk to public safety.

Earl Burton, a formerly incarcerated Michigan Liberation organizer, said Whitmer is on the right track, but more needs to be done, such as immediately releasing elderly and medically infirm prisoners and those already granted parole. “I personally know a few who are in no way shape or form a threat to public safety. You have prisoners who have been there for decades, and are no longer the same people that they were 30, 40 years ago,” Burton notes.

In addition to highlighting the urgency of Michigan Liberation’s criminal justice efforts, the coronavirus has also shifted the organization’s focus to providing desperately needed services such as water and food to suffering communities.

The political work continues under extremely trying circumstances. The staff switched to working from home before the shelter-in-place order. They all know someone who has died from COVID, and are hearing horror stories from friends and loved ones who are currently incarcerated.

Nonetheless, Michigan Liberation has nimbly pivoted to online community outreach and organizing. The prior year’s experience with Zoom and providing Tech Empowerment classes has come in handy! Michigan Liberation recently hired 14 online organizers and 4 digital communications people to amplify social media content. Canvassers engage in wellness checks, then relate people’s experiences with how their votes are vital in bringing about change.

Co-Director Quinlan notes a silver lining: As COVID has exposed the fault lines of a broken and unjust criminal-legal system, it has generated more empathy. “COVID provides a tangible measure of elected officials’ performance. What did they do or not do during this crisis?” she remarks. “We see it as an opportunity.”

Airlift also sees it as an opportunity. Michigan Liberation exemplifies how building movements from the grassroots up engages marginalized communities, which in turn translates into meaningful and progressive electoral change. Now more than ever, your contribution matters.

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Your generosity makes a difference. Please support Michigan Liberation and all the other great grassroots organizations Airlift funds by donating at https://secure.actblue.com/donate/airlift. Thank you!

On the Ground: Down Home North Carolina

Grassroots organizing is where it’s at, and I’ve gotten involved with Airlift, which raises funds to support some amazing organizations doing crucial work to turn non-voters into voters in key areas throughout the country. Check out this latest in my “On the Ground” series.

2020 is here, a hugely consequential year for our country and the world. As we welcome the New Year with hope and renewed determination for the work ahead, we also welcome a new organization into the fold that Airlift funds: Down Home North Carolina.

Down Home exemplifies the winning strategy of building political power from the ground up by engaging and expanding the electorate with those who have been most marginalized. Founded in June 2017 by organizers Todd Zimmer and Brigid Flaherty, Down Home’s focus is on building long-term, progressive infrastructure to empower working families in rural and small-town communities across North Carolina.  The co-directors both have deep roots in the state, and have witnessed how well-funded, right-wing interests have exploited racial differences and the rural/urban divide, pitting white, black, immigrant, and LGBTQ working families against one another to maintain power. Since 80 out of 100 North Carolina counties are rural, the balance of power won’t shift without investing in the vast people power ready to be unlocked in these long-neglected regions. After learning how to organize for issue advocacy and electoral success, Zimmer and Flaherty returned home to North Carolina to do “the heart work” necessary for making local, state, and national government serve the people’s interests, not the rich and powerful.

One of Down Home’s major undertakings was a Deep Listening Canvass, with trained canvassers holding more than 1,000 conversations across the political, racial, and economic spectrum in rural areas. Through nonjudgmental listening and sharing personal stories, those who commonly distrust one another discovered shared values and interests, coming together to forcefully advocate for Medicaid expansion, fair wages, education, the end of cash bail, and solutions to the opioid crisis. 

These issues matter to communities that have been devastated by the grinding poverty brought about by a hollowed-out economy and the defunding of education and social programs under Republican rule. Listening makes a huge difference: “No one’s ever asked me before,” was a common refrain among Deep Canvass participants. Such respectful engagement shifts not only hearts and minds, but participation: People who have never before paid attention to politics are now attending Town Halls and Leadership Trainings, challenging their elected representatives and injustice in the courts, educating their neighbors, working hard for electoral change, even running for—and winning!—office. DHNC-supported candidates won six out of eight local races—and would have won another had a tie-breaking coin toss gone the other way! On a state-wide basis, DHNC has joined Democratic Governor Roy Cooper in support of Medicaid expansion, and continue to fight the Republican-controlled legislators who consistently block healthcare for half a million North Carolinians. Member efforts have been featured in a New York Times op-doc.

Down Home also provides on-the-ground services to those in need. Through distributing clean syringes and Naloxone, the antidote to an opioid overdose, more than 130 lives have been saved. Coordinator Mary Kate Crisp says, “I lived with active addiction for three years, and when I stopped using, I started going out into the community to volunteer. It was a big piece of my recovery, and I was thrilled when I was hired by Down Home this summer.” In addition to distributing life-saving interventions, Crisp and her team work tirelessly to educate, break down stigma, direct people to services, and organize direct advocacy actions.

Another major DHNC campaign is fighting the cash bail system through court-watching, advocacy, and raising money to pay bail for those whose lives will be devastated simply because they cannot pay to stay out of jail while their cases are adjudicated. Such programs are not obviously “political,” but working to improve peoples’ lives is a powerful antidote to disengagement, and brings important electoral shifts that benefit those who have been left behind.

In it for the long haul, Down Home North Carolina has demonstrated astonishing growth and success in a very short time. Their membership has doubled, there are chapters in five counties with plans for another five, and they have knocked on thousands of doors and gotten more than 1,000 low-propensity voters to cast ballots. With engagement comes hope, and a transformation within rural communities ground down by poverty and division from survival mode to enthusiastic participation and leadership. Goals for 2020 include flipping the State House from Red to Blue; protecting Governor Roy Cooper; defeating Senator Thom Tillis, and expanding the vote in rural communities to put North Carolina back into the blue column of the Electoral College.

With your help, all of this is within reach, in this crucial year and over the long-term. As Airlift founder Danny Altman says about Down Home North Carolina, “They have the smarts, the organizing skills, the allies, the data, the plan. All they need is the money.”

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Your generosity makes a difference. Please support Down Home North Carolina and all the other great grassroots organizations Airlift funds by donating at https://secure.actblue.com/donate/airlift. Thank you!

Airlift: Feeding the Grassroots

Like a lot of Americans, I went to a party on the Fourth of July. We celebrated Independence Day with fervent expressions of patriotism: BBQ, beer, and, of course, politics.

The sign on the door welcoming us read:

This was a couple of weeks after the first Democratic presidential debates, so there was a lot of buzz about the candidates. A few people had someone they were leaning toward, but most were so overwhelmed by the sheer number of contenders that they were waiting awhile for things to shake out. They wanted to give money to somebody, but who?

The presidential race of course generates a lot of attention (and money). But no matter who the nominee is, it’s what happens on the ground that matters most.

Luckily, there’s a lot we can do RIGHT NOW for Democratic victories, not just for President, but also for all-important Senate, House, and down-ballot races. Right before July 4th, I had gone to a gathering where I learned about Airlift, a new group I was excited to share with my fellow partygoers who were itching to join the fight.

Airlift’s tagline is “Feeding the Grass Roots,” with the goal of turning non-voters into voters. Airlift focuses not so much on candidates but on funding grassroots organizations working tirelessly year-round in their local communities to engage low-propensity voters, particularly young ones and people of color. Organizers listen to and talk with people about issues that matter to them, giving them a reason to vote. After a careful vetting process, Airlift funds groups with a proven track record of electoral success in key areas nationwide.

That strategy works. Remember how exciting it was in 2017, when Democrats flipped 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, paving the way for Medicaid expansion, and Doug Jones won Alabama’s Senate seat? These successes were followed by the 2018 mid-terms, when the steadily growing blue wave swept Democrats to victory up and down the ballot. Airlift played a key role, helping to:

  • Flip 21 house seats, including all 7 in California!  (West by Southwest Fund)
  • Restore voting rights for 1.4 million citizens in Florida (Organize Florida)
  • Turn Nevada almost entirely Blue! (PLAN Nevada)
  • Increase early youth voting in Texas by 500% (MOVE Texas)
  • Kick Scott Walker out of office in Wisconsin (Milwaukee BLOC Action Fund)
  • Pass redistricting in Ohio, Missouri, and Michigan (Lift the Midwest Fund)
  • Flip 15 Virginia house seats and win Medicaid expansion for 400,000 people (New Virginia Majority)
  • Pass automatic voter registration in Michigan and Nevada (MI-Liberation and PLAN Nevada)
  • Hire 600 organizers in Alabama who won the election for Doug Jones (Airlift special project)

And that was in the Fund’s infancy! This year, Airlift hopes to triple its first-year contributions. Efforts are organized around three strategic funds comprising 17 organizations: Lift the Midwest; West by Southwest; and Voter Motor. You can read all about these amazing groups here.

If we want to be true patriots and save our democracy, it’s time to engage and expand the electorate. 2020 will be a heavy lift. Make it easier by supporting Airlift today.

It will lift your spirits as well!