Redrawing the Map: Grassroots Organization Trains Black Students and Young Professionals on Importance of Redistribution


Sometimes making changes means playing the long game. And Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder of the Florida rights organization Equal Ground, knows it.

As a young girl, Burney-Clark grew up in Orlando, in a Congressional district so gerrymander it stretched unevenly across Central Florida and was represented by one of the few women of color in Congress. As a young leader, she founded Equal Ground in 2019 to strengthen the political voice of under-represented communities of color.

Right now, even as the immediate battle for representation plays out with the Republican-controlled state legislature coming together to redraw legislative and congressional boundaries, it remains focused on the future.

The result? A brand new redistribution scholarship program that engages black students and young professionals about the crucial redistribution process taking place this year. Funded in part by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the program gives a new generation the tools to oversee the redistribution process and fight a system that, if history is any guide, is biased against communities of color.

“As the founder of Equal Ground, this work is deeply and intertwined with how I grew up in a gerrymandered neighborhood most of my life,” said Burney-Clark. “It defined my political existence. I saw from a young age how this prevented my community from having an appropriate voice. And I saw that it affected everything. It meant a lack of opportunities for housing, for community development, for education. This most often meant that blacks were laborers in the places they occupied, rather than rulers. It meant that had to change.

Energize young leaders

To learn how to direct such opportunities to the communities in need, seven fellows from the regions of North, Central and South Florida virtually meet through November with advocacy leaders, lawmakers, local policy makers and state and others. They are undergraduate and graduate students from historically black colleges and universities, and some are young professionals. They have each demonstrated leadership at different levels, and they come for equal representation with an inspiring level of energy.

One of the fellows is 22-year-old Jaliyah Cummings, who learned early on how your neighborhood can determine your future. The daughter of two police officers, she grew up in a middle-class Orlando suburb, attending good public schools which she said were well-resourced and gave her every chance to succeed.

But her cousins ​​grew up in a more urban area not far away, and she has seen with grief and dismay their friends drop out of poorly performing schools and end up in jail. In 2013, when she was 14, she watched in disbelief as George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

“As a younger kid I can say I was sort of immune, in a way, but being able to be that age and watch this trial and see the verdict, that was so wrong,” he said. Cummings said. “I realized I wanted to be a lawyer. This is where I need to be. It’s my aim.

Now a final year student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Cummings is finishing her coursework for a criminal justice degree and plans to attend law school next fall. She said the fellowship with Equal Ground gave her the tools to understand how essential it is to ensure real representation for minority communities.

“We’re not angry, we’re exhausted,” Cummings said. “There are so many things that keep people from reaching their full potential. And what we’re learning is that a lot of it starts with who represents us. “

Dierre Johnson, 22, another Equal Ground scholar, is a recent graduate in human resources from the University of West Florida. Now pursuing a Masters in Business Administration, she learned through the scholarship that “redistribution is fundamentally fundamental”.

“My parents always told me not to be a spectator but to be a participant,” Johnson said. “How can your vote be your voice, how can you be a real participant when it’s muzzled or diluted by the effects of gerrymandering?” This is what flipped the switch for me, when I learned what redistribution is and how it has been used to silence black communities. “

Draw new lines

All members of Congress and state legislators are elected from political divisions called districts. Redistribution is the process of passing new congressional and state legislative constituency boundaries. States redraw these district boundaries every 10 years after the completion of the US census, which tracks population movements. The federal government requires that these districts have nearly equal populations and that they do not discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity.

However, some politicians have used gerrymandering – the process of drawing constituency boundaries to favor one political party, individual, constituency, or race over another – to advance their political goals.

Redistribution is just one of the issues that Equal Ground has tackled. Along with other, more established organizations across the state, it strives to protect voting rights in all areas. He also educates voters, particularly in the communities of Central Florida where the organization started out, on registering to vote, voting and being involved in their communities at all levels.

“Equal Ground represents what a new social justice movement needs to look like to truly bring about change,” said Nancy Abudu, Acting Director of Strategic Litigation for the SPLC. “Yes, there are bigger and more established groups like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, but it’s often the smaller grassroots organizations that are nimble enough to reach voters in even more impactful ways. And in the case of Equal Ground, you have a black led organization that makes sure black people are politically engaged in changing the system. “

For its grassroots work of empowering voters, Equal Ground received a $ 200,000 grant from the Vote Your Voice campaign earlier this year. The campaign is investing up to $ 30 million from the SPLC endowment to engage voters and increase voter registration, education and participation.

“They are being watched”

The SPLC’s voting rights practice group has made redistribution a priority.

The process will determine the distribution of political power and representation at all levels of government across the country for the next 10 years. Equal Ground and other similar organizations want to ensure that redistribution is not used to prevent communities of color from gaining political power.

The stakes are high. State legislatures have an obligation to ensure fair and equal representation for all, respecting the 14e The amendment guarantees equal protection under the law and complies with the requirements of the Voting Rights Act 1965.

But historically, they have often done the opposite.

The last time Florida Republicans were tasked with redesigning the state’s political constituencies, in 2012, a judge found they had made a “mockery” of it by working covertly and illegally to improve their control over the state. State. After years of litigation, the Florida Supreme Court rejected the Legislative Assembly map and set the state’s current congressional boundaries.

This year, an even more powerful GOP-led legislature is once again preparing to begin redesigning the State House, Senate, and Congressional Districts lines. This means it can not only dictate who runs for office and who gets elected, but also how financial resources are allocated to schools, hospitals, roads and more.

And elected officials have the power to make decisions that have a huge impact on the communities they represent, from school safety to the adoption of inclusive immigration policies. The inhabitants of a neighborhood can then influence whether elected officials feel obligated to respond to the needs of a particular community.

To complicate matters further, Florida’s population has grown, so the state will be allocated an additional seat in Congress. Whether that seat is held by a Republican or a Democrat – and whether the district will fairly represent the people who live there – depends in large part on how the legislature draws the boundaries of the district.

In this context, Equal Ground is working with other organizations in the state to train black and brown communities on how to reach their elected officials, vote for representatives who will better represent them and hold lawmakers accountable for the conduct. a fair redistribution. to treat.

“The more we are able to educate people, the more powerful they become,” said Jamara Wilson, Redistribution Program Manager for Equal Ground. “We understand that this process is currently in the hands of the legislature, but they need to understand that it is being watched carefully.”

Read more stories from the Battle for representation: the ongoing struggle for voting rights series here.

Top photo, left to right: Kristin Fulwylie, Jasmine Burney-Clark and Jamara Wilson.

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