A New Blueprint for the South

The Georgia Senate victories offer a clear blueprint for southern organizers to empower voters. The Frontline speaks to Lela Ali, the Georgia state adviser for Movement Voter Project, to learn about what made this victory happen—and what comes next.

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Shatevia Culpepper and her son Micah Smith exit a polling station on January 5, 2021, in LaGrange, Georgia, where Democratic candidates Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won their runoff elections. (Photograph by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

We had all but a few hours to appreciate the result of the Georgia Senate races last week before the attack on the Capitol. For the first time in a while, we were giddy with joy. Then, domestic terrorists snatched it away. I want to bring some of that joy back by taking a look at what helped make these victories possible and where the minds of grassroots organizers are headed next.

 

Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re still celebrating the power of Black voters in Georgia. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. I spoke to Lela Ali, a state partnerships associate and Georgia state adviser for Movement Voter Project, which supports local organizing efforts in key states through donations. Over the last month, the organization focused a significant portion of its efforts on Georgia. Ali shares what she saw on the ground and what it means for organizing elsewhere in the South.

 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

YESSENIA FUNES

Firstly, I’m curious about this dynamic because you are not from Georgia. You’re from North Carolina. Can you tell me what it’s been like seeing the success that Georgia is experiencing now and what it means for the rest of the South? What’s happening in Georgia could happen across the South, right? What can you say about what this victory means, especially for southern Black voters and issues they care about, such as the climate crisis?

LELA ALI

I came into Georgia as a guest—as an outsider—really being intentional about the ways I want to show up as someone who’s never organized in Georgia. I was really surprised and overwhelmed by the gracious outpouring of support and the open arms I received from groups in Georgia. I don’t think that just came out of nowhere. It’s because the relationships we built were grounded in trust with leaders in Georgia.

 

What I witnessed on the ground really shook me. I was taking notes. I was learning the ways in which these leaders and organizations were organizing and getting people out to vote in two months during this horrifying pandemic, breaking through the holiday noise, and amid heightened white supremacy and police violence. And they were doing it in such creative ways. They were canvassing. They were going out to doors. They were doing phone banking, text banking. Also, they were meeting people where they were. They were going to bus stops. They were going to retail stores. They were at gas stations. They were at faith spaces. They were having drive-in rallies featuring artists local to Georgia.

 

What I saw created a blueprint for other states—like North Carolina and the entire South—to follow. I saw effective ways of electoral organizing that were intimate, ways in which they were fighting against voter suppression, and collaboration and cooperation efforts. It was really beautiful to see that kind of coordination lead to really successful organizing efforts and these victories and wins that we’re seeing.

YESSENIA

And what happened this time around that was different than years past? Why did we see this blue wave take over the state this year?

LELA

What has happened in Georgia is a result of decades of organizing on the ground and on the grassroots led by Black women, Black men, and in collaboration and partnership with immigrant leaders, Latinx leaders, Asian Americans, Muslims, and Indigenous communities. In some ways, the attention and resources that were pouring down into Georgia helped a lot—to allow these groups to do programs that were really aspirational. They allowed them to dream bigger. They allowed them to knock on way more doors, to engage way more voters. It’s just a testament to show that when donors trust in the imagination—when they don’t turn their backs on southern leaders and southern organizing, this is what manifests.

 

The organizing, the excitement, and the readiness for voters to turn Georgia blue has been there for a very long time.

“They were going to bus stops. They were going to retail stores. They were at gas stations. They were at faith spaces. They were having drive-in rallies featuring artists local to Georgia. What I saw created a blueprint for other states.”

LELA ALI
MOVEMENT VOTER PROJECT

YESSENIA

Were there any specific regions or disenfranchised voter groups MVP funds and works with that y’all focused on?

LELA

MVP supported 52 partner groups for the Georgia runoff. These are local grassroots groups working in over 40 counties across the state. There are groups working in the Metro Atlanta counties and several groups targeting counties outside of Metro Atlanta because they know there were voters there they needed to engage with and get out to vote—places like Savannah and Augusta, for example. That was the strategy of making sure that, yes, we support groups doing the heavy lifting—like New Georgia Project, like America Votes, like Black Voters Matter.

 

But there were also groups that were local and grassroots working with particular voters that identified in certain ways—like the Asian American Advocacy Fund. They were translating materials in a little over seven different languages to be able to engage and get out the vote for Asian-Americans. We were working with groups like I-PAC, which is the only Muslim-led PAC in the state to get billboards up, to create digital content that made sense for the Muslim community, to show up at mosques and talk to faith leaders and let them know the importance of getting their congregations out to vote.

 

Groups like SONG Power that were working with Black women, queer folks. These groups, as they’re talking about the importance of voting, they’re putting issues at the forefront like climate justice, like immigrant rights, like protecting Black lives.

YESSENIA

How have groups been campaigning around the climate crisis and voters’ environmental concerns?

LELA

That’s a really important issue a lot of groups were putting to the forefront. It was important for groups to make sure people understood this election’s ability to prioritize legislation on climate and environmental justice, especially for communities that have historically been neglected. When it comes to issues around housing justice and utilities, we’re seeing a lot of places in Georgia paying ridiculous amounts in utilities and rent in neighborhoods that have historically and are increasingly being gentrified. Even bringing in the issue of the pandemic and COVID-19 was a strong conversation groups were framing in their campaigns and talking to voters.

YESSENIA

Right. It’s fascinating because so much of the attention on these victories has been on the national ramifications of them. However, I don’t think that there’s been much attention on what this means locally for Georgians. What excites you the most about what these new senators will be able to do for people in Georgia that might have perhaps not been possible before?

LELA

In light of the violence on Capitol Hill and what unfolded, we’re gonna see attacks by Republican legislators on vote by mail or voting rights and access for young people, brown folks, women. We know it is going to happen. In order to hold onto this progress we saw in Georgia, it makes me excited and hopeful having these two senators be able to make sure that we continue to fight to protect voting access for our core voters in Georgia and also other really important issues that directly impact particularly communities of color, like climate justice, reproductive justice, immigrant rights and justice, and so many more issues that are very, very important to our communities and voters in Georgia.

YESSENIA

I’m glad you brought this up as I was going to ask: What comes next? It sounds like much of what y’all are anticipating now is a retaliation from the GOP to this success, right? Is protecting voting rights in the South—and Georgia, in particular—a part of what the next chapter of organizing is going to look like?

LELA

Absolutely. I think there will be a lot of folks preparing for retaliation. I think a lot of the organizing that’s going to be happening is to really hold on to this progress that Georgia’s partners, leaders, and organizations led. Preparing to continue this successful organizing efforts in the next couple of years.

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