While growing up in Georgia, Amber Scales learned that politics wasn’t so much about red and blue parties: it’s about the people and the movements that are making sure everyone is represented and heard.
Her lessons came from watching what she calls “community care practitioners” in her family. Among them, her mother, Juliette, an attorney-turned-Fulton County juvenile court judge.
Scales started her journey as next generation movement worker at the University of Alabama where she challenged “The Machine,” an organization controlled by historically white fraternities and sororities that sways campus elections. She now works as a culture, media and entertainment fellow with Fair Fight, a grassroots nonprofit founded by Stacey Abrams that’s conducting community voter engagement work.
For Reckon’s “Young, Southern and Black” series, Scales, 23, talks about the erasure of diverse Southern voices in both local and national elections and how supporting Black-women-led movements creates a more equitable and representative South.
“The same way we are reckoning with how we are interacting with the Black, indigenous and other communities of color, we need to interrogate the stereotypes people hold of the South,” Scales said. “Are those things actually true or have we been voter suppressed that way, gerrymandered that way, or manipulated that way by white supremacy and anti-blackness?”
Scales is spending her holidays preparing for two U.S. Senate runoffs that will determine whether Democrats will control both houses of Congress. She’s currently helping to engage young Black and brown voters through Fair Fight’s “Civics for the Culture.” Scales said the digital initiative talks to young voters where they are and fills in the gaps of civic information Scales believes young voters didn’t receive in school. Lack of education can be another form of voter suppression because misinformation can cause millennial and Gen Z to lose sight of the fact that local and national public officials should serve the community’s interest.
“Stacey Abrams says all the time, ‘The closer you get to the bottom of the ballot, the closer you get to home. It’s great to vote for your president, U.S. senator, your state senator,” Scales said. Adding of elected and appointed local officials: “When you get to your chief of police, your school board, your county commissioners, those are the people who you are going to run into at the grocery store or when you drop off your kids at school. Your life is dictated by their decisions.”
Scales stresses the urgency of overcoming several barriers that voting-rights advocates note are designed to suppress votes, including runoff elections themselves.
Originating in 19-century Germany, runoffs were first implemented in the U.S. in the South and adopted in Georgia as a means to suppress the Black voting bloc by giving white voters another chance to unite behind a white candidate if an African American candidate made it to the runoffs.
Other reasons include Georgia’s strict voter ID law, the requirement for citizens to re-request absentee ballots even if they voted in the general election, mail-in ballot signature matching and other voting guidelines that disproportionally affect Black and brown communities. Some early voting locations were closed in communities of color.
Despite these obstacles, Scales is inspired by Black political pioneers such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray Adams and Annie Devine – the women who increased Black political participation by creating the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964.
Just a few weeks ago, LaTosha Brown, a Selma, Ala., native and founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, was one of the voter rights advocates who sued Georgia’s secretary of state office for purging nearly 200,000 people from the state’s voter rolls last year.
Scales sees her future as a southern Black woman as bright, but if people want Black women doing the groundwork, hire them, listen to them and fund their plans and ideas. She said Black women aren’t accustomed to being seen as game changers, which leads to a lack of support, appreciation and rest. The reason why is rooted in racism and misogyny, Scales said. Black women don’t always own their identities because people perceive them through stereotypes.
“We battle the perception others have of us as mammies, jezebels, hypersexual or inhumanly strong,” Scales said. “When the average person thinks of an American leader, an American beauty, or an American hero, it most often won’t be a Black woman who comes to mind and that is not by accident. In order to tread on someone, you must first dehumanize them, and whether people realize it not white supremacy succeeded in that.”
While she sees more Black women taking the time to rest, heal and rediscover themselves, Scales said they can’t be the only ones doing their part in dismantling oppressive systems. Those who are perpetuating the beliefs that keep marginalized communities from thriving need to own up to their role in fixing the issue. Also, allies who are not part of marginalized communities need to step up to support Black-woman led efforts with resources, compensation and restoration.
“I often hear, ‘I was treated this way because I was a black woman.’ No, you were treated that way because someone had a problem with blackness and that is a function of white supremacy. So we need to give that problem back to whiteness,” Scales said. “As Americans, we are all responsible for becoming a better nation. That cannot happen without investing in the South, its communities, its leaders and it’s organizers which will always mean investing in Black women.”
While Scales’ degree is in public relations and theatre, it’s the legacies of the South that called her to politics this year to join Fair Fight. The death of civil rights legend and U.S. Rep. John Lewis made her worry that the titans of the movement were dying. But she believes a new South is rising – one where all the people of work together to promote progress.
“Progress looks like tearing down the pillars of the Old South and rebuilding spaces that create a new home for the people who have always called the South home, but now need to be at the forefront of our movements, of our policy, art and culture and who reflects who we really are and who we always have been,” she said.
If you’re Black, under 30 and have something to say about the future of the South, email Reckon reporter Starr Dunigan at [email protected] You can also reach her via Twitter and Facebook. While you’re at it, consider joining the Black Magic Project Facebook group, where we talk about topics concerning Black, southern community and culture.