‘We can change some stuff’: Inside a youth-led voter group’s COVID era engagement

Mississippi Votes, a youth-led voter education and engagement organization, was already using innovative digital strategies. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. But that opened up even more opportunities to get creative, said the group’s executive director, Arekia Bennett.

Bennett, a Jackson native who studied physics at Jackson State University, said the four-year-old nonprofit where she serves as executive director has registered between 15,000 and 17,000 new voters since its inception.

“Many of those folks are Black and brown, queer and trans young folks between the ages of 18 and 35. And a portion of the electorate that we often forget about — folks who are in pretrial detention or folks who are in prison but have not been convicted of Mississippi’s 23 disenfranchising crimes,” Bennett told the Reckon Interview, referring to offenses where a conviction results the revocation of one’s voting rights. 

Here are a few excepts from that conversation in which Bennett provides a nuts-and-bolts view of local grassroots organizing and discusses why she thinks younger voters are particularly energized about this election (spoiler alert: It has nothing to do with Kamala Harris in her view).

And go ahead and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast or wherever else you get your podcasts to stay informed about the South this election season.  

Arekia Bennett on rethinking voter engagement in the era of COVID

This year, COVID shook it up for us. And in the beginning, we were really devastated. But what we hadn’t recognized up until very recently was that this opened the window for so many opportunities for us to get creative and enter into communities where we hadn’t even thought about ourselves. 

So we dip and dabble into music and poetry and pocket communities that folks inside of our actual neighborhoods really look up to and the folks that they get their information from: I would probably never go to a Mississippi Votes forum but I will turn on the radio and listen to Dolla Black. So we collaborated with different artists to get those messages across to say, “Hey, there’s an organization — Mississippi Votes — this is what they’ve done before. You can trust us. This election cycle and every election cycle after this is gonna be one for the books for Mississippi, like we can change some stuff.

Arekia Bennett on forming coalitions

In my leadership principles, alignment and operational solidarity is for the good of the people. Can you put your ego at the bottom of the agenda? Let’s figure out where we’re in alignment. What are our goals moving forward and who’s gonna hold what work? So Mississippi Votes doesn’t partner with everybody for those reasons — because everybody didn’t have the same intentions.

With coalition work, most of the time, most of the work will fall on at least one or two organizations when there’s like 15 people a part of it. My team is fairly small, fairly young. And I am really not trying to burn folks out in their first organizing experience. (I) want to create an atmosphere where people can have some boundaries, set clear expectations and really get a clear understanding of what their personal values and personal principles are and how they want to engage with people. 

Sometimes joining coalitions gets you out of focus and you never reach that goal. And so, yeah, we’re very intentional, very strategic about how we are placed in coalitions and group work.

For more on Mississippi Votes and youth-led GOTV movements, listen to the full conversation here

Click here for excerpts from our conversation with Dr. Jessica Wilkerson, who discussed the history of organizing in Appalachia. 

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.