Elections are an important tool for change, states Jessica Byrd. Byrd has worked on political campaigns in 43 states and led several national programs to promote political participation for Blacks and other people of color. She appeared at a political symposium October 22 sponsored by the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs as part of a panel on grassroots organizing.
Byrd stressed that “There is no better lesson than this last national election on how quickly the political climate can change.” She now runs her own political consulting firm, Three Point Strategies. “I didn’t start with such a big title or start my own business,” she told the Sunday majority-White audience at the Ted Mann Concert Hall.
She remembers, as a youngster, going to a local election poll with her mother, who worked there in her native Columbus, Ohio. She recalled being curious about what people were doing behind the curtain. “I kept asking questions for a long, long time.”
Byrd worked her first campaign at age 17. “I got positively addicted to campaigns ever since.”
However, the rash of police-related shootings of Blacks convinced her to move from working with candidates to political activism in 2014. “I loved my work, and I recruited over 100 women of color to run for office. [But] as I watched many of my friends go out into the streets, working in their cities under extreme stress…my job wasn’t enough. I left my job and started my firm,” said Byrd.
She applied her campaign training skills to the interests of activists. “The Movement for Black Lives asked me this past year to be their electoral arm.” Her commitment now is to help “build the electoral capacity of Black organizers and Black leaders, to use electoral politics as a tool for liberation and freedom from violence.”
“The big question is how to take electoral politics and not just make it transactional, but transformative,” Byrd told the audience. “How to take a system that left out so many voices…and exploits our voices, and make this justice work.
“How do we take the passion, rigor, and the discipline that we have in organizing in the streets into the ballot box and demonstrate how we can really change our community? How can we kick the a** of the political-industrial complex that continues to rake us over the coals? How can we ensure that our voices are listened to at all times?”
Race and identity should not be avoided in any political discussion, Byrd insisted. “Economic inequality should never not be part of our politics!” The audience applauded her stance.
“I can’t say enough how important local elections are…”
“I can’t say enough how important local elections are,” Byrd said in an MSR exclusive interview after the panel discussion. “Our local elections are where power is actually seated, and where change really happens. So much focus is on what’s happening nationally, but what happens at the national level is actually inspired by what’s happening at the local level.”
All Minneapolis city offices — mayor, city council, park board, and the board of estimate and taxation — are up for grabs in the November 7 general election. Byrd’s simple advice to Minneapolis voters is to use Election Day to start holding elected officials accountable.
Voting signals “not only that I am showing up today. I also will keep showing up and demand that you make the change in the community that my life requires. If you don’t, I will vote you out and get a new representative.
“We are at this important time [when] our democracy in many ways [has] failed us: Voter ID laws, our inability to access the ballot, money in politics, the racist ways that maps are drawn that keep us from running [for] certain seats…are very real barriers to our participation.
Some people would like to say it’s our fault that the system is what it is. We demand better representation and we will ensure that the people who serve us look like our communities.”
Byrd said, “There are people who are making very real public policy decisions and have no idea about our life experiences” as Blacks and other people of color. “I think we both have to be in the streets and we have to make our voices heard by any and all means, but we also need to be inside these chambers of power so that we can change the rules and make it so that we are never left out.
“I can’t say enough how important local elections are. Our mayors are the ones [who] can request funds from the federal government. Our city councils can oversee the police, oversee our streetlights, and oversee our roads and really important zoning laws. They can also change the economic wages in the city.
“If you don’t feel inspired by this election, go anyway. Use the internet to find the information that you need. Go to your board of elections and see who’s running. You have to make your voice heard.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.