Empowerment means more than voting.
WHAT CHOICES DO AFRICAN AMERICANS have in making changes in their communities? For years, voting has been championed as the means by which African American voters can show their strength and have their voices heard. Indeed, more African Americans have been voting in major elections recently, leading to the largest number of African American representatives in Congress in the nation's history.
But simply voting is not enough. In this country reality mandates alternatives, because attempts by minority groups to use the power of the vote in isolation have proven to be moderately successful at best, and disastrous at worst. Witness the battles in Georgia, Texas and Louisiana over the redrawing of districts held by African American members of Congress. Districts drawn only a few years ago to correct the lack of African American representation may be eliminated before the end of the year. The problem, of course, is that anything that can be voted in can be voted out, unless the proper pressure is applied to keep the vote in your favor. In essence, this is what politics is all about.
Any approach to changing government or empowering communities requires adhering to fundamentals, the most critical of which is voting. Yet, there are other basic things that communities can do to increase the power of the ballot box. The things done before and after casting votes are what make an impact on public officials. The bottom line is that no people can hope to attain true empowerment until their local communities are prepared to use pressure and influence to empower themselves. Are African American communities so prepared?
This presidential election year, many African Americans are contemplating whether to place their vote with the Republican or the Democratic party. Can a vote for Bob Dole or Bill Clinton really translate into a vote to empower African Americans? Not likely.
"We must build an infrastructure that is not dependent upon the changing political winds and the whims of impulsive, external benefactors," says Bishop Charles E. Blake, pastor of West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles. Blake's congregation of over 15,000 includes such celebrities as Magic Johnson, Denzel Washington and Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams, making his church a regular stop for political candidates seeking endorsements. "If we want to be effective in promoting positive change, we cannot rely solely on our politicians to institute change on our behalf."
Blake's sentiments are shared by many African American communities across the country. But building the infrastructure that he and others speak of requires stabilizing and strengthening the organizations and institutions that we control. The current attempt by former Maryland Congressman Kweisi Mfume to resuscitate the NAACP is an example of this process in action, but there will be no general election to make certain such things happen. Such changes will have to be driven from within African American organizations themselves or from within the communities they serve. "By becoming involved in our churches and civic organizations, we play a vital role in the progression of this country and prepare a more hopeful future for our children," says Blake.
Building strong community-based organizations is still only one of the keys to achieving political empowerment. Once these organizations are in place, African Americans will still have to do "the same things that everybody else involved in policy-making does," according to David Bositis, senior research associate at the Washington-based Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies. Bositis explains that there are fundamental steps to participating in the political process, and when minority groups take these steps collectively, in many instances their influence on policymakers increases.
"One of the most important things to do is give money, especially to those potential candidates who are operating on a shoestring," says Bositis. African Americans cannot gain influence unless they field candidates who will protect their interests. Minority candidates often do not have enough financing to challenge well-established incumbents. "If a lot of people give even $20 it can have a big impact," he suggests.
Bositis also says African Americans should "go to work for political campaigns and advocacy groups. The more people they have volunteering to help, the more effective they can be."
Organized letter writing and fax campaigns can also be effective. But Bositis warns, "Members of Congress can tell if a campaign is orchestrated. They are more likely to pay attention to individual personal letters and faxes." Whites routinely use these methods to make their political wishes known, and they continue the practice whether they are successful 100% of the time or not. African Americans must do the same.
Grass-roots activism is also a good tool for reform. Any number of political and advocacy campaigns operate during the year which people can get involved in. However, like other minority groups, African Americans rarely participate in political advocacy campaigns and seldom vote in local elections. This behavior must change. Local school board elections and elections for district judges offer two of the most important opportunities for African Americans to choose candidates who can improve their everyday lives. Getting involved with the campaigns of the individuals running for these offices can strengthen their influence on those who will be making decisions about the quality of education their children receive and the type of justice dispensed.
"Young African American male judges are able to address problems associated with major and minor crimes from an insider's perspective. We've lived with these problems in our communities all our lives," says Judge Greg Mathis of the 36th District Court in Detroit. At 35, Mathis is one of the youngest elected judges in the state of Michigan, and he says the criminal justice system will not improve until African Americans take the responsibility of making sure that more of us make it to the bench. He reminds people that, in the pursuit of justice or a permit, they and their children are more likely to encounter a local judge or community board member than the President of the United States or a state representative.
"[African American judges] are able to fashion judgments that are sensitive to the needs of chose who come before them," says Mathis. Using himself as living proof that the right judge can make all the difference, he recalls, "I was a gang-banger, and when I was arrested the judge told me to get my GED and he would drop the charges. Well I got my GED and, as you can see, I went a little farther."
After becoming a lawyer, Mathis involved himself in the community, gaining visibility by playing a role in Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns. With strong community backing, he defeated a 20-year incumbent for his seat on the bench in November 1994. Looking back he concedes, "It was my community activism that allowed me to win the election." He also urges African Americans to seek out qualified lawyers and give them the support they need to run for election.
But what about this year's general election?
"This year, everything is see," says Bositis, explaining that both the Republican and Democratic parties are already following predetermined strategies for the Presidential election, making it difficult to mount enough political pressure to convince either group to change course. "No matter how good a grassroots campaign is, it won't do anything right now."
Bositis notes that although political activism is necessary, it, too, has limits. "It works less in major election years than it does at other times," he says, due to the predetermined nature of reelection campaigns. "We find the most change happens in the first year after a representative is elected. If they are going to do anything unpopular, they do it in the first year so that their constituency has time to forget. For grassroots campaigns, it is in the first year, when the most important legislation is likely to be taken up, that they can have the best influence."
That gives African Americans time to begin strengthening their community organizations, developing advocacy campaigns, pooling financial resources and identifying candidates just in time to have some influence during the first year of the new administration. Perhaps between now and then, the foundation for systems that can lead to political empowerment for African American people will be laid and then the power of the African American vote will have an even greater impact than before.
RELATED ARTICLE: WHAT TO DO BETWEEN ELECTIONS
Change doesn't happen until you make it happen. Here's what you can do to start the process:
* Work with your local community board. Contact your mayor's office.
* Join your local school's Parent Teacher's Association. Contact the school for information.
* Join your Democratic or Republican state committee or the political club of your choice. Political committees and clubs are listed in your local phone book.
* Vote in local elections. The election of representatives for the local school board, judicial, city council and state legislative office is critical. Find out when these elections are held and cast your ballot.
* Do volunteer work for worthy causes. If you see people working for something you believe in, help them. Whether it is a candidate running for office or a movement to keep certain elements out of your community, get involved!
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|Title Annotation:||Election '96; includes tips on what to do between elections|
|Author:||Scott, Matthew S.|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1996|
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