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Native and Black Unity Beyond the Vote: Making change 365 Days a Year

As part of our Riverland Native Voter Project, Damita Brown, PhD, community organizer and educator in Iowa City writes about the importance of getting beyond electoral games and how Black and Native unity will build the kind of society we really want.

Celebrating MLK's bday in 2017

Ruth Buffalo, a North Dakota Native American Democrat, beat out the the guy who sponsored a voter ID law that could have led to decreased turn out in the midterm elections. The law disqualified voting registrations that did not show a street address. But thanks to people power, the turnout was higher than ever. This surge in participation was accomplished in spite of last minute efforts to make voting harder and a Supreme Court decision in favor of those efforts. There is a lot to learn from the strong Native turnout that essentially said to the powers that be, “We got this.” Lessons and questions. Lesson one is we cannot be stopped when we recognize what we are dealing with, whatever challenge we might face, and we come together with the number one goal of addressing that challenge together.

A number of actions contributed to success, waiving the ID card change fee, knocking doors to make sure people knew about the voting requirement changes, getting the word out to media so that supporters knew what was happening and could show up and help. Mobilizing support with networking. Ruth Buffalo knocked on nearly 7,000 doors herself.

Western Native Voice is a non profit organization based in Montana. Their mission is to inspire leadership among indigenous communities and they played a powerful role in mobilizing the vote. Their video, I Am a Voice is an example of the kind of work they do to bring people together around an important message. NPR interviewed their field director Nicole Donaghy about the community response to voter suppression efforts. DOnaghy pointed out in that interview that her organization addressed the challenge in three phases, education about the issue, access to getting identification cards changed and access to the polls, providing rides to the polls.

Another group that got involved was Four Directions, in an election that saw the highest midterm turnout in U.S. history, Native Americans played a big role, producing over 5,100 indigenous votes in Rolette County. That was more that the presidential election of 2008.

At the Native March in DC, 2017 in front of Trump Tower

The way people got involved proves that we can handle what is thrown at us. And we showed up at the polls. A related question is how to make our votes matter. Now that the vote is done, how do we make people accountable to promised. How do we address misguided policy agendas in which a two party system pretends to be willing and able to address long neglected yet vital issues to communities of color. Look at the degradation of the election in Alabama where Abrams, played by the rules, but Kemps bent them left and right, mostly right. How will we address the registration roll purges and gerrymandering that unfairly favors Republicans? There is a ton of work to be done there. But I think that work cannot begin or end at the polls.

In France right now, people hit the streets in the weekend in yellow vests and they are calling for the resignation of Marcon an about 40 other demands related to fair wages, no fuel tax hike and affordable education. Where are our yellow vests? And what would we demand. The left needs to pull the agenda to the left with grassroots tactics that address anti-racism and economic justice. That work is year around and not just for election season. But where are the Democrats when that season ends. It’s time to expand the pool of choices and as well as the content of the platforms. Where is labor? Where is the union strong labor movement? Are our leaders going beyond taking the trinkets and wards they get for being tokens that legitimate the power structure as it is? Who is willing to get in the trenches 365 days a year, and not just when it’s time to vote. This is get in the street work. We need our vests.

And maybe the most important part of grassroots work is building understanding and strong alliances based on that understanding. I want to participate in conversations between Black people and Native people. We need this more that ever. And I think our communities are starving for it. Probably the most important sustenance in doing community work is how we feed each other with our intellect, heart and shared energy. We can get together and actually get to know each other, our old style way. Sharing our traditions and our knowledge has immediate benefits for our communities. If down the road that translates into political collaborations, great. But the first part is just getting together for the sake of respect and strength. That kind of thing is above and beyond these electoral games. We aren’t really looking to the white house our these colonial rules for what will truly sustain us. We are looking inside ourselves and to each other. In that process we will redefine what matters and how to build the kind of society we really want.

So yes by all means vote, we do that. And the next steps might be the hardest. That’s the part where we put our heads together and make lasting radical change.


Damita Brown is a community organizer/educator interested in expanding the range of social activism beyond electoral politics or outright inaction. Born and raised in Iowa, she has been involved in anti-incarceration, anti-racism and other social justice issues for 40 years. Founder of Midwest Telegraph, Freedom School 360, Urban Retreats and Bornworthy Arts, she approaches anti racism using contemplative practice. An experienced meditation practitioner, she often writes about the importance of mindfulness and seeks to bring meditation more fully into the social justice arena. A social historian, she has studied social movement history and has taught ethnic studies, political science and world history at Mills College and UC Santa Barbara. Her ongoing social inquiry is to help people develop a deeper understanding of cross cultural solidarity and alternative institution building.

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