by Amanda Litvinov
Sonia Smith, a high school literature teacher from Chesterfield County, Virginia, believes that becoming a voting rights activist was what she was meant to do. It’s in her blood.
“My great-grandmother, who stood all of 4’8”, helped black folks register to vote back in the late nineteen-teens and twenties when it was very dangerous,” said Smith during a break from a two-day voter activist training hosted by NEA and the NAACP in Washington, D.C., this weekend.
“She helped people of color pass the literacy test they had to take before the Voting Rights Act did away with that. She educated people about the poll tax and walked them through the steps that it took to register and often went with people to the registrar. She was completely hands on.”
When Smith received the invitation, along with 70 other African American educators from key battleground states across the country, to take part in the training that would help her educate and register voters, Smith remembered thinking, “holy cannoli, this is my calling. It’s almost like I feel my grandmother here with me.”
The Voting Rights Act may have done away with blatant discriminatory election practices from bygone eras, but in the wake of the 2008 presidential election, a new wave of laws cropped up across the country that will make it harder for certain groups to vote by requiring photo IDs that some eligible voter groups are far less likely to have or be able to acquire before November, shortening or eliminating early voting, and changing the rules for third-party voter registration efforts. NEA and the NAACP believe these voter suppression efforts aimed at people of color, the poor, students, and the elderly amount to a coordinated attack headed up by radical conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, which only recently disbanded its controversial Public Safety and Elections Task Force.
The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that the rights of 5 million eligible voters will be affected in the 2012 election.
“We thought we were done when the Voting Rights Act passed in 1964, but we’re not done,” educator and NEA Secretary-Treasurer Becky Pringle said to the educators who had assembled in Washington, D.C. for the training. “Never in my lifetime did I think we’d have to fight for these rights again, but here we are. It’s our turn to step up.”
The training, based on an NAACP curriculum that has successfully registered 600,000 African American voters, covered everything from how to plan and successfully execute a neighborhood canvass to how to engage people in nonpartisan conversations about issues like public education to how to properly register voters.
“The only way we can turn the tide now is to get back to the basics,” said Roger C. Vann, NAACP’s chief operating officer when discussing the value of grassroots organizing. “You have to teach. You have to spread awareness that it is not enough to rest on our laurels from battles fought in the past. As we’ve seen over the past couple of decades, but certainly over the past few years, nothing is guaranteed.”
His message was not lost on Robert Gaines III, a special education paraprofessional from Farmington, Mich., just outside of Detroit, who is committed to doing all he can to help voters exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot. Gaines drove more than 10 hours each way to be part of the NEA/NAACP training. “As educators, we believe the children are the most important thing for this country, and that means our voices must be heard and we must get to the polls.”
He looks forward to taking the information and skills he gained back to his community where he hopes to team up with colleagues who share his commitment to getting out the vote for public education. “We can’t sit back, we can’t wait, we can’t say, well, it’s just one vote,” Gaines said. “We’re voting for the kids we teach on a daily basis.”
“My family is engaged in politics, and I’ve long been involved in canvassing,” said Asia Horton, a fifth-grade special education teacher from Erie, Penn. “But now I feel well-equipped to lead an effort—I know how to plan it and how to attack it.”
Horton has no problem connecting the big issues to local realities. “Erie has a devastatingly high number of children living in poverty,” she says. The most recent figure from the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates program of the U.S. census says 24 percent of Erie County children live in poverty, and the percentage in Erie City is even higher. The school where Horton taught for the past four years, Burton Elementary, was closed along with three other area schools due to the state’s current education funding crisis.
“It’s imperative that we get out and vote so that future students are not dealing with the same inequity in education, with some schools receiving better funding than others,” Horton said. “We need to have people in office who want to find ways to make sure that everyone has a fair shot beginning with a high quality education.”
A. Brahin Tabb, an elementary school librarian from Pennsylvania’s Lower Marion School District said he was returning home optimistic that educators taking the lead in voter education and registration can make a difference in 2012 and beyond.
“When I was coming to D.C., I didn’t realize how important I would be in the upcoming election,” said Tabb. “But now I realize how important my voice is and that I can have a real impact in my neck of the woods. To know that 1 of every 100 Americans is an NEA member makes it a little less daunting to try to combat voter suppression. We have an amazing reach if we all get active.”
- Join these 70 activists in signing our voter commitment card to pledge your support of voter protection efforts.