By Amanda Litvinov / photo by Bill Clark
The 2008 presidential election drew to the polls the most racially and ethnically diverse group of voters in our nation’s history. Black women had the highest voter turnout rate among eligible voters in all racial, ethnic and gender groups—also a first.
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Four years later, too many of those women—along with millions of other minority, elderly, poor, and student voters—will encounter significant barriers to casting a vote in this November’s elections. Finding ways to counter restrictive new voting laws passed in 17 states since the beginning of 2011, which many believe aim to discourage and exclude specific groups of voters, was a focus of the fourth annual Black Women’s Roundtable Policy Forum series, hosted yesterday in Washington, D.C., by the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.
“While education is our core business, we must as educators stand up against any injustice,” said Rebecca S. Pringle, Secretary-Treasurer of the National Education Association, which is actively engaged in the fight to protect the rights of voters. “[Educators] must be the guardians of a society that was founded on the values of equality and justice and opportunity and fairness,” said Pringle.
Just as educators are trusted members of their communities who can mobilize others, black women are in a unique position to educate voters about their rights and help others see the stark contrast between candidates on issues like investing in public education and underserved communities.
Pringle laid out the choice voters face in the 2012 presidential election: Candidate Romney says that class size doesn’t matter and students should only get as much education as they can afford—so much for the fundamental American belief that quality education should be within reach of those willing to work hard. Romney telling high-dollar donors that says his job “is not to worry about” the “47 percent of the people who are dependent on the government, who believe they are victims,” reveals not only his disconnect from the middle class, but that he does not understand the character of the nation, she said.
In contrast, said Pringle, “from his first day in office, President Obama has been working to secure the future prosperity of women and other underserved communities through efforts such as increasing access to health care, creating jobs, revitalizing schools, and the development of targeted job creating investments in underserved communities. While much more needs to be done, we are making progress.
“And President Obama understands that our nation cannot expect to prepare our children for the 21st century without investments in a world-class education system.”
But no matter how much citizens care about these issues, their voices are all but silenced if they cannot exercise their right to vote. That’s why NEA is partnering with other organizations also dedicated to fighting restrictive new laws. (Read about an NEA/NAACP initiative to train educator-activists to protect voter rights.)
More than a dozen other panelists from labor organizations, the clergy, and voting rights groups encouraged attendees to consider the potential barriers and to help their fellow community members confirm that they are still registered, fulfill any new ID requirements as soon as possible, and figure out early voting provisions or locate their polling station now.
But it was Becky Pringle’s words that brought tears to the eyes of one attendee: Dawn Tucker-Thomas, who in the late 1980s learned about cells and molecules and ecosystems as a seventh-grader in Pringle’s science class in Susquehanna Township, Pennsylvania.
“When she stood up to speak, part of me reverted to student mode and I thought, ‘I’d better listen to her!’” said Tucker-Thomas.
Now a law school graduate and senior staffer at the U.S. Department of Transportation, she was delighted to discover that “Miss Pringle” is now a prominent defender of public education and workers’ rights empowering others to help protect voting rights.
“She’s smart, she’s articulate, she’s a strong leader—I’m very proud of her,” said Tucker-Thomas, whose work includes speaking to groups of high school students to encourage participation of underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
When you’ve had a great education, Tucker-Thomas noted, you want that for every child. That’s why “we need to not only get out and vote, but also help the many who are not registered to vote do so.”
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