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August 31, 2020

Empowering Black voters in the COVID-19 era

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This post is a part of our Pursuing Racial Justice and Equity series, which we kicked off last week. This series highlights the courageous and vital work happening across our Google Fiber and Google Fiber Webpass cities to fight systemic racism and create more just communities where everyone has the opportunity and the ability to thrive. Our first post comes to us from Joi Imobhio, Political Director for the Workers Center for Racial Justice in Chicago.


At the Workers Center for Racial Justice (WCRJ) in Chicago, our work begins with organizing our community: majority-Black neighborhoods where residents experience ongoing racialized poverty, over-policing and criminalization. Under normal circumstances, we spend much of our time talking with constituents face-to-face about the challenges they are experiencing, and encouraging them to take action on those issues as part of WCRJ. 

COVID-19 has forced us to quickly adapt and find new ways to connect with our community. As the 2020 census and elections coincide with unprecedented public demand for racial justice, we can’t afford to slow down. The pandemic has only heightened our sense of urgency, as we insist upon action from elected officials to address the racial disparities exposed by the pandemic.

We feel fortunate to live in a time when so many effective technologies are available to us, allowing us to keep organizing while maintaining social distance. Black civic engagement is a key part of our work, and involves a year-round schedule of in-person trainings, educational sessions, town hall meetings, and door-to-door outreach. Thanks to the digital tools that we’ve been able to access — and the creativity of our members — WCRJ has continued these programs remotely since moving our work online in March. 

One of the tools that is empowering us in the COVID era is Outvote, a mobile app that allows us to reach a broad network of voters through friend-to-friend texting. Users who download the app can follow our policy and voter engagement campaigns, and receive notifications when we have new actions for them to take. This year we transformed our Forum for Safety and Liberation — usually held in August at a large venue — into a full Week of Action with daily assignments for our Outvote users. In just that week alone, our virtual allies sent 8,963 emails to elected officials, with over 100 new contacts participating. The impact was so great that we will likely add this approach in future years, whether or not COVID is a factor.

The power of digital organizing came into sharp focus in the run-up to Illinois’ March 2020 primary elections, which took place just days before the official shelter-in-place order. As residents came to understand the threat of the virus, many polling stations were closed due to shortages of volunteers. Confused residents were unsure of how to cast their ballots. As the city made arrangements for residents to vote at alternative locations, WCRJ was able to quickly disseminate this information to our constituents via Outvote and social media. 

Given the possibility of another wave of COVID-19 cases in the fall, we know that voters will likely experience new and unforeseen barriers to democracy this November. We are contingency planning for a variety of scenarios, and in all cases, we emphasize digital outreach as an effective means for helping constituents access the polls. We are excited to be expanding our work into the neighboring state of Wisconsin for the first time this year; and, with the help of these technologies, we plan to reach tens of thousands of Black voters there, in addition to over 150,000 people in Illinois.

From now until November, much of our work will be devoted to ensuring that voters understand the various options available to them this year, and that each person has created a plan for voting. However, we know that not everything will go according to plan. When unexpected barriers arise, tools like Outvote and social media platforms will allow us to rapidly provide the most up-to-date, accurate information to our contacts, helping us prevent the pandemic from disenfranchising Black voters. 

Posted by Joi Imobhio, Political Director, Workers Center for Racial Justice