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Now let’s get into this week’s newsletter because we have a very important topic for y’all. Midterm elections are around the corner and it’s going to be on and poppin’ at your local ballot box on Tuesday.
We may not be voting for our next president, but our reproductive rights and climate change are some of the issues on the line this election season. Some states even have slavery on their ballots. Governors, senators and other local officials are also fighting for your votes. This election will determine which political party gains control of the U.S. Congress. And the party in power will affect how easily Democratic President Joe Biden can push his legislative agenda.
See the domino effect here?
Get ahead of the game by visiting vote.org to find your polling place and make a plan to get there. Don’t be like me back in 2020, when I waited in line for almost two hours because I went to the wrong polling place at first. I woke up early and everything. Even journalists make mistakes, y’all.
We always want to inspire y’all to get your voices heard at the polls. But we also want you to feel empowered to be the change you want to see in your communities even after the election. So we hit up a few activists who exercise their people power both politically and non-politically.
Forward this newsletter to your friends and fam who want to learn more about how to move the movement.
Back in 2021, I remember reading headlines about activists who were running for office after a year of participating in on-going protests.
That wasn’t/isn’t a trend. It’s a continuation of legacy.
Rep. John Lewis, Rep. Cori Bush and Oklahoma state Rep. Mauree Turner, are just a few examples of those who’ve brought their protest to politics. Odessa Kelly joins that group as a 40-year-old community activist and mother of two who is running for the U.S. House seat representing Tennessee’s 7th congressional district.
Odessa’s running for working-class Tennesseans because she is part of that community herself. Raised on the Black side of Nashville, Tenn., Odessa connected with senior citizens and youth during her 14-year stint as the director of a community center. She challenged racial and economic inequalities in her city after co-founding Stand Up Nashville in 2016. The advocacy group is winning in the labor movement space. For example, state and city officials are known for using taxpayer dollars to attract businesses to their area. In 2018, Stand Up Nashville negotiated the state’s first Community Benefits Agreement ensuring a soccer company that received $225 million in taxpayer-backed incentives invested back in its community by providing affordable housing, childcare and a living wage.
Odessa’s win would be a historic one as the first Black woman to represent Tennessee and the first openly gay Black woman in Congress. Ever. Odessa didn’t learn about her potential to make history until after she announced her campaign. . Following the protests after George Floyd’s murder, the deaths caused by the coronavirus and the fight for more community benefits agreements with companies like Amazon, the issues began to weigh Oddessa down.
“I think all those things added to the burnout that I was starting to feel in wanting to become a better organizer. Looking at all these things that come full circle, it was time for me to measure these things – and we’ve done good work – but it wasn’t enough. And when I say ‘we’. I’m not just talking about Stand Up Nashville. I’m talking about all groups,” Odessa said. “One thing that aligned is that our weakness is that we do all this work, we want to garner hope in people, and we aren’t the ones that get to take it across the finish line, we got to hand it off and hope and pray that this person in leadership who doesn’t have our shared experiences would do that. But records show that’s not happening.”
Odessa has a very tough race in front of her. When she originally announced her campaign, she was running to represent a district that included all of Nashville, which has been a Democratic stronghold in the state for more than a century. But after state lawmakers redrew district lines, Nashville was split into three smaller, more conservative-leaning voting districts. Odessa was originally set to run against a Democrat. Now, she’s running against a Republican.
I chatted with Odessa about the intersection of activism and politics and creating change in our communities:
Starr: How has your time as an activist shown up in the way you move in your campaign?
Odessa: It’s definitely made me believe that all elected officials need to come out of activism and grassroots movement work. Because this is my first time being a candidate, I have also been introduced to so many people who are in electoral politics.
We’re adjacent in the work that we do, but they’re not the same work or the same fields and how we approach them. There is a finite time limit on campaigns. I have been in so many different situations in this campaign, where I’m like, ‘We need to unpack this.’ I’m so sick of hearing ‘Well, research tells us’ or ‘research shows us’ because that dehumanizes the experience. And I understand why it’s necessary for people to want to root everything that we do in fact-based study, but people don’t move or behave in that way.
The whole thing of reaching people where they’re at, I think there’s a whole side to that that could be beneficial in electoral politics, especially for our base or in the way that we want to move. You know, whether you consider yourself a progressive or democrat or just someone who’s morally wanting to do what’s right by other people. I think that we have to just tear up the whole playbook on how we have been approaching electoral politics.
Starr: What was going through your mind when you heard, ‘Oh, you can be the first openly gay Black woman in congress’?
Odessa: It’s got to be up there with when men hear for the first time that they’re gonna be a father. It’s like, ‘Oh, shit. I have responsibilities now.’ Yeah. It didn’t make me shy away from it. It made me want to lean into it more, but it made me think about, ‘Oh, I do carry labels.’ When you’re in your skin and in your identity, it’s a label to someone else, but not a label to me. It’s just part of who I am.
It became more exciting. I now have an opportunity not just to move my country, my city and the people who I love forward and do what’s best to protect the things that we want to see, but also to kind of throw down and show that as a member of the LGBTQ community, we are Americans. We’re just as much as a part of the fabric as anybody else.
Starr: We’re always pushing for more Gen Z and Millennials to hit the polls and go vote, but some may feel hopeless about the process. What would you like to say to those folks?
Odessa: How they got to that point is 100% valid because I’ve been there, too. I still deal with it sometimes, but it’s just, for me, it shows up like imposter syndrome.
People gotta lean into it. Don’t disengage because you’re pissed off. You can be a dreamer and want to build this wonderful utopian society that I also want to live in, but you also can be pragmatic at the same time about the shit that we got to do in the moment to get there. And you disengaging is exactly what they want you to do. So you have to lean in and be comfortable in being frustrated because you can’t escape it. It’s something that’s going to happen in every facet of your life. There’s no eradicating sad times, downtimes, frustration. Hard hardships are going to be there. So the least you can do is lean in now, face it head on, and you just make yourself better for when things keep coming because right now, we’re at a precipice where this is one of the most important times in history. And we need everyone to lean in.
Starr: What is bringing you Black joy these days despite being busy with the election?
Odessa: I think watching my children grow into their own. I have a 16-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son, you know, and their personalities are really starting to come out.
I challenged myself to journal during this campaign. When they redistricted and broke up [Nashville], my soul was hurt. I was pissed off. I was in a room where a bunch of racists just disregarded me. This is racism when a group of people can impact the livelihood of another people. I was just like, ‘Do I go on and do this? Is this worth it?’ All those things that come up naturally.
My kids shared with me stuff they had written in their own journals to encourage me to keep going with the race. The filing deadline was April 7. And I was like, Oh, I don’t know if I’m gonna do it. My daughter excused herself from school to come pick me up to take me to go file.
Odessa also shared with me some funny Instagram reels that have saved her soul this election season like this one from Pattison, Miss., comedian Kerwin Claiborne or this compilation of Black people reactions in haunted houses (Cause you know we don’t play with no clowns or no shifty stuff. We’re dipping!).
‘Abolition starts with community’
It’s not lost on us that the prison system was created with the re-enslavement of Black people in mind.
The 13th Amendment loophole, which outlaws slavery “except when punishment for a crime,” fueled the mass incarceration of Black and brown people. A couple states have measures on the ballot to erase this language from its books. Prison and police abolition creates a future without prisons or punishments and instead invests in community-centered solutions that attack the roots of violence.
Gabrielle Perry has been taking care of those affected by the prison system in her home state of Louisiana and beyond since 2019, when she founded the Thurman Perry Foundation. Gabrielle’s nonprofit provides educational, housing and health resources to formerly and currently incarcerated women. All of these resources are needed to help women thrive after being released from prison.
“Just because these women are formerly incarcerated does not mean they’re out of the clutches of the carceral system,” Gabrielle said. “Many of them are on parole, or on probation. That is a whole different can of worms because if you don’t have a place to live, your freedom is at stake because you have to report those kinds of things to your parole officer.”
Gabrielle is familiar with the barriers formerly incarcerated women face during re-entry because she has lived that life. She only spent one night in jail due to payroll fraud, which she committed during a time when her father’s death left her scavenging for money to pay for bills and medical expenses for her ill mother. But that one night changed her life as she experienced homelessness, sexual harassment and a deteriorating support system.
“I just felt like what I needed most during that time was money,” Gabrielle said. “I didn’t need a mentor. I didn’t need someone’s finger wagging at me. I needed money and a place to live. So we address women’s tangible needs.”
Gabrielle’s charges have since been expunged, but she is still keeping the women who showed her so much kindness while she was in jail in mind. When I first hit up Gabrielle last January, she was about to announce the inaugural recipients of the Perry Second Chance Scholarship, which is named after her late father. Since then, her nonprofit has awarded scholarships to 17 women who have dreams of becoming pediatric surgeons, human trafficking advocates, film makers, spiritual healers, video game developers and other leaders in their communities.
Gabrielle said her nonprofit is about to award their largest scholarships yet: $40,000 total to 20 women impacted by incarceration across the nation. Applications will be accepted from Nov. 15 to Feb. 27.
Gabrielle’s nonprofit has also added two programs, which expands the Perry Foundation’s abilities to attack the challenges of reentry. About 22 mothers have received rent and mortgage payments through the Mother’s Day 365 program since its inception in May. Formerly incarcerated Black women experience the highest rate of sheltered homelessness. The foundation’s Girl Code program has donated more than 104,560 pads since September 2021, and has a goal of donating one million menstrual products by 2026. While Louisiana law requires free menstrual products to be provided to incarcerated individuals, it doesn’t determine the quality of that care.
“Two pads per week is incredibly insufficient, especially because the pads which you received while you were incarcerated are literally trash,” Gabrielle said.
Whenever Gabrielle thinks about abolition work, she thinks of the Black Panthers. When poor Black people weren’t getting the resources they needed, the Black Panthers came through by creating a series of community-centered services like the free breakfast program and a free ambulance service and clinics.
“I think that when people hear the word abolition they hear it very incorrectly,” Gabrielle said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever live to see a world without police, but what I do know is that when police aren’t around or didn’t want to do their jobs, everyday, ordinary people stepped up and showed that, ‘Hey, everything doesn’t require the police.’ And I think that, for me, is the root of abolition.”
As an epidemiologist during the day and a criminal justice advocate 365 days of the year, Gabrielle stays in contact with women who are both behind bars or battling stigma and barriers once released. She delivers period products to the jails herself. She writes the women frequently.
If you want to get more engaged in abolition work, or any type of movement work for that matter, Gabrielle says the next steps are simple: get to know your folks.
“Never forget that abolition work is also community work,” Gabrielle said. “It’s knowing who your neighbors are. It’s knowing what’s going on in your city.”
Last week, I chatted with y’all about the radical power of the Black imagination. What if some of that creativity was used to renovate shuttered prisons?
Over the past 22 years, 21 states have fully or partially closed prisons, leaving city officials scratching their heads about how they can use these spaces. Remodeling jail cells into condos and work spaces give off eerie, capitalistic vibes. But a group of community leaders transformed a notorious Philadelphia prison into a storytelling space that talks about the legacy of criminal justice reform.
What was once the blueprint of prison construction across the nation is now serving as an example on how prisons can be repurposed to educate and enlighten the community. You can check out MacKenzie’s TikTok to learn more about how people power made that project happen.
Spread the Black joy by voting this election season! See ya’ next time!