Malika Redmond on the courage of Black women defending democracy

Malika Redmond is co-founder and CEO of Women Engaged, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that works to inspire Black women and young adults to become effective agents for social change through voter engagement, reproductive justice advocacy, and leadership development. (Photo courtesy of Women Engaged.)

In 2014, feminist researcher and human rights leader Malika Redmond cofounded the nonprofit Women Engaged in Atlanta with public relations expert and art activist Margaret Kargbo. That same year they launched the WE Vote, WE Rise integrated voter engagement program, which provides opportunities for women and young people of color to learn how to run effective, nonpartisan, get-out-the-vote campaigns.

The following year, Kargbo died when a tractor-trailer crashed into the van she was driving. Redmond carries on their work today with the help of several other full-time staff members and 15 part-time canvassers. In addition to engaging potential voters as young as 17 1/2, the age at which one can register in Georgia, the organization also promotes women's human rights.

Jeannette Estruth, an assistant professor of history at Bard College in New York's Hudson Valley and a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, learned about Redmond in 2020 when Women Engaged won a grant for its election efforts from the Strange Foundation in West Shokan, New York. Estruth recently spoke with Redmond about the work her organization is doing in the political swing state of Georgia in this critical midterm election year. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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At what level of politics does Women Engaged focus its work?

For our integrated voter engagement work, our work is focused in a hyper-local way. And so that means that we are within the greater metro Atlanta area. And since the inception of Women Engaged in 2014, we have targeted the communities in the greater metro Atlanta area that have the largest numbers of the demographic that we are interested in working with.

One of the reasons why we do that is that, while the state efforts are important, we still have the concentration of voters or people who are eligible to vote in the greater metro region of Atlanta and the surrounding counties. This area holds over 50% of the population of the state. And so being local in our voter engagement work still makes a lot of sense because we have such a concentration here.

We are working now in up to four counties in the greater metro area. We target voters who are primarily low active, or inactive voters who could potentially be purged from the rolls, or who have been purged from the voter rolls due to Georgia's voting system. We target those folks to help uptick the voter participation so either they don't get purged, or if they have been that they understand that and get re-registered. So they're not thinking, 'oh, I want to go vote this time,' and then attempt to, and they aren't on the rolls.

Activities are coming out of the South that have yet to happen anywhere else in the country due to the organizing work and strategy and thinking and process and the courage of Black women to stand up for this democracy.

A lot of our folks are renters and so tend to move quite frequently. We make sure that if you're a registered voter but you've moved you get re-registered. And of course we also register new voters. Once we have a person in our system, we can track them and help that person create a voter plan, make sure they get counted for the census, get their pledge to vote, and help them get all the way through to the polls. So we don't drop you off after you've registered to vote. We keep in touch and try to help move you through the process. And if you are already registered but haven't cast a vote in a couple of years, we're also tracking how we can bring you back into the fold.

The big investment is in being a trustworthy voice. This is why we are disciplined about where we are. In a sense, scale for us isn't about casting wide, but it's about deep. And so in the communities that we work we are consistent. We are talking to folks on and off election cycles, three to five times a year. They're always hearing from us. They are seeing their neighbors knock on their doors, because we hire in the communities in which we work in as much as possible. Our office is also located in one of the neighborhoods that we work in.

Consistency has been really key to our formula. Over the years what we have seen are folks having longer conversations with us at the door. More people opening the door. More conversations over the phone. People get so bombarded around this time of the year with robocalls and all kinds of information and mailers and stuff like that. When they see the purple and yellow T-shirt coming to the door, if they hear our voice on the phone — "this is so-and-so calling from WE Vote, WE Rise" — we are more apt to have conversations because of that investment.

Are there certain issues that you're specifically trying to turn people out on?

Our focus is around lifting up the human rights of Black women and girls and femmes. Our work uses the reproductive justice framework as one of our values. We also work on expansion of access to health care. We have done work around the use of religion to discriminate against LGBTQ communities. How we integrate that into our voter engagement work is that the conversations we have with folks, whether on the phone or at the door, are about the issues. What are the issues that are important to you? We ask that question. If health care is a critical issue for them, we have a deeper conversation about the work that we do. We ask if you want to stay in touch, stay involved with us. If so, we add them to our database and support people moving into doing some actions based on the issues that they say are important to them.

We've been doing a lot of work around reproductive justice, a framework designed by Black women for women of color to really talk about the intersections of oppressions that impact our ability to family plan and the like. To understand the connection between reproductive justice and genocide of communities, whether they're Indigenous communities, Black communities, other people of color communities. Racial justice is key to that understanding. If you're going to have an understanding about reproductive choice and you don't see the connection with racial justice, then you're missing what that reality is for a whole host of women and girls and femmes.

With all of the incidents of police murders of Black people that have taken center stage this year, it was important for us to make sure that we were talking to people at the door about the connection between the power of their vote and law enforcement. We use the opportunities when we are doing our voter engagement work to also do political education. This is why being a trustworthy voice and doing that kind of deep investment and being consistent matters — because then you can have these kinds of conversations.

I wanted to ask about the role of faith-based organizations in your work. I noticed that Victoria Ferguson-Young is on your board, and she's an ordained minister. And you also worked with an organization called Rights, Faith, and Democracy Collaborative.

For us, reproductive justice and the cultural work is so intimately connected with working with faith-based organizations that share our values. Because they are important components to our communities. And so we really see it being necessary and important to have those touch points.

One of the communities that we work in is the Pittsburgh community in southwest Atlanta, which is a historically Black community. It's still predominantly a working-class Black community. We work with the Beloved Community Church that does a lot of outreach work in that community — food drives, clothing drives. We partner with them to do voter registration drives while they have their other activities for congregants and for the community.

Rev. Slaughter is the senior pastor of the Beloved Community Church. He also is a community DJ and has a radio program. He's had us on his program. We come to the church to do our voter engagement activities. We also have done election protection work in the Pittsburgh community. If you were following what was happening in 2018 here in Georgia, it was our historic gubernatorial race. There was a lot of voter suppression that took place that year. So we found ourselves, our young volunteers and staff members, having to do the election protection piece and help keep a location open that was going to close early, while people were still in line. And so 2018 really showed us what the Shelby v. Holder decision meant. [Editor's note: This is the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that rolled back sections of the Voting Rights Act, including the requirement that states with a history of voter discrimination get Department of Justice preclearance of any election changes.] And from '13 to 2018, I think what we got really clear on was, what does it mean when states don't have to have the preclearance? Georgia was one of those states that really took full advantage of the change.

Having our faith-based partners is so important because they also help give us legitimacy in the community. Because they're a trusted part of the community that provides resources and spiritual support and those kinds of things, us being connected adds to us being seen as a trustworthy voice. So it's important for us to make those connections with faith-based leaders and communities.

Our democracy, rights, and religion work comes out of a partnership with the Proteus Fund and with our local organizations here, SisterSong, Jobs with Justice, and Georgia Equality. We talk about the use of religion to discriminate, that it's about discrimination and not about freedom of religion, and make sure that that is understood in all of our communities. That also those of us that work in different sectors — whether it's reproductive justice, civic engagement, labor, and LGBTQ rights — are saying the same things about this.

We have been thinking about reproductive justice, reproductive health and rights, and the ways that gets used as a wedge issue in communities. And how that is about discrimination — discriminating against women. And how that use of religion is actually discriminating.

It's the same when we think about LGBTQ rights. Using religion to say no to a same-sex couple is not about freedom of expression. It's about discrimination. And so we think through, collectively, ways to talk about it. And what we have found when we actually have those conversations, especially with younger Black voters, is that so many do see the connection and support the separation of religion and decisions around one's body. That has been key to our work.

It is an A to Z project: You are keeping data on the back end, doing surveys, tracking where people met with challenges, and then troubleshooting those challenges.

What I think has become crystal clear in the last couple of years is the power of Black women's vote. And the power of having trusted messengers who are talking about the issues that matter, Then you get the kind of turnout that exceeds expectation. I think we saw that in 2018 in Georgia.

In 2014, when Margaret and I started Women Engaged, we understood a couple of things. One, that Shelby v. Holder meant that, for people who are doing work around issue organizing, that it's going to be important to also get into the fight of what it means to uphold the basic democratic infrastructure of this country.

We have to build up our grassroots infrastructure. We have to support people becoming more empowered to be civically engaged. And we have to have public leadership that reflects the communities in which they serve, that shares the values and has the courage to stand up with integrity on the issues that matter, knowing that there's always negotiations.

The other thing that was clear in Georgia was really the power of Black women politically, as a bloc. In Georgia in particular, Black women are a consistent voting bloc. We tend to outpace most demographics in voting. And we also know that not only do we vote, but we bring people to the polls. We organize even as we are doing it as an individual act. There is an act of bringing other people along. So this is so important.

What does it mean, then, to make sure that Black femmes, Black women, are empowered in their civic engagement, with the resources needed to move an agenda that supports us? And so this was what we wanted to do. We wanted to be very bold about that and say that we center the desires and needs of Black women, girls, and femmes in Georgia as a starting point. And we are requiring of those who want to ally with us that you must be willing to learn those things, and to speak those things, and to be in partnership with us in a real way.

So 2014 was where we began. Georgia was becoming more Black, more Brown, and younger. This is who's moving to Georgia, to the greater metro area, from around the country. They need to be engaged along with those that are here. We sit at the feet of, and we stand on the shoulders of, giants here, through the civil rights era to now, who have laid a path for us to be able to continue that work. We do it with that kind of pride in mind, and that tradition in mind, but with a real interest in centering Black women and girls and femmes in that effort. 2014 was an interesting year for Georgia, where we had Black women running up and down the ballot. It was historic. And people didn't know. It was just not well known.

This year we see and witness the voices of Black women in this political process. What has it meant to talk about not only needs and desires but also our demand to have a place as decision-makers in this democracy? I think that this is a year where more people are paying closer attention to what we are saying, and our leadership, and our strategies, and how we're thinking.

Alabama demonstrated in '18 the power of Black women's civic engagement power and organizing, making historic changes that people did not expect to happen in Alabama. Activities are coming out of the South that have yet to happen anywhere else in the country due to the organizing work and strategy and thinking and process and the courage of Black women to stand up for this democracy. We see that all over the country. What is happening in terms of the shift and change in demographics? Also, what does public leadership look like? What can it look like? What is the possibility? Is this country really ready for that? The backlash to that is real.

It is going to take everyone being honest and prepared for the shifts and changes in a way that protects our society, protects the next generation, protects our environment, transforms white supremacy and racism, and owns up, quite frankly, to a history that is ever present around the genocide of Indigenous communities and Black and Brown communities. It is time. This is something that we are clearly faced with. We can look to our past to see where these cycles have been before — when there have been times of important progress, economically, politically, for communities of color, for women, for Black people, and the backlash that comes right afterwards. Or right at the same time.

How do we behave in ways that learn from those moments, and transforms our behavior, this country, to that which moves us all into a more human rights-loving, progressive-acting culture?

How does Women Engaged think about history? I saw a T-shirt on your website saying racism is very American.

History is always being made. It is active. And history is not just domestic. History is global. And for us, for Women Engaged, predominantly people of African descent, our connection to other locations and stories and points of history that are also parallel to today's moment is also something we think about.

Something that we think about is, where are the ties? Where are the connectors? What is happening that is going on that has some ties to the past? We think about those things. We also think about the Black women, in particular, the Black people, who have always been at the forefront of pushing this democracy forward.

I think about people as early as Phyllis Wheatley and Sojourner Truth. I think about Fannie Lou Hamer and Ida B. Wells. I think about the work of Black feminists, scholars, and theorists like Toni Cade Bambara and Audre Lorde and Patricia Hill Collins and Beverly Guy-Sheftall. M. Bahati Kuumba, who studies movements in the African diaspora led by women of African descent. Kimberlé Crenshaw — we think about intersectionality.

Now everybody talks about intersectionality, right? But intersectionality and reproductive justice were terms that not too long ago were things that, in majority settings, were not being considered as theories and concepts and frameworks that were worthy of consideration. And anyone thinking understands that if you are not taking into consideration the intersections, you are missing whole facts. Not just interpretation — you're missing whole facts.

These kinds of things are important — making sure to name where they come from, and naming the work.

I think about this moment, and I think about Anita Hill. Thank God she was courageous to do what she did and is still willing to be out and talking about issues related to workplace harassment, sexism, and these kinds of things. Because now we are in such a different place, and everyone's talking about it and understanding it. Shifting the perspective of major candidates, whether acknowledged or not, was because of her work.

We think about whose shoulders we are on, and the ways in which these frameworks and ways of writing and understanding and thinking about and theorizing helped us put into practice how we engage with community.

What are the most important things, politically, that you feel that are coming out of the South right now?

One of the things that we've seen coming out of the South is how to shift and change what feels like hard and fast positions, or ways of being politically engaged, that just were not going to be reflective of the growing majority in our states. What we are seeing are major shifts and changes because of the kind of organizing that particularly Black women are doing on the ground.

You know, oftentimes when the South is discussed, it's discussed from a perspective of being sort of behind on trends. But in a number of ways our civic engagement organizing and efforts and strategies in this region are setting up a different kind of standard for what representation looks like. What does it mean to work in places where power is in opposition to a lot of the things that you're standing for while finding ways to do the kind of grassroots organizing that moves people, that is making a difference in what public leadership can be?