Welcome to Louisiana Lefty, a podcast about politics and community in Louisiana, where we make the case that the health of the state requires a strong progressive movement fueled by the critical work of organizing on the ground. Our goal is to democratize information, demystify party politics, and empower you to join the mission, because victory for Louisiana requires you.
I'm your host, Lynda Woolard. This episode is the first of a two part interview with Norris Henderson, best known as founder and executive director of Voice of the Experienced, or VOTE. Equally important these days is his work as E.D. of Voters Organized to Educate and co-chair of PAC for Justice. However, that's just touching the surface of the number of titles he holds.
Norris truly embodies VOTE's tagline: From Chains to Change. His decades of organizing for Criminal Justice Reform started after an unconstitutional conviction landed him in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the former plantation known as Angola, for 27 years. While there he co-founded the Angola Special Civics Project to engage fellow incarcerated people in the electoral and legislative process.
After his release in 2003, he founded VOTE to continue the work of the Civics Project to represent those he left behind in prison, as well as formerly incarcerated people, and to advocate for the latter's voting rights. The work of the organizations he's involved in has directly led to the success of Governor John Bel Edwards' Justice Reinvestment Package, the passage of the constitutional amendment that ended unconstitutional non-unanimous juries, and the elections of a progressive mayor, D.A., and sheriff in New Orleans.
I've often on this podcast called the Unanimous Jury Coalition's work, of which Norris was statewide campaign director, a model for progressive change in the state. But as you'll hear from him in this interview, it's really all about putting in the work to lay the foundation that creates the conditions needed for change when the circumstances line up right. The change we see today comes from the work of organizers started decades ago, and the work we do today is preparing Louisiana for future victories.
Norris Henderson! Thank you so much for joining me on Louisiana Lefty.
Hey, Lynda, thanks for having me. Everybody's popping up with podcasts, and I didn't know you had one. But I'm so glad that you reached out, because I know that people in your network definitely need to hear what we're doing.
Well, I always start the podcast with how I know my guest. And I knew you long before we met because you're so well known as the founder and executive director of Voice of the Experienced. But we first worked together in 2018, when you were also state director for the Unanimous Jury Coalition, and its partner campaign Yes On 2 to pass constitutional amendment two.
Yeah, that was some fun times. I got one of the placards on our wall here with everybody's signatures. That time was an exciting time, because nobody really gave us a chance to get that done. You know, that was the striking thing. I remember in the beginning people coming in trying to help with messaging and suggesting what the message should be on the doors, and we took the position that, no, we know our people a lot better, we're gonna handle the doors the way we're going to handle the doors. And to come away the way we did. I mean, I would have been tickled to death was 50.1%, to be honest, you know, but to come away the way we did with over 64% of the vote. And I guess to bring it into context for folks from Louisiana, that we won 61 out of 64 parishes, that was it. That was like, "Oh man, folks have been waiting for this for a long time." We turned out more people in a election than all the congressional races combined in that that election cycle. So a lot of good people put in a lot of work across this state to make that happen. So up until the last election, when people asked me all about what was one of the most exciting thing that you've ever done, I was like, "That non-unanimous jury vote." Now I would have to say, aside from that, is something again that you partnered with us on, is electing the new sheriff.
Those are both great advances for the state. And we'll dig a little more into Unanimous Juries a little bit later in the podcast. I bring it up often on Louisiana Lefty, because I see it as a model for what can be done in the state through coalition building, and a complete campaign strategy that includes organizing.
So that's really what we drill down on all the time here. And Unanimous Juries to me has just been a great model for that. Like you said, we worked together on the Orleans Parish sheriff's race. You were co-chair of PAC for Justice, where I worked, but I believe your more visible role really was as executive director of Voters Organized to Educate.
And y'all did some amazing, long-term organizing on that race through that organization.
To be honest, we were blessed. We've been trying to, you know, take this guy down for years, but we never had the right candidate. It was always the candidates had baggage. And I think this time, the former sheriff kind of lulled himself to sleep, because he had never actually been in a knockdown drag out. And when he actually got into the fight, he realized that these folks were punching above their weight class. I think he kind of just took everything and everybody for granted. Because, he got, for the primary, 48%, and he was like, "Oh, cakewalk," and he didn't realize that's when the fight actually started, when you separate the wheat from the chaff. Folks were worried about number three and number four candidates endorsing the sheriff, and I was like, "These folks are misreading the tea leaves." These weren't their votes, they were anti-Gusman votes. And it manifested itself, because when it came to the runoff, not only did we gain, but he lost votes. We went back and looked at the numbers and some of the precincts that he initially won, the second time around, he lost them. It was a combination of his folks didn't show up and us getting people to turn, to roll over a different way. And for the third place and fourth place candidates, their vote didn't even matter. And I tell people, the exciting thing about this story is that being 13 points down, and then winning by six. And so you're talking about a 19 point turnaround in 30 days. And that that is really the message. The data that you sent out after the election was spot on. But like you say, again, it was people really put the work in. People were on doors, people were everywhere they needed to be talking about the candidate, lifting the candidate up. And one of the things that we learned from being on the ground was that people were tired. We would approach people, they were like, "Oh, no, I already voted for her," or "I'm going to vote for her." It was kind of like that kind of mindset. And I was saying to myself, I said, "Man, if just 50% of the people are telling us to true, this is not even going to be close." You know how do you do it here. We go to the second lines and pass out literature and people were like, "Give me that," and you know, they were passing it out for us, like "Oh yeah, he's gotta go." And everybody had a story as to why he had to go and I'm like, "Oh, we just need to let people tell their story and that's going to resonate, because they're going to take it home." And that's what happened. People started telling these stories inside their household, spreading it with their family and friends, and when you looked up on election night, it was the biggest thing, it was bigger than the mayor's race. That was the key election. It wasn't the mayor's race. That race became the actual race that people paid attention to. And so it's like you said earlier and I believe that when people, ideas, and money get organized, it's amazing what we can do. And I think like, you said again, moving forward, this is going to be the barometer for what happens from here on out in this state about progressive candidates, you know, what their possibilities are, you know, the chances that they have to succeed. It really show more than anything, Lynda, that regular people, not connected to these machines, can go up against these machines, and win, and win with fashion.
I think that's all right. Well, tell me, Norris, what got you interested in politics in the first place? What's your origin story?
The thing that really got me interested in politics is being a casualty of politics. I went to prison in the early '70s for a crime I didn't commit. And the thing about it was, everything that people are getting out of prison for, was present in my case: non-unanimous jury verdict, the unconstitutional jury instruction, the suppression of evidence, all of that stuff. And so in prison, I worked in the prison law library. I was a librarian. And one day I just happened to be doing some research and started studying the Constitution. And realized in our Constitution, that wait a minute, formerly incarcerated people can vote. Because our 1921 constitution, you had to get a gubernatorial pardon, in order to get your right to vote back. And we were at a time where, you know, everybody was on his soapbox, lock them up, throw away the key, everybody was being real harsh. And I was like, "Man, how are we gonna change this? We can't change the policies, we've got to change the people make these policies. But in order to do that, we've got to have the power to vote."
And we started organizing from inside with the Angola Special Civics Project, teaching our folks how to canvass, how to do all these different things. And our first test run at getting a candidate elected was Paulette Irons. She's a judge now. But she was a student at Tulane, and she was a part of the POPS program with Professor Jonathan Turley. The POPS program was this project for older prisoners. They would come in and prepare folks for their parole and pardon hearings. And so when she decided to run for office, a friend of my wife's worked on her staff, and my wife was working in the campaign. I asked what they were doing and told her to give me some of that information, because these guys in this prison, their family lives in that precinct. And so we started canvassing all the housing developments. The Melpomene, the Caliope, the St. Thomas were all constituents. And so we was kind of like on the phone, calling home, writing home, and said, "Hey, look, this lady's trying to help us, she a part of the POPS program," and sure enough, she won. And even to this day, I don't think a lot of people really know how she actually won. You know, given the fact that it was us inside, pushing out folks outside to turn out. So we just have taken that to another level now. The Civics Project has really grown.
How the Civics Project come about was, we were trying to get the first Governor Edwards reelected when he was running against Buddy Roemer, and he dropped out of the race. The rationale was we realized Edwards was good for the folks in prison, because he signed pardons, he granted commutations. We didn't really know who Charles Buddy Roemer was, and so we put all our eggs the Edwards basket, and Edwards dropped out of the race. And it was like, "Oh, man, we need a plan B," we didn't have a plan B. And so Plan B became, "No, we've got to organize our families into a voting bloc." And that's what we started up, but we started doing it from inside. We became the political arm inside of how to do this. And I became the chairperson of the Special Civics Project and we started doing politics.
We actually did a white paper around alternatives to incarceration, and we did a 10 state study of different states that if you went to prison in Texas, or went to prison in Alabama, how much time you received for the very same crime. And we realized we were the outlier again, because folks in Texas, even if they had 100 years, because the way their system operated, they got good time on the front end. They were under consent decree just like us, but every time the population got above 9%, they had to accelerate good time, and it helped people get out a lot quicker. And we realized we should be able to do the same thing. And then we got blessed, because they did one of the legislative hearings from inside the prison. And it was asking what our wants, needs, and desires were. I'll never forget Senator Hainkel. And he was kind of like the champion for lock 'em up and throw away the key. And he was listening to the guys talk, and the warden was saying at that time, "I can identify like 1500 guys that y'all can release tomorrow." And he posed the question, "Would you go public with that?" And he kind of put the wardon on the spot, because you've been telling us that, "Hey, I got 1500 guys who can get out of here." And then the challenge came: "Would you go public with it?" And he said, "Yeah, I can go public." And in that moment, Senator Hainkel just took it upon itself to start this reform, to start rolling back some of these antiquated laws that had been put in place.
And that kind of started the ball rolling, just started looking at the low hanging fruit, the nonviolent offenders to drug lifers. Because we had seven classes of lifers. We had were drug lifers, habitual offender lifers, aggravated kidnapping, two different verdicts of murder lifers. It was realized then that, "Wait a minute, man, we've just kind of like, put ourselves in this dark space." This country was just going in a different direction. But when the federal government started subsidizing incarcerating people, Louisiana bought it hook, line and sinker, and the first Edwards was actually responsible for this prison boom. I mean, when I first went to prison, they didn't have but the male prison at Angola, the female prison at St. Gabriel, and a young adult prison at DeQuincy, so they had three prisons. By Edwards' fourth term, we had like 13 prisons. Prison had become a growth industry.
And that phrase that "prison is a growth industry," I got that from Buddy Roemer. He visited our prison after he became governor, and was in the law library talking to a guy, I think his name was David Stein, who was his Division of Administration guy, and that's what he was talking about, that prisons had become a growth industry. And we realized then that, "Uh oh, we're in trouble," because people were actually making money off this stuff now. First it was about punishment. But then people were making money from the telephones, everything. I mean, the thing had become reality to us, because at the time we had AT&T, the biggest phone company in America. When they got rid of AT&T for all these little fly by night phone companies, we realized, "Houston, we got a problem," that people are really making money on the backs of us. And so that really put some whips to our horses, and we started drafting legislation.
The first piece of legislation that we actually drafted was what is known now as a 20/45 law. We drafted this legislation to create opportunities for people serving time to be parole eligible at different stages of the incarceration, from the guy who stole somebody's vehicle all the way to to folks who have committed murder. At the higher, the maximum will be 20 years before you became eligible for any kind of benefits. And the minimum was like 10 years. And the biggest challenge, people laugh when we say this, the biggest knock down drag out came when we were trying to determine for ourselves how much time a person should stay in prison for doing something. And that was the biggest challenge. And we was like, "No, no, no, man, people ain't gone let nobody go that didn't stole the government mule, you won't get out in six months. That ain't gonna happen, you know." So we crafted this document and pushed it out. We were blessed, because at that time, we had a newly elected legislator out of New Orleans, Naomi Warren. We were allowed to invite people from the outside in, and she came to one of our functions, unbeknownst to us, I mean, we didn't know who she was. But we'd given this big spiel about our proposal we drafted and we were going to submit it to the legislature. To show you how naive we were, we didn't even realize that we couldn't do anything unless we had somebody to sponsor the bill. And she asked for her two minutes to speak. And she got up and said, "Look, I agree with everything y'all said, and I will champion your cause." And we was like, "Whoa!" Again, being naive. We got this little House Bill and everyday, everybody was watching and tracking the progress of it. And it got filed, and we were excited, and it hit committee and got smashed. And it was like, "Wow, man, this is more than we bargained for." So like back to the drawing board. And so for the next three years consecutive, she pushed that bill until 1990, Act 790 created 20/45. And how you got to 45 years of age was Professor Turley, who was over POPS, he would testify at the legislature about, you know, changing these laws. And he coined this phrase about criminal menopause. And when one of the legislators said, "When does criminal menopause set in?" He said, "Normally at 45 years of age, criminal menopause sets in, where people are less inclined to commit crimes." And so they said, "Well, ok, we're going to do the 20 years, plus the 45 years of age. And so that's how it became 20/45, that you served 20 years, and be 45 years of age to become eligible for parole.
The tragedy in it for us was that all of us was serving life sentences. And they excluded lifers. And so the other lesson learned from that was, being on the cutting edge of change. Sometimes you don't benefit from the change you bring about. And so we realized then that we had to do more than just rely on somebody being altruistic to help us, we had to make something happen ourselves. So we just launched this campaign, just to start educating our folks around why they should engage, why they should become voters, and the impact of the power that we were trying to build. When we started that in 1987, trying to restore the right to vote, it wasn't until 2017 that we actually got it. But here's the funny thing. I'm gonna make you really laugh. We met along the journey, some folks from the League of Women Voters, and we were so excited when we were talking about introducing this bill, and they said, "Well, you know, it took us 20 years to get out for his bill passed." We were like, "What? 20 years? We don't have that kind of time." And in reality, it actually took us 30 years to get that piece of legislation passed.
But you know, at the Capitol that day, when we had the massive rally there, folks came up with one of our banners that we had from inside: From Chains to Change. For the newbies, they were like, "Yeah, we're done!" And for all of us, we were like just kind of like wiping our brows, saying, "Man, this has been a long, protracted battle." Folks were like, "How long have y'all been working on this?" And I said, "It took us30 years to get this thing done." But you know, I tell people all the time, it's about conditions and circumstances. The conditions were right. The circumstance were right. We had a new governor in John Bel (Edwards) who wanted to remove us from this stigma of leading the nation in per capita incarceration for better than forty years. And all the stars lined up. So we were able to get the Justice Reinvestment, and as a part of that, we were able to regain the franchise. Fast forward, seeing where we are and the progress we've made over the last five or six years, I would say, the Justice Reinvestment Package, in the journey of 1000 miles, we made 500 steps. And since then, given what we were able to do this last session, we had five priority bills, and we got four of them actually signed by the governor. The fifth one turned into the task force, which I'm on, around, non-unanimous. So I think we're making progress.
To some people who are on the outside looking in, maybe they don't see the progress. But people nationally, are starting to look at us now and say, "Oh, look at all the wonderful things has happened in Louisiana." Because we don't play a role as far as the the Electoral College goes, people just concede that they're not going to win this. But now people are starting to really pay attention. They were like, "Oh, they got lucky and got the sheriff. No, we got the first female mayor in this city's 300 year history. And then we come right back, and we get the first progressive district attorney. And now we have the first progressive sheriff. So we've been kind of like, you know, knocking the ball out the park. But it didn't come easy. It comes from a lot of hard work people have been putting in. I remember reading a column that Danae Colombus wrote around the DA's race where she was saying the DA needs to thank us, because for the last 10 years, we've been setting the stage for it to happen. We have been carrying the narrative of what happened. So when it happened, for folks who understand the history of it, it's been the groundwork to make it happen. So everything we see now, that's manifesting itself, is because of the work of all these collaborations that we've been building over the years. Now we're starting to see the fruits of our labor. And, you know, you've been a part of it, you know, and I am kind of like excited to actually tell folks that the role that you play, every step of the way, I mean, from John Bel's election, to the mayor's election to the non-unanimous, and the sheriff and on and on and on.
So it's a lot of work, but I think what it is more than anything else, we have figured out the formula. We've figured out the phone, and I think that is the key to all this, not like reinventing the wheel. You know, it's kind of funny, I was looking at a picture the other day of the criminal court building, the judges. And when I looked at the picture, I was kind of like shocked. And I don't know why, because I know other judges, but when I saw the picture, it just kind of like, they just jumped off the page. And what I realized was of the 12 judges and the one magistrate judge, nine of them are females. And I was like, "Whoa, man!" Because you don't see these people every day unless you're in that building, and you never see him in one spot. When I saw that picture, I was like, "Oh, man, this has been a game changer." Every election cycle there's one or two more being added to the bench. And I was looking at the two male judges who were in the picture, one of the male judges was missing, but I was looking at the other two sitting in the picture, and I'm like, "I don't know what to say about your next time around, bro. Y'all might be one and done. This picture frame is really about to change here, you know."
Right. Well, I'm glad you told that story, because I think a lot of folks do get frustrated when they see change doesn't happen as rapidly as they'd like. And I think you've illustrated the point that it takes a long time, but part of it is setting the table for change to happen. So I'm really glad you told that. Well, how did the organization VOTE come into being?
The organization VOTE came into being because we're the progeny of the Angola Special Civics Project. And one thing we used to train our guys up is that somebody is meant to take responsibility when they get out to try to make this happen. That somebody just happened to be me. But it was almost 14 years after we started the organization inside, because other folks got out, but it didn't become a priority. My daily prayer was, if I ever got to that place, I wouldn't forget where I came from, nor the people I left behind. So one year to the date of my release, I incorporated VOTE. But it was based upon the commitment that I made to those guys behind that I'm going to go out, and I'm gonna figure this thing out, and go out and organize our families to try to get done what we've been trying to do internally. So on March 23, 2004, I incorporated VOTE. And so here we are, almost 19 years later, still moving. I tell people all the time, they don't see that early toil and struggle. What they see now is the footprint that we have made in the community, but that came with a lot of toil and struggle and sacrifice to make this happen, and patience more than anything else. Because, even with the Unanimous Juries campaign, we had a campaign and no resources. So to find people, convinced people to believe in you and believe in the work that you're doing, is essential. And I think we've been able to be good stewards with other people's resources. And I think that has been really a blessing for our progressive movement, to be able to sell folks on our ideas, that we have an idea, we have a plan, we think it can work, nothing is guaranteed, but we are showing that we are going to give it our all. I think in all these campaigns that we have worked in together, I don't think nobody gave less than 200% to make these things happen. I think the reason we win is not because we had better resources, because other folks had more resources than we did, but we were in it for the right thing. Our hearts were in it. And I think that's the biggest thing. We were in it to change the hearts and minds of people, as opposed to just compensating people for doing work. Our folks were folks who were really invested in it. And it really told the story with Unanimous Juries to see all the folks from all walks of life in that campaign, and committed. I mean, it was like, from the folks who weren't doing nothing but helping put together flyers, to the folks who were actually inside the tent with the full blown out strategy of how we're going to make this thing work. But it all came to fruition because of that. But yeah, we cut our teeth inside, and we're just the progeny of Angola Special Civics Project.
And I feel like VOTE itself has had some name changes, but you've always had the acronym VOTE, is that right?
Right. Right. And the reason for that goes to again with our educating ourselves. Initially our organization's acronym stood for Voice of the Ex-offender, and one of our national leaders, Eddie Ellis, penned a letter to the media about what those negative connotations, the baggage that they carry. And so we kept the acronym, but we changed from ex-offender to Voice of the Experienced, and kept the tagline from Chains to Change, to let people know that we're one and the same group, but we acknowledge the harm that the language caused and created for people. And so we evolved into that. But we understood one thing, too, with the sister organization, Voters Organized, was that what we were setting out to do, to organize people, and the more educated people become, the more educated decisions that they actually can make. That became really strategic. That's one thing we kept hearing from people that nobody took time to come in and explained to us what all this stuff was about, what these people's roles were, what they could and could not do. So they were able to kind of like, peel the onion back, when people were making these campaign promises. People would realize, that is not your job description. Your job description allows you to do something else.
And I think the biggest narrative change was that we educated the folks in the community, that when you had these candidate forums, that these people were auditioning for a job. You were the employor now. And so it was the other way around, the shoes on the foot, they're coming to you with hat in hand, as opposed to you going to them with hat in hand. And so I think when the role shifted in the sense of people becoming more educated around what the roles of these people were, what benefit it was going to be to them depends on who got in office, that people became more strategic around how they use their most precious asset, and that was the vote. So I think that the time that we've taken over these campaigns to educate people about it, and we've become sophisticated, we did know what PACs were, but now we do. We're kind of like playing the game, too. And the thing is we're playing the game in the truest fashion. Like our campaign, we didn't run a negative campaign, we've become truth tellers. And I tell people all the time, truth has a way of finding favor or disfavor. Everybody don't want to hear the truth. And I think that's what happened in this last campaign, that we were telling the truth, and they just couldn't handle it. It was almost like A Few Good Men, you know, they couldn't handle the truth. They started calling those names and everything. And I told everybody that we are winning this, and they'd say, "What do you mean?" I'd say, "Ghandi said, first they laugh at you, then they call you names, and then you win." All along the campaign, I'm saying the only thing that hasn't happened is we haven't won yet. But everything is happening. We're going to win, because when they go to calling you names, they've already lost. And that's what it turned into, when they started putting out the ugly mailers around the candidate: she's not from here, she's not married, and all that kind of crazy stuff, I'm like, "What does that have to do with anything?" But it became the thing that really disconnected that campaign from the people in this community. And I tell folks, that's the biggest thing about the politicians is that most of them have lost touch with people in their communities. That election specifically was a prime example of how people have actually lost touch.
I do want to ask you about one other acronym that you use: FIP, for formerly incarcerated person.
People or person. And that comes again from language, about trying to get people to use people first language, you know, language that humanizes people, as opposed to dehumanize people. I tell people all the time, just about everybody you come in contact with is a former something, you know, the ex something, but nobody wants to go around, saying, This is the ex wife or the ex husband and so and so and so. No, people say, "Well, my former wife," and so on, because you're humanizing them, you know, and so we are kind of like using people first language in everything that we do. They're fathers, brothers, uncles, dads, mothers, aunts. Why is it always that you have to use some ugly adjective to define or describe individuals. The more humanizing language you use, it's easy for you to interact with people. You don't know who folks are. These very same folks are your neighbors. You don't that they've come in contact with the criminal justice system unless they tell you. I remember one time I was at Harvard, at the Kennedy School for Government on the panel, and we were talking, and everybody was like, "Well, where did you go to school at, you went to LSU?" I said, "No, I went to LSP, Louisiana State Penitentiary," and they were like, "You've been to prison?!" I was like, "Yeah," and then I told them how long I'd been in prision. They were like, "Aw no, you ain't been to prison."
And I remember once we did a symposium in a prison, a criminal justice symposium. And we invited kids from all the law schools across the state, all the social programs, and all the media programs across the state. And the kids were coming in busloads from all over the state, from all the different schools. And we were in the eight building, kind of like the big space talking to the kids, and our dress code, the Civic Project, we will yellow t-shirts, and jeans. We talked to these kids for like 35 minutes, captive audience. And then when the kids said, "When are we going to beat the prisoners?" And we just found that so funny. I'm like, "We are the prisoners." And they were like, "What?" I said, "You're watching too much Oz, you know, y'all watching too much TV." But no, it's Just striking how people's perception of who people are, what they look like, how articulate they are.
When you get people, you sit down and have these conversations, even at the legislature, you're giving a testimony during the Justice Reinvestment stuff. And I remember sitting me, John Legend, and Alanah Odoms was at the table talking, and one of the legislators, I remember, asked John Legend, "How do you know so much about our state and what we done?" And he pointed to me and said, "This guy right here educated me about all this stuff." And it was kind of like, just fascinating that sometimes people, again, judged a book by the cover, you know. To me, it's funny, because a lot of the doors open because you underestimate what's going to happen next. And that's able to sneak up on people before they realize that, too late. You've underestimated us and we blew clean by you. But no, that's what it comes from, it's just come from people really having to understand and appreciate the narrative, because during the '50s and the '60s, like the the gay rights movement, you know, all the derogatory and negative terms that they used to define people. And now people who used to be adamant about calling them all those other names, is that now they're not only just LGBTQ, but it's kind of like, you know, "plus," you know. So people have come to address people in those terms. The same thing, the immigration movement, you know, people used to call people all those derogatory names. And now it's like, they're just undocumented people. It's the people first names that make people see them as people. When we saw the stuff going on at the border, those people were pro keeping them out of the country were calling them all kind of ugly names. But then when the people started saying, "No, they're just undocumented," and started putting a human's face on it, then people was like, "That can easily be one of us." I think the lesson learned for us as being New Orleanians was Katrina, and how we showed up in other places. And we wanted people not to see us as being refugees, because you can't be a refugee in your own country, but how that language shifted, how people saw us and treated us, you know, it was from once that language shifted from us being refugees to just being displaced, it changed the game how people saw us. It's just sad that it took Katrina to kind of like wake people up about language. Because in the aftermath of Katrina, where people like "Y'all need to just leave from down there." And then Mother Nature started hitting everywhere else. And we sit and watching and saying, "Well, why y'all still there?" All the earthquakes, all the floods we got flooding y'all out, when Sandy hit New York, it's like, "Now y'all see." So language plays a huge role in how we see each other. It allows us to stop othering people, because they're not the other. We make people other, you know. People self identify in certain ways, and I tell people, it's not what you call me, it's what I respond to. You can call me what you want, it's what I respond to. You shouldn't have to force people to acknowledge people for who they are or what they represent.
How did VOTE lead to you creating Voters Organized to Educate?
Realizing that you just had limited power with your 501(c)(3) status. You can be out in front of building waving your sign, making noise as people look out the window. That's all they can do, people understand your limitations. But we realized in order to play in the game was like throwing your brick without having to hide your hands, like we have to create a 501(c)(4) apparatus, so we can do the electionioneering part of it. It has been a game changer for us, having the sister organization to be able to carry the weight of what we do, at the (c)(3), educate people about what needs to happen in our communities. When when you organize communities, you know, it's like, wherever there's people, there's power. Our (c)(4) is just that is that, we have people. And so now we've scaled them up and educated them about how to use all these tools that had been foreign to us. How to access the VAN, we don't have to borrow nobody's VAN, we have our own VAN, and we know how to use all of those tools of the trade.
The VAN database...
The VAN database, yeah. We know how to use VAN. We know how to Hustle. We know how to do predictive dialer. We're just blessed to have the resources to allow us access to the technology. But we've skilled up our folks, we've become train the trainers. It's not like it's the best kept secret no more, you know, how to do these things. Folks who technology is foreign to them, we've taken the guesswork out of that stuff. If you've got a smartphone, we can teach how to use that stuff right inside your phone. Our (c)(4), Voters Organized, allows us to be in a position that - the (c)(3) can complain about the policies - the (c)(4) can change the policy makers. You know, the theory is like the anvil and the hammer, and when you're the anvil, you bend, but when you're the hammer, you strike. And so that's how we kind of like look those organizations, that one kind of like plants the seed, and the other one makes sure that it grows.
But your 501(c)(3) also can do the follow up. I love the video on the front page of your VOTE website that has you with Power Coalition and Black Voters Matter going across the state to educate people about Act 636, where you were reinstating voting rights for formerly incarcerated people. It's a great video. It's got you and Ms LaTosha Brown and Checo Yancy.
Yeah, that's my girl, LaTosha. As a matter of fact, we're about to put the show on the road again, because February 1, voting rights for folks on probation, never get suspended. So now we're about to do this tour to go and let these guys know and let these judges know also, that when you put somebody on probation, you can't suspend the right to vote. We've been in these conversation with the secretary of state. And, man, that is a hard nut to crack there. But we've been working with them and getting a lot of things done. And so we are now getting this stuff codified to make it that much easier that once a person gets probation, if you're registered, you never lose your registration. And if you've not, you still can go and register. So our challenge is that those additional 30,000 people, we've been blessed to have access to, we know where they're at. And so we've been doing outreach to them to get them to come into the wheelhouse, you know, to go and register and when it comes time for the election, turn out to vote. And the exciting thing is to see folks that we've registered out in the community, encouraging other people to get out and register vote.
So I want to just repeat those three conditions that allow people to have their voting rights reinstated: 1) if you're off probation or off parole,
2) you can be on parole if you've been out for more than five years,
and then 3) is you're on probation and have not been sent back to prison.
Right. That's the thing. Say you're on probation, and you get picked up, you know, you broke your curfew, well, you won't lose your right to vote, because that's technical stuff. Unless you reoffend actually create a new crime, you never lose your right to vote. Literally, we have at least created the opportunity for better than 70,000 people to access their right to vote.
Can someone like me, that's just out with a clipboard and voter registration forms, register folks who are eligible to be reinstated?
No, it don't have to be no special person. That's why we provide all the information to everybody. Because like with this podcast, this podcast is going to touch people who I might not see. But somebody is going hear this and say, "Wait a minute, you can register to vote!" That's the advantage of it. It's kind of like you spread this information around. But no, that's what we tell folks all the time, especially with the League. They're real good partners with us, the League of Women Voters, I mean really, really knockdown drag out, ride or die partners. And they're all the time just like, "Hey, send us some literature, so when we run into somebody who says, 'I can't do that' and uses that excuse, 'I've been in prison, I can't vote,' then we give them the literature and it turns them around." The first few years, I would be trying to raise the folks and they'd be complaining, and I keep my voter registration card in my console in my car, so when I run into the naysayers, I just pull it out, and say, "Now y'all know I was in there with y'all, here's my voter registration card right here." And then they just sign up.
The challenge is, most of them are signing up as Independents. And I explain to them that the challenge to that is when these primaries come along, you won't be to participate. You can vote in the General Election, but you won't be able to vote in the primary, and sometimes it's making sure we get the right person to the General Election. Waiting to the final, sometimes you kind of like wasted your opportunity, and just trying to convince them, but it's about the independence of it. They're like, "I want to be independent, I don't want to be a part of this. I don't want to be a part of that. Because most people, especially formerly incarcerated people, see Dems and Republicans as being complicit in this whole mass incarceration thing. And it's gonna take some of them a minute to kind of like just wean that out of them. But that's been the only challenge with them, is kind of like party affiliation. But most of them, once they register, they get it, or the come upon the primaries, and they're like, 'Man I went to vote and they wouldn't let me." That's what we're saying. That's what the primary is all about. And then it resonates, "Okay, I'm going to change that," and they go on and get a party.
Do you have concerns about even though, and we talked before we started the podcast about how voting rights restrictions have been going on forever, but because they're ramping up more now, do you have concerns that any of the progress you've made will be rolled back?
I don't thing is going to roll back because we have educated enough people to stand in the breach. It's almost like Katie bar the door. No, you're not taking nothing from us. And I think the more people become educated about it, the easier it's gonna become. I mean, this relic of these folks who were standing in front the door, their days are numbered. The thing is, that's being driven by this false narrative about what's going to happen. I tell people all the time, if you treat people fair, you never have to worry about how people are going to treat you. And I think what it is now, this is their biggest concern is that we didn't treat people so well when we were in power, and they may not treat us well when they get in power. But I always give the example of what happened in South Africa, is that for the whole apartheid era, you know, y'all done people wrong. But when people got in power, they forgave y'all. The first thing they done was set up reconciliation, just kind of like, let's make amends, let's move forward. And I think that's what it's going to take here is for folks to kind of like, I don't care how you keep tweaking this thing, people are going to show up, and they're going to show up and they're going to question all these things that y'all are doing. And that one day, you're gonna wake up, you're gonna realize you're on the opposite side of history.
Everything was hunky dory to January 6. And then when January 6 hit it was like, "Well, wait a minute, wait a minute, this could happen any day of the week. And now with people realizing what it was all about, this is what we don't ever see in this country. We've never seen a coup in our lifetime. But that was a snapshot of what it looks like. And then you can only imagine what if that thing had been successful, where we would be in this country. We see it play out all across the globe, and it's nothing nice, and rational minded people are seeing how close we came to that, and saying, "No, no, no, we need to put some guardrails on this and put some guardrails on this real quick, because nothing like this is supposed to happen."
One of the tragedies about this country is we are so blessed, that it will lure you to sleep. I just come from another country, and the whole while I was there I was just thinking about how blessed we are in this country. Where people are still working for $3 an hour, I'm like, they won't get nobody in America, won't even get nobody in prison to work for $3 an hour without complaining, let alone somebody doing a real job in society. And so we have really been spoiled to the extent of we don't know what it's like to suffer, you know, to want things. I mean, like, right now, with the pandemic, if the store don't have something, we have a hissy fit. Just think about books of these countries where they've never had it to start with. I was watching this country, people lived off the land with no complaints. I mean, everywhere you look was like, no problem. What they came out of the mouth was, "No problems, man." And so to be in a place where we complain about gas prices, I was looking while we was driving on the island, all the gas station, none of them listed the price of gas. It was strange to me, and I went "How do you pull up in the gas station?" And the drive said, "Well everybody already knows the price." And I said, "What's the price?" He said, "The price is set by the government, and it's $7 a gallon." I said, "Man, it would be anarchy in America if gas gets to $5. We'd have anarchy in America and you're talking about $7? And people making $3? How y'all buy gas?" The guy said, "You don't own a car. You walk." And I was like, "No man, that couldn't happen." If things got that harsh in America, I wouldn't even know what to begin to think of what it would look like in this country.
Right now, people are complaining about we've been inside too long, we need to get out. But that country, you can't enter that country unless you're fully vaccinated, you have to send negative tests within 72 hours of you showing up, you have to wear a little wristband the whole while you're there, and you still have to mask up. And before you leave to come back to this country, you got to do the very same thing. You got to upload all this stuff before you can even get to the airport or you're not even going to get on the plane. But here, we're not doing that at the airports here. You know, people are grumbling about still having to wear masks and stuff like that. Only in America. But, no, we are blessed to be in this country.
But I think these secretary of states all over this country in these red states are just trying to hold on, but people are seeing it for actually for what it is. And when it starts crumbling, it's going to be like that nursery rhyme, Henny Penny and Ducky Lucky, "The skies falling and hitting me on my head." And you're one guy, how's it hitting you and didn't hit nobody else? But they're in this fairytale world and that day is coming to an end. And even if they tried to fix this electioneering, I tell people all the time, you can kick a dog around for so long, sooner or later, he's going to turn around and bite you. And that's what's going to happen. They're going to push, push, push, push, push, and people gonna start pushing back. And when they start pushing back, that's when they're actually going to see change. But change is happening all around us. I mean, we see it every day in the work that we do. And I'm just grateful to be a part of it.
Thank you for listening to Louisiana Lefty. Please follow us on your favorite podcast platform. Thank you to Ben Collinsworth for producing Louisiana Lefty, Jen Pack of Black Cat Studios for our Super Lefty artwork, and Thousand $ Car for allowing us to use their swamp pop classic Security Guard as our Louisiana Lefty theme song.