We all know that voting alone won’t save democracy. But it does help…a lot. No one understands that better than voting rights organizer Nsé Ufot. She’s the former CEO of the New Georgia Project, where she leveraged technology and culture to register 600,000+ new voters. Nsé and Baratunde talk about why voting still matters and how we can bring love into the ways we citizen together.
Nsé Ufot 0:02
Because we're trying to change the culture of democracy, change the culture of citizen participation. People roll their eyes and groan when they think about having to show up and vote like, "Ugh, it's election season again." Right? And we wanted to change that.
Baratunde Thurston 0:20
Welcome to How To Citizen with Baratunde. A podcast that reimagine citizen as a verb, not a legal status. This season is all about how we practice democracy. What can we get rid of? What can we invent and how do we change the culture of democracy itself? We're leaving the theoretical clouds and hitting the ground with inspiring examples of people and institutions that are showing us new ways to govern ourselves. The first time I remember really getting involved in electoral politics was as a resident of Somerville, Massachusetts. I had just graduated from college and this guy named Avi Green was running for state assembly. I liked what he was hoping to do in office, and one day he was out door knocking and asked me, "Would you join me in walking your neighborhood?"
Now, I had been asked to canvas. I'd been asked to phone bank. I'd been asked to put stickers and signs in the windows for candidates. I had never been invited to campaign with them. So I said yes. Going door to door with him, it felt like running for office without all the responsibility of actually being the candidate. And it made me see my neighborhood differently. I learned more about how people on my block experienced our city and what and who they cared about. And I also learned that I was living down the street from a literal Confederate flag waving Nazi. Trust me, we walked away from that house real quick.
But despite that ugliness, what stuck with me 20 years later is Avi's invitation. The invitation for me to get to know my neighbors and to get a sense of the issues and realities that influence how each of us vote, if we do it all. To build a healthier culture of democracy, we need to address our collective role in deciding who operates it. Specifically, we've got to talk about how it feels to vote. I'll say it. The culture of voting is trash. It's text messages from unknown numbers. People begging you for money. It's folks selling your email address. I mean, come on. It's people only showing up when they want something from you and never offering something in return. Or if they do, us not being able to trust that they'll follow through once they're in office. And I could go on because there's a lot about voting in this country that feels bad. But there's opportunity here too. We can create a culture around voting that's inspired. One that highlights these pillars of citizening as a verb. Showing up and participating. Investing in relationships, understanding power, and valuing the collective. And I know it's possible because there are people already building it. Voting rights organizer and strategist, Nse Ufot is one of those people.
In our first two episodes of this season, adrienne maree brown and Jon Alexander emphasized joy as necessary to infuse into our practice of democracy. Especially the practices that feel like work. Well, what could feel more like work than voting? For eight years Nse served as the CEO of the New Georgia Project, NGP. This is a nonpartisan organization founded by Stacey Abrams. Now Abrams, you might remember as the former minority leader of the Georgia State Senate and two-time candidate for the governor of Georgia. Or you might remember her as the most famous Star Trek fan you've ever heard of. Either way, NGP is dedicated to registering and engaging the growing majority of people of color and young people all across the state. For the better part of the last decade, Nse worked tirelessly to build this new Georgia, engaging and registering hundreds of thousands of eligible voters. And in 2020, her mobilization efforts helped turn Georgia blue for the first time since 1992. I had to figure out how she did it. So I spoke with her via Zoom. And while we were talking, a Get Out to Vote volunteer from the New Georgia Project knocked on one of our live audience member's doors. I'm not kidding. You got to stick around for that magic moment.
After the break, Nse Ufot on what it takes to build a better, more welcoming and fun voting culture. Our guest today is the former CEO of the New Georgia Project Action Fund and the New Georgia Project, which she describes as a statewide, multiracial, multi-ethnic, cross class, intergenerational movement that is breathing, inspiring and organizing a new Georgia and a new South into existence. Woo, welcome voting rights organizer, strategist, and all around badass Nse Ufot. What's up, Nse?
Nsé Ufot 5:36
Hello, Baratunde. I'm so excited to be here.
Baratunde Thurston 5:39
I'm excited too. Thank you so much for being here with me. Now, the premise of our show is that citizen is a verb. Not a sort of immigration legalistic noun. But it's a verb in that there's many ways for all of us to shape our communities, and we tend to stress that this goes beyond voting. Especially because so many people legally can't. But most of us know you, because of your almost singular focus on voting. So can you tell me what does voting mean to you in the context of ensuring that we actually practice this thing called democracy and self governance?
Nsé Ufot 6:17
Yeah, I mean would be... If I'm going to be 100% real and transparent.
Baratunde Thurston 6:22
Nsé Ufot 6:22
With you and your audience. Voting is a tactic, right? We are at a core, a power building organization. And when we think about power and the working definition in the sort of Georgia context, the New Georgia Project context, is the ability to stop bad things from happening. But also ability to sort of shape the world, shape the policy environment, shape laws, shape the context in which we are living and loving and learning and raising ourselves and our families. And so who has power, who doesn't? Who makes decisions for our communities? Who decides where my money is going and how much of my money is being taken out? I used to be a union rep long, long time ago, and a union lawyer. And one of the unions I worked for was AFSCME, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees. So I represented the lunch ladies and the custodial staff.
Baratunde Thurston 7:16
Long live lunch ladies.
Nsé Ufot 7:17
In Cincinnati public schools. Yes, 100%. And people would often be like, "Well, what's AFSCME, this tax that I'm paying?" And so again, there are people taking money out of our cheques and you have no idea what they are for. There are decisions that are made, wars that are being fought, climate science that's being ignored in our name. And so voting gives us the ability to hire and fire these people who are making decisions about the city, the county, the country that we live in. And as an employer, I take that responsibility very seriously. And as a citizen, I take that responsibility very seriously.
And so do I think it's a magic bullet? No. There are people who we organize with. There are family members that we contemplate when we think about the America that we want to live in that don't have the ability to vote. But the under 18, the currently or formally incarcerated, the new Americans or people who've yet to become citizens are a part of our communities, are a part of our decision making. And so again, voting is but one tactic in our overall quest to build power, to build powerful communities where we make decisions that are in the best interest of the whole.
Baratunde Thurston 8:42
Tactic, yes. Seeing ourselves as employers, much more empowering perspective on what voting actually is. Hiring and firing. So thank you for that.
Nsé Ufot 8:53
And especially when you actually meet these jokers. Have you ever met a state legislator?
Baratunde Thurston 9:00
Yes, I have.
Nsé Ufot 9:01
Baratunde Thurston 9:02
And I think what comes across already Nse, and I've seen you on a 1000 Zooms and I've met you in person at least once, your vibe, your energy, your smile. Even if someone listening to this can't see you, I think they can feel and hear it. And it helps that message go down. So let's keep that good energy going. NGP by our research registered over 600,000 people.
Nsé Ufot 9:26
Baratunde Thurston 9:26
Registered to vote. And I want some context said, you don't have to spend a lot of time on this, but just the origins of New Georgia Project and your origin story within the organization. What are those two tales?
Nsé Ufot 9:38
Yeah, so there's a woman in Georgia. Her name is Stacey Abrams.
Baratunde Thurston 9:43
Oh, from Star Trek? Yeah.
Nsé Ufot 9:45
Absolutely. No, you might know her from Star Trek. I know her from being best friends with Common. I don't know. And Kerry Washington.
Baratunde Thurston 9:52
Nsé Ufot 9:53
No. Stacey Abrams was the minority leader of the Georgia state legislature at the time. We were introduced by a dear, dear, dear friend, a mutual friend who was working with the Georgia Democratic Party. I'm living in Canada at the time. I'm living in Ottawa.
Baratunde Thurston 10:11
Oh, you got out?
Nsé Ufot 10:12
Baratunde Thurston 10:13
And you came back.
Nsé Ufot 10:16
And they keep bringing me back in.
Baratunde Thurston 10:16
Nsé Ufot 10:18
It's so funny because you are the king of the nerds, and so you have been around interneting for quite some time, and I know that you're familiar with the threat that when things didn't go well, people would always threaten to move to Canada.
Baratunde Thurston 10:31
Nsé Ufot 10:31
I actually did it. And was living and working and organizing in Ottawa for a number of years. A very good friend came to visit me and said, "Are you coming home for the holidays? Are you coming home for Christmas?" I'm like, "You've met mama Ufot. Of course, I'm coming home for Christmas. That's really not an option." And she says, "Well, I would love to introduce you to a state legislator." And I was such a jerk at the time. I was like, "I'm really just coming to Atlanta to hang out and do irresponsible things with my college friends." And she's like, "But you should have brunch."
And I was like, "Well, that's the favorite pastime of mine. So of course. You should have led with that." So I have brunch with Stacey on New Year's Day, 2014. She lays out this really powerful vision of the New Georgia Project. At the time, there were 1.2 million African Americans, Latinos, and unmarried white women in the state of Georgia who were eligible to vote and completely unregistered. Why that number mattered is that also at the same time, the successful Republican was beating the losing Democrat over and over and over again a decade, by a margin between 200,000 and 300,000 votes.
So there were five times the number of people of color, young folks, and unmarried women, then what was necessary to swing any election in Georgia, period, fullstop. But they weren't even eligible to participate because they weren't registered to vote. And there were a lot of organizations and leaders who were claiming that that was their work, but nobody was doing this work at scale. Nobody was being really intentional about it. And people didn't understand why folks kept falling off the voter rolls. So she says, "Yes, let's register a million Black people to vote." And I was like, "Oh, that's adorable." And I gave her 30 reasons why it would not work. I grew up in the Georgia Democratic Party, grew up in Atlanta, have dealt with the Georgia Democratic Party of the '80s, and '90s, the Dixiecrats.
Baratunde Thurston 12:35
Baratunde here with a quick explainertunde. For those who haven't heard the term or don't understand the term, Dixiecrats refers to Southerners who seceded from the Democratic Party in 1948. They were against the party ending racial segregation and extending civil rights to Black Americans. Thousands of Confederate flag waving, ex Democrats formed a right wing splinter group called the States' Rights Democratic Party. This group pushed a white supremacist segregationist agenda and even ran a candidate in the 1948 presidential election. While this failed third party officially dissolved that same year, the Dixiecrats' influence on the Democratic Party, especially in the South, has been lasting. All right, back to Nse.
Nsé Ufot 13:22
Dealt with the Georgia Democratic Party of the '80s, and '90s. The Dixiecrats. The sort of small-C conservative approach to building power. The gentlemen's agreements between the Democratic leaders and the Republican leaders that spoke to the needs and priorities of a business class and the elite fictions and narratives about Atlanta being the city too busy to hate. While also being the city in the country with the worst income equality, particularly racial income equality. So there's these narratives that are really, really difficult to challenge and a status quo, and a way to do Southern politics and a way to do Black politics. So I hit her with all of that. And if you know Stacey, she had like 35 reasons why this absolutely could work. So we go back and forth, we're doing back of the napkin math. I'm like, this lady is brilliant, but also delusional.
Baratunde Thurston 14:19
Also, you're doing math at brunch, which is not my idea of a great brunch. But keep going,
Nsé Ufot 14:24
Right. I mean, listen. Our blurred status is certified. So we have brunch, we go our separate ways. I get back on a plane and I go back to Canada. And I was like, that was nice. And then a couple months later, she calls me and she says, "It's time. It's time to come home."
Baratunde Thurston 14:46
That is so... There's music. It is like a Wakandaesque vibe to it. Like, "It is time my child. It is time to come home."
Nsé Ufot 14:53
It's time. I was ready. I packed up my truck and drove 24 hours from Ottawa back to my childhood bedroom in Atlanta. And started as the executive director, eventually becoming the CEO of the New Georgia Project, literally like the next day.
Baratunde Thurston 15:09
It's a dramatic move back. And then the 24 hour drive, what pulled you? Was it the pangs of nostalgia? Was it Stacey's math plus charisma? Was the healthcare in Canada not all that it was cracked up to be?
Nsé Ufot 15:24
No, healthcare in Canada was amazing. And I was trying to get my whole family to move with me. But you know what it was. So I was born in Nigeria and immigrated to the US with my family when I was a young woman. When I was in elementary school. And I became a US citizen with my mom in high school. And my mom got a third job so that she could hire an immigration attorney. And I was responsible for making sure that we passed the citizenship exam. And having studied the Constitution, studied this country's foundational documents, swore an oath of allegiance. I'm a patriot, I love this country. I am a radical feminist, mouthy, African working class kid who grew up in the Deep South. The vulnerability that I sort of exist with, I think would have put me ... I would've been in jail if I were in Nigeria, with my commitment to free speech, my commitment to challenging the status quo. There are very few countries in the world where you can challenge leadership, challenge power, challenge the government, and still live to tell the story about it.
Baratunde Thurston 16:43
As we're seeing in Iran, in China, insert another country, by the time someone hears this. Yeah.
Nsé Ufot 16:50
100%. And so, when I think about the opportunity to come back home ... what I've known for a really long time is that Georgia wasn't a red state, Georgia isn't dominated by the GOP. Naturally, when you poll all of its citizens, that there were 1.2, 1.3 million people of color who were foreclosed and not participating in the process at all. Why aren't people voting? Well, when they get registered, why aren't they making it onto the voter rolls? Why do people go and vote for president, and then there's such a drop-off on the bottom of the ballot? What's happening with these elections in Georgia, and the opportunity to take my background and marry and leverage technology with culture to have a more representative democracy and contest for power in my home state?
Baratunde Thurston 17:46
Let me jump in here, because it's almost like you're adding resolution to a simplistic picture most of us have been presented with. And so, we see, especially from the outside, and not the south at all, Georgia, red, Georgia, Republican, Georgia, racist, and people who vote for president and don't vote locally, well, it's because they don't care. We just have a very generally simplistic, generally binary, and so, you're coming in with this mathematical, technological, but also, cultural approach, and you're helping people get in the game. One of the ways that has stood out to me about your work is not just vaguely registering voters. As you said, a lot of people claim to be doing that. Some actually do. But then you have this concept of super voters, and you wanted to create super voters, which sounds like some sort of magical serum that you take, and then your vote counts for three times as much. But what is a super voter?
Nsé Ufot 18:40
So the way I have defined super voters are people who vote in every election in which they're eligible. And who are super voters? Our grandparents are super voters, so senior citizens are super voters. Many black women, African American women in this country, are super voters. If there's a ballot measure, there's a special election, there's a runoff, there's a primary, these are super voters. Every election in which they're eligible. And so, we set off to study and understand, what is it that black women know that, despite the challenges of racism and sexism and classism, and how they intersect in this country, they still show up and vote? And they vote in every election. Despite the limitations of our elections, and voting not being a silver bullet, they still show up and do it. What do our grandparents know that has them showing up and voting in every election? And what can we take from that knowing and impart to new Americans and to folks as they turn 18 and start wrestling with how they want to make change in their lives?
Baratunde Thurston 19:43
So you've also said that super voters are made, not born. And so, how do you make a super voter [inaudible 00:19:50]?
Nsé Ufot 19:50
You make a super voter by understanding what they care about. And so, the way that we train our organizers is that you have twice as many ears as you do mouths. And you are to be-
Baratunde Thurston 20:03
That sounds like something the black grandma said to me.
Nsé Ufot 20:06
... Oh, 100%. Where do you think I got it from? Let me be very clear. And so, we should be listening. And here's the thing, people will tell you what their hopes are, what their fears are, for themselves, for their families, for their communities. They will tell you what their ambitions are. And people don't often connect the dots between policy politics, and their personal priorities, the things that they actually care about. So you say you're a climate change voter, right? Jeff Bezos is not inviting you to travel to the moon, Elon Musk is not inviting you to participate in intergalactic space travel. There's no Earth 2, right? And so, you are deeply concerned about the water that we drink, the air that we breathe, and making sure that there's a world for future generations to live in.
And so, yes, please continue to protest. Please continue to write letters. Please continue to recycle and do all of the things that you're doing in your personal life. But also, what if I told you that public service commissioner is an elected official in Georgia that sets energy rates, that sets energy policy for the state of Georgia? What if I told you that there haven't been any new nuclear power plants built anywhere in the US in 30 years, and there are two being built in Georgia? What if I told you that if you're a Georgia power customer, that you are paying for it, that you can actually do something about it? And so, we start by having meaningful conversations with people about the things that they told us that they care about, and then you connect that to the power of the vote. But why it's effective is because it goes to the heart of what someone already cares for, what they're already going to protest for, what they already give their money to, how they already see the world.
Baratunde Thurston 21:55
So you're closing this gap. People are already being active in their community, you're trying to add voting to the list. There's been such a level of poisoning of the collective mindset around the effectiveness of voting, that I know so many people who care super passionately about this, that, and the other, and equally dispassionately about voting, because they don't think it matters. How are you able to overcome the disinformation techniques that deny people's knowledge of the power of their vote, or their well-earned pessimism, that after having voted a few times, they haven't seen the change that was promised? So how do you continue to close that gap in the face of those two counter messages that voting doesn't really matter?
Nsé Ufot 22:39
So there's a philosopher, Amilcar Cabral, who says, we never lie to the people. And so, I think that one of the sort of knee-jerk reactions and the instincts is to overstate the importance of voting as a way to combat against this information. And when you elect a Barack Obama, and black unemployment is still at historic levels in the Deep South, then you have to go back to those people and be like, I know you voted, because we said that this person would change things, but you know the system is limited, etc., you know that he's president, he's not king. And then you start talking to folks about federalism and checks and balances, and the role of the administrative branch versus the judicial branch, etc., leading with, what does it take to bring about the change? Elections aren't the event, and so, elections are opportunities to test our power and flex our power on the way to getting wages that Georgians want.
And so, again, it is not about the election itself. I mean, they are events on a campaign timeline, where the campaign goal is to live a better life, is to have the things that we need in order to live the life that we deserve, to live in the communities, the cities, the counties, the states that our families deserve to live in. I think that that's why, when we focus on polling, and when we focus on the horse race, and when there's so much obsession about the elections themselves, that we're actually doing democracy ... we're doing harm to democracy, to the democratic process, and to people's understanding about what is actually important.
Baratunde Thurston 24:31
Yeah, and I'm glad that you named polling, which often acts as a sort of election event preemptor. If you tell me what's going to happen, you ensure that I don't have an ability to affect what happens, because I've already assumed that it's going to happen the way you told me. So it can be a subtle way of draining people's power. You've been successful at registration, at getting people to the polls. I've seen, you all got music, you got events, you've got good food where it's still allowed, and using apps and technology. All good things. And I think you also have articulated even here, that the election is a kind of milestone on a journey, so there's work to be done in between these, not just showing up the week before Election Day at a church with some barbecue. From a results perspective, though, because you all have the benefit and the curse ... NGP, I should say, had the benefit and the curse of fame. I joked about Stacey Abrams and Star Trek, and I think, from the outside, people will look in and say, but Stacey Abrams ain't the governor. And Raphael and Warnock had to face a runoff with an out-of-state football player who consistently cannot weave the correct words together. So ergo, therefore, NGP is a failure. How do you assess the results and consider success or failure across these events over time?
Nsé Ufot 25:52
Yeah. We, in this country and in our culture, love a superhero and a Messiah narrative. And so, when we think about Stacey Abrams and her quest to become governor of Georgia, her quest to become America's first black woman governor, that it's focused on her narrative. When you think about Senator Warnock and the idea that he is the pastor of America's civil rights church, that there was Martin Luther King, Jr., two other dudes, and then, Warnock, to command that pulpit, that we focus on them and their heroic journey. But actually, the Georgia story is the story about people doing what they can, when they can, with what they have, that people are showing up to vote in numbers, as well as protesting, as well as community organizing and power building, etc. And so, what I will say is that we have built infrastructure that is designed to push back against the worst instincts of authoritarian leaders, and that is designed to win, like actual wins, for working people, for working families, and then defend those wins beyond one election cycle.
We elected a 33-year-old Jewish kid from the North Atlanta suburbs, and Reverend Warnock from Ebenezer Baptist Church to the United States Senate. And then, immediately afterwards, because there is a near super majority in the Georgia State Legislature, they passed Senate Bill 202, which changed Georgia's election laws to make it more difficult for Georgians to vote after we elected Ossoff and Warnock. And that could have been the end of the sort of battleground Georgia project, but we've been able to hold the line, hundreds of thousands of phone calls, millions of quality face-to-face conversations, letting Georgians know what's up, creating opportunities for them to get involved in their local communities. That is a win. That is the thing that's going to keep our voices active, and in the process, that's going to keep people informed and educated over the long haul. And so, it's not just electoral results that determine our success, it's the infrastructure that we've built, and the ability to create pathways for people to citizen as a regular part of how we build the world that we want to live in.
Baratunde Thurston 28:31
Boom. Boom, boom, boom. So yes, and using citizen as a verb, you're clearly one of us. I am one of you. I hinted at this before, but I want to make a clearer point of it. I love the level of fun and play, and sort of sophistication to the strategy. You made a video game, you turn long lines to vote into block parties. You take what should be considered a weakness, and turn it into an opportunity, and potentially a strength. You got marching bands.
Nsé Ufot 29:01
Yes, and mariachi bands.
Baratunde Thurston 29:03
And mariachi bands.
Nsé Ufot 29:04
Stilt walkers, strippers, food trucks.
Baratunde Thurston 29:09
So this is culture to the max. It's a sophisticated use of technology. Why was it important to incorporate these into the work?
Nsé Ufot 29:18
Because we're trying to change the culture of democracy, change the culture of citizen participation. People roll their eyes and groan when they think about having to show up and vote, like, ugh, it's election season again. And we wanted to change that. And how else do you change culture but working with culture workers? So I don't know how much your audience knows about Atlanta and Atlanta nightlife, but nightlife is a big part of youth culture in Atlanta. And so, adult entertainment, there are strippers with like, two million followers on Instagram, who can get out the vote message. So if I'm trying to target young, for example, African American men, I mean, I can put up this really well-researched, get out the vote message direct to camera. And I'm earnest, I mean, what I say, and I care, and my 1300 followers will be like, right on, Nsé!.
Baratunde Thurston 30:17
Nsé Ufot 30:18
Well stated. But then, Ms. Cherry and her two million followers, and she cares because she's an entrepreneur and a citizen. So working with culture workers to help us change the culture of democratic participation felt like a really important tactic when I think about music and songs. The video games, I mean, we had registered at the time, half a million young people and people of color to vote. And as a part of our work, we get their permission and their consent to get their phone numbers. So we got half a million phone numbers. And so, why not take a Candy Crush or a super popular match three puzzle game that's sort of easy to code, wrap it in some Georgia iconography, so let's throw some peaches, some peanuts, the varsity, the Georgia Bulldog, and then put it in people's phones that you can mindlessly scroll. And then, we can do push notifications when the voter registration deadline is on its way up. And we can ask people for permission to turn on their location when they go vote, so that we can know where there are long lines at the polls, and deploy resources if necessary.
Baratunde Thurston 31:32
See, this speaks to me, and I think when we were backstage at this event in New York where we met in person, the BLERD Fest, because you're taking this geek culture, this tech culture, but again, joy, fun, play, to change the culture of democracy, or at least, the culture of how we practice it. And that is just a much better on ramp than pure facts, well reasoned, persuasive arguments. And also, the alternative, which many of us have experience with, which is fear, which is threats. I could show you, but I don't need to, my inbox from the Democratic Party, primarily, my text messages, the amount of folks I've had to report and block for terrifying me into giving three dollars to somebody who I don't know how they got my number. I didn't consent to that. It's such an opposite approach, and it literally turns me off from democracy practice. And I host a show called How to Citizen. I guess this is a long way of saying, can you take over messaging for the whole Democratic Party? I'll give you my number. You could text me anytime.
Nsé Ufot 32:46
I think the challenge is that it works, right? Fox News is really not a news organization at all. It's a propaganda machine. But they're super effective, because fear is a powerful motivator. Anger is a powerful motivator. The problem is that it's not sustainable, that people burn out and tune out. And so, that is why they send so many emails, because you've sufficiently scared someone and they're like, "Give me five dollars now, or the world is going to blow up and Trump's going to be president again." It works a couple of times until it doesn't. And then you got to burn through more citizens, you got to burn through more donors. You have to ratchet up the rhetoric in order to maintain the same level of impact.
Baratunde Thurston 33:30
Yeah, it's a cheap drug.
Nsé Ufot 33:31
It is a cheap drug, 100%. And what I'm proposing is much more sustainable. I say that joy is a renewable resource that we can continue to tap back into. That people want to come and hang out with us, they want to come and volunteer with us. They want to come and donate to our efforts, because there's a nine foot person walking around and singing show tunes, keeping voters entertained and keeping people's spirits high. And you can continue to go back to that well. The Second Line Band, the New Orleans natives who live in Georgia now, who came and volunteered for us, they loved what they did. And people were super grateful, and they got new clients from it. And so when it came time to go back to the well, yeah, they were eager, and made recommendations.
Baratunde Thurston 34:22
Now, did Ms. Cherry get new clients as well, Nsé?
Nsé Ufot 34:26
Ms. Cherry definitely got new followers. And I think that her existing customers were like, "Oh, she understands politics too? And she can twerk?"
Baratunde Thurston 34:35
Nsé Ufot 34:36
This is what I'm saying.
Baratunde Thurston 34:44
After the break, Nsé on what it takes to motivate people to vote for what they love, not just against what they hate. What would you say the greatest challenge facing our electoral system is?
Nsé Ufot 35:04
There's so many, I'm trying to choose one. The insane amount of money that flows through our elections. The way that wealthy individuals, high net worth individuals and corporations have their thumb on the scale. The way that they have elected officials in a choke hold, has made it really, really difficult to make progress on the policy priorities that Americans actually care about. There was a whole insurrection, Baratunde.
Baratunde Thurston 35:46
Why are you bringing up old stuff? Why are you bringing up old stuff Nsé?
Nsé Ufot 35:52
There was a whole coup attempt. There was a failed murder plot to kill the vice president of the United States, and the Speaker of the House. They tried to steal the electoral... they identified alternative electors who were on standby, ready to supplant the will of the people for their own. And for a moment, corporations were shamed. A moment, they all refused to make any PAC or corporate contributions.
Baratunde Thurston 36:22
Yeah, I remember that week. I remember that week.
Nsé Ufot 36:24
Right, right. That was an inspiring 72 hours. And they said, "We're not giving money to anyone who voted against the electoral college vote. Anybody who denied the results of the elections, they don't mean us well, they are a threat to our country, a threat to democracy. We're not going to give them money." And then quietly, as we prepared for the 22 midterms, they turned the spigot back on. And they started giving to both sides as if they were equal. They started to equivocate. They started to justify giving money to these election deniers. And so yeah, I think that the money as speech, corporations as citizens, are one of the biggest threats to our democracy, to our election system. And no one is interested in unilaterally disarming. The Republicans are not going to say, "I'm going to stop taking corporate money." And for the most part, most Democrats won't say... I mean, you have some anomalies like Senator Sanders, and AOC and others who are principled in this particular way. But no one is interested in unilaterally disarming.
Baratunde Thurston 37:36
Maybe, I want to see it as an interim. We're kind of between worlds. Because we were having a joyful conversation, you and I, until I asked you about the biggest threat. And then it was like, oh snap, bubble burst. The funding of pro-insurrectionist people. And so we see a path of twerking the vote, and second lining the vote, and crushing the vote on our phone, and meeting people where they are and listening. And then we see fear, and the cheap drug which still gets you high, but also kills you, and can kill the body politic. The way out, other than the joy part, which you've been so good at talking about, part of the strategy and what you wrote in your farewell letter, is about love. And so I want to know, let me just share a little bit of what you said. "In our work fighting for justice and a new future, love can easily get overshadowed by all the things working against it." And then you go on to quote Bell Hooks, the late Black feminist writer, "I move with and from a love ethic, which has guided me, fortified me, and provided the load bearing beams that support all that we have built."
What do you mean by the love ethic? How do we citizen more with love, to ensure that the forces of love, and fun, and joy, defeat the forces of fear, and that cheap and unsustainable drug?
Nsé Ufot 39:02
It's a practice. I am so good at telling people about all the things that I hate. I'll tell you the movies that I hate, the music that I hate, the people that I hate.
Baratunde Thurston 39:11
Do you keep a hate-abase? Do you have a database of hate?
Nsé Ufot 39:15
And it's at the forefront of my cerebral cortex, it's at my fingertips, it rolls off my tongue. But when you ask people about what they love, what they love, what they care deeply about, sometimes it takes folks a minute. I think that people are really precious about it, they're really protective about it, people will go to the ends of the earth for the ones that they love and the things that they love. You've seen the mom lift a car off of her toddler, because of the love that they have for that young person. And so, focusing on who I love, what I love and what I want for them, what I want for us is the load bearing beam. What I'm building my campaigns on, what I'm building my life on, it was what I built my career on. Who do you love and what kind of world do you want for them? What kind of country do you want for them?
And I think that that is what I mean by the love ethic, that it is infused in our communications. It's infused in our campaign design. Who we hire, who we partner with, the vendors that we use, do you share our values? Do you share our analysis? It even comes down to real estate choices that we've made. We've moved offices because, found out that the shell company that actually is our landlord is also connected to somebody that we're actively campaigning and organizing against, because they're anti-worker, or they're spending money against a union organizing campaign. And so thinking about, again, who we love, what's important to us, what matters, and using that as a lens to make decisions and a lens to see the world.
Baratunde Thurston 41:08
At the very obvious risk of playing into puns, I love this part of our conversation, Nsé. A lot of things come together, and I think the extra step, the infusion piece, the lens piece, that it's not just in who you hire, it's how you employ, it's where you put your real estate money, it's how you message. That if that fuel source can power everything, then it can change everything. That's great. What are you bringing your love and your love ethic to next, Nsé? I hear you might be writing a book.
Nsé Ufot 41:48
I am. I really wish that technology advanced to the place where the book can write itself.
Baratunde Thurston 41:54
It's almost there. We got these little AI learning models, and they can just download all your-
Nsé Ufot 41:58
I hate them. Again, back to the... it's like, I don't sound like that, real people don't talk like that. But yeah, I want to tell the story of people power, and how it gets built. And I won't say too much, but I am excited about a graphic novel that tells a story about how we win. We've never had more money than the enemies of progress. But throughout the history of the world, people linking up with folks who share their values, and fighting next to one another for a world that they think that they deserve, has been the most consistent way that we've won. And so, I want to show what that looks like in the 2020s, and inspire a next generation of young citizens to take responsibility for building the future. And too long, didn't read is a lifestyle, so let's give some dope pictures, some dope visuals.
Baratunde Thurston 42:56
Some dope pictures. And you know, a picture's worth a thousand words, so it's basically data compression.
Nsé Ufot 43:01
See? This is what I mean. I've been going hard for a while. And so, I think going somewhere and crying in the ocean and then writing a book, feels like the priority for the next couple of months.
Baratunde Thurston 43:16
You deserve that so much. We have this belief here, and we practice it in the title, citizen is a verb. It's something we can all do. I'm going to ask you for your definition. If you interpret citizen as a verb, what does it mean to you, to citizen?
Nsé Ufot 43:36
To citizen means knowing yourself, knowing your priorities, and then articulating that to folks who are making decisions about the communities that we need to build. And it's not an outsourcing thing, right? It's a small D democracy thing. We are making decisions together, and I am being honest about my motivations, I'm being honest about my priorities, and I'm being honest about how I want my money spent.
Baratunde Thurston 44:13
You are these principles in motion, in action. You are these beams. Your love ethic shines beautifully through. So, thank you for this one-on-one conversation, Nsé Ufot.
Nsé Ufot 44:27
Thank you, Baratunde, BLERD king. Again, it means so much to me to have this conversation with you. One, I remember the early days of Twitter. Getting on there, looking for a community. And Black, immigrant, nerd, but with a little bit of swag, like a sprinkle.
Baratunde Thurston 44:50
A dollop of swing,
Nsé Ufot 44:53
A soupçon, if you will. And coming across your feed, coming across your public scholarship, your public organizing, and finding my people was just really, really important to me in my formative years, as I think about how to use technology to build a better world. And so this is such a treat, and I feel so fortunate to be able to sit down and have this time with you. Yeah, so thank you.
Baratunde Thurston 45:22
Is it just because I have a fake Nigeria name, that you follow me on Twitter?
Nsé Ufot 45:26
I mean, that helps. I'm not going to lie.
Baratunde Thurston 45:29
It was a misdirect. I get a million Nigerians that way.
Nsé Ufot 45:33
I'm the unofficial census taker of all Nigerian Americans. So if you have a little bit of African ancestry DNA results, I'm like, he's Nigerian.
Baratunde Thurston 45:41
Good, good, good. So we're going into phase two, to our live audience here. Thank you for witnessing this. We've gathered a lot of your questions. First up is Janine, say your name and where you're based.
Janine de Novais 45:54
Hi, Janine de Novais from Philadelphia. Thank you so much. This was lovely. My question is, you all talked a lot about on-ramping political education for folks. And you spoke right at the beginning that voting is one tactic among tactics. And I was wondering, what do you think are your top three or maybe four or five tactics for doing this work of connecting people to small P politics, locally, all year? So that when someone like you and folks are trying to do the voting thing, the on- ramp is a little less steep?
Nsé Ufot 46:33
Definitely public scholarship, public and popular education is really important. Two, I think cultural organizing. And so, re-imagining possible continuing to challenge stories about the status quo, et cetera. I think adrienne maree brown says that all organizing is an act of science fiction. That we are working to build a world that currently only exists in our minds. And so, how do you share that vision of the world? Is it through song? Is it through dance? Is it through your witty and fire tweets and Instagram posts? And then what are other year round tactics? Oh, I think honestly for us, it is the asking of questions. It's the polling, it's the knocking on doors and having high quality face-to-face conversations when it's possible. I would argue that there's nobody in the state of Georgia that has a better sense of where young people are and the attitudes of Black people and Black voters, than me, and the infrastructure that I've built at the New Georgia Project. Because I invest in it, because it's important to me, because it's what we do year round. You can't find out what people care about, and then connect that to the act of voting, and then get them to understand that voting is important in October before an election. That is something that we are doing day in and day out, year round. And so, meaningful conversations with people about things that matter.
Baratunde Thurston 47:57
Thank you for that. And as for your answers, the imagination game is very strong. We've got an interview in this season coming up with Ruha Benjamin, who says we are living in other people's imaginations just in terms of the reality of the world we set and the white supremacist imagination often. And we have adrienne maree brown, and lastly on the year round organizing with Angela Lang from Block Milwaukee in an earlier episode. So if folks want to find out more of what that can look like, Angela's a great resource in our conversation with her.
I will now call on Diane Hendrix, a regular in the How To Citizen world now. Diane, welcome back. Say your name and where you're calling in from.
Diane Hendrix 48:39
Hi there. I'm Diane Hendrix from Boston. I grew up in Georgia.
Nsé Ufot 48:44
Diane Hendrix 48:45
Nsé Ufot 48:45
Diane Hendrix 48:50
I went to take some census down there, and so I was inspired by Stacey Abrams to do some phone banking for Reverend Warnock, and that was so wonderful. The very wooden instructions that you get from some of these phone bank people is not very inspiring, but I wondered if you have strategies, like backdoor strategies for phone banking calls, because you're not supposed to talk about, of course, who you're voting for. So you've got to hide that.
Nsé Ufot 49:27
Here's a question I like: what kind of voter are you? And give people examples. Are you an education voter? Are you a Second Amendment voter? Are you a climate change voter? Are you a women's health voter? And give people some examples, but then give them an opportunity to answer that open-ended question, because it'll also give you a sense of what they care about and help you talk about the candidate, the ballot measure, whatever it is that you're phone banking them about in a more bespoke way, in a more narrow, more tailored way, because they've already told you what they care about.
Baratunde Thurston (00:50:02):
Good question, Diane from Boston and Georgia. Okay, Beatrice, per chance. All right.
Beatrice Soublet 50:11
Right, is correct. And I just think it was fortuitous that while we were on, a person from the New Georgia project came to my door, and here's the door knocker. It was just beautiful. And not only, well, first of all, he was asking, telling me did I know about the runoff? And of course, I'm in East Point, Georgia, I forgot to say that.
Nsé Ufot 50:32
Beatrice Soublet 50:33
Oh good. All right. Hi baby. And I'm from New Orleans too. I came up after Katrina. So if I call you baby, don't get your feelings hurt.
Nsé Ufot 50:39
Beatrice Soublet 50:40
But after I told him that I had voted, I knew about it, I voted on Saturday because our senator had sued to get that day and I was going to go out there, baby. So anyway, after I thought our conversation might have been over and he'd given me this wonderful information, he began to ask me, what are some of your issues? And I thought that was so profound because I was able to articulate them, and there was one that I had a concern about that he wasn't sure what had happened with the education committee. Anyway, but the point is it was a wonderful encounter and it was not just, "Here, take this. We're giving ride to the polls. Thank you. Bye." It was excellent. It was a relationship even in that short time. So it was just fortuitous that we were on and I was so happy. I'm happy.
Nsé Ufot 51:25
Thank you for confirming that I'm not a liar, that we ask people what they care about. It's conversational and we don't lie to the people. He didn't know about the education committee thing that you were concerned about and he told you, but he was able to engage you on other topics. So I love this so much.
Baratunde Thurston 51:45
I love that, Nsé, you are so organized that you planted a New Georgia project canvasser to hit up one of our audience members during this live taping. That's game.
Nsé Ufot 51:57
With a door hanger. I'm just, I'm good.
Baratunde Thurston 52:02
I'm going to ask this question on behalf of a listener. This is from Paula Costa or Costa. How do you peacefully respectfully address the issue of gun regulation, especially in communities where many people believe not only that gun ownership is a absolute, unquestionable right, but part of their identity?
Nsé Ufot 52:27
I mean, we are in a guns-everywhere state. And guns is actually particularly challenging in a place like Georgia where marginalized groups and oppressed groups, minority groups, have had to hold the line and defend themselves and their communities against state sanctioned violence. And so it's a conversation that we lean into, but it is going to be a cultural conversation, which means that quick hits are not going to get it done, because thinking about guns and the culture of guns in a place like Chicago versus thinking about guns and the culture of guns in a place like Brunswick, Georgia where Ahmaud Arbery was running and was murdered by some vigilantes and people who thought that they had the color of authority just because they were white.
It is a very different conversation, and I always, always start with listening. It's easy to think that people are clinging to their guns and their God because of ignorance and because they've inherited a political ideology. They've inherited the mythology of the frontiers men and what it means to be an American. But there are 75 year old black grandmothers in South Georgia who've seen some shit. And you are not going to take her shotgun. You're just not. And so who are you talking to? And why are they so committed to guns? And honestly, if we just regulated the corporations who are mass-producing these guns and who throw money and buy elected officials, that could be the silver bullet to starting us on the path to gun control. And so we could focus on the culture wars, we could focus on Bubba or Miss Mabel and why people have their guns, or we could go directly to Smith and Wesson. We could go directly to the NRA who have an outsized influence on gun policy in this country.
Baratunde Thurston 54:51
Yeah. Nsé, is there anything you want to add yourself that is related to this topic that we didn't get to, or is just on your mind, totally unrelated, but you have a microphone in front of you and you want to say some things?
Nsé Ufot 55:02
I am even more convinced now that borders are fake, and with the internet making the world so much smaller, that attacks on information and information sources and democracy is really a global phenomenon. And so I think that we also need to be looking at what's happening in other countries as a little bit of foreshadowing about what happens if we lose the ability to hire and fire elected officials. And so, just encouraging people to not think about democracy as just the voting conversation, but really thinking about it is the way that we make decisions about how our world works, and it is actually really, really, really important. And the spillover from failing democracies or attacks on democracies could be really, really consequential. And I just want us to be mindful of that. I love y'all.
Baratunde Thurston 56:06
We love you too, and say thank you so much. The way we make decisions on the way our world works. That is a great definition of democracy, and your practice of it is inspiring all of us. Have a beautiful rest of your day. bye-bye.
Nsé Ufot 56:19
Thank you so much. Bye.
Baratunde Thurston 56:25
Let's be real. Ideally, we wouldn't need carnivals, marching bands, and Ms. Cherry posting to her page in order to get people out to the polls and then wait in long lines once they got there. Ideally, we wouldn't need hundreds or thousands of volunteers on the ground registering people to vote in order to have fair, representative voter turnout. But we don't yet live in that ideal. And in the space between the ideal and the real, thankfully, we've got people like Nsé helping us close the gap. She does this using a story of love as both a motivator and as a goal, a story that values the culture we create around democracy as much as the systems that make that democracy function.
And now it's time for some actions, starting with an internal reflection. I want us to feel the love as both a motivator and as a goal. Take a moment to reflect on what you love about your city, your county, or your country. As you're thinking of it, pause and breathe while visualizing those things for just a few minutes. What do you feel in your body when you put your attention on what you love? And how might this feeling help you citizen better? Now our next action is in the category of becoming more informed. Ense mentioned this idea of a love ethic, which she got from black feminist author and activist Bell Hooks. Learn more about that ethic by reading Hooks' book All About Love: New Visions, a love song to the nation. If you've only got time right now for something shorter, we found a beautiful blog post that summarizes Bell Hooks' love ethic. Both the book and the blog are linked in the show notes.
And last but not least, let's put that love to work in the form of some public participation. Now, there's only one New Georgia project, so if you live in Georgia, get involved with that organization. You've heard all the reasons why in this episode. For those of us not blessed to live in the Peach State, every region of the US has similar groups focused on relational organizing work. Check out populardemocracy.org for a great listing of affiliate organizations all around the US that you can get involved with. You can also put relational organizing to work with your relationships when it's time to vote. There's organizations like Circle Voting or Vote Force. Check the show notes for links to everything I just mentioned. If you take any of these actions, please brag about it online and use the hashtag How to Citizen. Also tag our Instagram, HowToCitizen, I am always online and I really do see your messages, so send them. You can also visit our website, howtocitizen.com, which has all of our shows, full transcripts, actions, and more. Finally, see this episode's show notes for resources, actions, and more ways to connect
How to Citizen with Baratunde is a production of iHeartRadio podcasts and Rowhome Productions. Our executive producers are me, Baratunde Thurston, and Elizabeth Stewart. Our lead producer is Allie Graham. Our associate producer is Danya Abdelhamid. Alex Lewis is our managing producer, and John Myers is our executive editor. Our mix engineer is Justin Berger. Original music by Andrew Eapen with Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. And our audience engagement fellows are Jasmine Lewis and Gabby Rodriguez. Special thanks to Joelle Smith from iHeartRadio and Layla Bina.
Next time on How to Citizen, Nsé taught us how to get the most out of the voting system we've got. But how else could civic engagement look if we were invited to do more than just choose our representatives? What if we represented ourselves?
Claudia Chwalisz 1:00:39
I don't want this to just be some sort of politician bashing. I really feel like it's a systemic problem. The short-termism, the fact that party politics and campaign financing and all these things come out on top in terms of what are the incentives for the collective public decisions we're taking. These are features, not bugs of the system that we have today. And so how do we redesign the system and how do we shift power to new institutions of citizen participation, representation by law, and deliberation?
Baratunde Thurston 1:01:09
Claudia Chwalisz on the Movement to put citizens at the center of our democracy with Citizen Assemblies. Rowhome Productions.
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