Making Our Returning Citizens Whole (With Desmond Meade)

Show Description

Baratunde learns to think about sacrifice and having skin in the game in terms of a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich analogy. Desmond Meade, founder of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), reminds us that to error is human and the need for second chances, and how that reminder mobilized a grassroots citizen’s movement that transcended racial and political lines to restore voting rights to 1.4 million Floridians with past felony convictions.

Show Notes & Actions

Show Transcript

Baratunde Thurston  0:06  

Welcome to How to Citizen with Baratunde, a show where we reimagine the word citizen and remind ourselves how to wield our collective power. I'm Baratunde.

we've been doing a lot of episodes about voting. Not sure if you've noticed, but it's been quite a few. We've had Maria Teresa Kumar, Voto Latino. Sherrilyn Ifill of NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Angela Lang of BLOC in Milwaukee, and Quentin Palfrey with the Voter Protection Corps, we could probably make four more episodes on voting because it's that important in this election year to flex that form of our collective power. This episode you're listening to right now, is also related to voting. But it's also about something much more to quote our guests. It's about putting respect on our vote. He said to me, voting is a sacred Act, which takes you to a place where you say, I am. Voting says, I am I exist, my voice counts, I matter. Those aren't the words of just any citizen, but someone working among and on behalf of a population whose voice often doesn't count. Those would be returning citizens, people convicted of crimes in the United States. And in this case, people convicted of felonies in the state of Florida. In my humble opinion, Florida is one of our more retrograde states when it comes to voting rights because this state did not restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies for 150 years. That changed in 2018. With the passage of amendment for this initiative, garnered an overwhelming 65% of Floridians to vote to restore voting rights and thus, visibility and dignity to 1.4 million people in that state. It was the largest restoration of voting rights in 50 years in this country. And the returning citizen who helped organize that grassroots effort is who I had a chance to speak with. His name is desmond Meade. He's president of the Florida rights restoration coalition, and author of the book Let my people vote, my battle to restore the civil rights of returning citizens. I spoke with Desmond not just about voting, but about changing the narratives of power in our democracy, and about affirming ourselves about saying I am, and I matter, you'll notice some noisier than usual audio from Desmond, because he squeezed us into his schedule while he was in the middle of his Let my people vote bus tour. Yes, Desmond was literally on a bus. Have you ever done zoom on a bus? I don't think so. And I don't recommend it. But we got some decent audio. And what he had to say is so powerful. Take a listen.

Desmond Meade  3:15  

I am that's been me, the executive director of Florida rights restoration coalition. My organization is the organization that's led by people who have previous felony convictions, as well as those who have loved ones that's been impacted by the criminal justice system.

Baratunde Thurston  3:33  

The rights that you're trying to restore more rights are these in the Florida rights restoration coalition.

Desmond Meade  3:39  

We're trying to restore voting rights right now. You know, when a person is convicted of a felony offense in many states, such as Florida, they lose their civil rights upon their conviction. And included in that civil rights is the right to vote, the right to run for office to write to serve on a jury. There are other collateral consequences that's associated with the loss of civil rights that could impact a person's ability to find safe and affordable housing or to get employment or occupational licensing. But the granddaddy I think of all those rights is voting rights.

Baratunde Thurston  4:12  

I'm hearing some noise in the background. Desmond, tell us where you are. Tell us what you're doing right now.

Desmond Meade  4:19  

Right now I am on I 10. Interstate 10 in the northern part of Florida, on a bus our Let my people vote bus that we're riding in going from city to city from county to county, really trying to energize a base of folks to really turn out actually early in this election, we realize that this is probably the most critical election that this country has ever seen. And we are I think, in the middle of the defining moment of our country and our democracy, and it is extremely vital that every American citizen play a role in what's going to happen in the next few weeks.

Baratunde Thurston  4:59  

When did you start caring so much about voting in the state of democracy?

Desmond Meade  5:05  

Man? That's a great question. You know, I think that it started with first learning how to care about me. And, you know, in the process of learning how to care about me learning how to care about others, it's somewhere within that realm of love for my fellow human beings, that we discovered that one of the mechanisms that we can use to actually improve the lives of other people is through voting. And then in the process of really finding out more and more about voting and seeing how it works and, and the impact that they can have in that process. Actually, not to say there's levels to this, right, I actually went to a whole new other level that I didn't even know existed last month, when I went to go vote for the first time in over 30 years, walking up understanding that I'm getting ready to engage in a sacred act. I didn't even understand the sacredness of voting, you know, I talked a lot about the value and how the right to vote is all this and all that. But what I did not capture or fully understand until I went to go vote was about how sacred folding is. And so when I was in that voting booth, actually voting, I was engaging in the sacred act and understanding that the level of sacredness about voting actually transcend partisan politics. It transcends the politics and it transcends even the racial anxieties and biases, that sacredness of voting actually takes you to a place where you say something so simple, yet, so powerful, takes you to the place where you say I am, voting is like the ultimate thing that says I am that I exist, that my voice count, I mattered when you put in the sacrifices that our ancestors have made the blood, right, it was blood that purchased this right and sanctified it, when you kind of understand that, then you have to understand that people got to put respect on your phone. And not only do people have to put respect on your vote, because it's so easy for us to say or put some respect on my name, right. But guess what, we got to put respect on our vote. Because we have got to come to this space where we understand that this vote is so sacred, that we can't just give it away, or we can't allow it to remain dormant, we have to put respect on our own vote, you don't say, and we put respect on it by when we don't use it. We're just totally dishonouring not only ourselves, but the work of our ancestors. And then when we just easily give it away to people without making a word for it, then we have devalued our own.

Baratunde Thurston  7:47  

When you tried to use your vote some years back, you weren't able to, can you tell me a short story of trying to support a candidate you cared a lot about but you weren't able to do so when that formal version of voting?

Desmond Meade  8:03  

Wow, you know, yeah, just one candidate that I was wanting to support without my heart, because I love the depth. That was my wife. You know, she ran for office in 2016. And man, I'll tell you, we've poured so much into her race. And I remember a few months before the election, somebody was like, man, I know you can't wait to vote for your wife. And it was like they stuck a knife in the old wound and twisted, it reminded me that because I live in the state of Florida, I can't even vote for my own wife. And that was painful. That was painful. That was like somebody know, that overcame so much and think that they have arrived, just to get slapped and said, Oh, no, you haven't. You're right back, you know, where you thought you had escaped from it, you're still not good enough. And you're still not worthy. And, you know, it was that was a that was a painful moment for me really well,

Baratunde Thurston  8:58  

your book is very moving, Desmond, let my people vote, my battle to restore the civil rights of returning citizens. And there's a part of it that jumps out to me where you're making your return. And you are astonished that a Black man with a criminal record living in a shelter, can enroll in community college for free. Talk to me about your own political education in that moment of getting your degrees. What was that like for you?

Desmond Meade  9:29  

I think that goes to show the power of the narrative, right? That when we allow a narrative, no matter how false it is, to just fester in our minds, and in our societies, it creates these illusions. But you know, there's so many states where people automatically get the right to vote back once they've served their time, or some states where people don't ever lose their right to vote. And I can guarantee you that there's somebody in that state with a felony conviction that believe that they can't vote because of the narrative and So it was narrative like that, that had me thinking that number one, you know, you needed to have money to go to school, that you had to be of good moral standings, and you couldn't have an arrest on your record and, and you definitely couldn't be a drug addict, you know, and you definitely couldn't be homeless. And so it was only certain types of people where school was available. Now, let me tell you something, I'm trying to power the narrative because I graduated high school, you don't say I did real? Well, in high school, there's some time in the military. But even though I've been exposed to all that, at that moment of time, me thinking that there was no way I could be going to school to get a degree, was a product of just a narrative that caused me to believe that I couldn't win that was far from reality. And that's just the power of how this narrative can erase, oh, and cause us to think that our situation will never change. It's that same narrative, they got people saying my vote don't count, don't matter. You know, it's that same narrative, they got people thinking that nothing will ever change, no matter what we do. So we might we'll just accept the why even bother going through the motions, the vote, it's that same narrative that kept me from even trying to get an education.

Baratunde Thurston  11:38  

So you've helped change another narrative in your state, with the passing of amendment for in 2018 65% approval by the people of Florida, not just members of the legislature to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people, 1.4 million formerly incarcerated people, that's a major narrative shift.

Desmond Meade  12:01  

At that time, Florida was convicted about 170,000 people a year 170,000 people getting convicted of a felony offense and losing the rights for life. But out of those 170,000, less than 25% was even sentenced to prison. So what do you think the rest of them were? See, sometimes we forget that this plea bargaining system, and this cash bail system, which forces people to enter into plea bargains to get out of these conditions sooner than later, right, and forces people to take convictions on things that they're not even guilty of, actually inserts them into a vicious cycle of mass incarceration. But reality is, is that Yeah, 1.4 million people. But first of all, we need to let them know they were people. Because the other thing, it's easy to think about somebody when they're locked up or coming out of prison. Right. But it's a whole different perspective. When you talk about somebody that's in your home right now. They sit next to you on your church crew that works with you, you know, you kind of view that slightly different. And so part of that is that narrative change and my shining star is that we were able to organize a controversial topic in the controversial state and a controversial time and win with love. We won without dividing people we want without instilling fear or hatred in anyone we want with love, you know, and we engage in one of the toughest battles, and we won in beautiful fashion. It's love. And part of that is how we engaging folks in such a way to their understanding that their efforts is not for me, right, but it's for someone that they love. That's what got them you know, one of the key things that really set the tone for this ballot initiative, but just approaching someone and ask them one simple question. No, that's a question was,

Baratunde Thurston  13:57  

was that

Desmond Meade  13:58  

Do you know anyone that you love, if ever made a mistake? Just let that sit there for a minute. And let them just think about that. Alright, so when we talk about felon disenfranchisement, my face a popping up in their minds. It's someone that they love, whether it's their son, their daughter, granddaughter, grandson, uncle, favorite uncle like that, right? But someone that they love that pops in their mind, and I let that marinate, and that's that image that they take with them in a vote booth. They will take mine because some of might be racist, and they could care less about me. In my rights back. Some might be Republican. I could care less about somebody that might vote Democrat in the race bank, but when they went in that booth, they wouldn't vote Democrat or Republican. They would vote in black and white. They will vote love their voting based on someone that they love.

Baratunde Thurston  14:52  

Well, hell have a secret sauce.

Desmond Meade  14:54  

Yep. And then some of those recipes you found in my book Think of it as a cookbook, how to do amazing things and overcome amazing obstacles.

Baratunde Thurston  15:07  

Chef desmin cookbook for a healthier democracy. I love it.

Desmond Meade  15:11  

Yeah, I like that. That might be my next time to write. Yeah, cookbook for democracy. I like that.

Baratunde Thurston  15:19  

You mentioned this narrative. This new story works for multiple races of people. It worked for multiple party members, in particular, the Republican Party, which has really made a name for itself and trying to restrict the number of people who can vote. Yeah, I'm still a little reeling that so many, you don't get to 65% with just democrats voting. And so you moved people from quote, unquote, the other side. And yet, after the historic victory, you see the clamp down. And the attempts to amend the ballot initiative that was passed overwhelmingly and restricted and impose these fine pay back requirements before you really get your rights back. Were you shocked by the republican led legislature his attempts to rein in the 1.4 reduce that number? By putting these fee requirements on

Desmond Meade  16:10  

top? I was not shocked list at the end of the day, you said something, you gave me another quote. We don't draw the lines in the sand politicians zoo. You see, when you take politicians away, even when you look at COVID-19, in response, covid 19 pandemic, let me tell you some of the most beautiful moments that we see. And that is when people come together and how have they been? The Ugly parts of pandemic is when politicians are involved. You know, when we ran our campaign, people used to try to characterize it as a bipartisan campaign. Hey, you should piss me off. I'm like, No, we're not. Heck, No, we're not. You know, okay, I'm sorry, you are a non partisan campaign. We're not that either. I push back strongly against that we're not we wasn't no bipartisan, we wasn't a nonpartisan. We were an organic grassroots effort that welcomed and enjoyed bipartisan support, and the differences we lead with the people not with the politics, when you take the politics out of it, where's the division? Right, where's the division. And so we didn't have to make people cross lines, we just got rid of the line. So it was no cross it needed to be done. You know, we created our line, we created a circle around everybody, whether you was young, all Black, white, Latino, was a youth conservative in your thinking progressive in your thinking, or you didn't know which way to think we included you. Because you as a human being that knows what it feels like to make mistakes, or having a loved one that has made mistakes, and you know, that you don't ever want to be not forgiven for anything you've done for the rest of your life. That's where we organize. And so we and we intentionally kept politicians out of it. So yeah, no, I wasn't surprised what happened. Because, you know, you got politicians, what covered politicians is a heavy dose of arrogance. And that's what it was. Well, I mean, when you look at it, just think about this story. You have this homeless family that's been living in the street for years. When it rains, when it snows when it sleet when it's hell. They're out there in the elements, right with no protection, and politicians will walk past them day in and day out and not lift a finger. You wet me. Yeah, all of a sudden, the people come together and say, we're going to build this family a home. The minute that people build a home, here comes the politicians going in the house trying to dictate either rearrange the furniture. Right, that's exactly what happened. felon disenfranchisement has been placed in Florida for 150 years. And politicians did not address it. They did not. So the people took matters in their own hand. And the minute we were successful with it, now they had the arrogance, to insist that they tell us how to implement, wait a minute, you keep your hands out. But the minute that happens, that's when you see the lines get drawn again. And you started seeing the division and, and insults back and forth, both sides, right. And that really hurt us in our heart. Because we know we just accomplished something beautiful, that we show the world and in spite of our differences, in spite of the color of our skins or our political persuasions, that we can come together as human beings to move major issues without having to tear each other apart without having to degrade each other. We show that it was possible and they resorted right back to the old way of doing things and it hurt our heart to see because At the heart of all of that, was that it was real people's lives that we were talking about. But the politics then overshadow

Baratunde Thurston  20:18  

How have you in the people's movement here responded to this politicization, and to these restrictions,

Desmond Meade  20:26  

keep on elevating people over politics. That's how we responded. When everything went down. We like innocent when other people see obstacles. We see opportunities. We see the lawsuit come in, we won a lawsuit in the Northern District Court. And then it was appealed by the state. And the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's ruling and sided with the state of Florida. And you know, required that no people pay outstanding legal financial obligation. Folks looked at that as a setback. We looked at it as an opportunity to step up. Well we did was that we ended up organizing the entire country. Over 88,000 people from all over this country. We organized celebrities like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Michael Vick, ariana grande de we organized corporations like Levi's, and Viacom, you know, and all kinds of foundations to raise over $25,000,000.20 $5 million to help people remove those obstacles. So if they want you they're able to participate in democracy. Right now, to me, that was so beautiful. So when there are challenges that we faced, we take those opportunities to do great things, to do amazing things. And we used it not to further divide our country, but we use it to bring our country together. And they were people were conservative, that donated to that, because we were talking about democracy, that no American citizen should be forced to choose between putting food on their table or voting, it shouldn't be a decision they'd be forced to make, you know, and folks stood up and said they were going to free to vote in Florida, because democracy should not be held hostage. And to me, that was beautiful. Let me tell you something, we like courageous people, right. But we can't have the courageous people unless we have fear. And so these moments, these obstacles beneath attempts to suppress our vote, or intimidate, prevent us from voting, we should look at these moments as opportunities to show how courageous we are. Because the level of courage that we need to show up to vote this year, is nowhere near the level of courage and our ancestors had to muster up the fight through the state sanctioned violence, to fight through the hangings and the burnings, to fight to the just outright blatant terrorism that was rained down upon them. And so this little bit of something here, Nah, man, this is a time that we step up, we look forward to these opportunities, because now when they trying to do that, we show up with even more people. So I'm glad you're trying to be suppressive, because now I can get more pooky the raid to come out and hang out with me and vote, you don't. And I'm glad that you that you want to try to make it difficult for us to get access to the ballot box. Because now you're going to help us engage more celebrities and make them more aware. So now, they're not just getting involved, because of this election. They're planning on getting involved long term. So now instead of having one or two, Harry Belafonte days, then we've got to have hundreds of Harry Belafonte days in our entertainment and sports industry. That is great. You don't say, and that sets the foundation for a more vibrant democracy as we're moving forward. So hey, bring it on. Bring it Oh, man, you gotta look at you, they get those muscles by just sit back relaxing. You wait, you experienced some tension. And you know, the most important thing you had to do to get those muscles, you had to tear some muscle. You know, I'm saying that's all the way underlayers got to grow. And you can only tear it if you experience tension. And so I embrace these moments. People who bully people, you know what they are in college? Point blank. We already know that. Right? But this is what we also know, though, is that when you stand up the people like that, and you punch them in their mouth, you know, their turn tail and run their turn tail around. And what I say is that for people like me, have been in prison. I've been hooked on drugs. Matter of fact, I've been hooked on crack, right? I've been homeless. I've faced down death. People like needles, skerries. So whoever some people out there trying to bully, they pick the right ones with returning citizens. Can we go scan that easy? And so we're gonna clap back. And we clap back. And we respond to that by showing up with even more people with more of our family members and friends and more returning soon. It isn't. And so that democracy would not be intimidating. We're not going to allow that. They got the right ones this time.

Baratunde Thurston  25:07  

There's a lot of people who hit me up, no one I was going to talk to you. And they said, How can I help? I see what's going on in the news. I'm fired up, I'm ready to go. What can I do? And so that's a specific question from listeners to the show. But a more general question, pulling from your recipe book, what are you encouraging people to do around this election, but also beyond?

Desmond Meade  25:30  

I think that it is so important that we find other people to take to the polls wins. And here's the deal, we need to have conversations, not only with our friends, but people that we don't normally typically talk to all the time, we may talk to our next door neighbor, boy about the one on the corner. You know, what about the one across the street, you know, we need to talk to people, we need to interact and don't come in proximity with other brothers and sisters. It's out there in the community, people have walked around that may not have the kind of hope, or outlook that we have. And just we need to find ways to engage them, and bring them to the polls wins. Point blank, there should be an affair that we want to do. And we look forward to doing and not feeling like we have to do. You know, I see the long lines out there now. You know, and it can be daunting. But I think that we have to have that resolve that we are going to show up, because we need to make sure that our voices are heard. Because if we don't show up to make sure our voices are heard. And the bottom line is, then it's going to be up to other people to decide whether or not our lives do matter.

Baratunde Thurston  26:45  

Yeah, that's the translation. I think a lot of folks are missing. And you put it really, really perfectly. Thank you for that. You get interviewed a lot people reach out to you, you run this organization, you're part of this movement. So I want to give you a chance. You know, we're here to talk voting. We're talking democracy in more broadly, but what do you want to share that I may be having teed up for you? I haven't asked you that you don't get asked to discuss very often, but feels very important to you on this topic.

Desmond Meade  27:16  

I mean, that's a great question. So here's one, I think that, you know, I don't think it gets asked enough about the sacrifices. You know, a lot of times, folks, just see the end results, you know, they see Oh, yeah, member for pass, and don't really have a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices that it takes. was in a meeting the day and and I think what I want to share with folks, what I share with the meeting, you got to figure out who you are, are you the chicken Are you the car, were you the you the pig, right. And what I mean by that is that, we've got to really understand that there's a difference between the contribution and commitment. And how the best way to understand it is through thinking about the ham and cheese. Because we know that degrees of a hammer cheese omelet is eggs to ham to cheese, if you're poor, like me growing up the milk, right. And so we know that the milk and the cheese come from the cows, eggs come from the chicken and the ham come from the pay will Academy the contribution to the ham and cheese on the chicken made a contribution to the ham and cheese on the pig made a commitment to the ham and cheese on. And we've got to understand that gift, what all three, all three are needed to get their ham and cheese omelet. We just need to know what role we plan in that in that particular situation. And at the end of the day, you've got to find something that you willing to die for. Right? It really be serious about and not let it just be rhetoric. Because a lot of times we do use rhetoric. You know, I've heard so many people to adopt for my children, but yet they won't turn up to a PTA meeting for their children. So I look at that as a lot of rhetoric. But when you dive into them in your fight for your children, that means your show up and make sure they're getting the right type of education and all of that other stuff. I'm talking about something that you're willing to invest your whole body and soul nature, what are you willing to sacrifice for. And when you find that thing that you're embracing, and this work that we're doing here, it can look glamorous. But at the end of the day, there's a specific amount of sacrifice that had to go into it. And I would like every now and then, when I'm being interviewed to talk about what some of those sacrifices are, but there is there's a lot that I had to the sacrifices I had to make. But I was willing to do so because I told my team the other month, I'm at peace with myself now. Because I found something other than my family that I'm willing to die for. And I'm good now that I am willing to die to make sure that every American citizen have opportunity to experience what I experienced when I voted for the first time in over 30 years.

Baratunde Thurston  30:09  

I'm willing to die to make sure that every American citizen has an opportunity to experience what I experienced when I voted for the first time in 30 years. Thus spoke Desmond Meade. So what are you willing to die for? What are you willing to commit to? Are you going to play the role of the chicken the cow or the pig to make sure we make this omelet? Desmond Mead. He really could create an amazing cookbook good money. You can find his organization, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition on their website, FloridaRRC.comm or follow them on social they're everywhere @FLRightsRestore, that's Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. You can find Desmond on twitter at @Desmond Meade, or on Instagram. Add the number 44 after that @DesmondMeade44 Thank you Desmond, for a powerful, powerful lesson. We are posting this episode the transcripts show notes and more as usual, at and as usual It is now time to get into the actions for this episode. And our first category internal actions things you can do alone a bit more reflective. got three things for you. Answer this question. Desmond's question. Do you know anyone that you love that's ever made a mistake? Think about it. Number two, answer this question. Desmond's question, Are you the chicken, the cow or the pig? Because that's how you make an omelet. You need all those things, but the cow makes a contribution. The chicken makes a contribution. The pig makes a commitment. We need all those roles to make this omelet of self governance, and people power and democracy. What role Are you going to play? Where and how? Think about it. Lastly, in the internal section read Desmond's book, it's great. Let my people vote my battle to restore the civil rights of returning citizens. We have it linked in the show notes. We also have it in our online bookshop, which is adding more titles by the week visit it at for the external actions, feeling sets of threes right now. So three here, support the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, go to, make yourself useful to this pro democracy movement in our midst. Find other people to take to the polls virtually or actually, we've recommended this before, we can't recommend it enough. Talk about voting all the time, and coordinate with your squad to get it done, help each other out. You don't have to do this alone. And lastly, spread some good news. We are inundated with depressing information, or outright dis information during this time, amplify the opposite. Find a good news story about voting or about democracy more broadly. And tell everybody you know, the solutions journalism network has a great resource at solutions slash hub, and they've got this Carousel of recently published beautiful news, which will actually strengthen your faith. Let's do this together as the only way to get it done. Thank you. Thank you. As usual. If you do any of these actions, big or small, tell somebody tell us email us, put Desmond in the subject line. Or maybe chicken or cow or pig. We'll figure it out and use the hashtag #howtocitizen online. Send us general feedback to comments at and you can visit the show's website at It really helps the word of mouth so leave a review. tell somebody about this show. If it's helping you citizen better let them know How to Citizen with Baratunde is a production of iheart Radio Podcast executive produced by Myles Gray, Nick Stump Elizabeth Stewart, and Baratunde Thurston. Produced by Joelle Smith, edited by Justin Smith powered by you


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