Lia Kaz

May 172017
 

Gerrymandering:  Because, why should voters choose their representatives, when representatives can choose the voters?

Imagine North Carolina as a puzzle. Jagged lines are drawn across the map, spreading across counties like greedy fingers and into neighborhoods like silent snakes. North Carolina, and many states across the country, has these oddly shaped voting districts that end up making impossible puzzles of themselves. In most states, politicians have control over how they draw the maps that separate voters into districts. This essentially means that they have control over who votes for them, they draw maps that make it virtually impossible to lose, and they strengthen or weaken the power of specific groups of people. This process is infamously called Gerrymandering.

The voting districts of North Carolina have always been politically contested, but there is growing people-power working across bipartisan lines to support the drawing of fair electoral maps. We are making progress.

In a recent partnership with Democracy North Carolina, we have joined a statewide coalition to campaign for fair maps in our state. Democracy NC has shared with us the data and in turn we have shared our experiences and connections in the county. Many statewide campaigns have had success doing traditional canvassing in middle class, urban or suburban areas, but North Carolina is a low-income and rural state. So we combined our low-income, rural organizing models with Democracy North Carolina’s research and materials.  We incorporated their data, and they incorporated our language and knowledge of turf.

Four of us got together Saturday, April 29th at the Swannanoa Library. We started with a training about what Gerrymandering is, what it does, and how it hurts democracy. We then asked the group if anyone was from the area, and went over a brief introduction to the area. We talked about the industry that has come and gone, the class and cultural shifts over the years, and described the physical terrain of the area. We explained that we would be walking on roads without streetlights, without sidewalks, and with plenty of dogs running loose. We reviewed the materials that we would be sharing in the community, and made sure they were understandable. We spent extra time on the postcard we were giving to neighbors. The postcards include space for people to write their personal information on a petition to send to legislators urging them to support fair electoral maps (click here to download the postcard for your own use). We then did a role-play of knocking on a door, to familiarize people with the process.

Source – Democracy NC

Two pairs of us went up parallel streets stemming out from the library. Over the course of two hours, we met several dozen community members. Out of everyone we spoke with, only two people declined to sign a postcard. People became very interested when they heard it was a nonpartisan issue, and that there was legislation in the North Carolina Legislature supporting the possibility of fair maps. I was particularly inspired by the few folks who had never heard of the issue before, but became passionate through our materials and conversations, and signed a postcard to their representative.

The more public support we can get behind an issue, the more likelihood we have to change policy. It might sound like a small event on Saturday April 29th, but it enlivens and awakens the public perception and outcry about equal access to representation. If we win fair representation, we are all the more likely to win on issues we care about. Gerrymandering sits uniquely positioned as an issue that is the key to unlocking our ability to hold representatives accountable for their decisions on behalf of their constituents.

We are planning several more canvassing dates around this issue. Stay tuned with us and Democracy North Carolina to learn about canvassing opportunities! This project will impact the 2020 elections immensely. And as we’ve seen in the past, the ability to have equal access for North Carolinians at the ballot box has a huge impact on national elections. We are moving our state and country forward when we fight for fair maps.  To become involved contact us.

Update 05/24/17 – Since posting this blog, the SCOTUS has agreed that North Carolina has gerrymandered districts along racial lines – SCOTUS Blog and Reuters.

Lia Kaz currently serves as the North Carolina Community Organizer for Spirit in Action’s We the People: Working Together (WtP) project. Through the WtP project she organizes in low-income, rural communities across Buncombe County to empower civic engagement. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work and won the Alton J. Pfaff Award from Warren Wilson College, which recognized her as the graduating student who most exemplifies the triad of Academics, Work, and Service. She currently lives in Asheville with some great roommates, and a perfect dog named Mona.

Nov 212016
 

It is a powerful time to be doing election work. When we ride out to the communities, there is a merging of fear and excitement. We round the unpaved roads through the Blue Ridge Mountains, rural Appalachia full of reminders that there was once a thriving industry here. We pull up to the mobile home park, or brick duplexes, or cluster of apartments, and the memories play out. I think of the grandmother who brought me in the home, fed me, asked me about my family while registering her sons to vote and holding her grandchildren. I think about the man who warned us to not go to the yellow house, “because he always answers the door with a gun.” I think of the high school student who isn’t a citizen, but took every educational pamphlet we had to share with her friends on the bus the next morning. I wonder what today will be like.

The kids in the neighborhood know we’re not from there, but they’re the first to approach us with smiling faces. Once, there were two young girls playing with a large cardboard tube in the street as we rounded the block. They shouted from across the way asking us what we’re selling and if we already went to their houses. We explain we want to help people vote. That we want to help people make changes in the neighborhood and work together. They perk up and drop their toy to walk up to us. They ask, can they help?

So we walk through the Habitat for Humanity Houses with two small girls, creating a gaggle of four young women between us. The girls practiced saying “we can help you with your voting rights” and still ended up saying “we are selling newspapers.” It kept the smiles on our faces, and door after door opened in the community. People kept the door open when they heard that we are nonpartisan, and were coming back to the same neighborhood for the third year in a row to make sure the community is able to voice its needs. They shared their opinions and filled out our surveys when we presented materials that their neighbors helped us create. They gave us their name and contact information when they heard that we can help them register to vote and get out to vote, but our largest goal is to follow up with them after the election when we continue voicing community concerns year-round.

It helps me to think of those young girls, excitedly joining us to talk with their neighbors. There is something about rural, Southern towns that feels both very connected, and isolated. People are more likely to shout across the street and ask what we’re doing, but much less likely to integrate with folks they don’t know or aren’t from the neighborhood six generations back. And every time we return to the neighborhood, we become a little more recognizable.

As a small nonprofit, we did not kid ourselves that we could knock on a million doors and turn out a record-breaking number of voters. But, North Carolina did break records, and we were a part of that. North Carolina was called the “the key battleground state of 2016.” What would this have meant if the 2013 “monster laws” had stayed in place? One of the most contested states in the country would have been blocked from representing its electorate. Just this summer, federal judges overturned the voter suppression laws, in part because they were cited as disenfranchising African American voters with “surgical precision.” With the voter protections that we won back, there were 3 million votes cast before Election Day during Early Voting, a record-breaking number for our state. We will keep fighting to stay truly representative in our vote, so that power comes directly from the people.

It’s a long journey to reach folks, and as Dr. King showed us, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” At Spirit in Action, we believe in continuing that long road together. We don’t change the way people think and feel by stating facts at the door, by demanding specific actions for change. We facilitate transformative relationships and popular education which can ultimately transform what governmental representative power means in our communities.

Lia KazLia Kaz currently serves as the North Carolina Community Organizer for Spirit in Action’s We the People: Working Together (WtP) project. Through the WtP project she organizes in low-income, rural communities across Buncombe County to empower civic engagement. She has a Bachelors degree in Social Work and won the Alton J. Pfaff Award from Warren Wilson College, which recognized her as the graduating student who most exemplifies the triad of Academics, Work, and Service. She currently lives in Asheville with some great roommates, and a perfect dog named Mona.

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