A Movement, Not a Moment, in Pinellas County, Florida

From the start, Common Purpose committed to work alongside local partners wherever our teams deployed.  This meant that finding a Florida organization willing to work with us my first challenge as state captain.  This was back in the spring, during Wave 1. We had no track record, no online presence, no famous names or big pocketbooks behind us.  What we had was a commitment from hundreds of volunteers who promised to be trained and were eager to work toward an inclusive and engaged democracy.  We also had a clear philosophy about cooperating with local partners, with two core tenets: identifying partners who deeply know the communities we aim to serve, and taking a supporting role.  While the local partners lead, we amplify and add capacity to their work. 

Most of the organizations I contacted about working together never responded. Those that did were friendly enough, but didn’t seem to believe the offer of help, our promise to follow their lead, and our commitment to pay our own way. Time was tick-tocking along, but I still hadn’t found a local partner. Finally, Seanna Browder attended an Organizing For Action (OFA) training session, and asked the leader whether OFA might need help in Florida. Seanna’s question turned out to be a critical turning point. 

OFA Florida Volunteer Lead Malanda Schmitz shared our commitment to inclusive democracy, immediately grasped our goals and welcomed Common Purpose to work with OFA. In June, twelve Team Florida volunteers spent a week registering voters in St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, 608 square miles with almost a million residents. Or trying to. In the economically disadvantaged neighborhoods where our team deployed, many of the people we encountered reported they couldn’t vote. All too soon, Common Purpose members learned “I can’t vote” was code for “I committed a felony and am banned from ever voting,” a topic we’ve written about here.

At the end of October, nineteen of us again touched down in Pinellas County.  We spent the final days before midterms getting out the vote in economically disadvantaged communities filled with low-propensity voters.  We canvassed for Andrew Gillum for Governor, Bill Nelson for U.S. Senate and Amendment 4, which would restore voting rights to people convicted of a felony who had served their sentence.

Knowing our goal was to serve under-served communities, ideally in collaboration with people of color, Malanda found the perfect partner for us: a local chapter of a healthcare workers’ union whose members are majority female and African American. 1199SEIU’s Regional Director, Clara Smith, turned out to be a compelling and savvy organizer who had grown up in St. Petersburg and knew how to enlist, train and deploy campaign workers. Team Florida was matched in teams with Local 1199 canvassers and sent out to cover turf that many of the local canvassers knew intimately. It didn’t take long for those in Common Purpose to find ourselves in awe of the talents, commitment and work ethic of those with whom we were knocking on doors.   

•   Steven, a poet/rapper, who at the conclusion of the first day brought a number of us to tears singing an a cappella song he had written about single moms staying strong.

•   Emily, raising 4 kids on her own while working the night shift. After our work ended, she confided her fears that we might feel uncomfortable in our turf because Florida is in the deep South and there are a lot of older White people there who are still racist. She was surprised and pleased that we jumped in and ended up really enjoying the time with us. We were in awe of all that she was managing in her own life!

•   Chuck, currently unemployed and eager to find work to support his wife and kids, won over everyone with his sweet smile and great work ethic. When a couple of Common Purpose members helped him look into job opportunities, the challenges he faces in terms of lack of access to and familiarity with technology brought home the barriers the working poor face.

•   Jerome, an ambassador of sorts in his neighborhood, who everywhere we went seemed to encounter people who knew and liked him. He was relentless in engaging with potential voters about their right to vote. In addition to his talents of persuasion, Jerome was also a terrific source of restaurant recommendations. Over one of our delicious lunches, we asked how he became so aware of the importance of voting. He shared how when he was growing up during the Reagan years, an elementary school teacher had explained just how important voting was, and he had decided that when he grew up, that was something he was going to do. (Shout out to all you educators: your lessons really do matter!)

By the time our four days of canvassing in partnership with OFA and Local 1199 ended, we had collectively knocked on 8,000 doors!  The energy and determination of our partners had inspired us, and exciting ideas for cross-pollination and future collaboration bubbled up amongst OFA, Common Purpose and 1199SEIU leaders. After our week in Pinellas County, what resonates most is a sense of deep admiration for the local people we partnered with there.

The day after the election, Common Purpose General Manager David Domke wrote to Malanda and Clara Smith of 1199SEIU, “We were with you yesterday, and we’re with you today. And we’ll be with you tomorrow.”  The campaign was ending, but as our Team Florida member Bobbi Geiger continued to urge, we are not engaged for a moment, but rather in a movement.

Written by Amy Sommers.

Christena CoutsoubosComment