This episode explores democracy, especially how we can participate in governing ourselves as well as some of the challenges to doing so. We talk with people working on voting rights and democratic process about what democracy means to them: Desmond Meade, of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, who led the effort to end disenfranchisement of people with past felony convictions in Florida; Danielle Allen, a political ethicist and author of Talking to Strangers, Our Declaration, and Cuz; and Jesse Beason, president and CEO of the Northwest Health Foundation.
You can learn more about Desmond Meade's work at the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and in his book, Let My People Vote. Recordings of our full program with Meade are available on Soundcloud and YouTube.
Danielle Allen is director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and author of several books, including The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (2014), and Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. (2017). Recordings of our full program with Allen are available on Soundcloud and YouTube.
Jesse Beason is president and CEO of Northwest Health Foundation. He serves on the boards of Proteus Action League, Oregon Futures Lab, and Oregon Public Broadcasting, and is a graduate of Neighborhood Partnerships' Future Leaders Initiative, and fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Barbara Jordan was elected to the House of Representatives in 1972 and was the first Black woman elected to congress in Texas. She served until 1979. The full text and video of her keynote speech at the 1976 Democratic National Convention is available here.
[00:00:00] Adam Davis: You're listening to The Detour, a show about people and ideas from Oregon Humanities
Today on the show we explore democracy. Especially how we can participate in governing ourselves, as well as some of the challenges to doing so. On the show, you'll hear from three individuals who are involved in this process and who, in their own ways, show us what democracy means to them.
Desmond Meade as a civil rights activist, the executive director of the Florida Rights Coalition, author of Let My People Vote, and recent recipient of a MacArthur genius grant. Desmond's also a returning citizen, a person reentering society after incarceration, who worked on Florida Amendment Four, which restored voting rights for 1.5 million returning citizens.
We spoke to Desmond in October, 2019, as part of our consider this program at the Alberta rose theater in Portland, Oregon.
Bbefore we do anything else, I hope you'll join me in saying a big welcome to Desmond Meade.
Desmond has done amazing work on extending the franchise, on making it possible for people to vote who were not allowed to vote. And I wanted to start Desmond by asking you when voting showed up for you as a meaningful activity. When did voting strike you as something that mattered and that you realized you were going to be committed to?
[00:01:46] Desmond Meade: So sad to say that that importance of voting did not really mean much to me until 2011.
That was the year that a new administration was coming in, and Florida Governor Rick Scott. He just defeated Alex Sink for the governorship. And the first thing, even though he didn't campaign on it, the very first thing he and his cabinet did when they got into office was to address felon disenfranchisement.
And what they did was, prior to him being in office, Governor Crist had a policy that automatically restored civil rights to, to non-violent offenders. And so when governor Scott got into the office, the very first thing he did was roll back those policies.
[00:02:44] Adam Davis: The first thing he did.
[00:02:45] Desmond Meade: The very first thing, the cabinet did—and made it even more difficult for an individual to get their rights restored.
And I remember thinking—I was sitting back and I was thinking, wow, you had four politicians that had enough power to decide which American citizens get to vote in which American citizens don't get to vote all with just a signature on a piece of paper. That all of the work that we did prior to that, to actually get it to a point where some folks were able to get their rights restored— and, matter of fact, over those four previous years, over 155,000 people were actually able to get their rights restored—and to see all of that get undone by just a signature of a pen on a piece of paper and something just boiled up inside of me and said, That's way too much power for any politician to have, whether they're Democrat, Republican, or whatever, that no four politicians should have that much power to decide how inclusive our democracy is.
And, and when I looked at—though he had, he had won his election by around 63,000 votes. And at that time, the Sentencing Project, in collaboration with Jeff Manza, had just recently released a study that showed that Florida had over 1.54 million people who couldn't vote because of a felony conviction. Right.
And that was like that moment I really started to understand the power of voting and why eradicating felony disenfranchisement laws was so important.
[00:04:44] Adam Davis: Here's what I'm thinking. I'm thinking about voting and what it does or doesn't mean for so many people. Some people have access to it. Some people don't, some people care about it, some people don't. It sounds like it hits you hard. And I'm wondering sort of where you were with either voting or thinking about politics at that time. Like how did it suddenly arrive if it was sudden.
[00:05:03] Desmond Meade: As important as voting is, right, that's not the most important thing in people's minds. Right? Because guess what—life is. So you talking about, for instance, I'm talking to have a person that's been in the criminal justice system, right? So someone that's incarcerated. When they're getting ready to be released, they're not thinking, oh my God, I can't wait to go vote.
You know, what they're thinking about is man, where am I going to live? How am I going to get money to pay bills or to get a cell phone, you know? What about my transportation? How am I going to get food in my stomach? Those are everyday issues that keep pounding at the doorstep or the door of people's lives. And it drowns out the importance of voting. Right. And then our work is to somehow bring that back and show them how voting can impact those, those critical needs that they have. But the natural need, you know, and even like, if even in the Bible, Jesus had the feed, the multitudes before he taught them. Right. Because there are some natural needs that people have, and we have to—here's the catch now—we have to understand that. So we who understand the importance of voting and how critical it is. Right. We can't go beating somebody over the head with that and totally ignore the everyday challenges that they're facing.
[00:06:35] Adam Davis: Having been incarcerated, thinking about stuff like when is it possible to hold a job and what are the challenges to get a job or housing, how is it that this is the thing that voting is the thing that, with all that stuff, hounding you, that you went, This is the one that I'm not just going to work on, but I'm going to drive all around the state all the time. I'm going to, like, how that?
[00:07:02] Desmond Meade: I think part of that, if the transformation, right, of thinking of voting as something that we do. Right. As an exercise of democracy. How we transformed from thatlet meto understanding that voting is a tool, you feel what I'm saying? And so when we, as—let me speak for myself as a directly impacted person, right, what I look at voting is, right, is not a way to get my favorite candidate in there or somebody who sounds good in there. It's not a way to support a particular party or another. How we look at voting is as a tool to get the needs that we have, the immediate needs that we have, addressed. And I think that it's, it's a, it's a nuance there. Right. And I think that understanding when, at some point, when I looked, you know—matter of fact, I could tell you the thing I thought about. After governor Scott signed that policy into effect, and I'm mad at governor Scott, right, but I thought about it. I was like, wait a minute. If I get 1.54 million Floridians to March up the Tallahassee and bang on his door and say, Governor Scott, give us our rights back. When he looked out his window, what he's going to see is 1.54 million people who can't vote. And he would go back to doing what he's doing. And so I I'm thinking this in my head. And so my initial thought was okay, but what if I can just get maybe half or quarter of those 1.54 million to get five family members or friends who love them enough to pledge, to vote on their. And have those five family members of friends said, Governor Scott give back my loved one, the right to vote. When he opens up his window, he will see more people than his margin of victory and have to give that considerable thought. And so that got me on that path.
[00:09:17] Adam Davis: And maybe it's worth saying, because it's possible that people in here don't know that number. You're holding out 1.54 million that, as we're sitting here over 1.4 million people have regained or gained the right to vote thanks to work that Desmond is doing in Florida.
How do you get people who don't have—how do you get people who don't feel it to feel it? And show up?
[00:09:51] Desmond Meade: Easy question!
[00:09:52] Adam Davis: Thank you.
[00:09:54] Desmond Meade: Talk to 'em, talk to 'em, talk to 'em. Let me tell you. So my wife ran for office. I remember she gave me a walk list, right? And she put me to work. Typical walk lists that you will go into community, you will knock on this one door, you'll walk past about good seven to eight houses and knock on another door, because he's walk lists are with who? Super voters. And so we walked past thirty, forty voters to talk to one, every one that we talked to, we ignore tirty, and then we have the audacity to [say,] "Well, people don't show up." How can they show up? We, we're not even talking to them. We're not. And so let me tell you, in our campaign, when we said, we talking to everybody from zero on up, and we were really playing around with the zeros, we loved the zeros. When we looked at the people who we talked to that had at least one returning citizen in their household, the turn out rate was 82 percent.
And so people come out when you talk to them and you give them something to come out for, right. Something that's not fickle. And they're less likely to come out for a candidate than they are for someone who they love. And that's why I told people the date, the Sunday before Election, I said, listen—some people, some diehard, progressive folks got mad at me when I said this—that the most important person on the ballot was not named Andrew or Ron. The most important person on that ballot was named Pooky and Ray Ray and Shaniqua and Desmond and Neal. And that what sold, that what sold.
And so if we can have conversations with people—because sometimes we put barriers out before we even launch our campaign to limit who we can talk to and who can talk to us—if we remove those barriers and just go out there and have conversations with folks, we see a different outcome. Even when you looked at the, some of the people or the voters that Trump inspired that came out, right? We can't, I can't even get mad at them because we've been ignoring them. And so when we ignore voters, right, then we leave open the opportunity of somebody coming to speak to their needs and their fears. Their desires. And that's what happened. 'Cause we know people. So you want to connect? Let's have those conversations, and let's not say, "Oh, well, we can't go in that neighborhood." Or "We can't talk to that type of person." No. Two months before the election, we held our last focus groups and we brought a bunch of conservatives—White conservatives—in a room, a lot of them strong Trump supporters. And we showed them some videos of commercials that we created. And these were the commercials: we said, "If you vote yes on amendment four, MS-13 is going to invade Florida, rape your women, and kill your children." Another one said, "If you vote yes. On amendment four, it would deal a fatal blow to Donald Trump, and those doggone progressive devils are going to take over this beautiful state of ours." After we showed those horrible videos—I mean, I almost started to believe that it was so real. I was like, really? They're coming?, you know, but after they showed those videos, and we polled the people, we had a super majority support for Amendment Four.
Just think about that for a minute, because I think we cracked the code because typically we worry about that White guy living in the Appalachians that was vote against welfare, even though he's depended on it, voting against their own self interests. And here was a case. Well, we made a very compelling argument around political, around racial lines and people heads held steady, supportive amendment four.
Why? Because we didn't organize a campaign with an opponent. We organized around the campaign around love—someone that you love. And so when those people see those commercials, they was able to withstand all of those triggering images and phrases because at the center of their mind was not Black Desmond, but maybe their son who's an opioid addict or their uncle who's alcoholic that keep getting those DUIs. You know, or, or someone that's a meth head or someone that whatever mistake they made, that's what they held on to for dear life. And they was able to withstand that. And that's why on Election Night, I tell folks that those 5.1 million votes that we got was not based on hate or fear. They were based on love. And so the world actually got to see love winning the day. Really did.
So on a much broader scope. My next mission is actually to, to make voting exciting again and increase levels of voter participation. That's on a broad level. On a micro level, it's to use Florida as a testing ground to demonstrate the power that Black and brown communities have always had but didn't realize that they did. Right? You know, I could give you a good example. I'm going to give him, could I give a couple of good examples real quick? Quick, quick. I'm going to try. I love stories. But, Francis, we have a district in the city of Orlando. And this district is a very important district where it's one of—it's the richest district in the city, they have all of the major stadiums there, universities there, a lot of money pours in, and they also have the poorest people there. And whenever you have a district where you have a lot of money coming in and poor people there, you know what happens right with that G word, right? And that district is so important that they call that district, the pathway to the mayor's office. You with me? The last two elections there, the first, well, two election cycles ago, the person who won that district won by 127 votes. Right. About 10% of people showed up to vote. It won by 127. The very next election, which was the last election, the person that won that district won by 200 and like 25 votes. And the total amount of voters that showed up was 2,500. You with me? Are you sure you're with me? Okay. Then this is the district that's the pathway to the mayor's office. You with me? In the last four months my organizations have registered—you ready?—over 3,000 returning citizens in that district alone.
And those 3,000 people and their family members show up to this race that's coming up November 2nd, it doesn't matter who'll win because whoever wins knows that the only reason they get to get in there and stay in there. It's because of those returning citizens that covered that gap. Coincidentally, I want to say it real quick so I don't cry. It's also going to be my first time voting in that district in so many years.
And see, y'all about to make me cry, because I'm not, I'm not just going to vote by myself. I'm bringing my son, two of my sons and my wife to vote right along with me. To take like a page, taking the page out the history books back in the Civil Rights Era when dad went to go vote, he took the whole family. That voting was a topic of discussion at the dinner table. And that's what we're going to do. And we're asking all of our returning citizens that we registered, Don't come by yourself. Bring your family member. Let's celebrate. Let's make sure that they vote. But see what happens when they show up, it's going to shift in the power right then and there. And the people in power will have to understand. They would know because we would demonstrate that we're taking back the power that was once acquiesced to you. As people who've been silent for so many years. We understand the value of not giving up our voice or our folk so damn easily that we hold people accountable and don't let them just get away with anything just because they have a D next to their name or R next to their name or that they're the color of my skin.
That there's a level of responsibility that elected officials must have and must adhere to, or there's consequences behind it. And we have to be bold enough to make them feel the consequence.
[00:19:54] Adam Davis: Desmond voted for the first time in an election on November 3rd, 2020.
Danielle Allen is a political ethicist and professor at Harvard University and author of the books Talking to Strangers, Our Declaration, and Cuz. We spoke to Danielle in May 2019 as part of our Consider This series on journalism and justice at the Alberta Rose Theater in Portland, Oregon.
[00:20:32] Danielle Allen: Hello.
[00:20:33] Adam Davis: Hello. Maybe before we do anything else, let's say a big welcome to Danielle.
Danielle, you have written about and worked on all sorts of things related to justice and democracy, and your most recent book, about your cousin, is about both and about much more. Instead of diving directly into that. I wanted to ask you just to go back your first book, which is about the politics of punishing in ancient Athens.
[00:21:10] Danielle Allen: It sounds dry. Doesn't it?
[00:21:15] Adam Davis: I wouldn't have said that. But I want to ask for someone who , with your career, you've been committed to justice and democracy, and I wanted to ask. Why punishing? Like, why do you care, have you cared about punishing?
[00:21:29] Danielle Allen: It's pretty simple. And at the end of the day, I think it's the same answer anybody who writes a book gives, which is that it's something that mattered in my life.
So I was a kid who grew up in Southern California. I was fortunate to go away to school, to Princeton on the east coast, big old fancy place. And my sophomore year there, I took a class on Athenian democracy. To this day I don't know why. I just sort of randomly wandered into this class. The teacher was just completely magnetic and compelling, and I loved the class.
But we were reading reams and reams and reams of Athenian court documents, speeches, defense speeches, et cetera. And after months of reading these things in class, one day I asked the question, These people, they didn't have prisons? Because I assumed I was reading all this stuff about courts and there wasn't a single mention of prisons.
And my professor said, "That will make a great dissertation topic." So that's basically what happened. And it was really just the fact that I was this kid from Southern California, who grew up in Southern California in the seventies and eighties, and prisons were just growing everywhere around me, and then being kind of confronted with this other world that looked so different. I was just sort of shocked into awareness in a certain kind of way. And then I just sort of deeply grateful that I had a professor who didn't say all, like, "That's not a question that belongs in a classics department," right? Like register that this kid from Southern California, I kind of could see something about our world that the grownups weren't seeing yet.
And so that led me on a journey to study punishment and think about it deep in time, all of history across the globe and so forth. And then the great privilege of having done that scholarly work is that I can stand up and say for a fact that the world has never seen a system of incarceration like the one this country has built.
[00:23:26] Adam Davis: I want to ask a little more about moving towards Cuz, I think, because in a way, even what you just said about numbers and how you came to the question of punishing sounded like it was in the world around you a little bit out there and numbers and information. And then at the same time, almost in parallel, it seems like you're having this experience with a cousin who's very close to you.
[00:23:51] Danielle Allen: So there's something slightly mysterious about all of this and it says that, yes, my book Cuz is about my beloved beautiful baby cousin Michael, who went to prison on a first arrest at the age of 15 in 1995 in Los Angeles for an attempted carjacking. And it was just after California had passed the "three strikes you're out" law. And he—the carjacking was attempted in the sense that his victim wrestled has gotten away from him and shot him through the neck and on the way to the hospital. Michael confessed that he had also robbed three other people earlier that week by gunpoint. So it was a terrible week of violence. There've been nothing like that in his life previously, we were all completely taken by surprise and shock.
But the result of the fact that he had done these four things in one week is that he was facing three strikes on his first arrest. The judge told him that, you know, if he went to trial and was convicted of these things he confessed to, he would get 25 years to life. And so he took a plea deal, got a sentence of 12 years and eight months.
[00:24:59] Adam Davis: One of the phrases that stuck out was that you said you and your family as Michael became more involved with the justice system, had faith in the, in the reasonableness of the criminal justice system. And that faith crumbled pretty quickly. But how did that, why faith in the first place and how did it go away?
[00:25:22] Danielle Allen: another mystery. I truly have a hard time answering that question. You know, it's—the experience of African Americans in this country is deeply complicated and, you know, you can have deep family histories of oppression. And my dad grew up in Northern Florida, which is like the deep South. It's basically the same as Southern Georgia, Alabama, et cetera. Lots of lynching in his youth. It's like, that's why he left the South. Like, that's the story he tells about why he left the South. But at the same time, somehow he also has always had this incredibly deep love of American democracy and how it is that a people can hold those two things together is just one of the deep mysteries of American life.
Um, but we do somehow. And so I think that. Somehow that love of democracy, and probably partly as sort of, you know, still building on the optimism of the sixties and seventies, sort of engagement with the Civil Rights Movement and things like that, did mean that we came into the process with Michael respecting lawyers, you know, respecting the idea of justice. And so forth.
I think the other important thing about the kind of mismatch between our expectations and what was going on, it's just that it was a point when the laws were changing really, really fast. So, you know, the "three strikes you're out law" had just passed. And like the fact of the matter is if you hear "three strikes, you're out", what do you think? Well, yes. And you think it takes three times for the law to apply, like it just will not occur to you intuitively that it will apply the first time. Right? So like, we didn't go into the court proceedings recognizing that that law would apply to a 15 year old Michael, who just had his first arrest. Like we thought that law was for like, you know, people were like really screwed up and repeated times. And relatedly, they had just changed the law to lower the age at which somebody could be tried as an adult to 14, six months earlier. And so like, you know, all these changes were like a kind of earthquake deep underneath the ground of society and it takes people longer than you'd expect to assimilate just the fact that the laws changed and that, like, your vulnerability is, like, seismically different in its proportions that had been three years earlier. So that was a part of the story too.
[00:27:52] Adam Davis: It was interesting sort of understanding. And then also I'm wondering about sort of what it felt like as the reality of Michael's situation emerged.
[00:28:02] Danielle Allen: know, I mean, I try to convey it in the book, but it's just a sense of just repeatedly understanding too late. That the moment you understand is also the moment you can't do anything about it anymore. And it's a devastating feeling.
[00:28:25] Adam Davis: And in a way, I feel like I shouldn't be asking about it. And on the other hand, I feel like the book is an attempt to share that feeling and for a family that was so well equipped, better-equipped to understand than almost any family I can think of in the country.
[00:28:42] Danielle Allen: Well, it's embarrassing, too, yeah. All these educated people, you know, Michael was from a family with—my dad had a PhD and a couple of teachers in the family. And so it's not as if we didn't have resources to bring, to bear, to try to think our way through this process and understand it and so forth. And even so, you know, we never found our feet. We couldn't find our way through the system, figure out how to get it to operate in ways that were even decent and fair.
I mean like, you know, yes. Michael deserved punishment. He'd done something bad and I wouldn't challenge that. I don't dispute that to this day. He did not deserve 12 years, eight months. I will absolutely dispute that. I think there's a completely different way we ought to approach sanctions for especially juvenile offenders. There's a lot to talk about there. But no, we couldn't find our feet and I think there's a deep truth in that that the criminal justice system is just opaque in numerous ways. And you think you're a kind of functioning, competent adult, and then the moment you get caught up in it, you're not anymore. And so recognizing that kind of feature of our justice system, like that's not what justice is supposed to do, like justice is supposed to be one of those things that keeps people empowered and civic agents, even when you're dealing with something like sanctions for wrongdoing.
[00:30:03] Adam Davis: So you ask a question at the end of Cuz which has stayed with me since the first time I read it. And I feel like, I feel like it's actually become the way I think about the challenge of democracy. And I want to just read it out: "Can we damage ourselves less than we ourselves are damaged?" To me that's, like, that's like the core question about democracy.
[00:30:29] Danielle Allen: Yeah. It's just the core question of life though, too. Right? It's the core question of any family, like every family. Stuff that previous generation did to each other that the kids were caught up in, and the kids were damaged and suffered in various ways. And so somehow or other, because at the end of the day, here we are all are on this planet trying to flourish, right? Just trying to flourish like flowers blooming, or anything else growing, trying to be whole and healthy in the thing that we are, the kind of creature that we are. And to have that you somehow have to resolve the damage from the generation that precedes you. Right? You have to sort of free yourself from it.
And I think that sort of picture of life in a family is the same as the picture of life in a democracy. So I'm optimistic about democracy just because, you know, like I've like pushed and pulled the question of like, how do you build worlds where human beings can flourish? And it doesn't matter like how I push it and pull it. The answer always comes out the same way, like, that it requires democracy.
This is where like, OK, nothing that I say makes any sense if you can come up with a better way of organizing human life than democracy. Okay. So I just want to say that, like, if you have something better than democracy, then you do not need to agree with anything that I say, but if you don't, okay, then the following things pertain.
So democracies die unless you can maintain unity. Well, what does that mean? That was super abstract. What that means is to have a democracy. You have a process where in every decision somebody loses. Right. Always, there's always a loser. We focus on the winners, but there's always a loser in every decision.
And when there are losers in a world that isn't kind of focused on how you get unity out of that mess, eventually you have secession, civil wars, you know, that happened here, but it's happened all over the world, not just here. Democracies break up. The greatest weakness of a democracy is its tendency to break, and that's kind of straightforward because, like, who wants to lose? Yeah. It's a bummer. So at the end of the day, democracies can only endure if losing isn't that bad. Which means you have to have what the novelist Ralph Ellison called—you have to recognize that democracy is a winner-take-nothing project.
All right. So what does that mean? Actually, it means a couple of different things. So Mitch McConnell, for example, talks about politics in a completely different way. That won't be, he doesn't agree with me. His picture of politics, like, so his mantra for politics is, winners make policy losers, go home. That's a recipe for breaking democracies. The mantra should be winners get the leadership role in a policy process that includes losers.
But that means you actually have to be committed to concepts of compromise. You actually have to be committed to concepts of partial victories, of leaving some stuff on the table, but getting some of the stuff that you want. Those are hard commitments to maintain over time. And so, yes, at the end of the day, if you want to preserve democracy, you have to choose unity.
You have to make the, we.
[00:34:21] Adam Davis: When you just said, you have to choose this, you have to choose this. There are other imperatives driving people's choices and their sense of attachment.
[00:34:32] Danielle Allen: Absolutely.
[00:34:33] Adam Davis: And I guess I want to ask how can a principled commitment to the idea of democracy compete with. Some of the other allegiances we feel so strongly.
[00:34:45] Danielle Allen: So that is a great question. And that does come back to this, just, deep conviction I have again about democracy as what enables flourishing. So again, I know these are sort of abstract words and how do they connect to my cousin Michael, who didn't flourish? Ultimately this country failed him. He made bad choices, but it is also the case that this country failed him.
And the thing, I guess, is, for me it's just that I want a country that doesn't fail Michaels and I don't actually think I'll get that country by killing democracy. So even though I really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really feel really angry at the people who pass "three strikes" laws and people who still defend them in some contexts, I can't let that anger drive my politics. Because if I do, I risk losing the thing that I think could help the Michaels of the future.
[00:36:07] Adam Davis: In June 2021, Danielle announced an exploratory campaign for governor of Massachusetts.
Jesse Beason is a voting rights activist and executive director of Northwest Health Foundation in Portland, Oregon. He serves on the boards of Proteus Action League, Oregon Futures Lab, and Oregon Public Broadcasting, and is a graduate of Neighborhood Partnerships' Future Leaders Initiative, and Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
We sat down with Jesse in September 2021 at the XRAY FM studios in Portland, Oregon.
[00:36:59] Jesse Beason: Personally, I came to care a lot about voting and democracy from one of my earliest political heroes, Barbara Jordan, who was a Congresswoman out of Texas, served in the seventies during the impeachment hearings, and she was also a lesbian. And she just talked so eloquently about democracy and the franchise, the right to vote, and it instilled in me an early belief in the power of democracy and the power that voting is.
[00:37:30] Adam Davis: You say you came to care about it because of what Barbara Jordan said. Maybe can I just ask, how did she, like, how did you land on Barbara Jordan as a hero of yours?
[00:37:41] Jesse Beason: It's not like they were teaching that in the suburbs of Denver. It was in college when I was in a Rhetoric of Women class and came to find her work and, you know, you're eighteen, and you know you should vote, but you don't really, haven't really been given the tools, I think, to examine democracy in its philosophical sense. And so she just had a way of explaining it. And that really resonated for me. And one of the quotes that sticks with me that she said is, you know, what the American people want iss simple. They want an America as good as its promise. And to me, that's just stuck with me and it's motivated me about engaging in the work—the hard work of democracy.
[00:38:27] Adam Davis: And now in your work, do you feel like you're trying to help people understand that voting is important?
[00:38:34] Jesse Beason: Yes.
[00:38:35] Adam Davis: How do you do that?
[00:38:37] Jesse Beason: I think it's is a challenge right now, because I think for a lot of folks, they see that we haven't really solved a lot of problems facing this country and facing the world, even. And so it's hard to believe that voting would help solve those problems. And I will also say, for a growing segment of our state and our country, they don't really see themselves and their experiences, their communities, their identities reflected in elected officials, either running on the ballot or currently in elected office. So that can also be a challenge, when you think: none of these folks know my life, have any relationship to my community, and so why would I want to fill in a circle for any of these people running?
[00:39:22] Adam Davis: Hmm. So in a way, I feel like you've already talked about two challenges to voting. One being, well look at what people voting has gotten us so far. So a kind of skepticism about the possibility that voting will improve conditions. And the other one seems to be, well, look, the people that are in office, they don't know who I am and what my life is like. A kind of non-reflective or non-representative democracy. Can we stay with challenges a little bit? Like what do you see as the obstacles or the challenges to a higher turnout, more participation?
[00:39:58] Jesse Beason: I think, one, seeing more folks that have the same lived experience running for office. I think it's important that people who want to solve poverty actually know what poverty feels like. And we've got very few candidates that understand that. I mean, name the issue. We have very few lived-experience folks. Right? What we have is a lot of storytelling where people's perception is driving public policy and decision-making, right, by electeds. And so I think that's one of the challenges.
I think a second challenge is just the nature of how we engage, right now, folks in democracy. It has been, recently, primarily driven by television ads and postcard mailers, right? We're not actually having face-to-face conversations with folks about the issues that they care about in their community. And we also live in a country that's dominated by a party system and people are very disillusioned by that system. And so they don't want to engage, and we haven't invested as much in the kinds of community-based organizations that traditionally provide political homes, if you will, for people that don't identify with a party, right? So you want to, you want to be involved and, in old days, maybe it was your church or other sort of civic groups, and now we don't have as many robust community-based organizations that are regularly engaging people in topics of democracy, not just voting. Right? But all the other ways that democracy really matters.
[00:41:34] Adam Davis: Do you think 18-year-olds—I'm going to ask you to just generalize—18-year-olds in this country: how does voting show up? Like, do you have a sense of what we're doing to prepare young people either to step into voting or not?
[00:41:50] Jesse Beason: I think we're doing very little when it comes to the public education side around understanding democracy. But I don't know that, even if you did that well, that that would solve it. If you're an 18-year-old, and you see a country unwilling to do anything about the future of the planet, and therefore your own future, it's really hard to jump right to the idea that voting in my school board election is going to matter.
I think there's a lot of anger and sadness and feelings of betrayal by young folks, because of our inability to solve so many problems that actually make it harder for this generation to live and thrive and survive, make it harder for them to actually be healthy. And we're looking at lower life expectancies for this generation than previous generations, and that's the first for this country. So I think that I understand all of the angst and mistrust that folks would have in voting.
[00:43:00] Adam Davis: What kinds of organizations help people understand how to get involved, and why it might be of interest to them?
[00:43:06] Jesse Beason: Where I feel hopeful about getting more and more folks involved and engaged in democracy is through the community-based organizations that are increasingly weaving together what it means to support your community, through helping provide the services that folks need: housing services, social services, all of those things. But weaving those together with opportunities for folks to become more involved. Involved in the organization, but also involved in their community. And that leads to a greater sense of belonging.
And actually to steal John Powell's quote, a sense of belonging is the greatest gift that we give one another in a democracy. And it's fundamentally the base requirement, to feel like you're part of something. And I think that part is necessary to actually make voting last.
If you've ever needed public assistance, right? If you've ever needed, like, food stamps, there are two different ways to get food stamps, right? You can go into a state-run office and, you know, take a number and go through a very horrible, terrible experience. Right? It feels demoralizing. It's probably a terrible office. You can also get signed up for food stamps with a community-based organization, right, who is asking you what else your family needs, and also sharing like, 'oh, by the way, we are also having this meeting for parents of young kids to learn more about what it means to be entering kindergarten'.
And then from that example, right, you identify parents that are kind of interested in being more involved in that program. And then they get more, they're coming to the afterschool programs, and they're talking to other parents, and all of a sudden they see themselves as having a community that they didn't all the way see themselves having. They're making connections, they're making friends, and then the organization is also talking about upcoming election with school board members, and all of a sudden, maybe it's a Latinx-serving organization, and there's now a school board member who you might even know because they've been at the community meetings, right? And so then you're like, oh, I really liked that person. I don't know what a school board is, but I want to see them get elected. So then you are helping them, you know, all of a sudden you are door-knocking or you're texting your friends, or you're giving them 25 bucks. So that progression of feeling more and more involved and connected to a community that cares about you is the kind of work I'm talking about.
It doesn't happen in three months' time. Right. But that's the kind of thing we've lost as a country, right? Where people don't feel as connected to one another, and they don't feel like their neighbors care about them. And it's palpable, right? That we're not a country that cares for one another anymore.
And so these organizations, the organizations that we like to fund at my day job at the Foundation are all trying to do that. They're trying to build that sense of community and that sense of belonging that leads to a greater sense of civic engagement, if you will.
[00:46:17] Adam Davis: What are the biggest reasons to vote? Given the difficulties you've laid out, why vote?
[00:46:24] Jesse Beason: When we think about the opportunities in this country and the problems that we face, almost all of them can be traced to decision-making that rests in elected bodies. So, if you care about climate change, if you care about making childcare affordable, if you care about the cost of health care, if you care about reproductive health and that health care access, it all comes down to public policy that's decided by elected officials. And so you're not—we're not going to get different decisions if we don't change decision-makers. It, to me, is a lot easier to change the decision-maker than to try to convince the existing decision-makers.
[00:47:14] Adam Davis: Oregon's a blue state. People seem to pay more attention. The media pays more attention. There's a lot more money thrown into the national stuff. Is there an argument for in Oregon, at least, not paying attention to the national and really just focusing almost exclusively on the local, or is that missing something big?
[00:47:33] Jesse Beason: I would say in Oregon there's plenty of attention on the national. A lot of money leaves the state to support national races. I think, if anything, when we say we are a blue state, we don't actually pick apart what that means. So if you measure it by who's in the legislature and in statewide office, I see why people refer to us as a blue state. But I think if you ask Black ninth-grader at Newberg High School, he does not feel like right now that he is in a blue state. I think if you ask a Warm Springs Tribal Representative going to school in Jefferson County, I don't think they feel like it is a blue state. I think if you ask undocumented farm workers who are working in 115-degree weather in wildfire smoke, I don't think it feels like a blue state. And so to me, I think we have to be not red and blue, but about a set of values that we want to see reflected in our public policies.
Ultimately, I think the majority of Americans do want to believe that we live in a kind and decent country, but I don't think we realize that—to me, our governments are the extension of the values we want to have as a country. Voting is part of expressing those values. And when we don't treat each other well through our public policies and our public programs, we're really saying we're—we betray our values.
So I think you ought to vote at every level. Right? And I think that folks have an opportunity to spend a little more time than they currently do getting to understand the various levels of government that are at work in their daily lives, trying to understand how they could better reflect the society they want to see.
[00:49:31] Adam Davis: Throughout this conversation. I've been thinking a little bit about my brother, who's younger than me and like me is a White guy, went to college that our parents paid for, so we didn't carry debt out of college. And through his twenties and thirties, he didn't think it made sense to vote. He didn't see that there was anything that his vote would do. If you ran into that guy, would you have anything to say to him?
[00:50:02] Jesse Beason: Voting has never been about an individual act, right? Democracy is about the summation of people. The society that we are and create is about the summation of its people. So it's not about your brother voting or not voting, it's about your brother feeling that there is a responsibility and a right to express his opinion through the ballot box and many other avenues that one has for participating in democracy.
[00:50:33] Barbara Jordan: We are a people in a quandary about the present. We are a people in search of our future. We are a people in search of a national community. We are a people trying not only to solve the problems of the present: unemployment, inflation. But we are attempting on a larger scale to fulfill the promise of America. We are attempting to fulfill our national purpose, to create and sustain a society in which all of us are equal.
[00:51:16] Adam Davis: That was Barbara Jordan at the Democratic National Convention in 1976. you can listen to all three conversations and Barbara Jordan's speech in full through the link in our show notes and on our website, oregonhumanities.org.
The Detour is made possible by Oregon Humanities' partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities. You can support this show by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts.
I'm Adam Davis. Our producer is Keiren Bond. Our editor and engineer is Dave Friedlander. Additional thanks to Ben Waterhouse, Alexandra Powell Bugden, and Karina Briski. Thank you for being with us, and see you next time.