Since 1984, the Brown & Black Forums of America—the oldest minority-focused presidential forum in the nation—has been hosting presidential candidate debates. This year, they decided to add a second event. On Tuesday, they hosted the first-ever Make It Count Voter Education Town Hall to educate and motivate people to vote.
“We’re so excited about this one because … of today’s climate, because of all the things that are going on,” said Wayne Ford, co-founder of Brown & Black Forums of America who is also a former Iowa State legislator, Prison Research and Innovation Initiative Advisory Board member, founder of Wayne Ford Equity Impact Institute, and Principal of Wayne Ford Consulting & Associates, just to name a few.
Ford co-founded the Brown & Black Forums of America with Mary Campos, an activist for Latino human rights, over 35 years ago.
Given the fact that Iowa finally restored voting rights to ex-offenders in August, Ford and Campos wanted to include a roundtable of ex-offenders in the Make It Count Voter Education Town Hall.
For Ford, the issue is personal.
Ford is from the inner city of Washington DC, grew up with felons, watched close friends head off to Lorton penitentiary, and was on his way there himself.
“I was very lucky. I grew up doing drugs, robbing buses, breaking into people’s houses,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind if I didn’t get a football scholarship, I would have been dead by now or killed somebody. There’s no doubt about it because I know me and I know what kind of environment I came from.”
When he graduated from Drake in 1974, he started working with nonprofits and ex-offenders. When he formed the nonprofit Urban Dreams in 1985, the program was for ex-offenders. When he was Representative Ford, his work included trying to restore voting rights for ex-offenders.
“To give them an opportunity to talk about their dreams,” said Ford, referring to the men on the roundtable discussion, “their aspirations, how they feel about being the first to vote. I just call that full circle.”
Moderating the roundtable was Dennis Henderson, Broadlawns TEACH and TECH Program Coordinator. After spending 25 years in prison, Henderson worked with Ford and Urban Dreams on other jobs before landing one at Broadlawns four years ago.
Like Ford, helping youth and ex-offenders is important to Henderson. He invited a handful of ex-offenders whom he considered successful to join the Make It Count Voter Education Town Hall.
Those included Jeffrey Wallace, a state inspector who’s worked with several juvenile detention centers and holds a PhD without dissertation; Christine Lockhart, a painting business owner and Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning Chair; Saleem Hamilton, graduate of Broadlawns TEACH and TECH program, certified CNA at Broadlawns, and peer counselor for United Way; and Johnny Johnson, truck driver, plus hauling business and property owner.
During the town hall, they discussed the importance of getting the right to vote and voting, the major criminal justice issues of importance to them, participating in the laws and policies created, issues that might affect felons in the future, and more.
“The most important thing is understanding that not having the right to vote creates a sense of disempowerment,” said Wallace. “Being able to vote allows you to feel like you have some type of say so in what’s going on in your community, at the local level, at the state level, and of course at the federal level. And it allows you to feel better about yourself and your circumstances so you can be more engaged and less likely to reoffend.”
Having the “say so” and being empowered to change things was an underlying theme in many of the responses.
“I believe that the restoration of not just our voting rights, but all our rights should be restored,” said Johnson. Those rights included the right to obtain housing and employment, instead of being denied after abiding by the requirement to disclose felon status on the application.
“As felons,” Johnson continued, “we should be able to have some type of input with the policy makers, why do you have to put this ‘I’m a convicted felon’ on a job application. In order for us to be real participants in society, then we need to have some type of say so in these decision makers.”
Wallace wants to effect change for young offenders. “For all of us, whatever choices we made, we know they started at a juvenile level so juvenile justice is very important for me and the way and how we sentence juveniles.”
“Iowa has been rated amongst the top five states for disproportionate incarceration for over the last two decades,” said Henderson. “So us finally getting the franchise back is very important to that statistic. Because like all of you guys have said, this is what’s going to allow us to change the people, make the policy that affect our lives. Not only our lives, but our children’s lives and the generations-to-come lives.
Co-moderators Dwana Bradley, Owner of Iowa Urban Media, and Jessica Trinidad Owner of Jessica’s Video Production and Teamstrong, Inc. asked Drake students their opinion on issues most important to them in the election, knowing how to vote, why it’s important to vote, and what would you say to the candidates as a young person in America.
Issues important to them included economic empowerment for the Black community and minority communities in general, community police relations, criminal justice/police reform, national security, foreign policy, pandemic’s effect on Asian communities and the resulting rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, climate change, and women’s right to choose
“I believe if I was in a room with these two men,” said Devon, referring to Trump and Biden, “I would probably tell them to not just listen to their campaign advisors or whoever is in their ear about these things, I would tell them to actually listen to people and not just certain groups of people but a diverse litany of different people because America’s not just one voice. We are a myriad of them and all of us have a valid contribution to what is this country.”
Ford and Campos also wanted to involve politicians and elected officials in the program. That’s why they decided to invite Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald, and Iowa Democratic Party Chair Mark Smith.
Voting deadlines, where to find Spanish language voting instructions, checking the status of your ballot request/receipt/counted, same day registration and voting, where to vote if your address has changed, and voting with an expired driver’s license were some of the topics discussed.
“The expired ID will be accepted,” said Pate, referring to driver’s license or id needed to prove identity. “I’ve asked the legislative executive council to extend that because we’re all facing that challenge [problems renewing due to COVID-19] so those will still be accepted.”
Additionally, he added, if your address has changed since you registered to vote, you can bring a bank statement or other mail to prove identity or a neighbor can attest your address. Pate recommended visiting https://sos.iowa.gov/ for answers to all general voting and ex-offender voting questions.
Both Ford and Campos were pleased with the event.
“I believe this country is in trouble right now and some people are just so—what should I say—they’re so desolate about it,” said Campos. “They feel so hopeless. They say, ‘we’re not going to win, we’re not going to have this, we’re not going to have that’ and I think it’s the time in the country where people need to be lifted up.”
Plans are underway for Brown & Black Forums of America to host another event on November 3. They’re thinking of focusing it on same-day voting for those who waited until the last minute
“It’s not too late, It’s not too late. Polls don’t close until 9:00. It’s not too late,” Ford said while pondering the theme. “It reminds me a great deal of ‘The British are coming, the British are coming,’ but to me, this is called ‘Democracy is coming, Democracy is coming!’”
To watch the Make It Count Voter Education Town Hall, visit the Brown & Black Forums of America Facebook page.
by Rachelle Chase
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