2019 Clarence B. Jones Impact Award Winner: Florida Rights Restoration Coalition’s Desmond Meade at ComNet19
Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has been named the second winner of the Clarence B. Jones Impact Award. FRRC President and CEO Desmond Meade, one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of 2019. Meade accepted The Clarence B. Jones Impact Award and shared how Florida Rights Restoration Coalition led the fight to restore voting rights for disenfranchised former felons.
Melanie Newman: I just want to introduce myself. Good afternoon. My name is Melanie Newman. I am the Senior Vice President for Communications and Culture at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. I am pleased to be joined … thank you. Thank you. I’m pleased to be joined onstage with my fellow judges for the Clarence B. Jones Impact Award.
Jason Hunke, director of Executive and Employee Communications at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Kristen Mack, interim director of Communications at The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Courtney Stewart, vice president of Strategic Communications at the Missouri Foundation for Health; Shaheen Syal, director of Communications at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation; Tyronne Walker, vice president for Communications and Public Affairs at the Greater New Orleans Foundation; and Ken Weine, chief communications officer and vice president of External Affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Let’s give the judges a hand.
On behalf of the judging panel and for all of you who participated in the process of selecting the winner of the Clarence B. Jones Impact Award, Desmond Meade runs the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a grassroots membership organization run by citizens or formerly convicted persons who are dedicated to ending the disenfranchisement and discrimination against people with convictions and creating a more comprehensive and humane re-entry system that will enhance successful re-entry, reduce recidivism, and increase public safety. Their target audience for this campaign was Florida voters. Their goal was to restore voting rights to 1.5 million Florida residents without the right to vote because of a prior criminal record. In a 2018 referendum, 65% of Florida’s voters voted to restore voting rights to this population.
Desmond Meade is a formerly homeless, returning citizen who overcame many obstacles to eventually become president of the Florida Rights Restoration Commission, chair of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, and a graduate of Florida International University College of Law. As president of the FRRC, which is recognized for its work on felony disenfranchisement issues, Desmond has orchestrated the reorganization and incorporation of a coalition comprised of over 70 state and national organizations and individuals, which includes the NAACP, the ACLU, PICO, the Florida League of Women Voters, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, PICO Florida, the Florida Immigration Coalition, and many others.
Desmond has also received many other accolades celebrating his hard work and dedication to leadership and commitment to social justice. He led the FRRC to its historic victory in 2018 with the successful passage of Amendment 4, which I’ve talked about. It represents the single largest expansion of voting rights in the United States in half a century. Yes. It brought an end to 150 years of a Jim Crow–era law in Florida. Desmond is presently leading efforts to empower and civically re-engage local communities across the state and to reshape local, state, and national criminal justice policies. It is my distinct pleasure and honor to present Desmond Meade with the Clarence B. Jones Impact Award for 2019.
Desmond Meade: At some point in 2011, we said enough was enough. We got together, and we started going throughout the state of Florida and just talking to regular, everyday people, whether they were black or whether they were white, whether they were progressive, whether they were conservative. We talked to everyone that would stop long enough to listen.
When I was sentenced, the judge didn’t ask me if I was Democrat or Republican. As I traveled the state of Florida, I found that there were so many people that were impacted no matter what their political persuasion was and that that narrative that created an illusion that only Democrats cared about getting their rights restored or only Democrats were the ones who would lose their rights was a false narrative. I understood that there was a system that needed to be unrigged.
In August of 2005, I stood in front of railroad tracks in Dade County, Florida, on a hot and humid day. I was a broken man, and as I stood there, in spite of the oppressive heat and humidity, I was actually able to block that out of my mind because the only thing that was going through my head, at the time, was how much pain I was going to feel when I jumped [in front] of an oncoming train. That day that I stood there, I didn’t have any hope. I stood there, and I waited and I waited and I waited. And then I thought about how my mother didn’t … and my father … that they didn’t raise me to be in that position, but there I was that day. I was homeless. I was addicted to drugs. I was recently released from prison, and I was unemployed. The only thing I owned were the clothes on my back that day.
I stood there, and I waited and I waited and I waited. I thought about the pain that I had to endure, whether that train was going to … as it crushed my body, was I going to have to endure excruciating pain, or was I going to die instantly? Even the thought of the pain wasn’t enough for me to move, and I stood there, and I waited, but for some reason, that train didn’t come. I say but by the grace of God, and I crossed those tracks, and I walked two blocks further, and I checked myself into drug treatment.
After completing a four-month program, I moved into the homeless shelter, and while there, I wanted to do something, because at the end of the day, I did not want to go back to using drugs. I know, in the past, I was caught in this vicious cycle of using drugs and getting to a low point in my life and stopping. And then my life starts to improve and something would happen, and I would relapse, or I would pick up a drug or a drink. The next thing you know, I’m right back where I started. I knew that if I ended up at the railroad tracks again, this time, maybe I wouldn’t be so lucky. And so I needed to do something.
I figured, well, maybe if I can get an education, that will raise my self-esteem, and that’s what I did. I enrolled at Miami-Dade College, the local community college in South Florida. I enrolled in the paralegal program, did extremely well, graduated at the top of my class. I was encouraged to continue my education, so I did. I pursued a bachelor’s degree in public safety management with a concentration in criminal justice because I believed my experience of getting arrested so many times and appearing before judges would somehow translate into classroom success, and it did. I ended up graduating with highest honors, and eventually, I was accepted into FIU College of Law, and in May of 2014, I graduated with a law degree.
I used to tell folks that, in spite of the applause, my story did not have a happy ending because I lived in the state of Florida. We had an over-150-year-old policy that denied me the right to vote, that denied me the right to serve on a jury, that denied me the right to even practice law, because in Florida, I can’t even apply to the Florida Bar until my civil rights have been restored. So it was not a happy ending.
To add insult to injury, my wife ran for office in 2016, and in spite of the fact that people all over the country, even prisoners in Puerto Rico who were able to vote during the presidential primaries, I, because I lived in the state of Florida, could not even vote for my own wife. Something does have to change. But why am I telling this story? I’m telling this story because number one … to really convey to everyone that, at the end of the day, nothing is impossible. Nothing is impossible when you have a higher power on your side and you are committed. You are committed to serving your community.
Now before I go any further, I need to make sure I really explain what that word commitment means because sometimes, we confuse commitment with contribution. And so the best way to understand the difference is to think about a ham and cheese omelet, because we know that in the ham and cheese omelet, there are eggs. There’s ham. There’s cheese. And maybe if you were poor like me growing up, maybe a little milk to stretch the eggs. We know that the cheese and the milk come from the cow. We know that the egg comes from the chicken, and we know that the ham comes from the pig.
Well, the cow made a contribution to the ham and cheese omelet. The chicken made a contribution to the ham and cheese omelet. The pig, he made a commitment to the ham and cheese omelet. That’s part of why I feel so honored to even receive this award and be in the presence of the person who this award was named after because you’re talking about a man that didn’t make a contribution to our country, but made a commitment.
The other part of this story really speaks to how we were able to accomplish this amazing feat, because when you think about it, we were in the state of Florida, which is basically three states. We were talking about a controversial topic such as voting, and we were talking about a controversial set of people, which folks call felons. And we were talking about this stuff in the political climate that spoke only of division and hate and fear, but yet, we were able to bring these things together, these elements that was like trying to mix oil and water, but we were able to bring formerly convicted individuals voting in the state of Florida at a time like we were in, that we are still in, and not only did we win, but we won in fashion.
What does that mean? Over 5.1 million … let me say that again. Over 5.1 million Floridians voted “Yes” on Amendment 4. What that number represented was a million more people voted for our amendment than any candidate that was on the ballot. What that means is that a million more people, a million people that voted for Amendment 4, also voted for our current governor, which showed a broad cross-section of support.
Because we have to celebrate that even more. Even more, because we’re at a time where our country is so divided that we’ve drawn hard lines in the sand, and we have forgotten what it’s like to connect with the humanity of another human being. We have put labels on ourselves, and we have limited who we can talk to or who can talk to us. That is what Amendment 4 broke down. We were able to transcend the partisan bickering. We were able to transcend the racial insecurities, the anxieties, the implicit racial bias and connect with other human beings along the lines of humanity.
You see, when I’m driving down the expressway, you’re driving down the expressway, and you come across an accident, and there’s someone on the ground, and you decide to stop your car. You get out of your car, and you run up to that individual. The first question you ask is not going to be, “Did you vote for Donald Trump?” It’s not. It’s not going to be how much money you make or what is your identity or do you have papers or are you the right type of immigrant or whatever. It’s none of that. The first question is, “Are you OK?” and “How can I help?”
So when you looked at those numbers and Amendment 4, what you see was that we were able to slice through the hate, the fear, the division, and bring human beings, bring people together. Together. And those 5.1 million votes … they weren’t based on hate. They weren’t based on fear. Those were votes that were based on love, forgiveness, and redemption. And for a moment, this country, the world, the state of Florida actually got to see love winning the day.
You talk about this great accomplishment and still know the words of Dr. King, knowing that hate can’t drive hate out. Fear can’t drive fear out. Hate or fear can’t drive darkness out. The only thing that can defeat it is love. Love. And that stood at the base of our communications strategy—bringing a human element to such a politically and racially charged topic and shrouding that human element with love. That allowed us to go in any part of the state of Florida.
When we did our testing and our polling and our research, focus groups, it didn’t matter. When we did our media scans and all of that other technical stuff that you all know about, this is what we discovered—that we polled the supermajority in every major media market in the state of Florida, and that is unheard of because we know what polls well in North Florida is definitely not polling well in South Florida. And God knows how it’s going to end up in Central Florida because that goes back and forth every cycle. But we polled well in every cycle, continuously from day one.
You know, when we talk about that the people who we thought were going to be opposed to this … we looked around, and they ended up endorsing this. Could you imagine? That’s crazy. I could never forget the story of right before the election, about a month and a half before, we did one final focus group, and we brought in white, conservative folks in the room, and our com team put together a couple of advertisements, one saying that if you vote “Yes” on Amendment 4, MS13 is going to invade Florida and kill all the women and children.
The other one said, “Hey, if you vote ‘Yes’ on Amendment 4, it will hurt President Trump and give those doggone liberal guys control of our state.” Because if you remember, at that time, MS13 was a hot topic. A very hot topic. I was a little nervous about that video because it was very graphic, and it was very … I can’t think of the word. It was a very hate-filled video. After we showed those videos, we polled that group, and we still polled at over 70%.
I don’t know if you all really understand what that means. I really don’t, because I’m still trying to figure it out myself. But this is what I can tell you. For so many years, there’s been struggle about how do we get people to stop voting against their own self-interests? Like how do we communicate so maybe that poor, white individual that lives in the Appalachia mountains … that the same welfare that they’re depending on, they should not be voting against? How do we get people who will tell you that they hate Obamacare but just love that Affordable Care Act? How do we get them to not vote against their own self-interests? We’ve been struggling with that for quite some time.
So what that focus group said is that somewhere in that mix, in that formula, we have discovered how to get people to not vote against their own self-interest in spite of the fact that it might be politically inconvenient, in spite of their racial biases, in spite of their political preferences … that they would vote for what’s right. And that’s all we ever wanted people to do. So in spite of the fact that we were able to play to people’s primal responses, in spite of the fact that we were able to play to people’s prejudices, they were able to sift through that, their own internal biases, and land in a spot to where they said “Yes” on Amendment 4.
That was a great feat, and you know what got them there? Love. Love. That when they see Amendment 4, in spite of what a politician might have told them, in spite of what an opposition group might tell them … when they seen Amendment 4, what they seen was themselves as someone who they cared about, whether it was a brother, a son, a daughter, granddaughter, maybe somebody who’s caught up in the meth epidemic, or maybe somebody was caught up with some DUIs, whatever … but they seen their own. They didn’t see me. They didn’t see me.
That’s why I told my story at the beginning. Because in spite of the fact that I was right here in front of you as a large, African American man, when I told my story, it connected with you some kind of way—the way you are not seeing me anymore. You may have been seeing a family member or a friend. You may have been seeing a loved one. You may have been seeing yourself, and that’s what you connected with. Not the black man but the story. And that story took you places. If you notice, only 1% of it was political. The other 99% was about humanity. It was about values. That’s what drove us.
That’s what drove the strategy, that knowing in spite of where you stand, whether you think you’re on the left or you’re at the right … sometimes you’re even scared to say it because we’re in a world right now where if you say the wrong thing, you’re demonized and ostracized, so some of maybe what you’re saying is just to appease the group that we feel we need to be a part of … that in spite of all that, we can cut through those fears and those anxieties and not let that drive our messaging, because if that drive our messaging, it creates more of what we don’t like.
We talk about how divided this country is today, how we’ve just lost that touch. Well, I can tell you, if we really want it back, we should be committed to doing so along the lines of values that we hold dear to ourselves that would not be influenced by our political teachings or leanings, would not be influenced by our biases, but rather influenced by our heart. The message I leave you that I think would help guide us in that direction, in fact, is love.
But let me put a little twist to that, because sometimes, we do bastardize words, and we abuse it, and we give it different meanings, and it loses its natural or its original state. So let me break down that word “love” to you real quick. It’s wanting for your neighbor what you would want for yourself. That’s it. How would you like to be treated? How would you like to be respected? How would you like to be dignified? That’s what we want for our neighbors. Whether they’re here down your street, in your hometown, in your state, in this country, in the world, it’s all the same—that the way we would want others to treat us is what should guide how we treat others.
I am so honored. I am so, so honored to be in your presence today and receive this award and triply honored because of the name that’s attached to it. So I humbly accept this, and I humbly thank you all. The selection committee, I’m glad that Mr. Jones said he didn’t influence you all, so that was a clean vote there. I am so appreciative of you making that decision. I said I was going to end, but I want to end with this, and then I want to give some time for some questions.
You know, one of the, I guess, recognitions I received was … I don’t know … earlier this year, I was named to the Time 100 Most Influential People in the world. I remember having the conversation with some people from Time, and I was like, “Why do you have The Rock on the cover? You need to put me on the cover.” You know? But this is why I told them that. I think I want to end with this one. I promise I will end with this and then open up for questions.
The reason why was because I needed people to see that we all can be a Time 100 most influential person in the world—that if a person that was a crackhead just a few years ago, that was waiting on a train to come to end his life, with no hope in sight, no light at the end of the tunnel … if a person like that, in a matter of years, can become one of the 100 … and there are billions of people in this world. There are over a hundred countries in this world … but can become one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world, then that tells me that anybody here could be great. Each and every one of you could be great—that no matter what your station in life is, no matter what you make, no matter what the color of your skin, no matter the status, no matter your sexual identity, no matter any of that … that each and every one of you in this audience today have the opportunity to be a Time 100 because you have the opportunity to serve. Serve. Serve. Thank you all.
I think we have a few minutes for a couple of questions. I know there are some folks with some mics. If you have a question, I typically tell folks that no question is too tough. Ask away, and I will do my best to answer it.
Megan: Megan. My question is, you had said that this was a cycle for you—you know, drugs and hitting rock bottom, then rising up and going down again. What made the difference, at that one point, that you were able to get out of the cycle and move toward a more positive direction?
Great question. Great question. I’m going to try to make this answer as short as I possibly can, but it’s not a short answer. The story that I sometimes tell is, immediately after I crossed the tracks, I actually turned and looked back at the tracks, and I asked myself a very important question. That question was, Desmond, if you were to have died, how many people would come to your funeral? The immediate answer was zero. You know, I’m a drug addict, on the streets, homeless. I’m not hanging around family or friends. I didn’t have any identification. The train would have killed me. I would have been buried in a pauper’s grave somewhere in South Florida, and I didn’t like that. That felt empty.
So I changed the fact pattern, and I said, OK, Desmond, you’re killed by the train, and your picture’s on the front page of the Miami Herald, top of the fold, right? “Desmond killed by train.” How many people would come to your funeral? I thought long and hard and only came up with four people. Four people, and out of the four, maybe two would have shed a tear. That thought hit me in the gut like a Mike Tyson blow. I started to question myself, and I was like, Wait a minute. Desmond, you mean to tell me after all these years of living on this earth and having different relationships and friendships and living in different parts of the country and being in the military and traveling the world, only four people would care if you died? Has your life been that insignificant?
That bothered me, and I took that into drug treatment. And it so happened, in 2005, something happened around that time. Rosa Parks passed away. I remember I was sitting in the treatment facility, and I was watching as her body laid in state in the rotunda of the Capitol, and I was seeing people file by her body paying their last respects, and some of the folks had tears in their eyes. Something hit me, and I don’t know what happened, but I jumped up out of my seat, and I started pointing at the TV, and I was like, “That’s it. That’s it.” My mind started racing, and I was screaming at the TV like, “That’s what I want.”
I started planning my own funeral. My mind is scrambling. I’m like, OK, where am I going to have it? I landed at Joe Robbie Stadium, where the Dolphins play, right? So I’m going to have it in the stadium. There’s going to be standing-room only. People are going to be even on the field, not a dry eye in the house. I’m planning this.
I tell you I got the venue down pat, but then I asked myself, what type of person could command that type of audience at their funeral? I came up with two types. I said, OK, I would have to be an athlete or a movie star. Now, I played a little football, but my knees were bad, even though the Dolphins could have probably still used me. They could probably still use me now. They’re not looking too good this year. But I was like, OK. I ruled that out quickly.
Then I’m going to tell you guys. I’m going to make a confession. My wife tells me I’m a handsome guy, right? I tend to believe her, but see, let me tell you. When I thought about movie stars, the first thing that pops in my head is Denzel Washington. I was like, well, I know I’m not a bad-looking guy, but I don’t think I’m Denzel Washington–type of handsome.
Now, I tell you, thank God I didn’t think of Forest Whitaker at the time, because I know I’d have him beat, right? I got him beat hands down, and I probably can beat Wesley Snipes, too, as long as I don’t take off my shirt because he got a good six-pack going for him. But at the time, all I thought about was Denzel, and I was like, man, I can’t be Denzel Washington–type of handsome, so I got depressed again, but only briefly, because my mind went back to Rosa Parks, that she did something that we felt the impact of even up to the day. And so I immediately thought that: Wait a minute, Desmond. Maybe if you could take that pain and that suffering and that low self-esteem and that anguish and all those things that drove you to the railroad tracks, if you can take it and package it in such a way to where you can use it to help other people so they don’t have to go to the railroad tracks, maybe you might be going somewhere.
You know that old Pert commercial? They tell two friends and so on and so on and so on. I knew that Joe Robbie held a lot of people, so I had to get to work. What happened was that while I was still in treatment, a young man after the session told me that it was something that I told him that caused him to experience a paradigm shift, that caused him to start thinking about life more differently. When he told me that, something erupted inside me that I didn’t even knew existed. Today, I can tell you that it was a joy that erupted in me, right? That I was searching for all of my life and didn’t even know I was searching for it.
What happened, what I experienced at that time was coming to the realization of what my purpose was in life, to understand that when I look at nature and all of the things that God created—that they took a little, and they gave a little—that my purpose in life was to give back, was to serve. I understood that no matter where I was in life, no matter what position I had or title I had or how much money I had, that there was always going to be someone that was worse off than me, and so I always had something to offer, something to give back.
That was that moment that took me on this journey because I realized that I didn’t need the big funeral, as long as I could impact one life, that all that pain and that suffering, all of those things that led me to the railroad tracks, all of those things that caused me to walk around as a homeless person for over nine years with my head down, with shame, all of those things became worthwhile because it impacted one life. Man, with this 1.4 million now, you could tell, I’m getting icing on the cake too. So I hope that answers your question.
Elise: Desmond, I’m Elise. Thank you so much. You’re such a blessing, and sharing your passion with us is awesome. My question is, in this beloved state of Florida, if you had a magic wand, and you could make one thing happen, what would it be?
Hmm. That is great. That’s a great question. If I could make one thing happen with the touch of a magic wand, it would be to give folks courage to look within themselves for the answers. I do believe that even as a movement, we get so caught up in what other folks are doing or the opposition is doing that we don’t even realize that our biggest oppositions are ourselves. In Amendment 4, I can tell you that 95% of the opposition that we experienced did not come from conservatives, did not come from Republicans, did not come from dark, shadow groups. Ninety-five percent of the heartache and the stress and the pushback came from people who were supposed to be allies.
I mean, I could get into it, but that is what I would … if I could just change one thing, it’s that for us to really understand that the hardest thing about changing is self-reflection—to be able to be honest with ourselves and understand that life is 10% what people do to you and 90% of how we react. So we can change so much in this country, we could change so much in this state, if we first start with looking at ourselves, because a lot of times, especially as a person of color, I can tell you that the oppression that we seek to fight back against is the same oppression that we actually perpetuate on each other.
Thank you. If there are no more questions, I can leave now and enjoy my award. OK, there’s one.
Jennifer: Thank you for sharing your story. I’m Jennifer. My question is a very pragmatic one. How did you get started? Because there was a transition, a process between you deciding that you wanted to help and stop planning your funeral to organizing this great campaign that helped a lot of people.
That’s a great question, and there’s a lot of communicators in this room, a lot of people who oversee communicating departments and different agencies and foundations, whatever. That’s an amazing question, because what it speaks to is how do we connect to the people that are closest to the pain and allow them the space, right, to be engaged in developing the strategies that are needed to liberate them. Because see, I’m going to tell you something. Well, I’m not even going to go there. What I can say is this … is that the person who is experiencing the pain is more invested in ending it and ending it as soon as possible. You with me on that?
So there was a time, in 2011, when the previous governor, Rick Scott, when he came into the office, and the first thing he did was undo policies of the previous governor, who was Charlie Crist, during whose four years, over 155,000 people were able to get their civil rights restored. Rick Scott comes in, and in the first meeting, he undoes it, and in eight years, less than 5,000 people were able to get their rights restored. But when he undid those policies, and when he made it harder, everybody else took their lunch pail and went home, and they could do that.
The orgs can do that. The other people could do that because they could wake up the next morning and vote, but I couldn’t. My family’s still suffering because of collateral consequences associated with a felony conviction, so I didn’t have an option to go home. I had to stay there. And I figured if I was going to stay there, I was going to fight. So yes, there was a time when there was no money … that I ran the campaign out of the trunk of my car or in the living room of my mother-in-law’s house. I would put 50,000+ miles on my car each year because there was no help.
There was some volunteers that stood up and said, “In spite of the fact that my organization that I’m affiliated with don’t want to waste time with this because there’s no money and there is no pathway to success and all that stuff, I’m going to come because I have a loved one who’s impacted.” Or “I’m going to come because at the end of the day, I remember what they talked about. Was there any polling or research done during the Civil Rights movement? What guided the decision to fight, to stand up?” It wasn’t about no research. It wasn’t about polling. It was about the people experiencing the pain said, “Enough,” that this was the right thing to do, that we’re standing on righteousness. We’re standing on truth.
And so there was no bitterness or even anger at … well, at the beginning it was … at people that ran away. But now, today, I thank them because they allowed me … by doing that, they allowed the people that were closest to the pain to make sure that they were firmly entrenched so when they did come back around, they understood that there was only one shot caller, that there was only one leadership in this movement, and it was the voice of the people that had nothing to lose but everything to gain.
When we as communicators are able to connect with people that are closest to the pain, there is a level of authenticity that you cannot duplicate any other way. That level of authenticity has the ability to slice through the fog and slice through the opposition and land exactly where it needs to land, and that’s right here[points to heart]. That’s right here. We’ve even seen that in marriage equality fights, right? Landing right here, because when you touch a person here, you can overcome anything. I hope I answered your question. OK.
Sylvia: I have the mic. You have been so amazing. I’m not going to ask you about strategy and all of that. I’m Sylvia from Chicago, and I thank you. I know I do it on behalf of all of us. You make me think of one statement that guides me. It was a mystic, Kahlil Gibran, who said, “Work is love made visible,” and that’s exactly what you are, so thank you so much.
Thank you. Thank you so much. I think they let you keep the mic on that one, didn’t they? Hey, as my kids would say, “That was deep.” That was very deep, and I appreciate you, sister. I really do. I do believe that though. I really do. At the end of the day, I used to tell folks that if love is not the guiding force behind what you’re doing, then you may need to rethink what you’re doing.
Edith: Desmond, hi. My name is Edith. I wanted to know, did your wife win her election?
Well, the most important thing that she won was my heart, I tell you. She won that the moment I saw her. But no, she did not win, but I’m telling you, she got in the race late. She ran against an incumbent and was still able to get around 40% of the vote, you know? We have this internal dispute. Maybe you guys can appreciate it because her slogan was, Run With Sheena, right? You guys tell me if I’m wrong or right. I told her that the best slogan that she could get was, We Need Meade. Right? You want to better schools? We need Meade. You want safer communities?
Audience: We need Meade.
Right. You want livable wages?
Audience: We need Meade.
That’s right. I need, you need, we need Meade. So maybe you all can send her an email that says, “Next time, listen to your husband.” Did I answer your question? OK.
Trabian Shorters: OK, brother Meade, what can this room of very influential folk do to help you in the fight against the interposition and nullification that’s taking place at the governor’s level by response to your success?
Those are the words from I Have a Dream, right? Wasn’t it interposition and nullification? That was the governor of Alabama, right? Yeah. So the first thing is, is not necessarily promote that narrative of opposition or obstruction, all right, because it’s not as much obstruction as the media is making it out to be. That’s number one. But I think what’s most important and what our slogan was, right, when after the governor signed the bill, it was very simple: Where others see obstacles, we see opportunities. I think that in any situation that we find ourselves in, we can either feed on the negative, and all that does is just expound or exacerbate the fears and uncertainties that already exist in our communities, or we can find a positive spin in this and use it as a way to galvanize folks, right, to be keenly focused on some action.
I’m going to tell you why. Florida as a state, right? We passed Amendment 4. Over 1.4 million people were able to get their rights restored, voting rights, and then we know this thing with fines and fees. But this is what we also know. We know that out of the 1.4 million, 840,000 people, 840,000 people are not even impacted by fines and fees. Now, why is that important? Well, that’s important because you’re talking about 840,000 potential new voters in a state where the gubernatorial race was decided by how much?
30,000 votes. The congressional race was decided by how much? 16,000. The presidential races are typically decided by 100,000 or less. So we have 840,000 people who can register that are not impacted by fines and fees. I say we covered the gap already.
You with me. That’s number one. Number two is, well, let’s talk about that 560 [thousand] that do have fines and fees. What we do know is that legislation actually now allows the courts to modify their sentence to remove that barrier so they can register to vote. We know that. So what we need to do is find these 560,000 people, and let’s get them through the court systems. If not, we start a crowdsource-funding apparatus to help those pay off their fines and fees. So we have the ability to actually get at least, at least 96% of the 1.4 million people registered to vote. Of course, that’s a lot of people to register in a year’s time, but we have that opportunity.
And so, my thinking is, do I get people to be focusing on the governor or Republicans or whatever there is out there, or do I realize that we have almost a year before we’re facing the most critical presidential election that I’ve seen in my lifetime and probably in yours and that we need to get people registered, engaged, and turned out. So my message is not about “woe is me.” My message is about, “We are presented with one of the greatest organizing opportunities in the state of Florida that can not only transform Florida but this country and the world.” I have never, in my lifetime, seen anyone in the White House that did not win the state of Florida.
I’ve never seen it. Not in my lifetime, so I know that we have an opportunity to impact who gets in that White House, to impact people’s lives, not only in the United States, but in every other country on this planet. My job is to get about that business and not talk about “woe is me.”
I hope I didn’t sound too preachy, but when you talked, you reminded me of a Baptist preacher, so I kind of caught that vibe there. I think I have time for half a question, and then I have to go. Any more questions? There is one over there. Oh, one over there. OK.
Dana Bakich: Hello. My name is Dana Bakich, and I currently live in Los Angeles, but I’m from Sarasota, Florida.
I kept up my absentee ballot for as long as humanly possible because I was in New York, first, and then California, and so obviously, it’s very important to be a voter in Florida. My question is, when you were going throughout the state, did you have … because it’s so diverse within the state, right? How did you or did you change your messaging as you went through the state, or was it all …
Great question. Great question. Same messaging. Same messaging. When I started, the first petition that came off the press, I went straight to a conservative county. It was during the election of 2014, and I went to people that wore Rick Scott T-shirts. That’s where I started having people sign petitions. As a matter of fact, there’s two stages to a ballot initiative. The first stage is you have to collect enough petitions to qualify to have the Florida Supreme Court review the language. Once they approve it, then the second stage is actually collecting enough to actually get it on the ballot.
So that section, that stage to qualify, where we had to collect a certain amount of petitions in at least seven congressional districts, the first two congressional districts … actually the first congressional district that we qualified was a conservative district. You all hear me on that?
It was a conservative district. The third was a conservative district, and the message didn’t change. I’m going to tell you, in all of the time that I was going out there, talking to people where they’re at, it was about, “Do you know somebody who ever made a mistake?” You know, that’s it. “Do you know someone who’s made a mistake?” That took the attention off of me and put it on someone that they cared about. And then once they said that, then we were able to talk.
Only two cases where that backfired on me. One, I was in a bar, a very conservative bar. It was a biker bar. I ran into a Latino clergy member. Like, what is he doing in here? But he was a pastor. Maybe he was ministering. I don’t know, but he as a pastor said no, he’s not for Amendment 4.
That was kind of weird, but the other one was I ran into this conservative guy at the Jacksonville Jaguars game, and I remember I started with my favorite line: “Do you know someone who’s ever made a mistake?” He said, “Yeah, my son.” I was like, in the back of my head, another one bites the dust. I got him. I said, “Well, wouldn’t you … when your son’s served his time, wouldn’t you want him to vote again?” The guy said, “Hell, no. He’s too stupid.” I shook his hand and thanked him for his time. Thank you all.