On Creating a Culture of Civic Engagement that is Grounded in Love: An Interview With Nse Ufot

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project (NGP).  NGP’s goal is to register all eligible, unregistered citizens of color in Georgia by the end of the decade. Since 2014, NGP has registered 300,000 Georgians to vote!  Ufot is a staunch advocate for voter rights and for ending all forms of voter suppression.  Watch her on All In With Chris Hayes.

Jocelyn: Tell us a little about yourself. 

Nse: I’m a professional troublemaker.

Jocelyn: Haha! I love it!

Nse: Yes, per Congressman John Lewis, I think it’s important to make good trouble.

I began my career as a labor lawyer.  I did a lot of work around wrongful termination and arbitration.  I’ve negotiated over 50 union contracts.

I moved into the political arm of AFSCME, the public employees’ union.  It’s interesting. Public employees can hire and fire their bosses.

Jocelyn: Say more.

Nse: Well, if public employees don’t like, for example, how the city council members are treating them, they can vote them out.  That has always stuck with me.

I wasn’t born in the U.S.  I was born in Nigeria.  My mom and I became U.S. citizens when I was in high school.  Thus, one of my jobs in high school was to learn about the constitution and how elections work.

My friends get annoyed with how patriotic I am.  But I loved learning about and becoming a U.S. citizen!

Jocelyn: That’s so interesting.  Per Howard Zinn, civic engagement and civil disobedience are patriotic activities.

Nse: Exactly!  I tell folks, we’re protesting and organizing precisely because we love America because we are patriotic.  We need to get that label back from conservatives.

We get attacked for holding government accountable and maintaining fair and credible elections in a democracy.  It’s absurd.

For example, in Georgia, we’re fighting back against voter purges and conflict of interest.  We have a candidate (Brian Kemp) at the top of the ticket in 2018 who is refusing to resign his position as Secretary of State even though the Secretary of State’s job is to manage elections and certify the vote.  How is it fair that he should be able to certify the vote for his own race?

Jocelyn: You raise a critical point, and this may be the crux of the issue for the millions of us who feel that the system is rigged.  Our systems are not fair.  And this unfairness extends to so many other areas of life. How is it fair that CEO’s are making exorbitant wages while their employees are struggling to survive on minimum wage?  How is it fair that Black women have a median wealth of $200 when we are working so hard? 

Nse: The U.S. is aggressively unfair.  And my mind won’t allow me to witness oppression and do nothing.

For me, it’s about leveraging the little resource I have to fight oppression.  Also, as I’ve matured, I’ve realized that not every fight is my fight.

Jocelyn: That’s wise.

Nse: I choose to fight for democracy, Black women and immigrants, and to improve southern politics.  Those are my fights.  And as we say in the church, I use my time, talent, and treasure to engage in these battles.

Jocelyn: How did you get to the New Georgia Project?

Nse: As mentioned, I was living in Canada and working at the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), the largest faculty union in Canada.  On a trip home to Georgia for the holidays, a friend said, “I want you to meet Stacey Abrams. I want you two to talk.”

At first, I was reluctant to accept the offer.  My mom is a three-time cancer survivor and I’m focused on spending as much time with her when I am home.  But I finally accepted.

At brunch, Stacey Abrams and I talked about the fact that the top of the ticket in 2010 and 2012 won with a margin of 200K votes.  Contrast this with the fact that there are 800K eligible but unregistered voters in Georgia.  That’s four times what’s required to swing any election. 

This was in 2014.  Our brain trust included Stacey, who was a tax attorney, Lauren Groh-Wargo, her campaign manager for governor and our mutual friend, and me!  We talked and talked and sketched out a ten-year plan to get all those voters registered by 2014: The New Georgia Project was born!

Jocelyn: Wow!  So, what exactly does The New Georgia Project do?

Nse: The New Georgia Project’s goal is to get wins and defend wins over several election cycles. We realize civically engaged communities are created.  Campaigns and organizations that serve voters can and must energize, organize, and move people to act.

The GOP knows this.  Their marketing is designed to move people to act.  We asked ourselves, “Why can’t we do that with a policy and political agenda that will move all Georgians forward?”

The difference between NGP vs. other voter registration organizations is that we start from a place of deep and profound love vs. cold political calculations.  We love ourselves, our families, and our communities and we fundamentally believe that Georgians can move from surviving to thriving.  That there’s enough for all of us. From that grounding in values, we ask ourselves, “What does just and fair public policy look like in health care, education, etc.?”

In addition, we’re very targeted and strategic in our outreach.  We use census data and demographic projections from the Center for American Progress and Brookings to inform our work.  Before we knock on any doors, we conduct polling and do focus groups to design messaging to animate people and move them to act.

Finally, unlike other firms, we have cultural competency with our communities.

Jocelyn: Can you say more about that?

Nse: Other very well-known firms use social pressure as a technique to motivate people to register to vote.  They send postcards to voters and tell them how their voting record compares to that of their neighbors.

Me: Yuck!

Nse: Exactly.  It’s a widely used technique but something we would never do at NGP.  We’re not into shaming members of our community.

Instead, we’re innovating. We’re finding the right messaging and messengers for our community.  And, we’re building new GOTV (Get Out The Vote) techniques and strategies to get more Georgians to register and come out to vote!

Jocelyn: What else do you want Black women to know about the New Georgia Project?

Nse: We’ve registered 300,000 people of color to vote in all of Georgia’s 159 counties.  We’ve built onramps for people to get civically engaged. And that’s because our work is rooted in our love for our people. We’re building a culture of civic engagement where Black people and young people vote in every election.  We’re building a lasting and enduring movement.

Jocelyn: Nse, who are your Sheroes?  Who do you get support and inspiration from?

Nse: I’m part of a cohort of women of color that includes Andrea Cristina Mercado, executive director of The New Florida Majority and Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority. They are great allies.

But I’ll admit that this work has been lonely.  And being in Atlanta has posed some challenges.

We are doing civil and voting rights work in the shadow of giants like Congressman Lewis.  There are quite a few veterans who are alive and well and opinionated!  They say, “In my day, we didn’t take over the highway or we always wore pants and dresses to protests.”

Jocelyn: That sounds hard.

Nse: It is.  We’re under attack in the court of public opinion.  That said, doing this work in the south is also an important reminder that we’ve been here before.  It’s never been easy. The struggle for justice is ongoing.

Jocelyn: When we met at She the People.  I told you that I worry about all of our BlackHer Sheroes and especially Black women like you who are doing this hard work in such a high-stakes and often toxic environment.  I worry about your health.  How do you stay resilient and refreshed?

Nse: I’m still the Nap Queen!

Jocelyn: Haha!

Nse: And recently I’ve enlisted some help in preparing meals.  All the late nights of eating pizza and Chinese food on the run are unhealthy.  I hired a chef to prepare healthy and delicious meals for me.  And the cool thing is that I’m saving money!

Jocelyn: That’s awesome!  Let me ask you the Miracle Question. You go to sleep tonight, and you wake up and it’s October 2019.  The miracle has occurred for Black women.  What happened?

Nse: We have experienced a Blue, Pink and Black Wave!  We ran and won our races.  And in addition to the new electeds, Black women campaign operatives, including strategists, policy directors, field organizers, and volunteers are also being recognized.  There is a balance between our actual labor and our recognition and our compensation!

You know, it was a little corny when Tom Perez, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee went on his “Thank Black Women” tour.  On the other hand, it was necessary.  Black women in politics need to be recognized and celebrated for our contributions.  We are dope!





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