Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, an independent, Black-led organization that uses the power of year-round political engagement and elections to change our economic, justice, and political systems.
What is a Political Action Committee or PAC and what does BlackPAC do?
I define BlackPAC in contrast to how we understand Super PACs or Political Action Committee’s post-Citizens United. When I say, in rooms of Black people, that we are a Super PAC, people are excited and they’re also confused.
Most people think about PACs as shadowy entities that raise money and pour it into candidates and negative TV ads. That’s not who we are.
At BlackPAC, we understand the need to elect candidates who will carry, champion, and fight for the issues that we care about. But we’re primarily concerned with building a base of citizens who are engaged and will hold folks accountable for moving our agenda. At BlackPAC, we don’t center candidates, we center Black voters.
I hear you saying that while candidates and elected officials are important, the ordinary voter is the hero of your story.
That’s right. When we engage folks in communities, we try to connect them to our grassroots partners so that their work [of power-building] is carried forward long after election day.
Again, we aren’t raising money to put out negative ads. We are raising money to knock on doors, convene voters online and in-person, and have meaningful two-way conversations.
This is the way that BlackPAC aims to engage and mobilize our communities at scale.
Tell me a bit about your policy platform. I love that you talk about advancing democracy, justice, and opportunity for Black Americans.
We never start a program by knocking on someone’s door and saying, “Hi, I’d like you to vote for X candidate.” We do talk about elections but we focus on the role that the voter can play in influencing her/his own community. We talk to voters about the issues that they are thinking about and that are important to them and help them understand what’s at stake. What are the challenges and solutions they see in their communities and how do they want candidates to address those issues?
I love that you start your work with research. Can you say more about that?
Just because BlackPAC is Black-led, we don’t know everything about Black people. For us, door knocking is also part of our research process. We do national and state polls and we vet the results of our research through our partners before we engage with any community. As mentioned, we want to know what is going on locally.
In addition to informing our agenda and organizing strategy, our research is something that we share with candidates so that they know what they should be talking about. This includes letting candidates know when they are way off base and helping them to have the right conversations with Black voters.
I’d like to know more about you personally. How did you come to be a political strategist?
My background is in community organizing. I was a fairly political person and I knew that I wanted to work in a legislative body. Right after college, I worked for an elected official in South Los Angeles, Mark Ridley-Thomas. At the time, he was a progressive city council member.
This was when the Rodney King verdicts came out. Our district was at the center of the uprising. I remember sitting in a church with Mayor Tom Bradley. News anchor Ted Koppel was in the pastor’s study. I went outside for a bit and something was not right. I looked down the street and there was fire everywhere. I thought to myself, “this is going to be very bad.”
When the uprising ended, whole blocks were burned down. Our district office was destroyed.
The police brutality we witnessed against Rodney King was the precipitating event but I knew then that people’s frustration grew out of poverty and the long unmet needs of the community.
Part of the rebuilding process involved hosting neighborhood councils to hear more from community members. What did they want and need to be built? We were Council staff but we were essentially acting as community organizers.
After this experience, I partnered with Anthony Thigpenn, a long-time community strategist, to start AGENDA, a grassroots organization to help galvanize the energy and urgency that the community was expressing.
One thing that became clear to me, was that you have to build power in order to exercise it. So, that’s what we did. We walked people through a process to understand our current situation and hear their solutions for transforming our community. We helped folks see that they had a right to assert what they wanted for their own community.
For example, after the uprising, the federal government had a program called, Weed and Seed. The idea was to weed out the “bad” elements in communities using law enforcement tactics and then seed neighborhoods with new community services. This was their roadmap for economic growth.
As you can imagine, the community was deeply offended by the name of the program and the idea of discarding community members, especially young folks. We set out to develop a different (and better!) proposal that went to the Department of Justice and the City Council to create a youth empowerment program and we won!
I think you’re saying something very important – that power comes from inside, not outside, a community and democracy isn’t just about elections.
What I’m saying is that politics is not just about elections. When people say that they hate politics, what they are saying is that they hate elections and the confusion associated with them.
But politics is not just about elections. Politics is about asserting power and a vision for your city, state, and country.
Having an organizing background has been invaluable to me in my work in electoral politics. I don’t get caught up in the glamour of elections and I don’t suffer fools well. Instead, I try to stay focused on steady progress and the march toward living our values.
As you say, voters are the heroes in BlackPAC’s story of our democracy. It’s the people who must create and realize the vision for our country by pushing candidates and elected officials to enact our agenda.
BlackHer Shero and former Congresswoman Donna Edwards shared a similar sentiment with us. She said that legislating doesn’t stop when Congress is out. She urged folks to attend town halls and community meetings in districts.
That’s right. Congresswoman Karen Bass was a mentor of mine. When she became Speaker of the California Assembly, she would call people and say, “Hey, I may be in this position but YOU still need to show up.” We can’t abdicate our political power just because we elect our friends. It’s about people power.
How can BlackHer readers and subscribers get involved with BlackPAC?
They can donate to support our work. They can also look for local opportunities to engage. Finally, they can support Black Citizenship in Action, a new campaign we’re launching to help people understand the struggle to gain Black citizenship in this country, how it remains under attack, and what is possible when we embrace our full citizenship and put it into action.
The increased attacks on Black citizenship and voter suppression are real. The sitting president talks about eliminating the 14th amendment. This is outrageous. We’ll be holding workshops across the country to bring people into this work and mobilize for next year’s election and for the census.
Through Black Citizenship in Action, in addition to educating folks, we’re hoping to build a volunteer base like no other to address what is coming in 2020. In addition to the presidential election the next census will take place during the Democratic primary; we don’t want folks to be distracted. We’ll need all hands on deck to ensure that everyone is counted and that we remove the current president and those who are enabling the undermining of our democracy.
Who are your BlackHer Sheroes?
Fannie Lou Hamer – When BlackPAC was pressing to elect Doug Jones in Alabama, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. This work is part of her legacy. I kept thinking, we cannot let a person like Roy Moore win. We cannot let this happen on our watch.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault – I watched her every night on the PBS News Hour when I was a kid. She helped a little Black girl understand the political world around her. She made me want to be a journalist and tell our stories. It didn’t quite work out that way but I still see my work today as a part of that tradition.
Let me ask you the miracle question. You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow and it’s October 2020 and a miracle has occurred for Black women. What happened?
There are Black women poised to make political history up and down the ticket. Black women (and men!) are more than fully engaged in the election. Our issues remain at the center of candidates’ platforms. We have built the momentum to carry these candidates over the finish line.