Netroots: Leadership of Black women seen as key to 2018 Midterms
Stacey Abrams | AP

NEW ORLEANS – “Black women are off the sidelines. We’re in the game.”

Those were the words of Waikinya J.S. Clanton, one of the Black women leaders headlining an opening panel at the largest annual conference for progressives, grassroots organizers, independent media makers, and activists. This year, Netroots Nation has organized well over 100 panels and training workshops to address topics affecting working people in the United States and around the globe.

The conference takes place in the midst of a tumultuous political climate, as the current White House administration continues on its racist, sexist, and anti-worker agenda. So, it should come as no surprise that attendees and organizers have the upcoming 2018 midterm elections on their minds.

These elections will surely determine the path of the nation. The panel, “Black Women Power: Investigations in the Communities that Propelled Our Biggest Electoral Victories in 2017,” asserted that the road forward is getting behind the leadership of Black women, and they showcased the history of past victories- where Black women led- to prove it.

The panel included; Waikinya J.S. Clanton, MBA, who serves as the director of African American and women’s outreach for the Democratic National Committee, Kiara Pesante Haughton who is the first ever director of communications for the Civil Rights Corps (CRC), DeJuana Thompson who is a partner at Think Rubix, LLC, and the creator of Woke Vote, and moderator Beth Lynk who is the associate director of federal communications for Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Bringing together their years of experience and expertise in politics the panelists laid out lessons of the 2017 election victories, messages and strategy needed to win future campaigns, and upcoming projects that were on the horizon.

“I’m excited for us to have this conversation [in order] to really dig into a critical, and I think generally acknowledged, but not invested in, constituency of the Democratic Party,” Lynk began. “The facts are that Black women vote, turn out, and mobilize their communities, but time and time again have not been invested in, or brought in, as that critical voting bloc, critical thought partner, and community organizers that they are. There’s a lot to do to rebuild the trust with that community [of Black women],” she said.

Victories in Alabama, Virginia, New Jersey, and more  

In 2017 Democrat Doug Jones was victorious in the special election for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat left open by the appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general. The race against Trump-backed Republican Roy Moore was an intense one in a state where Republican Sessions had held his seat for 20 years. Data and exit polls showed that the Jones victory would not have been possible were it not for Black voters. Jones defeated Moore with the help of nearly unanimous support from Black voters, as 98 percent of Black women, and 93 percent of Black men came out to vote for him.

Panelist DeJuana Thompson said that it was organizing by Black women that secured this victory for the Democrats.

“What I know is that the country has a long way to go on how we effectively organize communities of color. We are not there yet,” Thompson said. “In Alabama no one believed [we could win]. No one in Alabama thought we could get what was considered a so-called progressive candidate for Alabama. I said that we were going to use this opportunity [of the special election] to prove that if you invest in Black communities, in Black voters, particularly in Black women voters, we can do amazing things- even in short periods of time.”

“We knew that we could not necessarily organize around Doug Jones or against Roy Moore,” Thompson said, explaining that voters from 18 to their early twenties may not have that same knowledge of Jones’ progressive history, or feel exactly phased by Moore’s problematic behavior. “We had to tie our campaign to Black liberation, and the idea of turning around the vote as a strategic tool Black people could use to go to the winning candidate and say this is who voted for you, this is who you’re responsible to now,” she explained.

Lynk went into detail about the organizing that took place during the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election, and how the turnout of Black women voters secured Democratic nominee Ralph Northam’s victory. “Black women led with 91 percent voting support to Ralph Northam,” Lynk pointed out, highlighting the fact that it was Black women’s vote that was key for Northam’s win.

Detailing the work done in New Jersey in electing Democrat Phil Murphy as governor, Clanton noted the shift of Black women not only helping elect candidates, but pushing for Black women candidates as well. Citing the push for African-American Sheila Oliver as Murphy’s lieutenant governor, Clanton stated, “At the time of the elections [Oliver] and other dynamic Black women said you’re not just going to talk at us, you’re going to talk with us. They worked closely with the campaigns to move policy first. With the pressure they supplied they were able to say they wanted Sheila Oliver [as lieutenant governor] and he [Murphy] made it happen.

“When we talk about Black women’s organizing power, and electoral power, we also have to apply that to ourselves [Black women]. Don’t always go to the table and have someone tell you about your community,” Clanton said. This sentiment gels well with the influx of Black women candidates who are also seeing victories, as they campaign around causes and issues that affect their communites directly.

In 2017 a number of Black women took political offices. Those included Yvonne Spicer, Vi Lyles, Mary Parham-Copelan, and Andrea Jenkins, who is also the first openly transgender Black woman elected to office. Most recently Stacey Abrams, a declared supporter of the national resistance to Trump, defeated Stacey Evans in Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. Abrams will make history in November if she becomes the nation’s first Black female governor and Georgia’s first woman governor.

“Black women have been showing up to vote, but [now] we’re putting Black women at the front,” Clanton stated.

Debunking the white “swing” voter narrative 

Despite these recent examples of Black women organizing and voting power, the panel asserted that there is a lack of true investment in the voting bloc, and a constant erasure of credit to Black women for their efforts. They explained that this erasure and neglect is dangerous to the outcome of future elections.

“After Alabama, Virginia, and New Jersey there was a narrative that women won [as opposed to Black women],’’ Lynk said, explaining why that is a “problem”:

“68 percent of white women in Alabama voted for Roy Moore,” Kiara Pesante Haughton pointed out. “So women didn’t do anything in Alabama, Black women did something. If there’s a narrative out there that women overall are doing something then resources and donor money gets spread around to a number of women-identifying groups, and not specifically to the Black women doing the work,” Haughton explained.

“It’s also an erasure of power,” Thompson added. “It’s a way of silencing a group of people. Even when the narrative is a shared narrative, that’s still called privilege. So it’s privilege to think that we can share this space and not give credit to those that did the real work,” she said.

From left: Waikinya J.S. Clanton, Beth Lynk, Kiara Pesante Haughton, DeJuana Thompson | Chauncey K. Robinson/PW

“When you change the narrative you start to see that power shift, [and some] don’t want to see that power shift. When there’s a shift you see the rising of candidates like Stacey Abrams, and some don’t want that,” Clanton stated.

The panel was asked why, although Black women have won decisive electoral victories in 2017, there is still not as big a push to invest in Black women as there is to win over white voters who voted for Trump.

“Traditionally that has been the narrative,” Clanton said. “For so long we invested in voters who are not really trying to ride with us. We’re working on shifting the narrative, such as the narrative of rural being code for white voters. We’re investing in turning out rural Black voters [who are there]. We had only been concentrating on our swing states and not investing in all the other areas. That put a sour taste in the mouths of base voters.”

Thompson added: “When you talk about investing in persuading voters to turn over, the argument really, for people like me, is that you haven’t done enough for the people who are already on your side. The problem is there’s already historic under-resourced and under-funded strategies and coalitions in our communities. There seems to be a contrast in value when you do it that way. Black voters are your necessities.”

“A lot of the root of everything is racism, even within our progressive movements. We are combating racism,” Haughton added. “So we’re combatting [the narrative] that white voters must be the key [as opposed to valuing the power of Black votes]. The numbers don’t show that. No model, no political scientists in the country, has shown that to be true,” she said. “It’s once again part of the power narrative,” Clanton agreed.

Empowering programs for Black women

Although all of the panelists agreed that more work needed to be done, they highlighted programs and projects that aim to empower Black women in the electoral process.

Lynk noted that people can find out about Planned Parenthood voting campaigns by texting “WIN” to 22422. Thompson detailed how her firm, Woke Vote, is building a movement for equity and justice. They are working to end voter suppression, mass incarceration, and urban gun violence. “What do we do when they [in power] don’t bring Black women to the table? We create our own stuff. That is what we’re doing with Woke Vote. We’re working to educate and de-mystify the process of organizing. How can you participate in a process if you don’t know how it works,” she asked. Noting that it’s important for voters to get behind issues as opposed to individual candidates, Thompson went further: “People were giving up when Bernie Sanders lost, and then when [Hillary] Clinton lost. We need to attract people to a cause, not just a candidate.”

Clanton detailed how the Democratic National Committee has launched a new initiative called the Seat At the Table Tour, which will outreach to Black women in order to train and engage them in the electoral process. “What can we do? We gotta get on the ground,” Clanton asserted. “Alabama is not a one-time thing. We’re creating infrastructure,” she stated. The tour is in collaboration with the Democratic National Committee’s Women’s Caucus, Black Caucus, and the Congressional Black Caucus PAC. There are events being organized for the tour around Black Women Equal Pay Day on August 7.

Thompson summed up the need for Black women leadership: “Representation that looks like you is important. We have to understand the power of our vote.”


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.