In the months leading up to the November 3 election day, Miami resident Lakshmi Ruiz considered not voting. The 24-year-old lead organizer with the advocacy organization Dream Defenders is all about building community and empowering the disenfranchised, but she didn't think either presidential candidate's values aligned with hers.
But after hearing civil-rights activist Angela Davis speak during a recent political education seminar, Ruiz had a change of heart.
"She really snatched me up," Ruiz says. "She said we needed to have a stake in this election."
Ruiz says that thinking about the potential loss of women's bodily autonomy, the future of immigrants in the United States, law-enforcement abuses in minority communities, and the open racism fueling President Donald Trump's campaign persuaded her to vote.
"It's scary to imagine another four years of this administration," Ruiz says.
While voters aged 18 to 29 historically have among the lowest turnout rates, young people are breaking voting records this year. Ruiz says she thinks the COVID-19 pandemic and this summer's demonstrations for social justice have made the youth more politically engaged. And in Miami, community organizers are putting in work not just to inform voters about candidates and platforms, but also to encourage people to use their power in what sometimes feels like a hopelessly divided political landscape.
"This is the first presidential election we're throwing down for," says Nailah Summers, communications director for Dream Defenders. "We're doing very intentional get-out-the-vote efforts. We've sat the elections out before but realized what's at stake this year. We're doing lots of outreach to young people, especially young people of color, all over Florida."
Political mailers and attack ads on TV often go for the jugular, but local advocacy groups have created art to engage young voters of color and encourage thought about the state of our democracy and the meaning of community.
Amplifier, a nonprofit design lab with a mission of uplifting social movements, has been working with New Florida Majority and the Florida for All Coalition — which is made up of several progressive community organizations working to engage Black, Latino, young, and infrequent voters — on a banner art campaign. The design company is known for commissioning the "We the People'' posters displayed at protests against President Donald Trump's inauguration in 2017. The artist behind the posters, Shepard Fairey, also made President Barack Obama's iconic "Hope" illustration.
Amplifier commissioned three pieces from Los Angeles-based designer and illustrator Laci Jordan, whose work celebrates diversity and Black culture. Jordan's colorful, animated designs feature diverse faces and include the messages "Vote for our lives," "Vote out white supremacy," and "Protect your neighbor."
The art pieces are free for the public to download and use for election activism.
"All our campaigns are about increasing participating and increasing voter turnout," says Cleo Barnett, executive director of Amplifier. "Turning out to vote is the bare minimum of a healthy democracy. It's not the only way to contribute to society, and it won't answer all of the problems, but it is the first step. It's a starting point."
Barnett says one of the objectives of this art campaign was to appeal to communities whose votes have been historically suppressed.
"Throughout the founding of this country, Black and brown people have been systematically marginalized and erased from media and dialogues," Barnett says. "And you see that manifesting today with the extreme amounts of voter suppression happening within Black and brown communities all across the country. We're focusing on shifting the culture away from non-participation, especially in a country that tells you your voice doesn't matter and that you don't matter."
Dream Defenders and other grassroots organizations installed banners featuring Jordan's work on highway overpasses, college campuses, and high-traffic public places in Miami and other large Florida cities.
"We wanted to do an art piece around democracy," says Dream Defenders activist Jabari Mickles, the person behind the art campaign's messaging. "We wanted to think about how we could have a conversation around our current political moment. A lot of people have reduced our current political moment to Biden versus Trump, and it's bigger than that."
Mickles says the organizations wanted to reach younger voters who didn't particularly believe in the effectiveness of the electoral process. Through their outreach efforts, Mickles says they were stressing that the election is more than about voting for a president — it's also about voting for local leaders who are supposed to represent communities on day-to-day issues.
"It's about voting for our lives," he says. "This is about us. If you have mayors, council members, and school board members that are against your interests, you can't move society forward. People have a heightened political awareness now. They have to vote to make transformations. A vote doesn't change everything, but it's a tool we can use in order to make changes. The wheel of that machine is moving at a different pace."
The Dream Defenders' outreach efforts involve phone-banking hundreds of voters a day, creating and distributing voter guides for young people, and poll monitoring during early voting. Dream Defenders' political action committee has endorsed local candidates, but Ruiz says the group's work is about more than politics.
"It's about lives," Ruiz says. "I know people whose lives would be way different if we had leaders who were interested in people over profits. This is a tourism-based city. It's easy to forget the people that live in it. If anything, Miami needs leaders that will listen to their constituents and improve conditions for people's lives."
Gilbert Placeres, organizing director of the civic leadership group Engage Miami, says it's not enough to tell people to vote and how to physically cast a ballot. He says he believes it's important, for young people especially, to have as much information as possible about the issues that affect their communities and futures. He says that while there's a great deal of focus on the presidential election, Engage Miami works to inform Gen Z and millennials about how their local governments work.
"No one ever taught me about the Miami-Dade County Commission in school," Placeres says. "I honestly didn't know about that until I started working with Engage Miami — what local government is, how it's important to our lives. The presidential election gets all the attention. But affordable housing, traffic, transportation, schools — that's all decided locally."
Engage Miami also created its own voter guide surrounding local issues like affordable housing, transportation, climate justice, safe communities, and government transparency.
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