Black votes matter: BLOC's organizing in southeast Wisconsin

Elections

Black votes matter: BLOC's organizing in southeast Wisconsin

In advance of the 2022 midterm elections, a Milwaukee-based community outreach group is expanding its efforts to Racine and Kenosha to engage voters long overlooked by campaigns and politicians.

By Steven Potter | Here & Now

September 15, 2022 • Southeast Region

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Outreach workers are hitting the streets to get out the Black vote ahead of the November 2022 elections.

"I feel like I'm lacking a little education … because I don't know who to vote for," said Miracle Holmes.

Voters like Holmes welcome the personal time and attention of people coming to her door in Racine. She said that kind of interaction is what's needed in the run-up to elections.

"When you aren't being engaged, you can't help but to feel that you're being ignored," Holmes said.

Miracle Holmes stands outside the front door of a house while gesturing with her hands and speaking two two people on its steps.

BLOC outreach workers talk to Miracle Holmes outside the front door of her home in Racine on on Aug. 22, 2022. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

There are nearly 250,000 Black residents in the cities of Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha. Those residents, however, have long said that elected officials, politicians and their campaigns have neglected Black communities.

"I think why residents have felt ignored because largely we had been," said Angela Lang, a political organizer based in Milwaukee. "And I think 2016 proved it."

That's when — experts say — Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took the Black vote for granted, never visited Wisconsin and ultimately lost the state.

In response to that neglect — and to help Black residents make their voice heard — Lang created the Milwaukee group known as BLOC — which stands for Black Leaders Organizing for Communities.

"BLOC is a year round civic engagement organization that launched after the 2016 election. In some ways, people were very frustrated by the lack of engagement. I personally was very frustrated to hear from Democrats and progressives that said, 'If you people would have just come out, we wouldn't be here.' And I thought that was a completely misguided interpretation of the election because our community is some of the most disenfranchised and least engaged, but yet we were to blame," Lang said.

Angela Lang sits in a room with folding table and chairs set up in the background, with large poster-sized and standard pieces of paper covered with writing attached to the walls.

Angela Lang, executive director of BLOC, discusses the group's work to engage Black voters in Racine and Kenosha while working at its Milwaukee offices on Aug. 19, 2022. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

"We want to make sure that we're building long-term Black political power. We want to make sure that people feel that they have access to democracy and that they can fully participate in it because they know how democracy and these institutions function," Lang continued. "I think a lot of times we think of civic engagement as just voting when it's so much more than that."

Since its creation after the 2016 election, BLOC has grown to upwards of 50 so-called ambassadors — employees that are out knocking on doors, engaging residents out in the community.

"Our bread and butter is really knocking on doors, meeting people where they're at and asking the question, 'What does it look like for the Black community to thrive?'" explained Lang.

With the success BLOC has had in Milwaukee, the group expanded into the cities of Racine and Kenosha.

JaVonna Lue is leading the BLOC expansion.

"Most of my job entails building relationships," said Lue, who also manages the new Racine and Kenosha outreach program. Lue has her team knocking on doors in these two cities a few times a week.

JaVonna Lue stands in a room with a wood door and wood-paneled walls.

BLOC community organizer JaVonna Lue explains the group's efforts to encourage midterm election turnout among Black voters at the Dr. John Bryant Community Center in Racine on Aug. 22, 2022. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Among the primary issues that BLOC organizers are hearing from Black residents are concerns over affordable housing, safety, inflation and the need for family-supporting jobs.

Lue said it's important to get out and vote because of all that's at stake.

"Why wouldn't you get out there and vote?" asked Lue. "If we don't get out there and vote, somebody is going to make a decision that doesn't go with the values that we have."

As to voter turnout, it changes from election to election, says University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political science professor Paru Shah.

Paru Shah sits on a couch and gestures with her left hand, with a blank whiteboard on the wall in the background.

Paru Shah, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, explains the impacts Black voters can have on statewide elections in her office on Aug. 19, 2022. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

"One of the things that I think really brought on concern for the Democratic Party is that the Black voters have been the backbone of that party for a very long time," said Shah. "And I think 2020 reminded them that there are times when you cannot take that vote for granted."

Although Black residents tend to vote for Democratic candidates, Republicans are welcoming those voters to their side of the political aisle, said Ken Brown, chairman of the Republican Party of Racine County.

"I'm excited for more and more Black voter turnout, because, as I said, we are one of the most diverse cities in America, in the state of Wisconsin. And a lot of black voters are coming in and they're looking in a different direction," Brown said.

Ken Brown stands in an office and gestures with his left hand with a U.S. flag and political yard signs displayed in a window in the background.

Ken Brown, chairman of the Republican Party of Racine County, says his party welcomes more Black voters on Aug. 22, 2022 at its offices in Racine. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

"They're prosperous. We've actually had probably 30% of the new businesses that have opened in downtown Racine over the last couple of years are Black owned businesses. They're working professionals. They've invested a lot in those businesses. And they want to succeed. I don't think socialism, which is where the Democratic Party is today, is going to lead them to that level of success. So, I welcome Black leadership to come in and encourage Blacks in our community to look at the issues and look at the candidates and where they actually stand," added Brown.

While BLOC is not affiliated with the Democratic Party, Angela Lang says the group does endorse candidates and for the 2022 elections, those have been Democrats.

But how vital is the black vote for Democrats in statewide races?

"There's no way to win a statewide race without the Black vote, specifically Milwaukee, but then also Racine and Kenosha," said Lang.

"If you don't court our vote, you don't engage us or we just don't feel excited enough then we risk people staying home," Lang added.

Kyle Johnson stands outside in a park, with a bench, light pole, trees and buildings in the background.

BLOC political director and Kenosha resident Kyle Johnson discusses getting out the Black vote for the midterm elections in the southeastern Wisconsin city on Aug. 23, 2022.
(Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

BLOC's political director Kyle Johnson expects the entire state will be watching southeastern Wisconsin on election night.

"We know Black folks are going to play a super important part," he said. "We know we're going to be the deciding factor and that means we have a lot of work to do to meet that moment and make sure we're getting our communities out here to vote."

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