Episode 3 | March 24, 2021 | Length: 28:55
Why care about politics when you feel more like a prop than a constituent? Black voters are told their votes matter, but after an election their concerns often go unheard. In this episode, Angela Fitzgerald sits down with grassroots activist and coalition leader Tatiyana Benson to talk about civic engagement. They’ll also discuss representation in government, policy reform and the hurdles preventing political participation.
Tatiyana Benson is a student activist at UW-Madison and was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin. She is a member of the organization Black Umbrella, a local Wisconsin coalition of community organizers and grassroots activists working together for Black liberation.
Speaker: The following program is a PBS Wisconsin original production.
Angela Fitzgerald: Hi, I’m Angela Fitzgerald, and this is Why Race Matters. Civic engagement isn’t as simple as asking the black community to vote. For some, it feels like their voices and concerns only matter when their vote counts. Policies and issues that are important to us are talked about, but rarely come to pass. In this episode we’ll sit down with grassroots activist and coalition leader, Tatiyana Benson. We’ll discuss different forms of activism, what their coalition is doing to get politically engaged, and why race matters when we talk about it. Thank you for joining us today, Tatiyana.
Tatiyana Benson: Thank you for inviting me.
Angela Fitzgerald: So tell us your story and what has brought you to the place that you do the work that you do?
Tatiyana Benson: Well, I’m the youngest of 10 children, and my mom has a really big heart, so we’ve always been, all 10 of us have always been involved in our community by helping however we can and just trying to support people. And then, I don’t know, I just continue wanting to help people. If you grow up always with the idea when you can help, help, then I guess it stays with you.
Angela Fitzgerald: Okay. And so what is that, well, before I get into what that looks like now, I will say, I was first introduced to you and the work you were doing within your high school. So tell us about your role within your Black Student Union.
Tatiyana Benson: Well, I didn’t technically have a leadership role, but I did, because I just, going there for four years, I was a token for the administration. So I would always get opportunities to go certain places that I know other students that looked like me didn’t really get offered those opportunities. And I also had found out that my school was, the racial makeup of our school looked completely different than what I thought it was like.
Angela Fitzgerald: Oh, what was it?
Tatiyana Benson: The school only had about 50% white students, and I was a student there and I thought it had 80% white students because the way our classes were set up, because I took a lot of AP classes and often I’d be the only black student in my class. So I just started, knowing things like that made me start to see the disparities that existed within my school. So it made me want to do something about it, and just try to bring out the black voice from our school more, because you really only saw black students when they were playing sports.
Angela Fitzgerald: So, what are some of the things you all did to accomplish that goal of uplifting black student voices?
Tatiyana Benson: Well, we first, the entire BSU we sat together to plan some events to do during February, during black history month. We also just did our best to try to recruit more students to come to BSU in the first place, because sometimes you’ll have students who don’t show up, but they’re not really doing anything, so why not come.
Angela Fitzgerald: You could be here with us.
Tatiyana Benson: Yeah. So just trying to grow family and build community.
Angela Fitzgerald: Awesome. And so what resulted from the work that you all put in at that time? And that was a year ago, two years ago?
Tatiyana Benson: I think two years ago now. Well, I know that today, sometimes I still talk to some of the students that were younger than me, because you do build a community and you care about what those students are going to do after they graduate high school, you just want to look out for each other. And I think that’s important because when you look at the Madison community, outside of just my high school, the black community is separated. So it’s nice that at least I built some connections to grow a bigger community.
Angela Fitzgerald: Awesome. Okay. So you did all this important work at your high school, because like you said, there was representation, but it somehow wasn’t translating into AP courses, or other spaces, so you were like, I want to see my community reflected outside of just athletics within my school. And so fast forwarding to today, tell us about the work that you do around civic engagement, still uplifting black voice, however you want to define it.
Tatiyana Benson: So I’m part of a grassroot organization, Black Umbrella, and our goal is black liberation, and we think that you can get there through community support, development, and basically just freedom for the people. And so with that, we do a lot of work with, Madison has a really big homeless disparities, and so we do a lot of work with feeding people who sleep outside, and trying to provide them with housing. And then we also plan a lot of marches to bring awareness to different things that are going on in legislation, or just in politics in general. And we do a lot of calling out of representatives that we elected and they don’t really represent the people, or speak for us, or try to fix any issues that exist. So we do a lot of calling them out and giving them the work that is needed to make a difference. So it’s important when you call out politicians to also show them this is what needs to be done, not just being like do something.
Angela Fitzgerald: Right. They’re figuring it out, but it may not be the approach that you all are seeing is what’s necessary. So why do you think that work is important here specifically? Because you were born and raised here, and you’re still here, so you maybe recognize, okay, I’m here for a reason, there’s some work that needs to be done, so just tell us more about that.
Tatiyana Benson: So I think personally for me, I’m still in Madison because I think that it needs a lot of help. So I think that if you have the space and the will to help something, help it. And I think that Madison needs that work because there’s really bad achievement gap in Madison, Wisconsin. There’s a lot of racial disparities that exist in our area specifically, and then you look at Wisconsin and broad, and you think about Milwaukee’s education system and how underfunded it is. Yeah. So you look at things like that, and yeah, there’s just a lot of work that needs to be done in Wisconsin. I specifically, because a lot of times the Midwest gets a rep of a liberal utopia. And so I always tell people that Wisconsin is like cold Mississippi. There’s some things that you love about it, but it has some real, real issues that need to be fixed.
Angela Fitzgerald: You’re in a cold Mississippi, especially now I feel that because I’m cold physically, but interesting that this, I think the South, when you think about the South, you think about segregation, you think about organizations like the KKK, you think about really over, in your face racism.
Tatiyana Benson: Yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: And here, I don’t think we get that recognition, like you said, we’re seen as, especially Madison, we’re seen as liberal, those things don’t happen here. And you’re saying it does, just in a colder temperature. I guess I’m wondering, how does that feel to you? And I’m asking that because in having these conversations, one of them was with a mental health professional and we were talking about how there’s just trauma, right? That black people have had to experience in general. But on top of having to deal with the trauma of being black in America, being black in Wisconsin, you’re also, a lot of us, like you, are on the front lines trying to bring about change. So, how does that feel to you? Because you’re ultimately trying to live, you’re trying to be a college student, do your thing, but then you’re like-.
Tatiyana Benson: Yeah. So it’s a, I’d call it a win lose sometimes, because it feels good to, I don’t know, I would say rebel, not just, I am making a difference, but in that making a difference black people are taught, you got a few options, you do that or you don’t do anything. And so when you do the opposite of what society is telling you to do, that is a form of rebellion. And it feels good because black people aren’t free in America, and rebelling against authority feels like freedom, but then you’re doing important work and it’s stressful, and it’s a lot to take on. When I started, I don’t know, just helping people, no part of me thought, Oh, I’m going to be a part of a leader of an organization, people are going to know who I am. So when you get that pressure, then it does, sometimes it feels like dang, I’m 19. Let me breathe. But it’s also like someone has to do something.
Angela Fitzgerald: Absolutely. And you’re like, you’re right, you have to do something because ultimately not doing anything means what for you? It means that you’re not able to experience the type of life that you want, the type of life that you want your friends and your family to have.
Tatiyana Benson: And you brought up trauma and it’s like, if you don’t do anything, aren’t you just sitting in trauma and pain? But doing something you’re actively trying to heal yourself and your entire community.
Angela Fitzgerald: Which is, yeah, that’s like the ongoing work. Right? And especially, I think in a city like Madison, in a state like Wisconsin, where there isn’t necessarily visible community, or visible social outlets you can easily gravitate towards to help like, okay, when I’m taking a break from my liberation work, I’m go recharge. You may not have those recharge stations like you would if you were in a DC, in Atlanta, in other places. So that can take a toll where you’re like, I can’t just be in certain spaces. I have to either be working, or maybe facing other things that are so pleasant. So it’s appreciated that someone like you, who could just be living the kickback, regular college student experience is like, yeah, I’m a college student, but I have this responsibility as well. Right? That’s so much appreciated. So I guess what would be the ideal for you, as someone who, again, born and raised here, committed to doing work here, to create a state that you want to see, that you want other people to experience, what would that ideal look like in a perfect world?
Tatiyana Benson: This is actually a question I’m asked a lot and I always feel slightly bad for my answer…
Angela Fitzgerald: Uh oh.. Okay.
Tatiyana Benson: Because it’s not the one that people are looking for.
Angela Fitzgerald: Okay.
Tatiyana Benson: But maybe it’s because I look at things too deep sometimes, but I couldn’t tell you what that looks like. I don’t know what justice looks like. I don’t know if black people know what justice look like in general. Have we ever really gotten it? So I couldn’t tell you what a just world looks like, or feels like. I just know that this isn’t it. So I can’t tell you what a good Wisconsin looks like. I just know that this, what we have right now, doesn’t feel like it’s right. So it just needs to be better.
Angela Fitzgerald: That’s a perfect answer. I don’t see that as being a wrong answer because you’re right. We maybe upholding an ideal that we’ve never seen modeled.
Tatiyana Benson: Yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: So how do you aspire to something that you don’t even know what that looks like? Right? Wow. Given that, and given those who will be watching this, either can relate because they’re doing the work too, or have been impacted by some of the systems and things you all are trying to overturn, or those who are like, wow, this is something I’m hearing for the first time, didn’t know that there were people like you that felt this way, or were committed to this work in this way. What do you want either audience to take away from this conversation?
Tatiyana Benson: That, honestly, if you’re doing nothing, or you’re not even actively trying to do something, because I’m not saying that, not everybody can do everything, but if you’re not actively trying to do your part, because I think everyone can play a role in fixing America, Wisconsin, Madison, everyone can play a role. And so I think the takeaway is just that do something, because if you’re not, really if you’re not, you don’t care. And that hurts to think that people wouldn’t care about other people living happy lives, you know.
Angela Fitzgerald: That’s a super good point. And I love what you said, do something, because I think liberation work is framed as like, you’re protesting, you’re marching, but there are things even outside of that, that people can do, if that’s not their lane, that’s great, you appreciate those who do that. But what are even some other things that people could think to do that maybe they have not considered? What would you suggest?
Tatiyana Benson: So when I’m not marching, a lot of what I’m doing is I’m looking at different laws that are trying to get passed so that you can know what’s actually going on, attending city council meetings and things like that, or when the police go over their budget and stuff like that, I think it’s important for the community to actually go to these because we have access to these conversations, so we actually need to participate in them so we can know what’s going on in our city. ‘Cause sometimes you’ll be voting and you’ll see a thing that you are like, what is this? I don’t even know… And then how do you make an educated decision if you don’t even know who these people are, or what this is talking about? So I think it’s important to do that. You can demand justice without protesting, write letters to your state representatives, things like that.
Angela Fitzgerald: So there are loads of options.
Tatiyana Benson: Yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: So Tatiyana, I’m interested in your thoughts around voting, specifically the messaging that is typically put out there for black people, it’s a get out and vote, those of us who still have that ability to do so, because that’s also couched with the opinion of some that either their vote doesn’t matter, or the lack of enthusiasm around voting because of who the options are. So what are your thoughts on just that topic in general?
Tatiyana Benson: So when I wasn’t able to vote, actually, because I’m only 19. So when I wasn’t able to vote, I used to preach to people like vote, you have to vote every election, every time, you have to vote because people fought and died for us to be able to vote. Our ancestors didn’t take that just for us to not vote. And then when I was able to vote, I started thinking about the fact that, that is hard. I get it’s my civic duty, but isn’t it a civic duty to give me something to actually vote for? And then I started thinking our ancestors fought and died for us to be able to vote, to have the right to vote. And I actually, I think it’s a form of oppression to tell people that they have to vote even when there’s nobody representing something that represents them.
Tatiyana Benson: I think that the two party system that has been created by corporate backing forces has forced black people in America to feel like a last resort is a real option. And I don’t think that a last resort is a real option because I shouldn’t be voting for somebody that has out loud and open been like, ah, no, I don’t support things that I support to my core, I just don’t think that, that’s fair to be asked to, yeah, to participate in everything that doesn’t actually participate in my life. To ask me, and then people will be like, Oh, you’re voting for a lesser evil, why do I have to vote for evil at all?
Angela Fitzgerald: Why are those the only options?
Tatiyana Benson: Now I would say that it’s important for everyone to vote every election because there’s always multiple things on a ballot. And so you don’t know what you might be missing just because the main thing on the ballot isn’t something that… Write somebody in. And don’t make it a joke either, don’t write in a joke. If you want to write your mom’s name down, because you truly think she can run this country better than somebody else, then do that, or if you want to put down someone you know who won’t get enough votes, but you truly believe that they’d be a better governor for your state, then that’s who you should vote for. You shouldn’t feel forced to give your vote to somebody who has done nothing to earn it.
Angela Fitzgerald: So it’s a conversation that’s bigger than just get out and vote. Registering is great, practicing that right is great, but it’s beyond that and more of the representation piece, and then what are the issues? And if those things aren’t there then-.
Tatiyana Benson: Yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: You may be encouraging people to essentially waste something that’s been so valuable and that’s been thought for, for so long.
Tatiyana Benson: Yeah. And the more that you vote, because it’s funny to say, because I’m saying you don’t have to vote if it’s not supporting you, but the more that you vote, the more you’ll start seeing things on the ballots that support what you’re trying to say. The more you’ll start actually seeing things that represent your voice.
Angela Fitzgerald: Thank you for that. That’s a great perspective because you’re right. It tends to just stop with, go out and vote.
Tatiyana Benson: Yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: And not with what are you voting for you? And understanding the issues that you could be voting for. So once you are able to vote, these are the things that these people stand for, and breaking it down so people understand what they are, et cetera, because, yeah, there have been even things I’ve seen on ballots and I’m like, I don’t even know what this word means.
Tatiyana Benson: Yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: With all the degrees that I have, I don’t know what this is, but these are the choices and I feel like I need to check one just because it’s there, but no one’s defined this for me. It’s been worded in a way and to me is very complicated. So that can feel like off putting for people in a barrier to doing exactly what we’re encouraging them to do. So then it’s how do you move the needle within a city that has… and a state that has all of these challenges to get other options on the ballot so that people then feel excited and motivated to vote for people that are really going to represent their issues.
Tatiyana Benson: Because even if everybody did a write-in, and nobody really wrote in the same thing, that would be news. People would be like they were more write-in votes than votes for the …
Angela Fitzgerald: That’s a good point. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that being the case, there were more write-ins than… Because I guess…
Tatiyana Benson: Because the message, like you said, it’s always vote. So people are like, okay, I got to vote for something that’s on here, you know.
Angela Fitzgerald: So that’s interesting to think about, what would be the outcome if a different set of actions were taken? But ultimately you’re right, we do need to make sure that those on the ballot do reflect the true issues that people in our community have, if they are being encouraged to select from that ballot. So Tatiyana, you mentioned earlier the two party system that we operate within, and how it may not be the best system, especially for those who feel as though they have to choose between two evils, maybe one lesser than the other. So just wanted your thoughts about whether, or not, that is what we should be encouraging people to do, to figure out a way to navigate through an existing system that is imperfect, or should we be taking a step back and addressing the system as is, and possibly dismantling and building something new? What do you think?
Tatiyana Benson: Okay. So with my organization, we work to do both. So because this is the system that exist right now in the society that we live in, we work to fix it through its channels. But as me personally, as a, I don’t know if you ever heard of Afro-pessimism?
Angela Fitzgerald: I have. We’re talking about that in one of my classes now.
Tatiyana Benson: Yeah. So I don’t believe that black people can be free in the society that we live in. So, it’s a big thing to question the entire foundation of our country, but when you think about it, our entire foundation of our country was written, and created, and built on the back of black people. We were never meant to thrive, or succeed, in the system that we live in, it wasn’t created to support us either. So I do think that people need to step back and question the system as it exists, because at the end of the day, that’s going to be what the question is at some point. Right now people are just holding off. I think that radical change scares people. And so they look for all last resorts, like what I was talking about. We keep trying to, okay, how can we do this? How can we do that? But the truth is, is that you can’t fix something that’s not broken. You just can’t.
So no matter how much you change it, at the end of the day, you will, just like that book, the new Jim Crow, you will always see a new system emerge that is meant to oppress people. It’ll always show up in a society that was created to oppress people. So you have to change it and fix it. And when you say destroy the system, people get really scared. I remember I said that, I actually said that on the news before, and I got a bunch of comments and basically hate comments, I was getting hate mail, and people were like, you can’t expect people to support you by saying stuff like destroy, this is our country, you should feel love for it. And I do feel love for this country, that’s why I want to destroy the evil that runs within it. And that’s the system we live in. And so to tell me that I don’t love America as much as you, because I have a problem with the way that it’s shaped doesn’t make sense because I would just leave.
Angela Fitzgerald: That’s so contradictory, right?
Tatiyana Benson: Yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: Because America was founded on destruction. So how are you saying that destroys a bad thing when that’s how we came to be?
Tatiyana Benson: Yeah. How can you..? I always tell people that to expect me to feel like I’m loved in this society, in this country, is ridiculous. You know? To try to fix a system that literally was started by stealing land, and stealing people, is a ridiculous idea to ever think that this could be a just system when it was literally, the constitution was written to make these things okay, but they’re not. So, there is no justice in that. And you think about the constitution and it’s all written about separating power. That’s what the constitution is, it separates power. And then they had to add on the bill of rights, which is the people. So it’s like we live in a free…
Angela Fitzgerald: So, that was secondary.
Tatiyana Benson: Yeah. This is supposed to be a free society. This is a free society, but the laws we created for the people to govern themselves came after we decided how we were going to divide power among the rich elites, that doesn’t even make sense.
Angela Fitzgerald: But it does it make sense. It makes perfect sense when you think about where we are now and how we’re, in the place historically, where that’s really being challenged, and that’s people are afraid of, to your point. People are afraid of something new, but we’ve never reconciled where we came from. So, when people are trying to say… “Hey guys, you recognize that historically this is why we are where we are, can we acknowledge that in the hopes of building something new and moving forward.” But you’re absolutely right. Thank you. You just dropped some major knowledge right now. That was a class, seriously, that was like a graduate level class, which you just described there succinctly, why we’re in the place that we are, and why someone like you gets the pushback that you get when you’re simply trying to uplift these very salient points. People understand, at one point in time, we weren’t even considered human. So if we, recently are still… Well, not even recently, we’re still fighting for humanity, hence Black Lives Matter.
Tatiyana Benson: Yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: That’s the same argument as when we were considered three-fifths of a person, it’s the same thing just written in a different form.
Tatiyana Benson: Yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: So, that’s why people are doing the things that you’re discussing, questioning whether or not I can even vote for something that’s for my best interests if my humanity is still a question mark in your mind? If you’ve never acknowledged me as being equal to you, then how can I trust you with my vote?
Tatiyana Benson: And you also think about how it works. When you want to add an amendment to fix something, you add an amendment to fix something, but the old rules are still written in there, you don’t just take them out.
Angela Fitzgerald: Right.
Tatiyana Benson: So, somewhere it’s still written that black people are three-fifths of a person, but then we decided that they’ll be awarded the same laws as people who are fully human. We never unwritten the fact that black people were three-fifths of a person. That’s never been unwritten, you can’t unwrite it. You get what I’m saying? I remember one time I was talking about, well, I didn’t even bring it up, but someone was like, we need to take that, it needs to be just taken out. It shouldn’t even be there. And then someone was like, what about the history in that? And it’s like, wow, history matters more to you than me telling you that it makes me uncomfortable that our country, it’s written in law that I’m three-fifths as a person.
Angela Fitzgerald: That is so, so, so true. Wow. And I feel like there’s a lot there even around, well, where do you even start with dismantling something that foundationally was wrong to begin with, and that’s honestly not taught, you think about civics, you think about all the things you just described, when do we learn that? Aside from maybe the time we take amongst ourselves, maybe a high school civic class, maybe we get something there, we learn about the different branches of government, but we’re not taught to do things that intentionally the powers that be don’t want us to do. That’s why it’s interesting to me to see with the current movement that we’re in, what results, and maybe the manifestations of those results aren’t going to be seen next year, or the year after. But, I’m very curious to see what the ripple effect will be in the hopes that there will be change.
Angela Fitzgerald: I know there are criticisms around, oh, this is not going to do anything because historically people maybe haven’t seen the gains that they’ve wanted, but we do need to acknowledge it’s doing something. So if we just keep at it, there’s a hope that it will.
Tatiyana Benson: Just never stop. That’s the difference. Every other movement stops, you say the civil rights era. If we never got all our rights, why did we ever stop?
Angela Fitzgerald: Right.
Tatiyana Benson: That’s the important thing that people don’t give up, it’s getting cold outside. We keep talking, it’s freezing right now, but I was still outside yesterday for the protests. You have to make sure that you are willing to give your all to actually see the changes that you want.
Angela Fitzgerald: That is so true. So it’s not a convenience thing, it’s not a when it’s nice outside, I’ll go protest, but we’re going to take a break during the winter months, you guys, what does it mean to really stay committed to something for decades if that’s what it takes to bring about that change. Thank you for that, Tatiyana.
Angela Fitzgerald: Representation is on the rise politically within the black community. In 2020, a record number of black women ran for Congress. It’s a small step, but an important one. The more representation we have, the more likely policies that positively affect our communities get passed. There’s no doubt that race matters when we talk about engagement, but maybe it’s time to stop lecturing certain communities to vote and start asking how to earn their vote instead. For more info on Why Race Matters, and to hear and watch other episodes. Visit us online at pbswisconsin.org/whyracematters.
Speaker: Funding for Why Race Matters is provided by CUNA Mutual Group, Park Bank, Alliant Energy, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Focus Fund for Wisconsin Programming, and Friends of PBS Wisconsin.