Growing a healthy democracy in Florida and Kentucky | Kentuckians For The Commonwealth

Growing a healthy democracy in Florida and Kentucky

Florida is like Kentucky in its need for a strong and visionary grassroots organization to influence the political tide.

For Kentucky, that organization is KFTC. For Florida, it’s the Florida New Majority. Gihan Perera, executive director of Florida New Majority, and volunteer Johann Joseph talked about their work to build a healthy democracy at KFTC’s recent annual meeting at General Butler State Park.

“We are really excited to learn from their experience for many reasons,” said KFTC member Linda Stettenbenz in introducing Perera and Joseph. “Florida, as we know, is a complicated place that has its share of challenges when it comes to democracy. Like Kentucky, Florida is among a handful of states that permanently take away a person’s right to vote when convicted of a felony. It’s a state that has a history of schemes to suppress, discourage, purge and otherwise restrict people from voting – especially if they happen to be people of color. And like Kentucky, Florida is also home to a remarkable, determined, visionary and effective grassroots organization that is building power, growing community leaders, and making change for the better.”

“I’ve heard about KFTC for years and years and years, and it’s been an inspiration to our work in Florida and part of my work in helping to move the organization and build it and to really keep it to the principles of member-leader grassroots power,” said Perera.

“I cannot vote myself, but I tell you what’s important – to talk to people that can vote. It was great to tell people, ‘Go vote. It’s your voice. Let them hear you.’” - Johann Joseph

After President Obama was elected by a powerful grassroots movement in 2008, suddenly the entire infrastructure, movement and money that got him elected disappeared from Florida. Perera and another activist saw the need to start an organization that could build capacity for electoral work and ultimately long-term progressive change – “acting like a political party for the social movements,” Perera said.

In 2012, Florida New Majority talked to 200,000 people and reached 500,000 by mail, phone and other means. They helped win re-election for President Obama and helped get two activist leaders elected to the Florida state house.

To get to such a large scale, Florida New Majority partnered with other organizations, but also found that maintaining its focus on leadership development and long-term change was challenging when trying to hit immediate election goals.

“Where we’re finding the real value for building organization and movement on the principles we believe in is at the scale of where our volunteer leaders can make a difference, and that’s at local elections and moving ourselves up,” Perera said.

Joseph, who was a leader in the successful effort to elect the first woman mayor of the city of North Miami, came to the United States from Haiti at the age of 16.

“I cannot vote myself, but I tell you what’s important – to talk to people that can vote,” Joseph said. “It was great to tell people, ‘Go vote. It’s your voice. Let them hear you.’”

Stettenbenz asked what a real, authentic democracy would look like.

In Florida, Perera said, the demographic is always changing. In addition to Cuban, Haitian and African-American populations, the state’s numbers of Caribbean, Latino, youth and single mothers are growing.

“What is the political agenda that comes with that new reality? … We are very clear that demographics aren’t enough to actually have a progressive political future. We have to recognize the demographics and then organize for a new majority that’s actually a new progressive majority in our state.”

In considering electoral work, KFTC should consider its long-term goals, Perera said.

“Does this race move your agenda long-term? Does it move your potential volunteer base? Does it help you build organization? Do the outcomes of it further the agenda that you’ve already had and how?”

To watch the whole conversation, click on the video above.



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