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Welcome to how a citizen with Berrytown Day, a show where we reimagine the word citizen and remind ourselves how to wield our collective power.
I'm buried Sunday. We've been doing a lot of episodes about voting, not sure if you've noticed, but it's been quite a few. We've had Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino, Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Angela Lang of Bluck in Milwaukee. And Quinson Palfrey with the Voter Protection Court. We could probably make four more episodes on voting because it's that important in this election year to flex that form of our collective power. This episode you're listening to right now is also related to voting, but it's also about something much more.
To quote our guests. It's about putting respect on our vote. He said to me, voting is a sacred act, which takes you to a place where you say I am. Voting says, I am, I exist. My voice counts. Those aren't the words of just any citizen, but someone working among and on behalf of a population whose voice often doesn't count. Those would be returning citizens, people convicted of crimes in the United States and in this case, people convicted of felonies in the state of Florida.
And my humble opinion, Florida is one of our more retrograde states when it comes to voting rights, because this state did not restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies for 150 years.
That changed in twenty eighteen with the passage of Amendment four. This initiative garnered an overwhelming sixty five percent of Floridians to vote to restore voting rights and thus disability and dignity to one point four million people in that state. It was the largest restoration of voting rights in 50 years in this country. And the returning citizen who helped organize that grassroots effort is who I had a chance to speak with. His name is Desmond Meade. He's president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and author of the book Let My People Vote My Battle to Restore the Civil Rights of Returning Citizens.
I spoke with Desmond not just about voting, but about changing the narratives of power in our democracy and about affirming ourselves, about saying I am and I matter. You'll notice some noisier than usual audio from Desmonte because he squeezed us into his schedule while he was in the middle of his Let My People Vote bus tour. Yes, Desmond was literally on a bus. Have you ever done Zoome on a bus? I don't think so, and I don't recommend it.
But we got some decent audio and what he had to say is so powerful.
Take a listen. I am Desmond Me, the executive director of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. My organization is an organization that's led by people who have previous felony convictions, as well as those who have loved ones that have been impacted by the criminal justice system, the rights that you're trying to restore, where rights are these in the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition? We've try to restore voting rights right now when a person is convicted of a felony offense in many states such as Florida, they lose their civil rights from their conviction.
And included in that civil rights is the right to vote, the right to run for office, the right to serve on a jury, the other collateral consequences that's associated with the loss of civil rights that could impact a person's ability to find safe and affordable housing or to get employment or occupational licensing. But the granddaddy of all those rights is voting rights. I'm hearing some noise in the background. Desmond, tell us where you are. Tell us what you're doing right now.
Right now, I am on Interstate 10 in the northern part of Florida on the bus our let my people vote bus that we're riding in, going from city to city, from county to county, really trying to energize a base of folks to really turn out actually early in this election. We realize that this is probably the most critical election that this country has ever seen. And we are, I think, in the middle of the defining moment of our country and our democracy.
And it is extremely vital that every American citizen play a role in what's going to happen in the next few weeks.
When did you start caring so much about voting and the state of democracy?
That's a great question. You know, I think that it started with first learning how to care about me. And, you know, in the process of learning how to care about me, learning how to care about is somewhere within that realm of love for my fellow human beings that we discovered that one of the mechanisms that we can use to actually improve the lives of other people is through voting. And then in the process of really finding out more and more about voting and seeing how it works and the impact that it can have in that process.
Actually, a lot of levels to this. Right. I actually went to a whole other level that I didn't even know existed last month when I went to go vote for the first time in over 30 years, walking up, understanding that I'm getting ready to engage in a secret that I didn't even understand the sacredness of voting. You know, I talk a lot about the value and have the right to vote is all this and all that. But what I did not capture or fully understand until I went to go vote was about how sacred voting is.
And so when I was in that voting booth actually voting, I was engaging in the Sacred Act and understanding that the level of sacredness about voting actually transcend partisan politics. It transcends the politics and it transcends even the racial anxieties and biases that sacredness of voting actually takes you to a place where you say something so simple, yet so powerful, takes you to a place where you say I am voting is like the ultimate thing that says I am, that I exist, that my voice count.
I matter when you put in the sacrifices that our ancestors have made, the blood of blood that purchased this right and sanctified it. When you kind of understand that, then you have to understand that people got to put respect on your vote. And not only do people have to put respect on your vote because it's so easy for us to put some aspect of my name right. But guess what? We got to put respect on our vote because we have got to come to this place where we understand that this vote is so sacred that we can't just give it away or we can't allow it to remain dormant.
We have to put respect on our own vote. You don't think and we put respect on it by June, but we don't use it. We're just totally dishonoring not only ourselves, but the work of our ancestors. And then we just easily give it away to people without making them work for it. Then we have devalued our own. When you tried to use your vote some years back, you weren't able to. Can you tell me a short story of trying to support a candidate you care a lot about, but you weren't able to do so when that formal version of voting.
Wow. Yeah, just one candidate that I would want to support with all my heart because I love the death. That was my wife. You know, she ran for office in twenty sixteen. And then I'll tell you, we poured so much into our race. And I remember a few months before the election, somebody was like, man, I know you can't wait to vote for your wife. And it was like they stuck a knife in old wounds and twisted.
It reminded me that because I live in the state of Florida, I can't even vote for my own wife. And that was painful. That was that was like somebody that overcame so much and think that they have arrived just to get slapped and says, oh, no, you have it. You're right back where you thought you had escaped from, that you still not good enough and you're still not worthy. And, you know, it was that was that was a painful moment for me, really, when your book is very moving.
Desmond, let my people vote. My battle to restore the civil rights of returning citizens. And there's a part of it that jumps out to me where you're making your return and you are astonished that a black man with a criminal record living in a shelter can enroll in community college for free. Talk to me about your own political education in that moment of getting your degrees. What was that like for you? I think that goes to show the power of the narrative, right, that when we allow a narrative, no matter how false it is, to just fester in our minds and in that society, it creates this illusion.
But, you know, there's so many states where people automatically get the right to vote back once they've served their time or some states where people don't ever lose the right to vote. And I can guarantee you that there's somebody in that state with a felony conviction that believe that they can't vote because of the narrative. And so it was narrative like that that had me thinking that no one, you know, you needed to have money to go to school, that you had to be a good moral standing and you couldn't have an arrest on your record.
And you definitely could be a drug addict, you know, and you definitely could be homeless. And so it was only a certain type of people where school was available. Now, let me tell you something. Say the power of the narrative, because I graduate high school, you know, I did real well in high school, this time in the military. But even though I had been exposed to all that at that moment of time, me thinking that there was no way I could be going to school to get a degree was a product of just a narrative that caused me to believe that I couldn't win.
That was far from reality. And that's just the power of how this narrative can erase hope and cause us to think that our situation would never change. It's that same narrative. They got people saying, my vote don't count or don't matter. You know, it's that same narrative that got people thinking that nothing will ever change no matter what we do. So we will just accept why even bother? What do the most of the voters, that same narrative that kept me from even trying to get an education?
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So you've helped change another narrative in your state with the passing of Amendment four in twenty, eighteen, sixty five percent approval by the people of Florida, not just members of the legislature, to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people, one point four million formerly incarcerated people. That's a major narrative shift at that time. Fraud with conviction, about one hundred and seventy thousand people a year. One hundred and seventy thousand people getting convicted of a felony offense and losing the rights for life without those hundred seventy thousand less than twenty five percent was even sentenced to prison.
So you think the rest somewhere? See, sometimes we forget that the plea bargaining system and its cash bail system, which forces people to enter into plea bargains to get out of these conditions sooner than later. Right. And forces people to take convictions on things that they are not even guilty of, actually inserts them into a vicious cycle of mass incarceration. But the reality is, is that, yeah, one point four million people. But first of all, we need to let them know that it would be good.
Hear the thing. It's easy to think about somebody when they are locked up or coming out of prison. Right. But it's a whole different perspective when you talk about somebody that's in your home right now sitting next to you on your church group that works with you, you know, you kind of view that slightly different. And so part of that is that narrative change. And my shining star is that we were able to organize a controversial topic in the controversial state and a controversial time.
And when with love, we won without dividing people, we won without instilling fear or hatred in anyone we want to love, you know, and we engage in one of the toughest battles. And we won in a beautiful fashion. It's love.
And part of that is how we engage folks in such a way to their understanding that their efforts is not for me. Right. But for someone that they love. That's what got one of the key things that really set the tone for this ballot initiative was this approach to someone and ask them one simple question. That simple question was, was that do you know anyone that you love has ever made a mistake? We just let them sit there for a minute and let them just think about that.
So when we talk about felon disenfranchisement, my face ain't popping up in their minds. Someone that they love, whether it's their son, their daughter, granddaughter, grandson, uncle, favorite uncle at that white. But someone that they love, that pops in their mind and let that marinate. And that's that image that they take with them in the vote booth and know take mine because some might be racist and they could care less about me, get my rights back.
Some might be Republican and could care less about somebody that might vote Democrat, get their rights back when they would never they would vote Democrat or Republican, they would vote black or white. They'll vote love. They'll vote based on someone that they love. One hell of a secret sauce and then some of those recipes you find in my book, just think of it as a cookbook, right? How to do amazing things and overcome amazing obstacles.
Chef Desmond Cookbook for a healthier democracy. I love it. Yeah.
Oh, I like that. I like that. But that might be my next title, right? Yeah, but for democracy, I like that you mentioned this narrative.
This new story works for multiple races of people. It works for multiple party members in particularly the Republican Party, which has really made a name for itself in trying to restrict the number of people who can vote know I'm still a little reeling, that so many you don't get to. Sixty five percent with just Democrats voting. And so I moved people from, quote unquote the other side. And yet after the historic victory, you see the clampdown and the attempts to amend the ballot initiative that was passed overwhelmingly and restricted and impose these fine pay back requirements before you really get your rights back.
Were you shocked by the Republican led legislature's attempts to rein in the one point four, reduce that number by putting these fee requirements on top? I was not shocked. At the end of the day, you said something. You gave me another quote. We don't draw the lines in the sand. Politicians, you see, when you take politicians away, even when you look at covid-19 in response, covid-19 pandemic, tell some of the most beautiful moments that we see in that is when people come together and have the ugly parts of a pandemic is when politicians are involved.
You know, when we ran our campaign, people used to try to characterize it as a bipartisan campaign. They used to piss me off. I'm like, no, we're not. Heck, no, we're not. You know, all caps are you are nonpartisan campaign. We're not that either. I push back strongly against that. We're not we wasn't bipartisan. We wasn't nonpartisan. We were an organic grassroots effort that welcomed and enjoyed bipartisan support and the differences we led with the people, not with the politics.
When you take the politics out of it, where's the division? Right. Where's the division? And so we didn't have to make people cross lines. We just got rid of the lines. So don't cross needed to be done. You know, we created our own land. We created a circle around everybody, whether you was young, old, black, white, Latino, whether you was conservative in your thinking, progressive in your thinking, or you didn't know which way to think we excluded you because you as a human being that knows what it feels like to make mistakes or having a loved one that has made mistakes.
And you know that you don't ever want to be not forgiven for anything you've done for the rest of your life. And that's where we organize. And so we and we intentionally kept politicians out of it. So, yeah, no, I wasn't surprised what happened because, you know, you got politicians. What politician? There's a heavy dose of arrogance, and that's what it was. But I mean, when you look at it, just think about this story.
You have this homeless family that's been living in the street for years. When it rains, when it snows, when it's sleet, when it's here, they're out there in the elements. Right. With no protection. And politicians will walk past them day in and day out and not lift a finger. You with me? Yeah. All of a sudden, the people come together and say, we're going to build this family a home. The minute the people build a home, here comes the politicians going in the house trying to dictate, rearrange the furniture.
Right. That's exactly what happened, felon disenfranchisement has been in place in Florida for 150 years and politicians did not address it. They did not. So the people took matters into their own hands. And the minute we were successful with it now, they had the arrogance to insist that they tell us how to implement, to keep their hands out of it. But the minute that happens, that's when you see the lines get drawn again and you start to see the division and and insults back and forth both sides.
Right. And that really hurt us in our heart because we know we just accomplished something beautiful that we showed the world that in spite of our differences, in spite of the color of our skin or our political persuasions, that we can come together as human beings to move major issues without having to tear each other apart, without having to degrade each other. We showed that it was possible and they resorted right back to the old way of doing things. And it hurt our heart to see, because at the heart of all of that was that it was real people's lives that we were talking about.
But the politics then overshadowed the.
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How have you and the people's movement here responded to this politicization and to these restrictions keep on elevating people over politics?
That's how we responded when everything went down. We're like in this and other people see obstacles. We see opportunities. We've seen the lawsuit come in. We won the lawsuit in the Northern District Court and then it was appealed by the state and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's ruling and sided with the state of Florida and required that people pay outstanding legal financial obligations. Folks looked at that as a setback. We look at it as an opportunity to step up.
What we did was that we ended up organizing our country. Of eighty eight thousand people from all over this country, we organize celebrities like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Michael Vick, Ariana Grande, we organize corporations like Levi's and Viacom, you know, and all kinds of foundations to raise over twenty five million dollars. Twenty five million dollars to help people remove those obstacles, so if they want to be able to participate in democracy right now, to me that was so beautiful.
So when their challenges that we face, we take those opportunities to do great things, to do amazing things. And we used it not to further divide our country, but we used it to bring our country together. And people were conservative that donated to that because we were talking about democracy, that no American citizen to be forced to choose between putting food on their table or voting. It should be a decision they'd be forced to make, you know, and folks stood up and said they were going to free to vote in Florida because democracy should not be held hostage.
And to me, that was beautiful. Let me tell you something. We like courageous people, right? But we can't have the courageous people unless we have fear. And so these moments, these obstacles and these attempts to suppress our vote or intimidate prevent us from voting, we should look at these moments as opportunities to show how courageous we are, because the level of courage that we need to show up to vote this year is nowhere near the level of courage that our ancestors had to muster up the fight to the state sanctioned violence to fight to the hangings and the burnings, to fight through the just outright blatant terrorism that was rained down upon them.
And so this little bit of something here now that this is a time that we step up, we look forward to these opportunities because now they trying to do that, we show up with even more people. So I'm glad you're trying to be suppressed because now I can get more Pooky the rerate. You come out and hang out with me and vote. You don't think I'm glad that you that you want to try to make it difficult for us to get access to the ballot box because now you're going to help us engage with celebrities and make them more aware.
So now they're not just getting involved because of this election. They're planning on getting involved long term. So now, instead of having one or two Harry Belafonte, now we've got to have hundreds of Harry Belafonte in our entertainment and sports industry. That is a great thing. And that sets the foundation for a more vibrant democracy as we're moving forward. So, hey, bring it on. Bring it on, man. You got a unique set of muscles, but just sit back, relax.
You have some weight. You experienced some tension. And you know, the most important thing you have to do to get those muscles, you have to tear some muscle. You know, I'm saying that's all the weight of the leg is going to grow and you could only tear it if you experienced tension. And so I embrace this moment. People who bully people, you know what they are. And cowards, point blank. We already know that.
Right. But this is what we also know, though, is that when you stand up to people like that and you punch in their mouth, you know, they'll turn tail and run, they'll turn around. And what I say is that for people like me. I've been in prison, I've been hooked on drugs, I don't crack. All right. I've been homeless. I've faced down death. People like me don't skerries. So who are the people out there trying to bully?
They pick the right ones returning because we don't scare that easy. And so we're going to clap back and we clap back or we respond to that by showing up with even more people, with more of our family members and friends and more returning citizens. And so that democracy would not be intimidated. We're not going to allow that. They got the right ones this time.
There's a lot of people who hit me up knowing I was going to talk to you. And they said, how can I help? I see what's going on in the news, I'm fired up and ready to go. What can I do? And so that's a specific question from listeners to the show. But a more general question point from your recipe book. What are you encouraging people to do around this election, but also beyond it?
And I think that it is so important that we find other people to take to the polls with us. And here's the deal. We need to have conversations not only with our friends, but people that we don't normally typically talk to all the time. We may talk to our next door neighbor over the one corner. You know, what about the one across the street? You know, we need to talk to people. We need to interact and don't come in proximity with our other brothers and sisters out there in the community.
Even if walking around, it may not have the kind of hope or outlook that we have. And just we need to find ways to engage them and bring them to the polls with us point blank. This would be an affair that we want to do. We look forward to doing and not feeling like we have to do. You know, I see long lines out there now, you know, and it can be daunting. But I think that we have to have that resolve that we are going to show up because we need to make sure that our voices are heard, because if we don't show up to make sure our voices are heard in the bottom line is, then, huh, it's going to be up to other people to decide whether or not our lives do matter.
Yeah, that's the translation I think a lot of folks are missing. And you put it really, really perfectly. Thank you for that. You get interviewed a lot. People reach out to you. You run this organization. You're part of this movement. So I want to give you a chance. We're here to talk voting. We're talking democracy and more broadly. But. What do you want to share that I may be having teed up for you, I haven't asked you that you don't get asked to discuss very often, but feels very important to you on this topic.
I mean, that's a great question. So here's one. I think that, you know, I don't think he gets asked enough about the sacrifices. You know, a lot of times folks just see the end results. You know, they say, oh, yeah, I've been before past and don't really have a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices that it takes. I was in a meeting today, and I think what I want to share with folks is what I shared with the media.
You've got to figure out who you are. Are you the chicken? The the cow with you, the you, the pig. Right. And what I mean by that is that we've got to really understand that there's a difference between the contribution and commitment and how the best way to understand it is through thinking about the damages, because we know that the Greens have a cheese omelet. Is eggs the ham, the cheese, if you're like me growing up, the milk.
Right. And so we know that the milk and the cheese come from the cow, the eggs from the chicken and a half ton from the pig will have made the contribution to the ham. Cheese on the chicken, made a contribution to the ham and cheese on the pig, made a commitment to the ham and cheese. And we've got to understand that. Guess what? All three all three are needed to get the ham and cheese omelet. We just need to know what role we playing in that in that particular situation.
And at the end of the day, you've got to find something that you're willing to die for. Right. And really be serious about it and not just be rhetoric, because a lot of times we do use rhetoric. I've heard so many people that die for my children, but yet they won't turn up to a PTA meeting for the job. So I look at that, a lot of rhetoric, but when you talk to them in your fight for your children, then you show up, make sure they're getting the right type of education and all of that other stuff.
I'm talking about something that you willing to invest your whole body and soul into. What are you willing to sacrifice for? And when you find that thing that you embrace and just work that we're doing here, it can look glamorous. But at the end of the day, there's a specific amount of sacrifice that had to go into it. And I would like every now and then when I've been invited to talk about what some of those sacrifices are. But there is there's a lot that I had to sacrifice, I had to make.
But I was willing to do so because as I told my team, I'm at peace with myself now because I found something other than my family that I'm willing to die for. And I'm good about that. I am willing to make sure that every American citizen have an opportunity to experience what I experienced when I voted for the first time in over 30 years.
I'm willing to die to make sure that every American citizen has an opportunity to experience what I experienced when I voted for the first time in 30 years. Thus spoke Desmond Meade. So what are you willing to die for, what are you willing to commit to? Are you going to play the role of the chicken, the cow or the pig to make sure we make this omelet? Desmond Meade, he really could create an amazing cookbook, Gerney. You can find his organization, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, on their website, Florida RRC dot com, or follow them on social.
They're everywhere at F.L., writes Restor. That's Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. You can find Desmonte on Twitter at Desmond Meade Imadi or on Instagram at the number forty four. After that, Desmond Meade, 40 for. Thank you, Desmond, for a powerful, powerful lesson. We are posting this episode, the transcripts show notes and more, as usual, at How to Citizen Dotcom. And as usual, it is now time to get into the actions.
But this episode in our first category, internal actions, things you can do alone, a bit more reflective. Got three things for you. Answer this question, Desmond's question. Do you know anyone that you love that's ever made a mistake? No, to answer this question, Desmond's question, are you the chicken, the cow or the pig? Because that's how you make an omelet, you need all those things, but the cow makes a contribution, the chicken makes a contribution, the pig makes a commitment.
We need all those roles to make this omelet of self governance and people power and democracy. What role are you going to play? Where and how I think about it. Lastly, in the internal section, read Desmond's book, It's Great, Let My People Vote My Battle to Restore the Civil Rights of Returning Citizens. We have a linked in the show notes. We also have it in our online bookshop, which is adding more titles by the week, visited a bookshop, Dagger Shops, How to Citizen for the external actions feel in sets of threes right now.
So three here. Support the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, go to Florida, Ask.com, volunteer. Make yourself useful to this pro-democracy movement in our midst. Find other people to take to the polls virtually, or actually we've recommended this before, we can't recommend it enough talk about voting all the time and coordinate with your squad to get it done, help each other out. You don't have to do this alone. And lastly, spread some good news, we are inundated with depressing information or outright disinformation during this time, amplify the opposite, find a good news story about voting or about democracy more broadly and tell everybody, you know, the Solutions Journalism Network has a great resource at Solutions Journalism Daggered Hub, and they've got this carousel of recently published beautiful news which will actually strengthen your faith.
Let's do this together is the only way to get it done. Thank you. Thank you as usual. If you do any of these actions, big or small, tell somebody, tell us, email us action at how to cities in dotcom, put Desmonte in the subject line or maybe a chicken or cow or pig. We'll figure it out and use the hashtag How to it citizen, an online send us general feedback to comments and how to citizen dotcom.
And you can visit the show's website at How to Citizen Dotcom. It really helps the word of mouth. So leverage. You tell somebody about this show. If it's helping you citizen better let them know how the citizen with Berrytown some day is a production of I Heart Radio Podcasts Executive produced by Miles. Great. Next up, Elizabeth Stewart and Baratunde Thurston, produced by Joel Smith, edited by Justin Smith.
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