As executive director of the New Georgia Project, Nse Ufot is making remarkable strides in reshaping the political landscape in Georgia. She oversees NGP’s efforts to expand the voting power and political influence of black, Asian, and Latinx people by registering each of the 800,000 unregistered voters of color across the state. The success of the work is a political feat and it makes a solid case for the impact of arts and cultural organizing in movement building.
“I care about the fact that [Republicans] are stealing elections in Georgia and have a plan to do so in the 2020 elections,” Ufot said. “I want to hear actionable plans. I don’t want to hear platitudes and talking points. I want people to be courageous and have courageous conversations with us acknowledging where we are right now, and how we move the country forward.”
Whereas many liberal political organizing strategies focus on winning or recapturing the attention of white working-class voters, the NGP imagined an invigorated electorate and stronger democracy fueled by eligible but so far unregistered voters of color. Since 2014, NGP has registered over 300,000 people of color to vote. In addition to fighting for liberation by leveraging and innovating technology, they also engage new voters through political education, advocacy, and culture.
Nse Ufot was born in Nigeria and spent her formative years being raised in southwest Atlanta. As a black immigrant in a poor black community, Ufot spent a lot of time soaking up black Southern culture—she is a hip-hop devotee and trap yoga enthusiast—while maintaining close ties to other Nigerians, who formed a tight-knit community in Atlanta. The experience shaped her politics and her activism, and is perhaps a reason why embedding cultural practice into political work comes second-nature to her.
Ufot and I met in person for the first time at a pre-election community art showcase in Atlanta two days before the 2018 gubernatorial election, though we’d previously known each other through voting rights work. Stacey Abrams was poised to turn Georgia blue and become the nation’s first black woman governor. Even as event organizers and campaign workers were gearing up to fight epic voter suppression, a joyful anticipation hung in the air. It was evident that creating an atmosphere of joy was a priority for NGP, and that injecting art and culture into Abrams’ campaign was an intentional choice.
That evening, NGP partnered with Grassroots Leaders Organizing Women (GLOW) Vote to co-host the “Politi-Art Show,” a politically themed art show featuring all women artists of color. “We had 25 of Atlanta’s most progressive, most talented artists who were telling stories about the new Georgia, the new South. And we had a great time,” Ufot said of the event.
The artists’ work captured themes of colonization, wage theft, police brutality, Trump administration policies, self-determination, and community care. The space beautifully held both the pain of our current political moment and the hope of a future led by the new American majority of young folks and people of color.
On Election Day, NGP used joy and culture to encourage voters to wait it out in sometimes hours-long lines. They had food catered to precincts and sent out marching bands, second line bands, and mariachi bands where long waits were anticipated. They created a block party vibe wherever possible so that people’s enthusiasm wouldn’t dissipate, and they would stay in line to cast their ballots.
When I saw Ufot in April at She the People’s groundbreaking presidential forum in Texas, I reminded her of our first meeting at “Politi-Art.” She smiled and immediately started talking about the importance of artists in our current political reality and cultural institutions in cultivating political power.
“In times like these, in a lot of ways, people are suffering from ‘up is down, down is up’, and you don’t know who to trust,’” she said. “The corporate media is not upholding their responsibility to tell the truth and to keep the public informed. The role of artists has become that much more important to put things in perspective, and to help us with our memory.”
Maintaining our collective historical and cultural memory is a crucial element of movement building. Attacks on civil and economic rights often begin with attempts to induce mass amnesia. We can only accept the “welfare queen” myth and justify the shrinking social safety net if we forget the economic policies that led to concentrated inner-city poverty. We can only abide attacks on culturally specific institutions if we forget the social, political, and economic oppression that made them necessary in the first place.
I called Nse Ufot in March 2018 when Georgia lawmakers considered a bill (Senate Bill 363) to limit early voting on Sundays. Civil rights groups decried the move as a targeted attack on black voters and on the institution of the black church. I turned to her to learn more about the legislation, how groups like New Georgia Project were fighting it, and how Daily Kos, of which Prism is a nonprofit affiliate, might help.
Ufot discussed the cultural significance of black churches as cornerstone power-building institutions since the civil rights movement. “Souls to the polls” events, where church members go to early-polling places after Sunday service, have long been a successful voter engagement strategy utilized by congregations. Limiting Sunday voting would not only suppress black votes, but it would also dilute the power of black faith organizing in electoral politics. In an important win, the Georgia House let the bill die in chamber, due in part to NGP’s work with faith leaders.
Ufot highlighted the importance of another black cultural institution when we spoke at the She the People forum. The event was held at Texas Southern University, a historically black university, or HBCU. Ufot said this was an example of connecting the past—our memory—to the present moment, by honoring the role of black institutions in building power, as She the People sought to increase the political leadership of women of color.
“HBCUs are some of the most important institutions that are owned by working people and by black folks in this country,” Ufot said. “Our churches, our unions, and our HBCUs belong to black Americans. It is the place where we are able to meet. It is a place where people are being educated. It is a place where people are employed. They are such vital institutions.”
HBCUs account for merely 3% of nonprofit four-year colleges, but produce 80% of black judges and 50% of black lawyers and doctors. Yet they struggle with fundraising and maintaining accreditation, as people question their continued relevance. They not only hold cultural significance, but they are vital to educational attainment, wealth creation, and political power in black communities.
Ufot also held up black political power, particularly of black women, as a building block of a stronger democracy, and a key way we start to make the cultural and policy shifts we need to create a stronger America for everyone. “We understand power, who has it, who doesn’t have it, and what we need to do in order to get it to advance our agenda to take care of ourselves and our families and our communities and this country,” she said.
Ufot lamented how we remember Rosa Parks as a tired black woman on a bus, but not as the strategic, trained activist whose purposeful civil disobedience catalyzed the boycott that brought the Montgomery bus system to its knees. Ufot posited that erasure of black women’s savvy and skills intentionally buries significant cultural memory, which threatens current political power.
“For far too long in American politics, the role that black women particularly have played in winning campaigns has been ignored, or a dirty little secret that folks have not wanted to acknowledge.” She went on to say, “Don’t undermine us and undermine our work. Acknowledge the strategy is winning, and act accordingly.”
Ufot and the NGP are energizing and mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people of color to the polls for the first time. Rather than approach them as disempowered victims, NGP approaches them as powerful strategists whose voices, truth-telling, and institutions have been ignored or silenced. They invest in culturally competent outreach and messaging, and they are on the brink of turning Georgia blue.
The strategy is winning. May we act accordingly.
Prism contributor Irna Landrum is a Southern girl living in the Midwest. She is an essayist, campaign director at Daily Kos, and advisory board member of the Kairos Fellowship. You can follow her online @irna79.