Even when she was a little girl in rural Alabama, Black Voters Matter Fund co-founder LaTosha Brown had giant ideas about power. “My whole life, I wanted to be a part of change,” said Brown, who co-founded the fund in 2016 with fellow political strategist Cliff Albright. “I wanted to use my gifts and skills to help people tap into their own sense of power. I’ve always been a natural organizer.”
Brown and Albright have one overarching goal with the Black Voters Matter Fund: to invest in long-term power-building in black Southern communities. They are intentional about moving resources into these communities so black people have increased capacity to build their own political infrastructure and set agendas in the best interests of black people, independent of candidates or political parties.
Brown’s first memory of standing firm in her own power was when she was 6 years old. She’d been an avid reader since the age of four. During the first week of first grade, her teacher, a white woman (ironically) named Miss White, took out a book. Brown excitedly informed the teacher she could read the book. The teacher completely dismissed her and told her plainly that she could not read. Brown refused to let it go. She insisted again and again that she could.
“She never gave me the chance to show her I could read,” Brown said. “It was a big deal to me because I am from the Deep South. You don’t talk back to adults. That is not what you do, at all, particularly with people of authority. It wasn’t in my upbringing that I would challenge an adult. But I was really adamant. I was like, ‘She is wrong. I can read.’”
That resistance against an authority figure who could not bring herself to believe in Brown’s power was a formative experience that would color a life full of activism. A thirst for reading and a self-proclaimed obsession with books has followed Brown throughout her life. She’s continued to treat knowledge and information as precious resources, to be shared and redistributed. It’s this propensity for sharing information that launched Brown’s career as an organizer.
When Brown returned home to Selma from Auburn University at Montgomery, she was 22 years old, single, and pregnant. She came home seeking a support network for her new family, and found work at a retail clothing store. The store had a high platform from which employees could oversee the entire space.
“I turned that into my soapbox,” Brown chuckled. “I read this book called Before the Mayflower. It just pierced my consciousness. So I would share when I was on the platform ringing people up. ‘Did you know that black people did this? Did you know we built that?’ It’s funny, because people would just sit and listen to me. And one day this woman walked in and said, ‘Have you ever thought about being an organizer?’”
Brown’s first organizing effort was a residents’ council in a public housing project in Selma. From there she moved into youth leadership development, but was soon frustrated with how under-resourced her groups and communities were. She knew they needed more power and cash if they wanted to be successful.
“I thought, ‘I gotta get money to the movement. So let me teach myself how to organize that,’” Brown said.
While trying to learn all she could about power, money, and redistribution, Brown caught the attention of some heavy hitters in Alabama’s political and civil rights arenas. People such as Alabama state Sen. Hank Sanders mentored Brown and taught her about how power really worked in legislative halls—about the meetings before the meetings, the deals made long before bills were voted on on the floor. Sen. Sanders’s wife, Faya Ora Rose Touré, also was a major influence, as was the Rev. James Orange, who had served as one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s lieutenants.
“I was very, very blessed in my early 20s to be directly poured into by people who had an amazing, sharp analysis around social justice that kind of took me down that road,” Brown said. “And that’s where I’ve been ever since.”
That road has led directly to groundbreaking work at the Black Voters Matter Fund, which played a pivotal role in the special election for the United States Senate in Alabama in 2017, securing victory for Democrat Doug Jones, a candidate few people thought could win.
According to Brown, the Black Voters Matter Fund is making three strategic interventions to shift the balance of political power in black communities. The first is to combat the resource gap disadvantaging these communities. Says Brown, “We’re looking at an infusion of political money that is an investment in long-term power building. We would literally invest in grassroots groups in the community that had the wherewithal to mobilize people, and were working day to day with people. In the 2018 election cycle, we identified, worked with, and supported 128 black-led community groups in the Deep South, and made an investment in them.”
The second intervention is to provide tools, training, and leadership development to community groups. “If the Democratic Party can hire consultants to work for them,” Brown said, “what if we became the consultants for black people, except that they don’t have to pay us?”
Brown insists that while many people of color don’t put full faith in the existing political system, it would be irresponsible for us not to acknowledge that politics impacts every aspect of our lives. “This is a system that is making decisions over the lives of our people, so we don’t have any choice but to engage in it,” she said. The Black Voters Matter Fund, however, is well-placed to push the envelope against the status quo. “We want to help communities build their capacity so that they can be self-determined and move toward self-governance,” she said.
The third strategic intervention of the Black Voters Matter Fund is shifting narratives. For example, it ran a campaign last year called The South is Rising that shifted the narrative away from a poor, downtrodden South to a rising South that is winning. “I don’t want to see more data points, another report, another study to tell us how broke, bad, and beat down and last we are,” Brown said. She laments how frequently Southerners are bombarded with messages about how their states are failing, and how the constant drumbeat of poor performance contributes to apathy. To combat that apathy, she insists that voter-engagement work move away from guilt, fear, and shame and toward empowerment.
“We go to the community, and we don’t say you need to vote because somebody died for you or these people are gonna take something away. We say, ‘You need to vote because you can win. You got the numbers, you got the power,’” Brown said.
When I asked her about the tendency to discuss the South as a series of failures, Brown quoted her grandmother: “You’ve got to speak life into our people.”
There is a scripture that asserts there is the power of life and death in our words. It is an admonishment to speak thoughtfully and with care, and it’s a favorite of black grandmamas everywhere. Brown continued, “People just keep speaking death and hopelessness over us. [The Black Voters Matter Fund] won’t speak death and hopelessness. We are speaking power and love.”
I invited Brown to speak love over the South, and discuss why Southern leadership is critical to political resistance movements today. She let out a gleeful laugh and exclaimed, “The South got it going on!” and followed up with a 15-minute love letter to the Deep South that is impossible to do justice in summary. Here is my attempt:
Brown praised the South as the heart and home of black political resistance in the United States, birthing such organizations as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the Deacons for Defense and Justice. She pointed out that, as we enter an era of increased white supremacist activity, we should take our cues from Southern leaders who literally could not live in the South without strategies to combat white supremacy.
“There’s a rawness of the South, and the entire transformation of this country is rooted in what happens in the South,” Brown said. “If we can’t change the South, we can’t change America.”
As a black Southern woman myself, I felt Brown’s words send chills down my spine. So often the progressive attitude about the Deep South is a dismissive “Let’s wash our hands of that whole mess.” Such a bold proclamation that the South, particularly the black South, is essential to reshaping and winning America gave me a rare injection of hope.
“We’re winning!” Brown exclaimed. “We don’t see Republicans acting a fool because we are losing! We’re experiencing the backlash of people who don’t want to see the inevitable change.”
Brown is very good at cultivating hope, speaking life, and continually challenging and poking holes in the dominant narratives in the political discourse and mainstream media. That’s exactly what she is hoping to do as a senior voting rights fellow with Prism.
“American democracy and its limitations are being exposed right now. That opens the perfect opportunity for people to start thinking, reimagining, and shaping what real democracy looks like,” Brown said. “Prism gives me a platform to be a part of that conversation.”
As a single, black woman born, raised, and politicized in the Deep South, Brown feels uniquely positioned to offer perspectives on how we shift the tides of oppression throughout America by prioritizing the liberation of the black South.
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.