All politics may be local, as the old saying goes. But power isn’t always. At least not yet.
This is the general inspiration behind a growing collaboration being piloted this midterm cycle between the NAACP and Esri, a geographic information systems (GIS) software company that provides mapping tools to global corporations, governments, and NGOs.
It’s about getting good information into the hands of the people who need it most.
“We’re a 113-year-old policy advocacy organization,” Jamal R. Watkins, the NAACP’s senior vice president of strategy and advancement, tells raceAhead. Their mission is to find increasingly effective ways to help on-the-ground volunteers and advocates understand the specific issues that are urgently impacting the communities they care about. “Think of this like a franchise model…hyper-local, with a primary focus on racial equity through policy advocacy. And we do that by optimizing civic engagement.”
And that’s where maps come in.
“Maps help to augment the story of what the circumstances are on the ground,” says Clinton Johnson, who leads Esri’s racial equity & social justice team, and who founded and leads the NorthStar of GIS, a community organization that focuses on racial justice and works to advance equity and belonging for Black people in the field. Mapping a political strategy is nothing new, he says. But looking at the physical world through a racial justice analysis is. “What policy interventions would emerge from a more complete picture of underserved Black communities?”
The partnership began earlier this year, and builds on an “aha” moment that happened during the NAACP’s 2020 push for a complete census count, says Watkins. The tracking tools they used were invaluable. “All of that connectivity ended up being useful so that our community members could say in real-time, ‘I see in my neighborhood, 30% of the population who should be counted has been counted, we got more to do,’” he says. Then, COVID made the use case even clearer. “Maps were in our faces in a daily way, literally tracking the COVID rates. So, how do we use that technology to also track and connect the dots on things that can provide us more solutions?”
It’s about putting the information in the hands of the people who live there, he says. “Having a map allows for our activists and community leaders to say, wait a minute, my neighborhood is behind in vaccination rates,” he says. Then, you’re mapping school re-openings and funding for schools. Suddenly, you have the receipts to have a better policy conversation. “You can ask ‘Is my school getting the same funding as other communities?’ and the maps can tell you,” Watkins says. “And if the answer is no, you can say, ‘Hey, school board, hey, mayor, something’s wrong here because the dollars flowing to this other neighborhood to get these schools ready to reopen are not flowing to these schools in my neighborhood or the neighborhoods I care about.”
ESRI is a fascinating, privately held company with a wide user base—everyone from major retailers looking to identify the next successful location to governments to researchers tracking climate change are customers. But the company’s openness to invest so much in equity work comes from the very top.
“We look at issues of a social nature or an environmental nature and try to build some of the parameters of that kind of thinking into the basic tools,” Esri co-founder and CEO Jack Dangermond told Alan Murray and me on the Leadership Next podcast. “So, when our users buy those tools, they wind up doing usually a lot more than their basic mission… They do things more efficiently, they do things more sustainably.”
When the mission is democracy, efficiency matters.
For Friday, I’ll be checking back in with Johnson and Watkins to get a report on how the electoral work went and how some of their other projects—like a national voter hub—are progressing.
More reasons for hope, below.
This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.
Here's what is top of mind for voters:
- Black voters are more motivated to vote this year, particularly those over 50 and who support President Biden. Top issues include inflation, health care, but also voting rights and access, gun violence, and policing according to polling via a collaboration between theGrio and KFF.
- While Hispanic voters have been increasingly attracted to Republican candidates in recent years, most indicate a Democratic lean for House district races. Latinx turnout tends to lag other groups in midterm elections, finds Pew Research Center. For registered Latinx voters, the economy is their top issue, followed by health care, education, violent crime, and gun policy.
- The Asian American/Pacific Island community is a broad and diverse group, and recent advances in polling have helped paint a better picture of voter sentiment. According to the 2022 Asian American Voter Survey, AAPI voters prefer Democratic control of Congress 54% to 27%, except for Vietnamese voters, who lean Republican 40% to 35%. Top of mind is the economy and health care, along with gun control and environmental protection. “Other surveys, including from the Pew Research Center, show that Asian American voters tend to be the most supportive in terms of abortion rights,” says Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy professor at the University of California, Riverside.
- Indigenous voters have new political power and agency. The biggest Native voter turnout in history was in 2020, which led to legislative breakthroughs in tent pole issues like education and tuition waiver reform, health care and community safety, and the environment. They’re representing, too—there are some 140+ Indigenous candidates on state and national ballots in 2022, according to Indian Country Today. But while Native American voters helped deliver Arizona for Biden in 2020, their rights and access have been under attack ever since.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s first dissent, in which she was joined by Justice Sotomayor, involves the appeal of an Ohio death row petitioner, which the Supreme Court declined to hear. Petitioner Davel Chinn was convicted of murder during a robbery in 1989; Chinn maintains that the state withheld evidence against him. She sided with Chin. “There is no dispute that, during the capital trial of petitioner Davel Chinn, the State suppressed exculpatory evidence indicating that the State’s key witness, Marvin Washington, had an intellectual disability that may have affected Washington’s ability to remember, perceive fact from fiction, and testify accurately,” she wrote. Under a Supreme Court ruling called Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83 (1963) this can be deemed a due process violation. Her dissent is here (scroll way down to find it).
A “critical race theory” tip line backfires. Earlier this year, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin set up an email “tipline” enabling parents of school age kids to report “any instances where they feel that their fundamental rights are being violated” or when schools are engaging in “inherently divisive practices.” The records collected by the governor were just made public by his office to settle a records disclosure lawsuit filed by 13 media organizations. According to the analysis conducted by USA Today, most of the emails were repeat missives from about three dozen email addresses, and CRT was not top of mind. “I explained to him that I was going to use that tip line to address issues that are real—not red-herring issues,” said Kandise Lucas, a special education advocate who accounted for nearly half of the emails discovered in the settlement.
Anti-trans legislation sputters in Ohio. This fall, State of Ohio Board of Education member Brendan Shea submitted a proposal to the voters which had the unique virtue of outperforming the other 155+ anti-trans gender bills floating around state legislatures. Where the other bills took more surgical aim, Shea’s proposal contains every vile anti-transgender talking point currently in circulation. If passed, trans students would be banned from bathrooms of their choice, sports, outed to their parents, and more. It took 24 hours for supporters of trans kids to organize and mobilize, says Erin Reed, a queer legislative researcher and activist for transgender rights, writing in Harper’s Bazaar. “[D]ozens of former and current transgender students, teachers, and parents gave testimony to close out the hearing, and passionately pleaded with personal anecdotes to give current trans students dignity,” reports Reed. The personal testimony was effective, and the measure was kicked back to committee, signaling a “no, at least for now,” decision. Click through for great tips for advocates and allies.