Women like Latashia Brimm and Tequila McKnight are a growing segment of the U.S. electorate and an increasingly impactful force when it comes to supporting, organizing and speaking for the needs of their communities. Their efforts can be seen in new, creative collaborations and initiatives that work to shift civic power to low-income neighborhoods and communities of color that have been historically disenfranchised.

Latashia Brimm and Tequila McKnight chatted through computer screens on a Thursday afternoon in early April. They took turns sharing stories about the challenges they were facing and the ways they were coping.

In the early days of the statewide COVID-19 shutdown, the women took their community support group online. The Torchlighters Re-entry Support group was created as a safe space to help returning citizens transition out of incarceration, but as the entire state teemed with anxiety in their houses under Florida’s stay-at-home order, strategies used to stay balanced in prison seemed to have a much broader application. They opened it to the public.

“We’re saying we’re the experts of social distancing when you’re forced to do it,” McKnight said. “Now everybody is in prison, you might as well say.”

Women like Brimm and McKnight are a growing segment of the U.S. electorate and an increasingly impactful force when it comes to supporting, organizing and speaking for the needs of their communities. Their efforts can be seen in new, creative collaborations and initiatives that work to shift civic power to low-income neighborhoods and communities of color that have been historically disenfranchised.

“Even though our numbers are not matching necessarily in terms of ability to fundraise and win elections, we know that women are able to mobilize in a way that can be very successful, especially at the local level,” said Nancy Abudu, Deputy Legal Director of Voting Rights for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Nancy Abudu, Deputy Legal Director of Voting Rights for SPLC, believes women of color are taking the lead to mobilize their communities because they are directly impacted by many emerging policies.

One example of this is the increase in the number of black women who have run for office in recent years—the number of black women elected to statewide executive offices doubled between 2018 and 2019. Still, black women only make up 1.9% of these positions, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

Black women are also one of the most reliable groups in terms of showing up to vote. In the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, black women voted at the highest rate of any race or gender group. In the 2016 presidential election, they voted at the second-highest rate of all groups.

Abudu believes women of color are taking the lead to mobilize their communities because they are directly impacted by many emerging policies, particularly ones with connections to environmental justice.

“A lot of the environmental justice front is about health and sustainable communities, and I think that the unfortunate reality is that the blacker a community is, the more sick it’s prone to be,” Abudu said.

Polluted drinking water in Flint, Michigan, the presence of hydraulic-fracturing oil wells in black neighborhoods, and low-income communities built on or near Superfund sites across the U.S. are examples of negative environmental policies that specifically impact communities of color.

“When you silence communities in terms of their political voice, it makes them more vulnerable to policy that just does not have their interests at heart,” Abudu said. “We become even more dependent on the majority to represent our interests, which the reality is they are just not doing or they’re not doing very well.”

A Simple Solution

McKnight and Brimm launched the support group through their fellowship at Community Spring, a grassroots organization in Alachua County whose mission is to dismantle structural poverty and spur economic mobility.

A 2018 report by the University of Florida Bureau of Economic Statistics found that in Alachua County, the median household income of a black family is $26,561, or just 51% of a white family’s income. Incarceration feeds this cycle, leading to generational poverty.

Anyone who identifies as having experienced poverty is eligible for the 9-month fellowship through Community Spring.

“We don’t run them through a variety of degrading tests to prove that,” said Lindsay Kallman, executive director of Community Spring. “If you identify with that, that’s good enough for us.”

The idea for Kallman is obvious.

“The issue with poverty is money,” Kallman said. “People want access to income. That feels really simple.”

I feel like if I would have had an attorney, I wouldn’t have gone to prison for what I did.”

Tequila McKnight

But someone may have access to income, yet not have the power to dismantle the systems that keep them in poverty. Kallman and her husband Max Tipping started Community Spring to employ those experiencing poverty to organize around the issues they identify as contributing to poverty in their communities.

They launched the Community Spring fellowship in 2020. McKnight and Brimm, along with Nadine “Hope” Johnson and Kevin Scott are paid at least $15 an hour half time to develop and implement a campaign around an issue of their choosing.

The 2020 fellows launched the Torchlighters Reentry Support program, with the tagline “Lighting the way home.” They each had been deeply impacted by incarceration and knew how the criminal justice system had a way of keeping low-income people in poverty.

“It’s not a fair system to me because I didn’t have money. I wasn’t able to get an attorney,” McKnight said. “I feel like if I would have had an attorney, I wouldn’t have gone to prison for what I did.”

Along with the support group, the fellows developed a communications and education campaign to change the narrative around the experience of reentry as well as a plan to make housing more accessible to people with criminal records.

But Kallman said the coronavirus has stalled some of the plans for the fellowship, which was originally set to end in May. She is currently seeking ways to extend it.

“While Gainesville is ripe for this type of initiative, because the interest and support is here,” Kallman said, “I would say that everywhere needs more support on reentry.”

Shaping the Law from the Inside

After working on Amendment 4, Polk, who is currently the director of community justice with the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding, was ready to finally focus on an issue that was personal for her: legal empowerment.

As a 2018 Soros Justice Advocacy Fellow and former law clerk within the Florida Department of Corrections, Polk launched the Legal Empowerment and Advocacy Hub, which houses the first participatory defense hub in the state of Florida.

Participatory defense is a national community organizing model to help families impacted by incarceration navigate the criminal justice system and build relationships with their public defender. Since its launch in March 2019, Polk has worked with about 15 families.

Jhody Polk launched the Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative, a program dedicated to improving the law clerk training program and law libraries in prisons throughout the U.S.

“We make sure that people don’t get railroaded in the courtroom. We do social bios to humanize them inside of the court. We make sure that the family members, as well as the incarcerated individual, understand every phase of that court system,” Polk said.

Her brother, Julius Irving, who is currently serving a 30-year mandatory sentence with no chance for early release, was her inspiration.

“I knew I had to bring participatory defense back to Florida specifically because we have a lot of people that are already gone,” Polk said. “If you look at [my brother’s] elementary records, his mental health records, if you look at some of my brother’s life before getting his conviction at 21 years old, I mean, to me, we would have totally been able to understand why this young man found himself in the criminal justice system.”

But, Polk also wanted to focus on legal empowerment inside the prison, and as part of the Legal Empowerment and Advocacy Hub, she also launched the Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative, a program dedicated to improving the law clerk training program and law libraries in prisons throughout the U.S.

“What I love about jailhouse lawyers, too, is that jailhouse lawyers don’t get out and then return back to fancy neighborhoods. They return back to their community.”

“What I love about jailhouse lawyers, too, is that jailhouse lawyers don’t get out and then return back to fancy neighborhoods. They return back to their community.”

Jhody Polk

In Florida, inmate law clerks work in law libraries after having completed the Department’s law clerk training program.

“We [jailhouse lawyers] are a pillar in the Department of Corrections, as well as I feel like an invisible pillar of our community,” Polk said.

When people know the law, they can use the law and shape the law, Polk said.

Polk has seen personally the reach that jailhouse lawyers can have beyond the law library in the lives of people affected by the criminal justice system. And it goes beyond that. Law clerks also work on immigration, probate and family law cases.

“It’s like a full-on law firm,” Polk said. “What I love about jailhouse lawyers, too, is that jailhouse lawyers don’t get out and then return back to fancy neighborhoods. They return back to their community.”

‘You Don’t End at the Victory’

For Amendment 4 organizers, the push to re-enfranchise Florida felons is part of a larger shift related to how incarcerated people are treated.

“One of the things, unfortunately, that we know is that for a lot of politicians, if you don’t vote, you don’t count,” Abudu said.

Abudu envisions a future where politicians will prioritize campaign stops at prisons statewide to try and win over the support of incarcerated citizens.

In the meantime, the fight for restored voting rights in Florida continues, most recently with a federal trial during the week of May 6.

Brimm, McKnight, Polk and millions of other returning citizens await a final decision, which could impact how and if they are able to vote in the 2020 presidential election.

Though the fight for Amendment 4 has come with challenges, Abudu is heartened by what its passage could mean for voting rights across the U.S., particularly in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which includes Georgia and Alabama.

“It’s already significant that you can’t tie a monetary obligation to voting rights because if Florida can’t do it then Georgia and Alabama shouldn’t be able to do it,” she said. “That really should mean that no state should do it. So if nothing else, it’s a huge leap in the advancement of ultimate full political and citizenship rights for people who have criminal convictions.”

Still, Abudu anticipates a long road ahead.

“I think that that’s what voting rights and, I think, civil rights in this country have unfortunately always been about. You don’t end at the victory. We’re always having to defend the rights we secured.”

The Fruits of their labor

Part I: Becoming Invisible

Part I: Becoming Invisible

As it does for many, Latashia Brimm’s pathway to a felony conviction started at a very young age. For her, it began with a sexually and emotionally abusive stepfather and a pattern of domestic violence. The fight to pass Amendment 4, also known as the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, spoke to Brimm’s need to regain her civic power and personal independence. With the…

Part II: Stifled Progress

Part II: Stifled Progress

Tequila McKnight is one of many former felons who joined a grassroots movement to campaign for Amendment 4. Voters ultimately passed the bipartisan measure by a majority in 2018. Since then, mounting legal battles and extensive barriers to reentry have stifled the amendment’s intended impact: to re-enfranchise over 10% of Florida’s population.

Credits: Photos courtesy Southern Poverty Law Center, T. Mushell, Community Spring & Jhody Polk