The grassroots organization engaged residents on the issues that matter to them most, empowering them to be voters.
DETROIT —Detroit voters gathered with masks, signs, and a purpose to demand that every vote in the city be counted on Saturday, Nov. 7.
But before demonstrators could even gather, Michigan’s election results were called for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. What went from a protest turned into a party.
“It was so energetic. There was Black joy, brown joy, so much solidarity,” Kenny Williams, communications manager for Detroit Action, a grassroots organization dedicated to educating and mobilizing Detroit’s oft-forgotten elecortate, told The ‘Gander. “You could just feel the tension relieved in the air, but it was also a feeling that we’re going to get back to work.
“It wasn’t until votes were being counted in cities like Detroit, Flint, [and] Grand Rapids that we [Biden-Harris] started pulling ahead,” Vanessa Velazquez, field director for the nonprofit added. “If that doesn’t show you the power of Black and brown voters, I don’t know what can.”
Black voters powered Biden’s successful campaign, particularly in critical states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia. Nine in 10 Black voters nationwide supported him, according to AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of more than 110,000 voters across the country.
“Vice President Biden understands that we are fully formed American citizens who deserve to have full access to all the parts of progress in the United States,” said Stacey Abrams, a voting rights activist and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate. “He’s been willing to commit not only to plans, but he’s been willing to take responsibility for how those plans get lived out. … I want to see proper access to opportunity and I think fundamentally that is the wish, that is the hope, and that is the deserved right of every Black person in this country.”
Latino voters supported Biden over Trump, 63% to 35%, according to the survey. White voters, who made up roughly three-quarters of the electorate, were more likely to support Trump, 55% vs. 43% for Biden.
More than 74 million Americans voted for Biden, more than any other presidential candidate in history. But some Black political strategists and activists noted the 70 million votes for Trump, suggesting that some of those Trump supporters at a minimum turned a blind eye to the racism he demonstrated.
A Different Approach
Detroit and other Michigan cities with predominantly Black populations turned the tide in the 2020 election, flipping the state that supported Donald Trump by less than 11,000 votes in 2016 overwhelmingly blue.
Detroit Action targeted a different demographic than most mobilization efforts across the state.
“Everyone that the Democratic Party doesn’t talk to,” said Valasquez.
Detroit Action purposefully engaged a sector of Detroit’s population that has power but lacked empowerment, and it all began with researching voter propensity scores.
Voter propensity scores measure how likely a person is to vote in a particular election. According to Velazquez, Michigan’s Democratic party typically begins its canvassing efforts with voters who have scores as low as 60.
Detroit Action works with all eligible voters—including those who don’t even chart on the list.
“We did that because that means they’re either an unlikely or infrequent voter, or one of our youth,” she explained. “If you’re only 18, 19, 20, that means you’ve only had one or two elections to vote in…So, someone who turned 18 in February, but the primary was in March, were they really being engaged to cast a vote in that election?”
Building a Wave
Velazquez quietly chuckled when asked what efforts went into mobilizing Detroit’s young, Black, and brown voters this year.
“It was really challenging at first,” she admitted. “This was my very first election cycle.”
Velazquez is no stranger to organizing. She worked as Detroit Action’s canvass director in charge of building the group’s membership before taking on her current role. Elevating during a pandemic when most Michiganders were forced online—and with many of Detroit Action’s target residents without adequate internet access—mobilizing proved to be difficult.
“I was always asking the ‘who else’ question,” she said of her new methodology to ensure community members were not left out of the electoral process.
After honing in on the people Detroit Action needed to target, the organization pivoted to determining how to connect with potential voters. Between calls, texts, and social media interactions, Velazquez tried to ensure that each person was
“We also hired 22 community members and five new Detroit Action employees,” she said. “We made sure that they were people committed to racial and economic justice.”
As representatives of the community, some new employees experienced the same technological knowledge and access gaps as their neighbors. Detroit Action mitigated this by providing training and wifi access for all remote workers during the pandemic.
The group was instrumental in helping to mobilize the tens of thousands of Detroit residents who cast ballots in the 2020 election. Detroit Action is now working to ensure the integrity of Michigan’s election and that every vote cast is counted.
“Field directing is creating the plan to meet people where they’re at and have the formulated, strong conversation that mobilizes someone into action,” Valasquez said.
This year, that meant getting people to the polls, but Detroit Action works year-round, whether there’s an upcoming election or not.
“For example, the housing crisis since 2009 has preliminary affected Detroit residents in Michigan,” she said. “That is something we talk to folks about when we’re in the field. All the ways that we can challenge the way housing is protected in the city, but also the ways that we can push policy that protects us with housing.”
As Michigan works to certify the election results from this year, groups like Detroit Action are continuing the wave of participation, and continuing to inform Detroiters on progressive policies that can impact their lives.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.