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Protecting voters’ rights in Tennessee

Renee Parker Sekander was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. As a queer Black woman, Renee faced adversity that pushed her into a career of activism, working at Amnesty International. Next, Renee turned to electoral politics, managing campaigns for Mobilization Hub for California and the Amy McGrath campaign in Kentucky.

Renee also managed the Democratic Party of Georgia’s organizing efforts for the Senate runoff. She led a team of organizers and volunteers that knocked doors every day during the pandemic to ultimately achieve a big win.

Now, Renee serves as executive director of Organize Tennessee, where her goal is to break down every barrier that stands in between people in Tennessee and the ballot box. We spoke with Renee about how she started out in activism and politics, her experience building voter-protection infrastructure, and what she believes organizers need to be successful.

How did you get your start in politics?

My first job in politics was with Amnesty International. I was a street canvasser in Denver, Colorado, waving people over to talk about ethnic cleansing and human rights violations — things people didn’t want to talk about as they headed to lunch. I was, and still am, passionate about communicating with people about the things they don’t know or don’t yet care about.

Coming into the 2020 Presidential Campaign cycle, I went to work for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign because I believed that working to elect a qualified candidate is a good path to sustainable change.

What drew you into the job with Amnesty International in the first place?

During college, I was subjected to all forms of harassment, sexism, racism… I had no choice but to stand up for myself and others. I was involved with Students Who Stand, advocating for survivors of sexual assault on campus. We used to camp outside the dean’s office with a megaphone. That work was hard, and I wanted my voice to stop shaking when I’m advocating for my own rights.

Talk to us about your work at Organize Tennessee. What problems are you solving and why does that matter?

Organize Tennessee is a non-partisan nonprofit focused on voter protection. We’re training poll observers and equipping them with the tools they need to advocate and fight for voters on Election Day. Tennessee is a particularly hard state to vote in because of strict voter ID laws, poll closures, poll worker biases, and misinformation. It doesn’t take much for people to be turned away from the poll.

Our voter protection work has three main pillars:

  1. Ensure that everyone’s right at the poll is protected, whether through the voter protection hotline, with our poll observers on the ground, or with our volunteer lawyers.

  2. Build infrastructure to protect voters, which starts with training poll observers, recruiting attorneys for legal support, conducting research on the state of voter disenfranchisement. We want to have a system to help resolve any issue on Election Day as quickly as possible. Organize Tennessee is offering a free legal education program on election law — 15 hours of continuing legal education (CLE) credits per year for lawyers, especially since there is rarely any CLE on election law. Then we want those folks to come help us.

  3. Engage with election commissioners. These folks make decisions on how easy or difficult it is to vote. We share data on voters being turned away with them and share insights on confusion and miscommunication on the registration and voting process. It’s important to engage with people who can make these important changes.

I am a Tennessee voter and have run into issues my whole life. The law is confusing. For example: you have to vote in person the first time you vote — this confuses college students who registered online and don’t know that they had to go back home to vote in their first election.

I experienced that in my first year of voting and had to come home and vote on a provisional ballot. Turns out, provisional ballots are rejected if you didn’t vote at your correct precinct. If you had a hard time voting the first time, chances are, you won’t show up to vote in future elections.

Being engaged and encouraged by organizers helps, but organizers are usually only around for a few short months during the election cycle. We want to engage with communities long-term to change folks’ attitudes and feelings toward voting and to get them to adopt a culture of voting.

You’ve worked for electoral campaigns and now are leading this amazing advocacy organization. In your opinion, what does an electoral campaign need the most in order to be successful versus an advocacy organization or non-profit?

Electoral campaigns and advocacy organizations need each other. Campaigns can’t be successful if voters aren't registered. If voters can’t vote, then candidates can’t win.

When I was working for Amy McGrath’s Senate campaign, Kentucky was a hard place to organize because there wasn't a culture of organizing. Nobody anticipated that on Election Day, despite all the calls and texts we sent out and the doors we knocked, the Democratic Party of Kentucky lost 14,000 net votes while the Republican Party of Kentucky registered and gained over 65,000 voters. Even if we had registered every voter and got them to vote, we wouldn't have had the number to win.

Without long-term engagement in education and engagement, candidates don’t win.

In Tennessee, the 2020 Senate race between Phil Bredesen and Marsha Blackburn was the most expensive race in the state’s history. When Bredesen lost by a few points despite all the money raised and national attention gathered, people became skeptical about the possibility of change here. But when the money for organizing and engaging is gone, we can’t run field programs or digital programs. When people stop investing and believing, that takes away the ability for a state to move forward.

Electoral campaigns are important but can’t be the only time voters are reached. Voters get burnt out when they only hear from campaigns before an Election Day.

Who/which organization do you look up to the most in your issue area and why? What are they doing really well?

Nsé Ufot, the CEO of New Georgia Project, is my idol from a fundraiser standpoint. I’m an organizer, but now my work focuses on organizing through fundraising. She’s raised millions of dollars for her organizations and has been intentional and transparent in spending it, and she is a huge force behind how Georgia was able to flip blue in 2020.

She is so intentional about who she hires. When it comes to her hiring philosophy, she understands and looks beyond “official” work experiences for black and brown folks.

So many BIPOC organizers have been organizing their neighborhoods for so long without ever being paid, and she gets that.

And what are some skills you learned during the campaign days that translated well over to your current position?

Being myself. When I was knocking on the doors, there was a script to follow, and I was never the script girl. I wanted to get to know people first. I wanted to talk to people about their voting experiences and the importance of their vote. I wanted to talk to voters like I was talking to my friends. That has translated well to the current work I’m in.

As the executive director of Organize Tennessee, I’m asking people for large amounts of money. To be able to do that, people need to know more about me, to believe in me… if they don’t trust me or my ability, then they wouldn’t fund our work. It’s all about building relationships.

What kind of resources and communities have been the most helpful for you in this work?

The statewide nonprofit c3 table Civic TN has been very helpful with sharing resources we can’t afford in these early days. Civic TN gave us access to mobilize, grant money for projects, and provided support for our strategies.

On resources: our work is possible because of our major gift donors and small gift donors — 1,500 individual donors and counting — with our average donation being $22. This allows us to bring on an organizing director in a few weeks!

What have been some of the key challenges you have faced (or are still facing)?

Resources, coordination, capacity, education. There are a lot of nonprofits in Tennessee focused on registration, redistricting, candidate recruitment, running for office… There has to be coordination so that we don’t all work on the same thing but work with each other.

One of the hardest things is [that] the law is messy and frustrating and set up to suppress the vote. There is a culture of fear among advocacy groups and nonprofits doing this work — turn in voter registration cards with some errors on them and you might face jail time. It’s hard to uphold the law while you hate the law.

What have you learned over the past few years that you wish you knew earlier?

I knew this before, but I’ve learned this lesson even more now. Organizations that are led by black women are severely underfunded. It creates a scarcity mindset, knowing that there are not a lot of resources out there for us. There would be more collaboration, resource sharing, and communication if this problem didn't exist.

Funders are doing a better job of amplifying black women, but a lot of people want to find the next Stacey Abrams without thinking about how each state is different and might require different strategies.

What do you predict your organization will look like in 2030?

We want to be able to have a presence in all 95 counties on Election Day, with at least one poll observer at every single polling location.

We currently only have capacity to prioritize 10 counties, and we selected them based on Helm’s calculation.

Even better, we want to have a poll observer inside the polling location and one outside the polling location so we don’t miss any voter leaving the polling area without hearing about their voting experience and how we could help.

We’re not dreaming of flipping Tennessee. We want to increase civic engagement year by year and provide lunches, umbrellas if it’s raining, vests… to our volunteers.

Any last pieces of advice for your industry colleagues?


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