Interview with Renee Parker Sekander, Executive Director at Organize Tennessee on how she started out in Politics, building a voter protection infrastructure in her home state, and what she believes electoral campaigns, advocacy and non-profit organizations need the most in order to be successful
Q: How did you get your start in politics?
Renee: My first job in politics was with Amnesty International. I was a street canvasser in Denver, Co, 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.
Q: What drew you into the job with Amnesty International in the first place?
Renee: I was a pre-med major in college, but soon realized that science and math weren’t for me. During college, I was subjected to all forms of harassment, sexism, racism…that 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.
Q: Talk to us about your work at Organize Tennessee. What problems are you solving and why does that matter?
Renee: Organize TN is a non-partisan non-profit organization 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. TN is a particularly hard state to vote in because of strict voter ID laws, poll closures, biases from poll workers, and misinformation. It doesn’t take much for people to be turned away from the poll.
Our voter protection work has 3 main pillars:
Ensuring 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.
Building infrastructure to protect voters: that 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 TN is offering a free legal education program on election law - 15 hours of 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.
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’ve been a TN voter my whole life, and have run into issues my whole life as well. 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 not knowing 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 to vote 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 the communities long term to change folks’ attitude and feeling toward voting, and to get them to adopt a culture of voting.
Q: 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?
Renee: Electoral campaigns and advocacy organizations need each other. Campaigns can’t be successful if voters aren't registered. If voters can’t vote, then campaigns can’t win.
When I was working for Amy McGrath’s Senate campaign in KY campaigning, it 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 TN, in 2020, the Senate race between Phil Bredesen and Marsha Blackburn was the most expensive race in TN 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.
Read Part 2 of our interview with Renee here where she talks about the organizations she looks up to the most and why, which resources have been most useful to her, the challenges she has faced, what she has learned and her goals for 2030!
About Renee Parker Sekander
Renee Parker Sekander was born and raised in Memphis, TN and graduated from University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 2013. As a queer, Black woman, Renee faced adversity that pushed her into activism for social issues that continue to impact her community to this day. After college, Renee made the decision to pursue activism full time with a nonprofit called Amnesty International USA. In 2014, Renee had thousands of conversations about global crises in Yemen and Myanmar, bringing attention to issues that many Americans were not aware of. Soon after, Renee moved to California to serve as the Canvass Director for Amnesty International USA, Los Angeles.
In 2019, Renee took a hiatus from the nonprofit world to prioritize domestic electoral politics. The first campaign she managed was the Mobilization Hub for California for Warren in Los Angeles. Shortly after, Renee moved to Louisville, KY to lead organizing efforts for the Amy McGrath campaign. After a heartbreaking loss, Renee moved to Atlanta, GA to manage the organizing efforts for the Senate run off with the Democratic Party of Georgia. She managed a team of Organizers and Volunteers that door knocked every day during the pandemic and she got her win. Finally.
Now, Renee serves Organize Tennessee as Executive Director. Her goal: to break down every barrier that stands in between Tennesseeans and the ballot box.