• Helm

Protecting voters’ rights in Tennessee - Part 2

Part 2 of our interview with Renee Parker Sekander, Executive Director at Organize Tennessee on organizations she looks up to the most and why, what she has learned so far, resources that have been most useful to her, the challenges she faces and her goals for 2030.

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

Renee: 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 is a huge force behind how Georgia was able to flip blue last cycle. She does everything in style: she consistently hires and 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 it.

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

Renee: 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 TN, 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.

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

Renee: The statewide nonprofit c3 table (Civic TN) has been very helpful with sharing resources we can’t afford in these early days. They 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!

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

Renee: Resources, coordination, capacity, education. There are a lot of nonprofits in TN 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 operating within the law in TN - 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.

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

Renee: I knew this before, but I’ve learnt 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.

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

Renee: We want to be able to have a presence in all 95 counties on Election Day, with at least 1 poll observer on every single polling location. We currently only have capacity to prioritize 10 counties, and we selected them based on Helm’s Civic Score 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 TN. We want to increase civic engagement rate year by year, and to be able to provide lunches, umbrellas if it’s raining, vests… to our volunteers.

Q: Any last pieces of advice for your industry colleagues?


Read part one of our Interview with Renee here.

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.