LaTricea Adams wants to see young Black people vote and has been working tirelessly to educate them about the collective power they possess.
“What’s most important to me and should be important to the rest of the country is to engage our first-time voters,” she told BET.
By day, Adams works full-time at the non-profit she founded on February 10, 2016, Black Millennials 4 Flint. It’s a grassroots environmental justice and civil rights organization with the purpose of bringing like-minded people together to collectively take action and advocate for the nation’s Black and Latino communities exposed to lead.
But that’s not all.
“I actually work for a local school board and as part of that role, I have been able to mobilize Millennials to actually go into schools to really encourage and empower our 18-year-olds, who are usually seniors, to vote,” Adams explained. “That’s often a group that’s not engaged very much. I think people forget that they turn 18 or they are 18, and they’re really, really eager to vote.”
Getting teens engaged and registered to vote is one piece of the puzzle, Adams said.
“The other part of that is around voter education,” she said. “One thing I observed with young people is the gap in understanding how a democracy works.”
Adams confessed that voter registration information and voting itself can be overwhelming at times, even for someone with her high level of expertise.
“There are times when I’ve looked at a local ballot and thought, ‘Ok, what is this referendum about?’” she said, adding how she understands how it could be especially confusing for young, first-time voters, and even people who are older and less educated.
“We were able to establish forums for those seats that are not just about the presidential election, that’s not just about a mayor or governor, but also judicial seats,” she explained. “We’re really helping people to understand how everything works together, but then also holding elected officials accountable to work for their votes and really instilling that power into the community for them to understand that elected officials work for us.”
Adams will represent BET Networks at a National Voter Registration Day panel, “Pass the Mic: Elevating Youth Voices in Civic Engagement,” hosted by Comedy Central’s Jaboukie Young-White, on Tuesday (September 24). She believes her “long term engagement experience” will be a positive addition to the discussion as well as her keen understanding of what’s on the minds of young Black voters.
“Their biggest concern is around jobs,” she said. “I think it’s because this younger group has watched Millennials struggle. Millennials have multiple degrees and are barely able to get jobs at Starbucks, not to diminish anyone that works there, but I know that is a concern.”
Before getting a job, there’s also the concern around the affordability of college and student loan debt.
To the candidates running for office, whether local or national, Adams asks, “What's the solution to ensure that our next generation are not in an insurmountable amount of debt?”
After all, the student loan debt crisis and unemployment rates go hand-in-hand, she said.
“I would ask, have they done their research around what jobs are needed within the next 20 years. In connection to that is, are we literally preparing our young people right now to assume the jobs that we know we need two decades from now,” Adams said. “Essentially, how are we equipping and creating a world for our young people where they will be able to sustain economically.”
Then there’s also the concern of sustaining the environment, something Adams applauds Generation Z for bringing to the forefront, and which is also a priority issue for young Black voters.
“I think it’s awesome because I remember when I was 18 that was not on the top list of my priorities at that time,” she recalled. “But I’ve seen even children who have not yet turned 18 having these really serious concerns and being able to clearly articulate issues around climate justice, of course around lead poisoning, because during a lot of their youth, there were huge catastrophes that happened during that time, which has also made them take focus on where these candidates truly stand about fixing everything.”
Generation Z is the generation of people born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. This means they’ve bore the brunt of environmental catastrophes like the Flint water crisis, which is still negatively impacting the predominantly Black community nearly five years after it first began, as captured in the recently released documentary Flint’s Deadly Water.
The children, who were 12 and 13 years old when the crisis in Flint began in 2015, will be of voting age in 2020. But they’re not waiting until then to have their voices heard.
On Friday (September 20) millions of young people skipped school and took part in the Climate Strike, with protests taking place around the world, including in U.S. cities like Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington, D.C., where there are large populations of Black youth.
Unlike other issues of importance to young Black voters, environmental justice impacts everyone. That is not the case when it comes to the unprecedented numbers of Black people incarcerated.
In 2017, the Justice Department showed a drop in overall youth incarceration rates in the U.S., but the gap between Black and white youth confinement widened, NPR reported.
According to the Sentencing Project fact sheet, in 2015, Black children were five times more likely than white children to be incarcerated.
So it’s no surprise to Adams that criminal justice reform is also a top priority for young Black voters. Still, she said it takes more than action.
“Especially with young Black voters, it’s not really clear how systemic oppression works,” she said. “So for those 18 to 22-year-olds, it is a concern, but it’s very broad, like hatred toward law enforcement.
“As it relates to criminal justice reform, that is where it gets really murky. But then at the same time, people are like, ‘Stop killing us,’” Adams continued. “That part is really clear.”
Another issue she says isn’t clear for a lot of young voters, especially from communities of color, is whether their vote will actually count and make a difference.
Adams said it’s a valid question that young people have “because they see so much disenfranchisement in their respective communities and just everyday life."
“What I would say to that young Black or Latino voter, or potential voters, is ‘What do we have to lose at this point?’” she added. “I think the situation that we’re in, with the current administration, can pose as a perfect example of what happens when some people don’t get out to vote.”
Adams’ strategy includes identifying ways to really open the young voters' eyes to the impacts their votes will have on a local level, and then nationally.
“Providing tangible, realistic things to young people,” she explained. “Being culturally aware and really keeping it real to be able to break down, ‘This is why your vote matters.’ And, ‘If you do vote, this is the hope and promise we have.’ And really talking about being an active part of the democracy, which again is where the voter education component comes into play.”
As far as being able to vote on election day despite challenges with polling locations, Adams said this is “low hanging fruit” in comparison to the other challenges communities of color face.
“One of the things I’ve historically done is a whole movement around fundraising and trying to get buses [to polling locations], and I know at some points we’ve tried to Uber people to polling places,” she said. “I’ve also seen some instances where community leaders will walk to the polling places together with the community if it's close enough.”
More than that is the anxiety around voting, especially for first-time voters or those who don’t feel the candidate has appealed to them, Adams said.
“Sometimes they can be scared to vote, depending on where you live. There might be issues with ‘Am I going to have the right items when I show up?’” she said. “I think being able to interact directly with potential voters before they get to the polls would be extremely helpful. Making sure you have the right documentation so that you can vote was a lesson learned for us, especially with young voters.”
In fact, it was during a recent NAACP panel that Adams took part in when the issue came up about Black college students having problems voting because their school address was not their permanent address.
“And that was a lesson of like, ‘Oh, here’s another level of oppression that’s been under the radar,’” she said. “We made sure we went back and did our due diligence and provided guidance to those young people who may be in the same situation.”
Adams points to BallotPedia.org as a wonderful resource to help people of all ages with the voting process and said, “We use this resource FAITHFULLY.”
(Photo: Maurice Bland)