Iman Shabazz grew up in Richmond and has served his community as an organizer and activist for 25 years. He currently works with New Virginia Majority on efforts to organize communities affected by mass incarceration. Iman and his colleagues will work to implement Governor Terry McAulliffe's April 22nd order to restore voting rights for 206,000 formerly incarcerated men and women through a large-scale voter registration effort over the coming months.
I’m not surprised easily, but the Governor’s order to restore voting rights to 206,000 citizens was beyond the scope of what I had imagined. On Friday morning, I received a call letting me know that I should be at the State Capitol at 11:00am—and that I should bring with me people who had struggled to get their voting rights restored. But I didn’t know exactly why I was asking them to attend! I told folks, “I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be asking you to join me here if it weren’t significant.”
As we stood there listening to the Governor, it took a while for the news to sink in. His order means that 206,000 individuals now have the right to vote—without an application, and without further delay. We started registering people immediately, including people who not long ago thought they’d never vote. It’s a humbling and exciting experience to see someone in that situation react to this news.
When I began my work on criminal justice—or, criminal injustice, as I call it—I visited communities in Richmond to learn what individuals there saw as their deepest problems. The conversations I had with folks always intersected with incarceration. Every person I met was either a felon or they have a family member or a loved one who was a felon. In some way, a criminal record affected how every family functioned. I heard: “I can’t vote,” “I can’t find a job,” or, “I can’t find better housing.” All those things had been denied because of felony records. Entire communities were struggling because of felony records.
So, the Governor’s action offers a stepping stone to empowerment. This change could have an enormous impact on the voting culture in Virginia and communities right here in Richmond. Not only can those of us affected by incarceration help elect our representatives—eventually we’ll also be able to build up leaders from our own community. There’s a lot of work and a lot of community education to do between now and then, but the Governor has opened an important avenue. We’ll register as many new voters as we're able as long as the order remains and no one comes in to dismantle it.
We need to turn the moment into a movement. We need to answer the question, “If my right to vote means something, then how do I use it to change my community?” We have to make action plans that move us forward.
Along the way, we need to focus on truly transforming communities. There are a lot of policies that wear a mask of progressivism, but don’t truly help the people they're intended to benefit. Personally, I’ve never been a proponent of “ban the box”—the legislation prohibiting employers from asking individuals about criminal records on an application—because it doesn’t help anyone after an initial interview, when employers are allowed to run background checks and dismiss people who have spent time in prison. And while creating jobs is an extremely important goal, we need to help people develop skills so that they can build their own businesses—and build wealth for their families and communities. By the same token, we often hear politicians speak about increasing funding for education—and I agree that it is important. But I encourage community members to ask themselves: What, exactly, do you want to see come out of that education? We need more comprehensive approaches to social policy. We need to consider carefully what community transformation really looks like.
As we advocate for that transformation, I would love to figure out how we amplify personal stories to the point where people’s realities are so glaring, so in-your-face, and so undeniable, that elected officials are moved to address issues in a different way. The stories you hear about poverty, discrimination, and injustice are not just stories. They’re realities. Families and individuals deal with those realities every day. For many of us, privilege affords the opportunity not to care. And unlike police violence, for example, you're not going to see a short video of someone being denied a job, or a grandmother figuring out how to support her family after her children are incarcerated. We know these stories. Now we have to make them impossible to ignore.
—interviewed April 26, 2016