(Photo: Jon Dragonette for TIRRC Votes)
Since 2018, TIRRC Votes, an affiliate of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, has built an infrastructure across the state to harness the power of growing communities of color to have their interests represented in politics.
In August, TIRRC Votes celebrated the election of several pro-immigrant candidates across the state, including Shelby County District Attorney Steven Mulroy. Mulroy defeated incumbent Amy Weirich, according to TIRRC Votes director Lisa Sherman Luna.
But the new congressional maps have provided a challenge to TIRRC Votes canvassers and coordinators who spent years reaching large communities of color concentrated in urban cities.
Since Tennessee’s new congressional districts were drawn in early 2022, several civil rights groups including TIRRC Votes and the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP called the maps an obvious attempt to gerrymander districts by separating communities of interests, especially immigrant and Black communities.
Communities of interest refers to areas that share infrastructure, such as libraries, schools, fire departments.
Do we really think that a lawmaker who represents, for example, a rural community that is 95% white is going to have the same interests as some who is African American that lives in Bordeaux?
– Sekou Franklin, professor of civil rights policy and politics at Middle Tennessee State University
The new congressional districts split Davidson county into the 5th, 6th and 7th Congressional Districts, which cover many rural areas that are “overwhelmingly, super-majority white” he said. For instance, the 6th District covers voters in Nashville as well as voters in Scott County, which shares a border with Kentucky. The 6th District goes past Williamson County into rural counties. The 7th District includes North Nashville, which has a significant number of Black voters, also covers Montgomery County and several other rural counties.
“There were enough people in Davidson County to draw a congressional district, and in that particular area, African Americans, Latinos and others would have made a significant amount to have some influence in the outcome of the election,” said Sekou Franklin, a professor of civil rights policy and politics at Middle Tennessee State University who is active with the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP.
Instead, candidates will have to campaign for voters in both Nashville and rural counties.
“Do we really think that a lawmaker who represents, for example, a rural community that is 95% white is going to have the same interests as some who is African American that lives in Bordeaux?” Franklin asked. “These candidates may never have to step foot in Nashville to get elected and Nashville contributes more economically to the state than the other counties,” he added.
Several organizations, including the The League of Women Voters of Tennessee, CivicTN, the Tennessee Conference of the NAACP and other civic organizations organized a series of public hearings in East, Middle and West Tennessee to gather public comments, which were sent to the Tennessee Senate Ad Hoc Redistricting Committee. But public comment and advice from nonpartisan groups did not prevent communities of interest from being split.
But TIRRC Votes members have chosen to view these challenges with hope.
For the past few months, TIRRC Votes volunteers, canvassers and coordinators have reached communities in rural areas across Tennessee to educate them on the new districts and candidates.
“We’re looking into this as an opportunity, an opportunity to bridge that urban divide,” said Sherman Luna. “And to show voters in both areas that we have a lot in common and we all need the same things, such as good jobs, good education and quality childcare. The ability to have shared prosperity.”
Canvassers noted that immigrants and other communities of color in rural areas were largely disconnected from political conversations and had limited opportunities to be involved in elections.
“We know that these districts are going to be the heart of progressive organizing for the next decade,” said Sherman Luna.
And TIRRC Votes’ ability to reach voters across the state is aided by a growing network of members representing several different countries and languages. Since 2018, more than 500 canvassers aged 18 to 25 from 80 different countries have worked with TIRRC Votes.
“Our team is built up of people who are directly impacted in their communities. We’ve trained dozens of canvassers, coordinators across the state to lead this change we are creating in the South,” said Luis Mata, TIRRC Votes policy coordinator.
“I think we have one of the most robust programs in the state. We know it takes multiple interactions to get voters to vote,” said Pratik Dash, TIRRC Votes political director.
While redistricting was “ intentionally malicious and racist,” said Sherman-Luna, organizers remain hopeful that the voting power of communities of color will continue to grow.
“Ironically, the more success tha candidates of color have, the more they’re punished by the courts. The more they’re punished by conservative lawmakers,” said Franklin.
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