Political strategist Jessica Byrd
I must confess, I don’t read a lot of books by men. But in February, I bought Brown Is the New White by Steve Phillips because I support his activist vision, and I wanted to show that support in concrete terms—book sales. His central argument (and he has the wonky numbers to prove it) is that in order to win elections, Democrats need to stop chasing white swing voters, and focus on consolidating a coalition of people of color and progressive whites, which are the New American Majority. The data supports the idea that when Democrats are bold and innovative in a progressive direction and do community organizing among people of color, they win. When they neglect communities of color and our issues, in favor of chasing white swing voters, they lose.
I was on board with the mission, so I supported the campaign, but I didn’t read the book when I first bought it. In the wake of Trump’s win, as I was coming to grips with this horrific political defeat, I turned to the book. I found it extremely comforting. Not that he was telling us everything is fine, but that it lays out a clear, winnable strategy to turn things around. Meanwhile, the author Steve Phillips had taken a leadership role in starting the organization Democracy in Color, demanding that the Democratic Party have a more open, transparent process to select new party leaders, with a focus on more diverse and progressive leadership that could bring about wins with the New American Majority. He lays it out neatly in his recent article in The Nation.
I was really excited to meet some of the women involved in the project, particularly millennial Black queer feminist activist Jessica Byrd. Jessica is a political strategist focused on recruiting and electing people of color and working with POC social justice organizations. After enjoying lots of smart things she had to say on Twitter, I was excited to get the chance to interview her. Here are some highlights of our conversation.
AYA DE LEON: I’m on fire for the Democracy in Color vision. As a political strategist, what’s your relationship to Democracy in Color?
JESSICA BYRD: I’m a self-proclaimed campaign addict. I’ve been working on campaigns since I was 17. One of the things I’m most proud of is that two years ago, I started a firm specifically dedicated to people of color candidate recruitment training and voter engagement. Steve Phillips, a longtime leader in POC voter engagement, reached out to me about a new organization he was founding. It was not only timely but absolutely urgent to start a public campaign around creating an inclusive Democratic Party. So he asked me to lead the campaign and I’ve been doing so since February of last year.
Do you identify as a millennial?
I don’t love the term because it comes with so much damn slander. I’m 29 and I’m gonna be 30 in February. I am a part of this generation that is being closely examined by political analysts, [not only] because our voting behavior is different, but also because the way we are engage with systems and institutions is different as well. We’re really under a microscope now, which I think is a good thing.
I’ve been really upset at the way that older writers and thinkers have been talking to or really at or down to millennials. Anything you want to say about that?
I spent this entire election cycle pushing back against that type of behavior, not only from our elders but also from people who have incredible influence over our party engagement. [I spent a lot of time] reminding them that, while it may be frustrating, millennials don’t respond to fear-based tactics. And this resistance to fear actually present an incredible opportunity for the democratic party to respond to innovatively. We need to think critically about what it means to engage 18 to 35 year olds. That is a huge group of people. And then when you add layers of race, gender, economics, geography, and whether or not people have gone to college then you are talking about an incredibly diverse group as well. So this idea that we’re going win their votes by wagging our fingers at them and saying your ancestors died for this? It just doesn’t strategically make sense. We’re losing a lot of opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue
I identify with some of that as a parent. I have a daughter and I see how much I wanted her to have a better life than me, and she does. But when she complains about anything, there’s a part of me that wants to say “hey, you don’t know how good you have it.” I think that’s the struggle of every generation. Yes, the work that has been put in has led to the millennial generation having higher expectations. We’re used to being able to utilize fear. It’s real progress that people don’t respond to fear.
I have four godbabies, all Black and all boys, and they have only known President Obama. And how gloriously beautiful that is. I know how rare and unique the Obama campaign was. I worked on the campaign for a year and a half. My elders would come to a campaign office and say, “I’ve never felt this before.” Now we have this group of young people whose first presidential election was the Obama campaign and I want us to begin to manage our expectations. It doesn’t mean that we need to relinquish our demands, but we need to manage our expectations about what it means to engage in the system even when we’re not inspired. So I think it’s a both/and. I want to be in community with young people with whom we are reimagining civic engagement. And I also want to send a message to institutions of power to say “you can’t just hand us a sack of shit and expect us to move forward with your recommendations.”
The thought that immediately came to me was that the Obama presidency was a miracle. Not that people didn’t work for it, but the stars aligned.
Right? What kind of alchemy was that?
For me, the reframe is that the Obama miracle was about showing us what actually is possible. Because we actually built the pathways—the work you’re talking about. We supported the people of color candidates. And we activated the New American Majority of voters. And we have a progressive pipeline. And progressives are more united. It wasn’t a fluke. So we can hold that inspiration as we build the base for the years to come.
I’m working with a lot of young, Black, radical organizations on voter mobilization. We got a lot of push back [in encouraging people to vote in the presidential election, because folks weren’t excited about their options and were more committed to focusing on community organizing]. One thing that really resonated with a lot of the organizations that I work with was a voter mobilization message that prioritized their organizing, as opposed to a democratic candidate win being an end in itself. One of the best messaging tools was to say “we are voting for the conditions at which we want to be organizing.” With Trump’s election now we have these horrific really uphill organizing conditions.
Yes! I didn’t need to love Hillary, but she could have been the landlady who owned the building where we would be doing our work to change the world. We really need that consistent message that voting is about creating the conditions in which we want to organize.
I was so connected to and inspired by the movement for Black lives over the last three years. I was looking around me and thinking that everyone is starting to behave so unapologetically. Because my skillset is on campaigns I do a lot of questioning of whether or not electoral politics is a place where change can happen. I have continuously pushed this in these young Black spaces, to have electoral politics as a part of our toolkit. Do you really want a toolbox that doesn’t have a hammer? Voting is the hammer. It’s not everything. It’s not our north star. It’s not liberation. It’s not a definition of our success. But it does provide us with an additional tool to move towards what success looks like. I work mostly with Black women candidates. The hope that Black women in electoral spaces provide is just on a whole other level. I am watching them behave so courageously. Immediately after Trump was elected, in the Georgia statehouse there was a bill about women being able to wear [religious headwear] in public. And the Georgia minority leader, Stacy Abrams—I hope she’s the future of Georgia—immediately galvanized the caucus to push back on this, and made it so plain that there was no place for those type of hate bills in the legislature. And those are the ways that I believe we can utilize electoral spaces to hold the line on what our communities deserve. But democracy is not a vision that has been fully fulfilled. So I’m working in this space that I actually think doesn’t quite meet what our people deserve yet. I’m constantly questioning how to utilize electoral politics for the good of social justice work. But then I also have seen it really work. So if we continue to reimagine it, that it can continue to grow in our favor.
Because of the outcome of the election, I’ve been thinking about the emotional dimension of people’s choices. Including their choices not to vote. For everyone, and also for Black people.
[For Black people, there’s] this deep, intense responsibility to voting. It is historied and weighted and these stories and this narrative around “your ancestors died for this” comes from this deeply emotional place. And people get angry. They’re so mad. And I think that that’s valid. I also think there’s this valid rejection of the idea that voting should not ever feel like a privilege. [Instead] it should be this automatic, very easy system. And the fact that it isn’t, means that it’s never the voter’s fault. That there’s a displaced blame. That’s valid too. Then how do we remedy the fact that the system is broken, [while acknowledging] we also have a responsibility at the same time.
One thing I really wanted to ask you about was gender in the Democracy in Color vision.
I have spent a long time doing research on Black women voters because I think that we have often been this lost, critical voter that doesn’t quite have a home. Because no one publicly acknowledges just how completely vital we are. One of the reasons we’re lost is because of the way that we are grouped. We are Black voters only without a gender analysis. And then, in a lot of ways, when you become Black voters, people think about Black men. I think Brown is the New White does a great job of bringing history and data into our mandate on the power of the New American Majority. Finding the intersections of identity in our analysis is where will we really begin to understand who our people are. Because what know about Black women—and what is emerging about Latinas—is when we vote our families vote. It’s not just about us. One of the reasons that we vote in the way that we do, it means that our sorority will vote, it means our church will vote. We bring people. We don’t go by ourselves. One of the reasons why I think that’s so important is if you get us, it unlocks this whole group of people.
I really appreciate that deeper level of intersectional analysis! Sometimes when the gender analysis is missing, the conclusion is wrong. I didn’t feel that way in Brown Is The New White—his conclusions felt solid—but it did feel like something was missing, and what you said is really powerful. Because so often it’s the women who are making sure that everything happens in families and communities, including voting. Shifting gears, what are your thoughts about feminism, pop culture and this political moment?
I think this election and the turnout really begs an important question about what big benchmarks for feminism should be. It felt to me like the ways in which white women, specifically, were being targeted by the Hillary Clinton campaign demonstrated that they had decided that a woman president was a huge benchmark for especially young white women millennials. So they deployed Katy Perry. They deployed Lena Dunham. They deployed this huge group of feminists to make this argument. And what we know now in the breakdown is that not only did 53% of white women vote for Donald Trump, but a huge group of college educated young white women millennials didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton. So for me, as someone who is firmly planted at the intersections of race and gender and class and sexuality I’m like, “well clearly y’all should be working toward our benchmarks.”
What stories should we be writing and disseminating via pop culture in this political moment?
I love this question. I think pop culture has such an important role in culture shift. I would love to see an emergence of sci-fi novels that reimagine democracy, and a comic book series that teach civics 101. AND I also believe that we’re in such an innovative time, that this already happening. The way that our young people use gifs and memes to explain complex policy is so brilliant, and shows like Insecure, Queen Sugar, Blackish use humor and humanity when talking about race which makes it feel more accessible and less taboo. Culture shift isn’t an earthquake, it is the slow progress of human understanding informed by storytelling. We must keep telling our stories in every medium.