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I first met Shennell McCloud when she was Director of Recruitment, and then as Director of Advocacy for KIPP New Jersey, a charter school network with schools in Newark and Camden. As founder and Executive Director of the non-profit Project Ready, she’s expanded her reach, creating programs that educate, energize, and activate advocates, particularly in low-income communities like her hometown Newark. With the election looming, we spoke about the importance of local elections and why November 3 is about more than Biden v. Trump.
Shennell, what are Project Ready’s plans to increase voter turn-out, historically so low in Newark?
Our overarching objective has always been to ensure that we’re supporting communities to build political power. How do they build that power? Through their voices, which speak loudly on election ballots. And in order to maximize that power, we need to ensure that the community has the resources to understand the power of their vote.
That’s my theory of change. If more people are committed to voting, we can see a shift in leadership and can challenge elected officials to represent our issues, particularly those that affect parents, families and children.
That was Project Ready’s first campaign, right? To get 1,000 Newarkers to register to vote by mail?
Yes. On Election Day—and this is before the pandemic—Newarkers might have problems getting to polls. Work schedules, childcare, transportation can be obstacles to exercising the power of one’s voice. Voting by mail—and you know, Laura, we beat our goal—eliminates those obstacles.
And now our primary program is “Ready to Vote.”
Tell me about that.
We’ve created a comprehensive website that provides people with all the information they need to register to vote, find out where ballot boxes are, and access everything they need when New Jersey voters start receiving their ballots on October 5.
We have a partnership with three other groups that share our goals: When We All Vote, Audible and the Newark Museum of Art. Together we’ve pledged to contact 10,000 voters and urge them to cast their votes, which we’ll do through robust phone-banking and texting teams as well as a social media campaign. We’ll have our teams available to answer any questions about ballots and to make sure everyone has everything they need to make informed decisions.
As part of this effort, we’ve set up a way for people to pledge that they’ll vote. According to studies, voters are more likely to vote if they’ve made a commitment to do so to a non-profit and that non-profit connects directly with each voter.
But you want people to look further down the ballot than the presidential race, right?
Absolutely! All politics is local. We’re not just activating voters for this November but for all elections, from the governor to state legislators, to city council members, to school board candidates. It’s imperative that communities are sending messages to their local representatives.
In November our representatives in Congress are up. I explain to people that one of Congress’s roles is to fund the U.S. Postal Service, which is a critical part of making sure your ballot gets to its destination. We have to be educated on all elected officials, not only the president.
How do you educate your community about down-ballot candidates?
We’ve created a solid partnership with the Essex County Clerk’s Office. They send us sample ballots as soon as they’re available so we can get people engaged. We post the ballot on our website so voters can familiarize themselves with the candidates. We use our Facebook and Instagram pages to break the information down and share it with as many people as possible.
You see, this is how we build a base of people who feel powerful.
Sounds like this is part of your theory of change.
Of course it is. We must insist that elected officials clearly see the needs of our children. Throughout Covid-19 and the statewide issue of the digital divide, particularly in cities like Newark, we’ve seen people put into positions of power who have been able to advocate for more funding, for local policies in school districts.
You see, what connects us all is what leads to positive changes for our kids. And we achieve those positive changes when we vote for the right people who will implement the right policies. That’s why I’m always saying that all politics is local. Our school board members decide if our superintendent is doing a good job and how our school funding is disseminated to our kids. Our governor is making constant decisions about whether to open schools and how to keep our kids safe during a health crisis.
How do your larger goals for Project Ready connect to voting?
We know that long-term, sustainable, systemic change happens through civic engagement and democratic participation. We are committed to creating a strong culture of voting in Newark and across the state. In doing so, we get closer to a world where no community is left voiceless and, as a result, we create a safer, better, and more just world, one that improves life outcomes for all children through the power of communities.
That’s my goal. That’s my dream.
(This interview first appeared on Education Post.)