President Taariq Cheatom of Sigma Nu, a chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, and graduate fraternity brother Karon Chambers emphasized the importance of the black vote in local elections the Wednesday evening of Feb. 19, in a discussion called “Vision 2020.”
“Vision 2020” sparked conversations about mass incarceration, voter suppression, the upcoming census, partisan voting and class inequality. Two black Passaic County legislators, Assemblywoman Shavonda E. Sumter and freeholder Theodore Best, Jr., spoke at the meeting, addressing an audience of black students and faculty members.
They described how they used their positions to create change, and highlighted the importance of voting at the local level and attending college board and city council meetings.
Cheatom kicked off the event by screening the music video for “My Vote Don’t Count” by YelloPain. YelloPain’s rap asserts that viewers must focus on not just the executive branch of government, but also the legislative and judicial branches at both the national and local level. The song pointed out that the reason many of Obama’s bills did not get passed was due to a Republican-controlled Congress that voted against them.
Sumter told students about laws she passed to combat systemic issues plaguing communities of color. A firm advocate of voting rights for incarcerated people, she worked on legislation that restored voting rights for New Jersey citizens on parole and probation.
Governor Murphy passed the law last year, and it goes into effect on March 18 this year. It will return the right to vote back to 80,000 people.
“Voting is a human right that should not be taken away based on committed a crime,” Sumter said. “We have been conditioned to think voting is connected to the penal system, which it is not.”
Sumter, who was first elected as Assemblywoman in 2012, will be up for re-election this year.
Cheatom and Chambers talked about the importance of participating in the 2020 census. The population count determines how much money the federal government allocates to states and municipalities for public services and how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives.
This money, the fraternity members noted, can go towards improving the communities where students live. New Jersey can also gain or lose seats in the House of Representatives if the count is high or low enough.
“Don’t go to protest,” Best said. “Just show up. [The board members are] going to be so confused, and after you’ve attended two to three, ask for what you want, and they’ll know that you’re serious.”
Best encouraged students who want to get involved in politics to take on an internship to see how the lawmaking process works.
Cheatom also showed a Vox video that told the story of a 1898 coup by white supremacists against the black political leaders in Wilmington, North Carolina. The video promoted discussion about the shifting ideologies of the two leading political parties, representation in the federal government and the possibility of something similar happening today.
With the Los Angeles Democratic debate the same night as Vision 2020, Cheatom, Chambers and the attendees of the event also discussed what they should look for when deciding on a 2020 Democratic candidate.
“I think there are two things you should consider,” said Rogernelle Griffin, director of the Academic Success Center at William Paterson. “What issues mean something to you? And what is [the candidate’s] record? How have they treated your community in the past?”
Cheatom closed the event by again telling everyone to vote.
“Our vote is very powerful,” he said after the meeting on what he hopes is the one thing attendees took away. “It’s the one thing we have.”