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NewsSep 18, 2020

LesleyVotes panel underscores urgency of 2020

Panel of elected officials and other community leaders say voting is a necessary first step toward fostering change, particularly for people of color

Lesley's Brattle campus

Lesley alumna and community activist Cheryl Clyburn Crawford '80 left no room for ambiguity last night with regard to the Nov. 3 United States election.

“Vote as if your life depends on it: because it does,” said Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE and vice president of the NAACP Boston Branch, speaking as part of the panel at the center of the 2020 LesleyVotes Talk, a virtual forum hosted by the university.

The nonpartisan forum was part of the LesleyVotes initiative, designed to spur student, staff and faculty involvement in the political and community organizing process, with particular attention to people of color, as a means of empowering themselves and supporting social justice.

In addition to Crawford, the panel included:

  • Sumbul Siddiqui, mayor of Cambridge. Siddiqui’s city initiatives include the Mayor's Task Force on Displacement, increased funding to legal aid services, and the workforce development consortium. In 2018, she launched a Cambridge DEEP (Disruptive Equity Education Project) geared toward community dialogue on dismantling systemic racism and oppression.
  • Danillo Sena, member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Sena hails from Brazil and is the first person of color elected state representative in the Worcester and Middlesex 37th district.
  • Kim Janey, president of the Boston City Council. Janey represents District 7 and is the first female city councilor in that district. She is a leader in matters of equity, racial justice and community empowerment. Additionally, she is a founding board member of the voting rights group MassVOTE.

The panel moderator was Bwann Gwann, a student success coach for our Urban Scholars Initiative. Lesley live-streamed the forum on Facebook.

In her brief opening remarks, university President Janet L. Steinmayer greeted the panel and, lauding their bona fides, said she “can’t help but be optimistic about our future,” while still acknowledging that the economic, political and health crises of the day disproportionately affect communities of color.

That’s why, she added, it’s crucial for people to get involved and vote.

“Whatever the outcome, I hope that all of you — especially Lesley students — will commit to remaining civically engaged.” 

All the panelists expressed that same essential sentiment, with Mayor Siddiqui saying that, despite gains by people of color, there’s “still so much work to do.”

“We must not stay away from the constant and deliberate work to remove the stain (of racism) from our lives, especially for Black and Brown Americans,” Siddiqui said.

Crawford agreed that, despite reason for optimism, the struggle continues.

“Here we are again, fighting for the same thing we have been fighting for forever,” Crawford said, explaining that the Voting Rights Act of 1964 was a huge step forward, “but then we stopped.”

“Right now is the opportunity for us to make some real, real change,” she said.

Janey agreed, saying, “I’m reminded of the work that’s not done, but I’m also reminded that this a 400 year history.”

Her opinion was echoed by Sena, who said, “People of color have had a disadvantage for many years, as we know … on all levels, social injustice exists.”

A time of crisis

Gwann asked the panelists to weigh in on the situation faced by people of color in the midst of the COVID-19 panic, and the accompanying economic stress often compared to the Great Depression.

Janey responded, “For Black folks, things have been bad, have already been bad.”

She spoke about her grandfather telling her he subsisted on butter sandwiches every day during the Depression, but the economic hardships didn’t end with the New Deal. Disparities in wealth, health, criminal justice and other areas of life persist, and she believes working within the system is the best way of changing the system.

“We have to move forward legislation that undoes some of the harm done” since the nation’s founding. “We’ve got to come up with legislation that addresses structural racism.”

Siddiqui responded to the Boston city councilor, “We knew the pandemic would exacerbate both our cities’ issues,” and talked about how some disparities, such as laptop computers and Wi-Fi for public school students, were addressed only after the pandemic struck, even though the state had the resources to close the “digital divide” much sooner.

“Vote as if your life depends on it: because it does.”
Cheryl Clyburn Crawford ’80, Executive Director of MassVOTE and Vice President of the NAACP Boston Branch

Crawford agreed that COVID “exposed the inequities,” and added that voting is “one part of the overall strategy” toward achieving equity.

“There’s so many issues around why people don’t vote, and we know people should vote,” Crawford said. “If your vote didn’t matter, why would they work so hard to keep you from voting?”

All the panelists acknowledged the skepticism about the political system expressed in one question from the audience, but agreed that voting-plus-direct community action comprise the solution to dismantling racist structures and building an equitable society.

 “The system is designed to benefit a select few at the expense of everybody else,” Janey said, adding, with irony, “The system is not broken, it’s working as it was designed to.

“Nov. 3 is going to come and go, but the real work is going to continue after Nov. 3.”