With countless issues on the table, residents of the Bayview neighborhood are organizing and educating those in their community to get more people to the polls (or mailboxes) this election, hoping for change this time around.
In recent years, parts of the Bayview have had lower voter turnout compared to other areas of San Francisco. The Bayview is home to the city’s highest population of Black residents but also has significant immigrant populations.
Many issues on this year’s ballot are highly relevant to the Bayview community, especially the Black community, including affirmative action, affordable housing and rent control, voting rights for parolees and the police budget.
Across a wide range of fields, organizers say the solution to driving voter turnout is education. Various grassroots organizations are holding community voter registration drives, creating voter guides, and even helping residents mail in their ballots.
One active community organization is Mother Brown’s, a program under the United Council of Human Services (UCHS) that feeds people in the community, providing three meals a day, transitional housing, case management and more to people experiencing homelessness.
“I’m a political science major, so I knew how important it was for people to vote,” said the director of the UCHS, Gwendolyn Westbrook. “Every day when I first started, I would go downstairs to where the dining room was and explain to people that they had to vote; the only way we were ever gonna get any place was if they voted.”
Westbrook helped hundreds who came through the doors of Mother Brown’s register each year and mail their ballots. Arieann Harrison, who works at Mother Brown’s, would explain ballot measures and difficult words to those with questions.
With COVID-19 restrictions, Mother Brown’s now offers takeout only, but Westbrook said she has more clients than ever, and her efforts to get them to vote haven’t stopped. Early this month her stepdaughter, Kescha Mason, with Delta Sigma Theta sorority’s alumnae chapter, co-led a voter registration drive out front of UCHS, debunking myths about voting and sending a voter awareness car caravan through District 10.
Westbrook believes people are tired enough to vote. “It’s not just Trump. I think it’s a whole gamut of issues that people are now starting to become very aware of,” Westbrook said. Several propositions regarding housing, Prop 23 on kidney dialysis, and ever-present racism and police violence have a direct effect on her clients.
Assistant editor of the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper, Keith “Malik” Washington, hopes his media work will help show the community what’s important: measures like Prop 16, which could afford many minorities better chances at school and career opportunities through affirmative action.
Washington and Nube Brown, his fiancée and managing editor, wrote a story in SF Bay View titled “Black Votes Matter!” outlining issues that specifically affect the Bayview: outsourcing of construction jobs, the undocumented population struggling to find food, and the toxicity of the Hunters Point Shipyard.
Arieann Harrison hopes the Bayview is represented in future hiring and protected properly for dangerous jobs. “When it comes to the cleanup and management of [the shipyard], it should be done right,” she said.
In addition to her work at Mother Brown’s, Harrison is currently founding a scholarship in honor of her mother, Marie Harrison, a well-known environmentalist who worked in the toxic shipyard as a young girl and eventually developed severe lung damage. She worked with the non-profit Greenaction, which advocates for environmental justice, especially amongst minority communities.
“It’s not just Trump. I think it’s a whole gamut of issues that people are now starting to become very aware of.”
At Mother Brown’s and SF Bay View, they agree that education on the power of voting and the issues at hand is critical. “This education must start as early as elementary school,” said District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton, “and not just during election time.”
Census data shows the population of 15- to 17-year-olds in the Bayview is far higher than the rest of the city, and Walton hopes Prop 18 – which will allow 17-year-olds to vote in certain cases – will help more people in the neighborhood become lifetime voters.
“I truly believe the earlier you start, the more you will maintain a habit and a pattern of voting,” Walton said.
Walton has participated in voter registration drives in Bayview’s Mendell Plaza and done walks through the neighborhood to promote voting, alongside grassroots organizations like Megablack SF, which pushes for visibility and protections for Black San Franciscans, and SF Black Wall Street, founded in response to COVID-19’s economic impact on Black businesses.
Oppression and voter suppression
And the Black community isn’t the only one being affected by issues on the ballot. “The policy violence, environmental violence, medical violence, racism, white supremacy and our fight against that,” Brown said, “is creating a natural alliance between all oppressed people.”
The concept of voting is fraught with trauma for the Black community, Brown and Washington said, so voter participation is a complicated thing. “We put all of our efforts into voting, and we still can’t get our needs met,” Brown said.
On top of losing the motivation to vote, countless studies have shown that the Black community often can’t vote: They’re policed and incarcerated disproportionately compared with other populations. Having just been released from federal prison himself in September, Washington is also a supporter of Prop 17, which will restore voting rights to parolees.
“Black people as a whole, with the mass incarceration in America, we’ve been disenfranchised. So just that, being able to get your voting rights back, that’s huge,” Washington said.
However, Prop 17 is only a step in the right direction. “There’s a lot of obstacles in the way of people who are getting out of prison to make a smooth and successful transition back into society.” Washington is living in a Tenderloin halfway house, unable to find a place to live with his fiancée.
The SF Bay View has a designated section for prisoners’ stories, which is where Washington got involved with the paper several years ago. Meanwhile Brown hosts a radio show advocating for prisoners and a monthly event called “Liberate the Caged Voices.”
“Disenfranchisement, that’s just straight civil death,” Brown said. She believes all disenfranchisement is a form of exploitation: Prisoners are counted as residents of where they are imprisoned, not their home communities. This causes underrepresentation in their true home, and through artificially inflated numbers, gives political power to more rural white communities where prisoners are often held.
Washington and Brown are getting to know their new community, and trying to raise awareness at the same time. “Since I’ve been out, I hit the ground running, like sprinting,” Washington said.
Eleni Balakrishnan is a staff writer for El Tecolote and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.