Don’t “Wait Your Turn” and Other Lessons from Netroots Nation

As we continue to approach the 2020 election, it feels like our collective anxiety about the direction of our country grows more each day. Last month, I was thrilled to channel that anxiety into productivity by attending Netroots Nation, the largest annual conference of progressives, which draws over 3,000 people to its programming each year. 

As an impact agency for film and entertainment, Picture Motion spends a lot of time communicating with grassroots activists and nonprofits who are on the ground addressing the most pressing issues facing our country today. Thus, Netroots Nation was a unique opportunity for us to put a finger on the pulse of the progressive grassroots movement, and fully tap into the impact side of our work at such a crucial juncture for our nation’s future. I am excited to outline two of the insightful panels I attended below.

Young Women Of Color Winning Elections

There are more young women of color than ever before running for office—and winning— but that’s not to say that they don’t face horrific racism along the way. Recently elected Pennsylvania Representative Summer Lee, Arizona School Board Member Elora Diaz, West Virginia Representative Sammi Brown, and Florida Representative Anna Eskamani all shared their experiences of running for office, which in some cases included violent threats and vicious harassment from their constituents. It’s important for us to remember that, although our pool of elected officials is diversifying and heading in the right direction, the racism they face every day is still very much alive. 

In addition, virtually all of the women on this panel were told in one way or another to “wait their turn” by members of their own party when embarking on their run for office. They were “too young”, “too radical”, “too progressive”. . . their communities were “not ready” for a leader like them. Each and every one of them rejected this advice and ran for office anyway. 

Not only did they win, they made history. Summer Lee took on a 20 year entrenched incumbent and became the first black woman to represent Southwestern Pennsylvania in the state legislature. Elora Diaz was the first person of color to win a seat on her school board in decades, in a district comprised of 90% students of color. Anna Eskamani was the first Iranian-American woman to be elected to any level of public office in Florida. And Sammi Brown defeated her Republican incumbent in a district where Trump won by 12 points. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of “the squad” have also been told to “wait their turn” to make change in Congress. My takeaway from this panel? The time for waiting is over. 

I encourage you to read more about each of the women mentioned above, starting with this New Yorker profile about Summer Lee’s historic run. You can also read more about the panel here

Different Math: Candidates and Campaigns that Changed the Voter Landscape

It seems like ever since November 2016, the media and general public opinion would have you believe that our country is split right down the middle, with half of us in favor of Trump and the other half in favor of. . . anyone but him. The panel I attended featuring Texas House of Representatives candidate Sri Kulkarni challenged that notion. 

In 2016, around 60% of eligible voters turned out to vote. Compared to other highly developed, democratic countries, our voter turnout is quite low. It would be easy to blame the American public, calling them lazy, apathetic, and too Instagram-obsessed to care about the future of our country, but in reality, most candidates are not doing enough to engage all of their constituents.

Sri Kulkarni explained why he ran his Congressional race with this in mind. “Maybe they don’t vote because we don’t bother,” he remarked. His district, Texas’ 22nd, is comprised of many non-English speaking communities from all over the world, and because of this, he decided to campaign in 13 languages, including six major dialects spoken in India, Nigeria’s Igbo language, Sri Lanka’s Tamil language, and more. His district has the highest number of Asian American voters in Texas, and according to Kulkarni, both parties have historically ignored them as viable voters. This is true outside of Texas as well—according to 2018 national polling from APIA Vote and AAPI Data, only 16 percent of Asian American voters were aggressively courted by Democrats, and only 10 percent were courted by Republicans. 

Due to Kulkarni’s work engaging and registering new voters, his campaign had historic results. He lost by only 14,000 votes, nearly flipping his traditionally red district. He plans on running again in 2020 with the same strategy.

Voter engagement is crucial, and we need to focus on bringing in those who feel left out of the political process, like immigrants and non-English speakers. As Kulkarni demonstrated, they are likely unengaged because no one has ever bothered to engage them. So while people would have you believe that our country is split down the middle politically, I’d urge you to remember the 100 million eligible voters who did not vote in 2016. Let’s focus on working to engage all American citizens in our democracy.

Want to help engage Americans in our democracy? Volunteer for organizations like Voto Latino and APIA Vote, or join local initiatives working to register people to vote in your own community. 

In sum, I felt inspired by the young women of color challenging the status quo and making change in their communities, and motivated by the notion that we can work to engage Americans who have traditionally been left out of the political process. Here at Picture Motion, we’ve spent the last few months working on films that amplify these messages and more, such as Knock Down The House and Rigged: The Voter Suppression Playbook. I look forward to continuing our work in this space, leveraging film and media to move us forward in 2020.  

By Lillie Fleshler, Impact Distribution Coordinator