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African American Women Working To Get Cleveland Voters To Polls

Cleveland and Akron-based members of historically Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha held a virtual watch party Wednesday to see their sorority sister Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) debate Vice President Mike Pence in Utah. 

Harris’ ascension in the Democratic Party is due in part to the staunch support of African American women, who are considered a key constituency. And both national and local Democratic Party leaders are counting on Black women to help get voters to the polls this year.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, several local organizations set up tables and signs in front of a home in Cleveland’s Lee-Harvard neighborhood, flagging down passing cars to talk about voting.

“Now you know you can drop your ballot off at the board of election,” AKA sorority member Synita Brazil said to one driver who pulled over.

“That’s what I’m gonna do since they got the post office all messed up,” he replied.

Brazil and other Black women from several professional organizations including, the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition and Black Girls Rock, were at the East Side event to help try to get the attention of cars going by.

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Synita Brazil, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, waits for cars to pull over on Harvard Avenue. [Marlene Harris-Taylor / ideastream]

Harvard Avenue is a busy street, so the women were enticing people to stop with large signs offering goodie bags and free masks.

“Here’s your lunch, your mask, and other goodies, thanks for stopping,” said retired college professor Mittie Davis Jones.

“I appreciate it,” one driver said. “Gotta vote. Gotta get ‘em out of there.”

Jones, chairwoman of the Alpha Omega Chapter of AKA’s local social action committee, said historically, Black women were always behind-the-scenes organizers at churches. Those skills migrated to professional groups and are now being used to help with efforts to get out the vote in minority communities.

It fills Jones with pride seeing her sorority sister run for vice president, she said, but Jones is very cautious and does not talk about Harris at election events.The sorority, as a non-profit, has to be careful not to endorse any candidates, but instead concentrate on voter education, she said.

“I think it is a culmination as well as recognition of how African-American women had been so instrumental in politics, especially as it relates to the Democratic Party,” Jones said. “And so it's kind of rewarding to see, you know, that recognition there in terms of the role that African-American women have played and will continue to play in electoral politics.”

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AKA members across the country and in Northeast Ohio are rallying behind their sorority sister Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who was nominated to be the vice presidential candidate on the 2020 Democratic Party presidential ticket alongside former Vice President Joe Biden in August.  [Annie Wu / ideastream]

During her acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in August, Harris – who joined AKA as an undergraduate student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. – gave a shout out to her sorority sisters and the historically Black sororities and fraternities known as the Divine Nine. 

“Family is my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha, the Divine Nine and my HBCU brothers and sisters,” Harris said during the speech.

Another local group from the Divine Nine, Delta Sigma Theta sorority, has also been hosting election education events in the Cleveland area, recently co-sponsoring a virtual public forum on Zoom featuring several local judicial candidates.

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Cleveland members of Delta Sigma Theta sorority co-hosted a virtual forum to educate voters about judicial candidates on the 2020 ballot. [Zoom screen shot / ideastream]

These Black women-led organizations are known and trusted in the community, said Shontel Brown, chairwoman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party,and have been one of the driving forces behind local get out to vote efforts during the pandemic.

“Joe Biden and his campaign have been proceeding with an abundance of caution,” Brown said. “Instead, they've been doing a lot of things, virtually. But in the absence of the grassroots, one-on-one contact, those organizations that we just mentioned have been stepping up, doing drive-thru registrations and a number of safe events.”

Black women are the Democratic Party’s largest and most consistent voting bloc, Brown said.

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Yvonka Hall, from the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition, holds a sign offering free masks to attract the attention of drivers at the voter education event. To her left is Cleveland dentist, Dr. Joy Jordan, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.. [Marlene Harris-Taylor / ideastream]

According to exit polls following the 2016 presidential election, more than 90 percent of Black women voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump.

But analysis by the Associated Press found Black women are often more moderate than the Democratic Party as a whole and are less likely to identify themselves as liberal.

Brown made history herself, three years ago, by becoming the first African American elected to lead Cuyahoga County Democrats. Since then, many more Black women have been elected to local offices from school boards to the courts, she said.

We can be out in the forefront and be at the table making these decisions. We deserve to be there. In the words of my sister, [state] Rep. Emilia Sykes, we belong here,” Brown said.

AKA plans to continue get out the vote efforts through Election Day, including a texting campaign encouraging people to vote early, Jones said.

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