Our Body Politic

Mobilizing for 2024: The Power of Ballot Initiatives and Engaging Black and Asian American Voters

Episode Summary

On this episode of Our Body Politic, Sayu Bhojwani, guest host and founder of Women’s Democracy Lab, speaks with Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, Executive Director at The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center about the power of ballot initiatives. Then Sayu talks with Grace Choi, CEO & Founder of Karis Consulting Group and LaTosha Brown, Co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund about mobilizing diverse voters. We round out the show with host Farai Chideya’s conversation with Tiffany Hammond, author of “A Day with No Words” about creating community while raising two sons with autism.

Episode Transcription

Sayu Bhojwani [00:00:04] Hi, folks. We're so glad you're listening to Our Body Politic. If you haven't yet, remember to follow this podcast on your Podcatcher of Choice like Apple or Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have time, please leave us a review. It helps other listeners find us and we read them for your feedback. Here's what one of you had to say. Thank you. I listen every week. Your work is a relief in a sea of mediocrity. Thanks so much for the review. We're glad you enjoy the show. You can also reach out to us on Instagram and X @OurBodyPolitic or you can sign up for our newsletter. Just click on the link in the bio. We're here for you. With you. And because of you. So keep letting us know what's on your mind. Thanks for listening.

This is Our Body Politic. I'm Sayu Bhojwani, founder of Women's Democracy Lab sitting in for Farai Chideya. There's more to voting than just going to the polls. It's also about mobilizing communities and the issues that impact them and what's on the ballots themselves. This November, Ohioans voted in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana and abortion access. 

Lauren Blauvelt [00:01:22] Abortion is health care. And abortion access is the law of the land in Ohio. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:01:34] That was Lauren Blauvelt, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio, speaking to a crowd as news dropped that Ohio voters had approved issue one, a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to an abortion, along with issue two, which legalized recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older to buy, grow and possess both ballot measures in Ohio, where citizen initiated. Where voters can take democracy into their own hands. To understand more about ballot measures and how they impact our democracy, we speak with Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. Chris, welcome to Our Body Politic. 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:02:19] Thank you for having me. I'm so excited to have this conversation. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:02:23] And we're excited to have you here. So, Chris, could you give us a brief rundown of what citizen initiated ballot measures are? 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:02:32] Sure. So over 120 years ago, we had a lot of corporate control of government. The railroads out west had an oversize power in what was happening at the state legislative level. And so so people got together and created what we know as citizen led initiative process that gave the ability for the people, us, you and me, to directly go into our community, gather signatures on different issues and put them directly on the ballot for the people to vote on. And so about half the country has this process that looks a little bit different in every state because we can't have a uniform election system in the US. But there's also, you know, a racist history to ballot measures as well to people power, democracy or direct democracy. We don't see ballot measures in places where there was significant Black population or former slave holding states. So that's the thing that we have to contend with when we think about whether this actually is truly the people's tool to bring power into their hands and vote on issues that are important to their community. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:03:42] So just to clarify, you're saying that not every state has ballot measures and the ones that don't tend to be the ones with high numbers of Black voters. 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:03:51] That's how it started. You know, like in Ohio, I think Ohio is a great example, a state with a high Black population. It took some time for Ohio to get the citizen-led. But generally, if you look at the states that do not have the citizen led process, almost the entire south minus Florida and Mississippi, actually lost the citizen led process because of their state supreme Court. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:04:15] And just to clarify that, Mississippi lost citizen-led initiatives, but still has citizen-initiated constitutional amendments. 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:04:25] And then you have quite a bit of pockets in the northeast that do not have the citizen-led process. But the state legislature and every state can actually refer something to the ballot, often a constitutional amendment before voters. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:04:40] Okay. So that could be very confusing because as you said, it differs in every state. But one point of clarification. In theory, in every state, items can be directed to the ballot either by citizens or by the state legislature. 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:04:56] Yes, that often will look like a state where I'm from. I'm from Texas. We don't have the statewide process, but we have the municipal process. So a city like San Antonio, which a number of years ago was trying to put paid sick leave onto the ballot. They were gathering signatures in their community. Luckily, ultimately, the city council decided to pass it on their own. But in most states, either at the city level, the municipal level or the county level, you can also see these citizen led measures. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:05:28] Okay, So ballot measures can be led by citizens, by the state, by municipalities and by counties. Yes. So we saw Ohio vote in favor of abortion and marijuana. How do you interpret the outcome of these two initiatives and what might that mean in terms of implementation? 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:05:48] So if I could channel my two dear friends, Molly and Prentiss, the co-executive directors of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, who have been critical to building people power and focusing on young folks of color in Ohio. Ohio. Ohio's not a red state. It's a rigged state through gerrymandering, through voter suppression. And so what I see and what we are seeing, particularly on the issue of abortion, which right now has a 7-0 record, when you put it before the people, is our democracy in the system that we have set up and the people who are supposed to represent. Us and our government are out of sync with what the people actually want. Overwhelmingly, these weren't small margins. These were wide margins that marijuana and abortion pass in Ohio. 3.9 million people turned out to vote. So it shows you how much people want to get activated in our democracy, want to see governments address these issues that they think are vital in their lives. And even like taking a further step back after 2022, when we won six efforts, won, we defeated abortion bans, and then we put affirmative protections for abortion. We won all of those you saw immediately. And specifically in Ohio, the state legislature reading the tea leaves that this would come to their state. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:07:19] And you're referring to another ballot measure that would have made it harder for citizens to pass an abortion ballot measure. 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:07:26] That, again, was overwhelmingly defeated by the people they saw through the tactic, the antics to undermine their power, to change the rules, to change the system, to move away from one person, one vote, the ability for citizens to to vote for these issues they saw through it. So to me, what Ohio represents is a path forward of how we move more towards a collaborative governance model where the people and our representatives in government are working together to address the issues that we need to see action on. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:08:06] What you've described is that for a ballot initiative to be successful, it takes a lot of work, which is what you do at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. I imagine that it takes a lot of money as well to do it. So can you walk me through what it looks like to take an initiative from an idea to the ballot, especially as it relates to your work? 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:08:27] Yeah. So one of the parts of our theory of change at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, we consider ourselves a movement building infrastructure organization. What that means is we are not running ballot measures or supporting the leaders in the organizations on the ground to build these campaigns, to build these efforts rooted in community and centering the communities that are most impacted. So when it's an idea, right, when Desmond Meade, who was the leader of Amendment four in Florida in 2018, which restored voting rights to formerly incarcerated people. 

Desmond Meade [00:09:02] Moms and dads, took their kids, you know, to vote with them during the civil rights era. How I get to do that now? How I get to take my family with me and I could go vote with my family for the first time. And that means a lot to me. That means not only that I can vote, but this is just this this is opportunity that we have now to stimulate a conversation about how important voting is. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:09:30] That was Desmond Meade in 2019 talking with the Associated Press with tears in his eyes and surrounded by family after registering to vote in Orlando. 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:09:40] When Desmond had that idea seven years before 2018. It required building a coalition, doing research, doing the work with community to see what that policy could potentially look like, making it run through all the obstacles of if it'll pass, constitutional review, state legislative review. And that requires money to do that early incubation and making sure that our coalition is representative of all the people in the communities that we're ultimately going to need to organize to win at the ballot. So when it's moving from that idea to that building and making that decision phase to actually qualifying to the ballot, which would be the next phase, requires money to go into communities, do either volunteer or paid signature gathering programs to make it to the ballot. So then you get on the ballot, Hurray. You find that you have to run a campaign. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:10:41] So talk to us about how ballot measures fit into campaigning more generally. 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:10:46] What's, I think significantly different from traditional candidate campaigns that most people are at least aware of is you aren't petitioning for some individual to be on the ballot, you're actually petitioning an issue to be on the ballot. So how it is playing a huge role in the last decade is what we would consider more progressive issues. So raising the minimum wage, Medicaid expansion, returning voting rights to formerly incarcerated people, which have been really critically important issues in the last decade. What we have unfortunately seen after this is past popular opinion, especially in the last two election cycles, is our representatives in government undermine the will of the people and refuse to implement these voter approved issues. So, for example, in 2020, the people of Missouri voted to expand Medicaid. The state legislature absolutely refused to implement that. The state Supreme Court had to intervene, and now they do have expanded Medicaid expansion. But that is what we are seeing all across the country as we raise the minimum wage and pass these really popular issues. We're seeing representative democracy undermine the will of the people. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:12:05] So it's neither a straightforward nor a foolproof process. 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:12:09] Absolutely. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:12:10] Why is it important to continue to engage in direct democracy. 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:12:15] Issues is what drives people. It's what excites people, like people. You know, I often talk about how ballot measures can be love letters to our people. And if we are moving towards a world where all of us are treated equally and have liberation, then ballot measures have a really important role in that self-determination and agency we have as people to define the terms of what's access, opportunity, safety, love, belonging looks like. We get to determine that and it plays a really important accountability role in representative democracy. Can we simply govern by direct democracy? Absolutely not. We can't only govern that way, but really right now, especially with, you know, how at the state level, when only one view is happening or moving through a legislative body, ballot measures play a critical role to hold power accountable in politicians and elected officials, accountable to what the people actually want. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:13:33] And that's beautiful. I love that. Love letters to our people about measures. But not all ballot measures are love letters to our people. We know that ballot measures can help pass progressive policies, but there are examples of initiatives being brought up by conservative groups and corporations. I'm thinking of California's Prop 22, which allowed Uber, Lyft and other platforms like them to classify their workers as independent contractors rather than employees. Let's listen to a bit of a Lyft campaign ad that urged voters to vote yes on Prop 22. 

AD AUDIO [00:14:06] Even though most drivers want to keep the independence they have now, Yes on Prop 22 would protect drivers flexibility and give them historic new benefits. You can help support drivers and keep rideshare available for everyone by voting yes on Prop 22. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:14:24] What are other ballot measures that have been pushed by companies or conservative groups? 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:14:28] I mean, this is a huge increasing problem we're beginning to face. California feels this very strongly of how ballot measures have essentially become a corporate tool. Or even when something passes in a state legislature, they often face referendums or repeals on the ballot. So we are starting to see that increase in other states as well due to Citizens United, that Supreme Court decision back in 2010, which feels like 20 lifetimes ago, we are seeing this outsized role that corporations are happening in our indirect democracy. Not only like to put bad things on the ballot, but to feeling good things. It's really hard to move any environmental justice ballot measure right now because of the outside role and influence in the amount of money. Big oil they call because the energy industry will put in to defeat these measures. And like in the case of Prop 22, there was a lot of misinformation and mischaracterization that was directed towards folks of color like us. We were targeted. The message of how this would ultimately help folks of color have more power as independent contractors, and that sounded really appealing. So it's a it's a major challenge that we face of what should be a tool that was created to fight corporations, become a tool of corporate power. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:16:00] You talked about the fact that legislatures are often working against initiatives that have been passed by voters. Are there places where you are seeing efforts to restrict ballot initiatives even getting in front of voters? 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:16:17] So really what we started to see at Bisque in 2016, we start to see the first wave of progressive economic justice issues when four states raise the minimum wage. And then in 2018, we started to continue to see those economic justice issues, Medicaid expansion being added. We started to see voting rights issues on the ballot, things like abolition of slavery as a form of punishment on the ballot. Even some criminal justice issues win at the ballot in 2018. And we you know, we started to see a little spike in state legislatures, either undermining, refusing to implement these ballot measures or begin to change the rules. And after 2018, we started to see a little from a little trickle to a huge spike. And after 2020, we saw it just really rise to where state legislatures were introducing bills to either raise the threshold to pass a ballot measure. So after amendment 4 returning rights to returning citizens, which passed by 64% of the vote in 2018, the state legislature introduced a bill requiring ballot measures to be passed by 65% of the vote. Florida already has the highest threshold, 60%. So we started to see those type of bills in response to some of these issues. We started to see bills to create very specific requirements on how to gather signatures, where to gather signatures, who could gather signatures, increase the level amounts of signatures that could be raised. We started to see these rises of different webs of technicalities to prevent the citizens, us, from bringing these issues to the ballot. Because ultimately, what representatives in state legislatures saw is these issues that were not moving forward in state legislatures begin to win at the ballot. And now what we're also seeing, in addition to the state legislative process, we're starting to see the role that courts are playing, too, in preventing these issues from making it to the ballot. What we are now seeing, which is what we've seen with voting rights issues or our money in politics issues all across the country and now is impacting ballot measures is a rigged system and an effort to undermine the will of the people and for us to have the ability to influence what happens in government. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:18:50] Would you say that this is happening in states, both sort of states with Democratic and Republican trifecta…. 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:18:55] No these are happening in Republican trifecta states.

Sayu Bhojwani [00:18:58] So what do you mean by Republican trifecta states? 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:19:01] What I mean by when states are under a GOP controlled trifecta, that means the executive branch, which includes the governor, the courts, as well as the legislative branches. So state House and state Senate are all controlled by one party. In many cases, the majority of the states have what we call a Republican trifecta. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:19:23] What are some ballot initiatives that will have an impact in 2024, and what should we be paying attention to? 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:19:29] I mean, 7-0 is a pretty good win record when it comes to reproductive freedom. And we are already in Florida, they're currently gathering signatures to protect and prevent the six week abortion ban in the state. And states like Arizona, Montana and Colorado, they have already filed abortion related and reproductive freedom related ballot measures for 2024 and beginning the process to gather signatures. Some states already have it. Maryland, their state legislature did a good thing and have passed an abortion protection to their state constitution that voters will face on the ballot. And New York is one of the states which is really exciting that we'll be having an Equal Rights Amendment style of ballot measure that will go before voters. Economic issues remain high in voters minds, so states like Nebraska and Missouri are looking at paid sick or paid leave, which is how it's more popularly known, ensuring that workers, when they take time off, when they're sick, when they need time off for vacation, things like that, they are paid for that time off. Alaska is also one of the states that are looking at paid sick. Missouri and Alaska specifically are also looking to raise the minimum wage. And then some states are looking at democracy and how Ohio specifically goes from a rigged state to having a redistricting commission that is more fair. So the three main issue trends that people should be so excited about going into 2024 are issues around making sure that people have their wages and benefits and workers have protections assuring that we have reproductive freedom and then assure we have a democracy that represents all of us. It's what we have to look forward to as well as we all have to be aware that the people are organized and we are winning on these issues. We have to be watching what is happening in these state legislatures to undermine the will of the people and stop the progress that we are making through limiting the ability for us to have ballot measures in states. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:21:44] Well, thank you for giving us so much to look forward to in 2024. Chris Melody Fields Figueredo Executive Director at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. It great to have you here today. 

Chris Melody Fields Figueredo [00:21:55] Thank you for having me. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:21:59] We're talking about voting, which means it's time for another installment of our roundtable Sippin’ the Political Tea. The organizing and strategizing that shapes elections happens in communities every day. But what does that work really look like? Joining me is Grace Choi, political strategist, an organizer and founder of the New York Coalition of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Churches. Welcome, Grace. 

Grace Choi [00:22:26] Thank you. Good to be here. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:22:28] Also joining us is LaTosha Brown, activist, organizer and co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund. Hi LaTosha. 

LaTosha Brown [00:22:37] Hi,  I'm so happy to be here. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:22:39] It's great to have you both on the show. And I want to start out this conversation with some myth busting myths that specific populations are always going to vote a certain way. But according to The New York Times, in New York's last gubernatorial election, Asian voters in New York City shifted more to the right. That's one reason why Republicans have invested a lot in voter outreach during this year's local races. Grace, what did the Republican Party do right in these races? 

Grace Choi [00:23:07] This hurts my heart to say this as a Democratic political strategist but what they have done right and what they have been doing right, not only in New York City, but in places like Georgia, where I'm from, and across the country is they are meeting my community, where we're at in language and with culturally competent engagement and outreach. So they have been making sure to develop relationships not only with donors but also community activists and showing up to the Asian-American community, cultural events, to meetings, listening sessions, both local and state wide and federal. And they've been buying in-language media. So in Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese and South Asian media outlets, they are putting a concerted effort in order to put Republican messaging reaching our communities where they're at, in the way that Democrats tend to do at the very, very last stages before Election Day versus a year round engagement with the Asian-American Pacific Islander community. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:24:19] So the Republican Party is, in a way filling a gap that has been left by the Democratic Party. 

Grace Choi [00:24:24] Yes. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:24:25] You also organize in faith communities. And I wonder if you think that this drift to the right has anything to do with religion. 

Grace Choi [00:24:32] I think a lot of faith communities, especially Asian-American, Pacific Islander ones, have just not been engaged at all. So I don't necessarily think it's because of religious backgrounds that the Asian-American community is drifting more to the right. I think it's more, are people showing up and trying to engage the community at all? I've noticed whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, on paper, Asian-American faith communities will vote for and support the people who work with them, show up for them and talk to them. It's really as easy as that, which is kind of sad that that's what I've seen. And I will say, when it comes to the public safety in these big cities, including New York City. Anti-Asian racism and harassment hasn't gone away and has been around. And I think as much as has been from the Republican Party that has been spouting a lot of the hateful rhetoric on the anti-Asian racism and harassment. The Democrats have not been doing a good job in terms of putting a strong community safety, public safety message to show that our communities are taking care of and their well-being is taking care of. So there's a gap there, too. And I think that's what Asian-American faith communities are also paying attention to. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:25:53] There's also a gap in terms of the issues that are important to Asian-American communities. And in fact, I'm thinking of our interview back in September with Georgia State Representative Mesha Mainor, who had just announced she was switching to the Republican Party. Here's some of what she had to say. 

Mesha Mainor [00:26:11] List what Your priorities are. If you say education, Public safety, Family values, if you list those three things in your top five, you might need to vote for a Republican. Because those values are at the bottom of the totem pole for Democrats. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:26:31] Latasha, Representative Maynor is right in your backyard. Is her message resonating with Black voters? 

LaTosha Brown [00:26:38] The truth of the matter is I think we have to be sophisticated enough. And I actually think Black voters are sophisticated enough and nuanced enough to know that discontentment with one party does not necessarily automatically make the other party a savior. Matter of fact, what we've seen is part of the frustrations that I think voters have been feeling comes from they're not really finding the party that actually adequately embraces the agenda that they desire. The truth of the matter, in many democracies around the world, what you see in diverse cultures, you see multi-party system. We have a system that has actually been a two party system, but for the most part is in many ways has operated and functioned as a uniparty, a party that has protected and supported the interests of white men. And there's been an evolution of that over the years. And so you have this two party system. But I think when you look at a multiracial, multigenerational, complex democracy like we have, that you're going to find discontent with the parties that exist. I think the Republican Party, its not that I think that they have the message that resonates with voters. I think that more than anything, I think that they're exploiting the discontent that voters may have with the current options that they have or what they feel is a lack of options. And so, you know, I am really baffled by this representatives. It feels very opportunistic to me. It feels more opportunistic than it does strategic. You know, it's one thing for a party to make those issues of concern. The question is, are they advancing those issues for your community or are they, in fact, undermining the progress that's been made? And so that's very clear in the state of Georgia. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:28:21] At the same time, on the one hand, there is this disillusionment with the Democratic Party and on the other hand, there is voter suppression. How is your work overcoming that and keeping voters engaged in this climate? 

LaTosha Brown [00:28:33] You know, I think part of it is, I think shifting what I think is the nucleus of the conversation. I remember 2017 when my organization was very engaged in a Senate race. There was a special Senate race in the state of Alabama. And Alabama in this particular race, we felt that the Republican candidate that was running for the Senate seat, he was a very reactionary, scary, I think, candidate. And so on the other hand, there was another candidate who was running on the Democratic ticket, a man named Doug Jones, who's a nice guy, but many in the community did not know of him. And he actually walked this really interesting line. I remember he had a commercial. He had a Confederate general and a union general come out and he walks out and he says, this is who I want to be, like these two men, a compromise. And I'm thinking to myself, he does what the great compromise was. Right? You know, And so just completely just oblivious to how offensive, you know, that was for many Black people in our communities. And so here we are faced with these choices of a candidate that is, quite frankly, we think is scary and can be extremely problematic, particularly around civil liberties. And then there's other candidate that was really lukewarm and in some ways not necessarily had a message. And so what we had to do and we learned in that particular race is that we have to center the race not on the candidates, not that we're going to find the great white hope or the knight in shining armor, but that in fact people needed to be engaged around their interests and what candidate best aligned with the interests. And so I think we have to actually look at that right now, that yes, there is a share of critique that we can have from the Democratic Party. But what I will say is that is far, far more challenging and nuanced to actually hold together a party that is really a coalition politics. I think what the Democratic Party has done very well is actually done a good job at holding or rallying a coalition of people who consider themselves moderate and conservative Democrats. On one hand, all the way to extremely progressive and some that even identify themselves as the left. And so it's much easier when you have one party that saying basically we look out for white man. Well, you know, that's a very different kind of framework. And what I believe that the Republican Party has been doing is that even their outreach to communities of color has been really on the exploitation of discontent and fear, not necessarily as bringing, I think, real solid solutions, policy solutions to those communities. And we have to identify that and be able to educate our communities around the distinction of that. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:31:12] Grace, you mentioned that public safety is a top issue among Asian-American voters, in particular due to the rise in anti-Asian violence. The AAPI Power Fund recently released a poll which found that 61% of likely AP voters believe that politicians use of anti-China rhetoric has contributed to violence toward Asian Americans. And you already mentioned this a little bit, but could you talk more about whether this is a problem that is contributed to by conservative politicians only? 

Grace Choi [00:31:47] Yeah. The issue of public safety as or at least in the U.S., the growing tensions between the U.S. government and the Chinese government or the the Chinese Communist Party. This has been an issue that has been exploited and used by both the Republican Party as well as the Democratic Party. And to Latasha point about using fear mongering tactics and just very I feel like is very devious, actually, and harmful when you're stoking at people's innermost fears of safety and well-being. And so the Republicans and Democrats are at fault for this, but it has been disproportionately more Republicans. But I will speak as as someone who's been mobilized in the Democratic Party. I've been very upset. If we look at what happened in the midterm elections in Ohio with Tim Ryan's ads, where he repeatedly talked about China being our enemy, China is trying to do that without saying is the Chinese government separating the government from the people? Because what that is doing is engendering more anti-Asian hatred and racism to say like if people look Chinese, I'm not Chinese, but I'm part of the Asian American community. I am an enemy of the state. And so, unfortunately, the media has not been covering this as much since the height of the hate crimes in New York City and the big cities and all throughout the country. But even last week, someone I know, she was punched in the face in the Upper East Side in the middle of the day, and she might be losing her eyesight. There's another Asian-American restaurant worker who said that in the last two years, she's been physically assaulted eight times. And this is the story of so many Asian-American women in particular. And it doesn't help when whether it's the Democratic Party or the Republican Party in their campaign messages saying that we need to fear China versus the Chinese government. And there's a distinct distinction there. And I think when a national security crisis becomes a domestic crisis and it affects and endangers the lives of everyday Americans, including Asian-Americans, that is a problem that both parties need to address. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:34:07] Yeah, I think that there has been such a…that we've moved away, like you said, from these ones, the high profile crimes and the sort of concentrated rates of crime decreased and the attention has absolutely shifted and it's easy to move into that vacuum and continue to create fear. I want to move now to young voters and how to get them involved and engaged. A recent Gallup poll found that GenZers are increasingly distrustful of public institutions like Congress or the Supreme Court. And a recent Harvard youth poll showed fewer voters under the age of 30 plan to vote next year. Latasha, what are you hearing from young folks when it comes to their desire to vote or be civically involved? 

LaTosha Brown [00:34:51] One of the things that I actually appreciate about this generation is I always said this is the “we not having it. We ain't having it” generation. You know, they see some of the inconsistencies and some of the holes in the fragility of democracy in this country. And they've actually been calling it to question. And I actually think that is good for this democracy is you know, the truth of the matter is we've functioned…many people in this country have functioned in this cloud of American democracy, had already been figured out that there was this deep American democracy that was already put in place by the founders. You know, and somewhere along the line, just a couple of bad actors made it get off track without really being honest about the infrastructure in this country as we currently have our electoral system does not lend itself really to support a fully engaged democracy for a multicultural, multigenerational citizenry. And so that there are some elements that have to be changed and shift and there has to be an evolution. You know, we're not using horse drawn carriages to get our mail anymore. We have a whole new system of getting mail. So why are we still attaching ourselves to these other systems that in many ways are antiquated and are not lending themselves to actually supporting a reflective democracy? And so I think part of what young people are actually calling into question what they see and they're saying that we don't want just to participate, we want power, that the whole point of this is actually to build power and not just for participation's sake. Secondly, I think what we know, not only do polls show this, but historically more of my parents were the baby boomers. The baby boomers had a particular kind of orientation to party politics. They were very loyal to the party or saw the direct relationship with the party, the need for the party. What you see in younger generations, they do not have the same kind of party loyalty on either side, nor do they have the same orientation around party politics. They're very more issue oriented and issue driven. And so I think that that makes a difference as well. The third thing, though, is I actually think that younger people are actually more engaged and informed politically than even my generation. And so what can actually come out of that is the stronger institutions that will lend themselves to really help build a reflective democracy, because we're not there yet and they see it. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:37:16] And we have an opportunity to address, in a way the gap that exists in terms of how we talk to young people. To Grace's point earlier, the way that Republicans have moved in to a gap created by lack of engagement by Democrats year round of Asian-American voters. I think there's some similar patterns with young voters. What about you, Grace? In your opinion, what's the key to getting younger voters involved? 

Grace Choi [00:37:40] I think culture has such an important impact in our society. And so when I think about, okay, I'm going to bring in like the things I love, K-Pop and hip hop, if we can use these entertainment and cultural venues where people, young people in hoards are going to hip hop concerts, hip hop events, K-Pop events of all different racial and ethnic backgrounds, why don't we do some voter mobilization and education there? I mean, that is one of my goals and dreams is like, let's do a combination of cultural events, bringing in civics and make civics cool instead of doing our own civic event and then just trying to bring along people away from where their center of gravity and activity is. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:38:28] I mean, and then we could like mobilize sort of older voters and donors because they would pay big money to see Joe Biden at a K-Pop or hip hop concert right. 

Grace Choi [00:38:38] So Usher just did a collaboration with Jungkook from BTS, the biggest global K-Pop band. And the two of them were dancing to one of Usher's, like, quintessential hip hop songs. And I was like, This is culture coming together and having a big impact? What if at the end of it it's like how you register to vote something I don't know, make it like meet people where they're at. But that's like the dream collaboration that I see in the cultural space that civics can insert ourselves in to make ourselves seem cool. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:39:11] Grace Choi, political strategist and founder of the New York Coalition for Asian-American and Pacific Islander Churches. Thank you for joining us today. 

Grace Choi [00:39:20] Thank you for having me. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:39:23] And LaTosha Brown, activist, organizer and co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, thank you for being with us today. 

LaTosha Brown [00:39:30] Thank you for having me. Side you and thank you for having me on here with Grace.


Sayu Bhojwani [00:39:41] Welcome back to Our Body Politic. I'm Sayu Bhojwani, sitting in for show host and creator Farai Chideya. We turn next to another activist creating community for people with autism spectrum disorder and their families. Raising a family is no easy task from getting your kids to eat vegetables to supporting them through the education system. Parents and caretakers take on a lot of challenges. But for parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, some of those challenges might be harder to navigate. The CDC reports that in 2020, about 1 in 36 children were identified with ASD. And yet many parents still struggle to get access to resources or support from their communities. Take it from our next guest advocate and author Tiffany Hammond. Tiffany and her husband Alonzo live in Texas with their two teenage sons, Josiah and Aiden. Tiffany, Josiah and Aiden all have diagnosed autism. And Tiffany shares personal family stories about raising her sons on her online platform called Fidgets and Fries. Her advocacy emphasizes intersectionality, the perception of autism and the importance of storytelling. She's also the author of The New York Times, number one bestselling picture book, A Day With No Words, which was inspired by her own family and her son, Aiden, who is non-verbal. Let's listen. 

Farai Chideya [00:41:13] Welcome to the show, Tiffany. We are so happy to have you with us. 

Tiffany Hammond [00:41:16] Hey, thanks. Happy to be here. 

Farai Chideya [00:41:19] You know, we're going to get into the book in a second, but let's start with you being a mother for Josiah and Aiden. Tell me a little bit about them. 

Tiffany Hammond [00:41:28] Aiden and Jojo or Josiah. But we count Jojo. Aiden, 16. Jojo's 14. Aiden is the oldest, he doesn't speak. Jojo does speak, but it's more situational. Depends on circumstances where we're at, the sensory challenges that may be there. They are the coolest kids, humans on the planet, and I learn so much from them. They're so close to each other and it's a beautiful bond, and I get to see that every single day. They are unapologetically themselves all the time. What you see is what you get with them, especially Aiden. 

Farai Chideya [00:42:17] To the extent possible. Very briefly, before we get into your book, how would you describe the differences between how ASD is for you and for Jojo and for Aiden? 

Tiffany Hammond [00:42:27] I think it's just really in how we access the world around us and how the environment is working on us at any given time. There are many instances in which I feel like I'm struggling more than my children are. There are some times when my children are struggling more than me. Depends on how our needs are and how our bodies react to what's going on around us. Aiden, he can be the loudest person, you know, He doesn't speak, but he can be all the noises that come out of his mouth. But he's very sensitive to outside noises around him. For me, I need all those noises, I think. I don't know if I'm trying to, like, drown thoughts out, but I need a bunch of sound because just to try and focus on one thing in the environment is very hard for me to do. So it's a lot about how we interact with the world, but also how the world interacts with us. The world will treat you as they feel you are to them. How the world will treat My oldest, who doesn't speak, is vastly different than how they would treat me. There's a lot of people who feel that because my son does speak that he's unaware of what's going on around him. So they'll talk to him like a baby or they'll slow their rate of speech down or they'll try and pat him on his head like he's a puppy. You know, I'm like, You still that teenager been on this earth for sixteen years. He knows how it makes him feel. He responds to the things that you're saying. Everybody is different. It's a very dynamic diagnosis where, you know, some days you're up high, you're doing well, you're as I like to say, functioning well. And then it could be like the next hour you have a meltdown for 45 minutes. 

Farai Chideya [00:44:16] And you do an incredible job in your bestselling book, A Day With No Words of talking about Aiden as a fully realized human being with his own life. And he uses a communication device that some nonverbal individuals use. So before we dive into the book, can you explain what that device is? 

Tiffany Hammond [00:44:34] It could be a speech dedicated device that looks just like an iPad, but cost thousands of dollars and you got to go through insurance to get it. Or it could be something as basic as an iPad with an app on it, a communication app on it where there's pictures and then there's words attached to the picture. So if they want Apple, push Apple, it says Apple, you can customize it to where it just says words. No pictures or where it says pictures. No words. Something that they teach you in speech therapy or you are modeling how to communicate on the devices so that you know your child or your student is there looking at you use this device and it's teaching them and inspiring them to want to use it themselves. 

Farai Chideya [00:45:17] Well, I didn't want to take you totally off track from the book, so I wanted to make sure people understood, because in the book, Aiden has a device. So. So how did the how did the book come about? 

Tiffany Hammond [00:45:27] Yeah, it was I shared a post one day about these days we have where we don't talk and we're modeling for Aiden. We go out into the public and we learn all of these different things about, not only ourselves, but how Aiden is probably experiencing the world. We're seeing how people are treating us now that we're not speaking. A lot of people just didn't really seem to think too much of it. But there were a few who were like kind to you the day before, but this day they don't have any patience for you. They're frustrated with you, and now you're thinking more about, is this what Aiden is feeling? I'm looking at his app and I'm like, Oh my gosh, there's so many things that I want to say, but I can't really say it. There's only so much you can say hitting pictures. And so I'm learning this. And when I'm getting frustrated and I'm encountering mean people and this is what my son is, is feeling, this is what he's experiencing all the time. 

Farai Chideya [00:46:30] Yeah. 

Tiffany Hammond [00:46:31] It was just us having this like, window into his world. And an editor from Simon & Schuster reached out and said, Hey, I love your account, love your writing. I think it would be great to write a children's book. And I didn't think of myself as a as a children's book author because the type of content I was putting out like heavy. I talked about my kids, but I talked about a lot of other stuff like racism and disability and the intersections of autism. And then she pointed me towards that post. So just to shorten it all down, we didn't end up working together, but the idea was still in my head and I had the opportunity to put it out with the publisher that published A Day With No Words and here we are. 

Farai Chideya [00:47:16] Now, your sons are homeschooled, but that wasn't always the case. What was your experience of having them in public school? 

Tiffany Hammond [00:47:23] Public school is probably the single greatest factor that contributed to the anxiety that they have now. It was always fighting. I was always fighting the school districts and being in all these different meetings and fighting for them just to stay with what we came up with in those meetings that you were supposed to be implementing and finding out that they weren’t. I could see that my children were struggling. Yeah, like Aiden. They weren't using his device with him all the time. They were taking it from him. He was being isolated even more. They would go on field trips, they would go to assemblies and they would be like, Well, Aiden's not going to want to do it. He doesn't look interested. We're going to keep him back. It was a lot. And with with Jojo, he does speak, but he didn't say a word at all at school. The whole time he was in school he said nothing. They knew that he could, but they felt, Oh, he's just really shy or he just needs to talk. So there was like a lot of pressure on him. They didn't want to use any of the other ways for him to communicate because they thought that it would keep him from not wanting to speak like, well, if we keep allowing him to keep spelling it or writing in our paper, he's not going to use his words and he's not going to do this. And denying him the headphones, it was hard for the both of them. 

Farai Chideya [00:48:51] Homeschooling your kids is a lot of work. How did you… how did you decide to make that leap? 

Tiffany Hammond [00:48:58] I eased my way into it late the day I decided I wanted to do it. I think it's an additional 18 months to do it… actually do it. I talked with the schools and I had them push them down to half day instead of full day. They would come back. I would work with them in the summer and I bumped them up to 3 or 4 hours a day. I was just working on figuring out what worked for them and what worked for me. It was like trial and error a lot of the time and pairing that with a state as free as Texas when it comes to education helps…and hurts because they're so open that you can pretty much do anything you like. You know, I needed the structures and guidance and stuff, so I was doing like a practice run for like 18 months. And I'm still I still feel like I'm not doing enough. You just have those moments where you're just like, I'm not a teacher. I didn't go to school for this. I still have those thoughts. But to homeschool, that was like probably the best decision that we made as a family because they're doing a lot better. 

Farai Chideya [00:50:10] Yeah, it sounds like there's not always as much support as there needs to be for the parents. So that brings me to your online platform, Fidgets and Fries, because you talk about your journey. How did you decide to do that? 

Tiffany Hammond [00:50:25] I was sharing stories of our lives on like my personal Facebook, and then my friends are like, you should write a blog, start a page, write a blog. So I just jumped right into it. I don't know anything about blogging. I started a little page and called it Glazed Ham, and it was fun for a little while. I like did, and then, you know, I struggled with how I wanted to share. It was different than sharing with family and friends and that I don't know how to share in a way that other people can relate to. And so then I set that page down. I went to Instagram, I called my self… It was two dollops of autism. I focused on my kids. I wanted to find other parents who understood the journey and the obstacles that we faced, and that grew a little bit there. But I was sitting in spaces with parents and a lot of stuff that they had to say about autism and how they saw their children. It conflicted with how I felt and I didn't really feel connected to them. So I went through like this reflection period and I came out and I was like, I want to talk more about me and my family and all these other things in my life. I felt bound by… to the House of Autism. It just felt like I had to talk about autism all the time. When I ventured outside of talking about autism, people were like, I thought this was an autism page, you know? And it was just so there's so much that goes into a name. And I didn't want the name to box me in, but I wanted to have something where people could be like, Oh, this might be associated with autism. So fidgets and it might be fun and fries? And I'm talking about all these different things in my life. And I started to vent my frustrations about being Black, being Southern, being in Texas, being disabled, having disabled children and all the things that we face. And I'm like, one day someone's going to hear these rants and share it. I had like 3000 followers when I went to visit and fries, and then George Floyd happened and I just blew up. I blew to like 20,000. It was overwhelming. And I was so mad. And I was like, I was screaming about the same thing over and over all the time. It took another Black body to be murdered. For all I hear me now, you know, like all the times when I'm talking to you about the times my husband's had a gun drawn on him. The times that they call the police on us, the time they talk about a erasing my nine year old, because he was having a meltdown, it was a very hard time to be in. And I kept trying to think about the things that my grandma would say. It was like, okay, well, this got them in the door, but it's you who made them stay. And so you try to like, focus on that, you know? So now we get through that initial anger. I'm sitting here with all of that and I'm trying to, like, grapple with those those feelings and saw that a lot of those 20,000 people stayed. Well, even when I ran it and I and I grew, what I've been doing is just sharing stories and trying to show people the breadth of our humanity and who we are as people and get people to see themselves. And even just a tiny, tiny piece of who we are. And then if I make myself more human to you, you care. And I feel like I created an amazing community. That has pieces of everyone. So parents and therapists and autistic adults and non speakers and it's just a big community of all people from all walks of life. And I couldn't be more happy and shocked at the same time…so. 

Farai Chideya [00:54:31] It's amazing. And and I hope you're also proud. You know, I'm going to leave it here for now, but I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. So, Tiffany Hammond, activist and author of A Day With No Words. Thank you for sharing your story and coming on our show. 

Tiffany Hammond [00:54:46] Thank you for having me. This was great. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:54:51] Before we wrap up, on the show we've asked you, our listeners, what's on your mind. Some of you, including our intern Lauren, chimed in with your thoughts about our inaugural Living Data survey, which had some pretty interesting findings regarding what Gen Z thinks about the American Dream. 

Lauren [00:55:10] I found the survey to be incredibly interesting, specifically the way that Gen Zer view America as a place not rooted in inclusivity, tolerance, freedom or honesty. I think that emerges from the fact that over the past six years we've been constantly seeing politicians on both sides of the aisle vote in favor of their own interest rather than the people that they swore to represent as agencies. I think we really do want a more just and equitable future. But investing in this political game doesn't seem to secure that at all. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:55:39] And here's what listener Silver had to say. 

Silver [00:55:42] The reason I'm not entirely sold on the American dream is because, well, America was built for and by straight white men. So the reality is that the people who don't fall within those categories usually don't have equal opportunity. And it isn't about how hard you work, because a lot of people work much harder than the people who get more attention than them. So I don't think the American Dream is real. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:56:06] And listener Mike had this to say about housing and the rising cost of living in his town due to gentrification. 

Mike [00:56:14] A couple of years ago, like after Covid, I think USA Today posted an article about how the town just south of me is one of the best small town shopping towns in America, and it's been great for local businesses, small businesses, But people are starting to move out here now. And I think it's just happening right now at such an extreme level. And they can afford a one bedroom apartment for $2,000 a month. But with all the jobs that are out here, I can only afford maybe $1,100 a month by myself. And there's nothing like that anymore. Doesn't exist… It used to before the pandemic. 

Sayu Bhojwani [00:56:46] Keep those calls coming by dialing in to 929-353-7006 and telling us what's on your mind. Next week, we'll discuss the 50th anniversary of hip hop. Let us know your thoughts about this revolutionary genre.

Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic where on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. We'd also like to invite you to sign up for our newsletter where we share additional insights and resources for the OBP community. Check us out on Instagram @OurBodyPolitic and click the link in our bio. You can also find our polling at living-data.com. 

Our Body Politic is produced by Diaspora Farms and Rococo Punch. I'm today's host Sayu Bhojwani. Farai Chideya, Nina Spensley and Shanta Covington are executive producers. Emily J. Daly is our senior producer. Bridget McAllister is our booking producer. Andrea Asuaje, Ann Marie Awad, Natyna Bean, Morgan Givens, Emily Ho and Monica Morales Garcia are our producers. Amelia Schonbek is our fact checker. Our associate producer is David Escobar. Our technical director is Mike Garth.

This program is produced with support from the Surdna Foundation, Ford Foundation, Katie McGrath and JJ Abrams Family Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Meadow Fund, Democracy Fund, Heising-Simons Foundation, Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Open Society Foundations, The Henry L. Luce Foundation, Compton Foundation, Harnisch Foundation, Pop Culture Collaborative, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.