The 2020 election is over—at last. Joe Biden is our next president, and Kamala Harris is our next vice president. Their campaign slogan argued that the election would be “a battle for the soul of the nation.” Whether or not you believe America’s soul has been saved, you may still be relieved that the nation has been saved from four more years of President Trump.
But who saved us?
Voters came out so overwhelmingly for Biden and Harris that they won the popular vote and the electoral college by a wide margin. Biden got the most votes—80 million at the most recent count—of any presidential candidate in American history. (Trump—6 million votes behind him—got the second most of any candidate in history.) That massive turnout speaks to dissatisfaction with the Trump administration, but it also speaks to the tremendous efforts of organizers and activists who pushed back against voter suppression efforts to get people registered and encourage them to show up at the polls. Women—women of color specifically—did the work to get out the vote.
Without them, Biden and Harris would have lost. Biden even acknowledged in his victory speech that he owes his win to Black Americans. “The African-American community stood up again for me,” he said. “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.”
The assumption most of us hold is that America is the strongest democracy in the world—every person gets one vote, and chooses to use it or not. Every voice gets heard. In reality, voting in the U.S. is treated more like a privilege. You need the right resources: time off from work, information, often transportation or postage or a specific form of ID. Legislators pass laws that make voting harder, suppressing the vote especially in areas that are more populated by poor people and people of color. Corporations and billionaires wield their wealth to overwhelm the power of individuals.
And during the 2020 election, leaders ranging from the president to prominent senators to local officials attempted to sow distrust in the outcome of the election itself, with some encouraging election administrators to actually throw out votes, to stop vote counting, to spread misinformation about voting, and to in effect overturn the results of the election.
Fighting back against those efforts is a group of thousands of organizers who have mobilized over not just the past few months or since 2016 but for years to make sure elections are as fair, accessible, and representative as possible. With the path toward inauguration now clear, it’s tempting to start thinking about American politics as a TV series that used to be addictive but now is kind of boring. However, if we’ve learned anything from this election, it’s that we can’t be passive observers of democracy.
We spoke to women leaders who weren’t passive—they were on the ground seeing to it that justice was served, safely and peacefully, in spite of powerful attempts to suppress them. These are the women whose work means that when we put our hands on our hearts and pledge “with liberty and justice for all,” we have something to back that up.
Georgia senior state coordinator, Black Voters Matter
What does Wanda Mosley, an organizer for Black Voters Matter in Georgia, say when she hears people gushing that Georgia and Black women saved America? “First I say, ‘You’re welcome.’ Secondly I say, ‘Yes, we did.’ And next I say, ‘However, we did not do this to save you, we did this to save ourselves.’”
Biden is the first Democrat to win Georgia in 28 years—thanks in large part to turnout by Black voters, whose communities organized to massively increase voter registration and get voters to the polls. Black voters, and Black women especially, rose to the political moment because of real need, says Mosley, not out of a desire to do anyone a favor. Schools and hospitals in Black areas need to be funded the way they are in predominantly white areas. Jobs need to be saved, so people can eat. “For Black people, electoral work is also a form of harm reduction,” she says.
Biden’s win in Georgia wasn’t a random upset. It was the result of years and years of organizing by activists fighting what Mosley calls “voter suppression 2.0,” a combination of everything from low wages to under-trained election workers to voting machines with no power cords, which result in excruciatingly long lines on election day. “If I’m one of the people who makes $5.15 an hour or even $9 an hour, I don’t have a car, and there’s no public transportation, I literally cannot afford to be in line for four or five or eight hours,” says Mosley, citing minimum wage in Georgia. Yet Mosley—along with the heroic efforts of Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight Action, and other organizations on the ground—got voters to rise to the moment.
In Georgia, the election isn’t over. The historically red state turned blue in the presidential election, but runoff elections in January for both of the state’s Senate seats will determine which party has control over the chamber for the whole country.
As the climactic runoff elections approach, “The energy in Georgia is electric,” Mosley says. But pressure from across the country, as Mosley puts it, “Georgia, come save us, we love you, we need you,” isn’t really relevant to Black voters. “Our role is to find things that are relatable, find what will motivate Black voters to come out,” she says. That means having meaningful conversations with voters about what the Senate can do if Democrats take control—specifically passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, as well as the George Floyd I Can’t Breathe Act, which would be a sweeping change in the federal approach to policing and prisons, and the HEROES Act, a COVID-19 stimulus package. And if the Senate feels too theoretical, how about monthly bills? With a seat up for election on the Public Services Commission, which sets utility costs, Mosley and her colleagues are on the ground making sure folks know that their bills are on the ballot.
Mosley’s group’s work has found success through organizing community leaders in rural areas of Georgia that have dirt roads and no public transportation. On a visit to one such area, women leaders in the town proudly told Mosley that they were phone banking to get out the vote, and Mosley asked them what group they worked with to get their lists of voters to call. “Well, sweetie, we don’t have a list,” she remembers one lady saying. “We just get out the phone book and we get together on Sundays and we call folks in the community and tell them that an election is coming.”
It’s encounters like this that energize Mosley. “When you think about that kind of commitment and determination and love for community,” she says, “if you marry them with just a few resources like an organized list and a script and some other materials, the sky’s the limit on the effect they can have in their community.”
The Reverend Traci Blackmon
Associate general minister of Justice & Local Church ministries for the United Church of Christ and senior pastor, Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri
Taking to the streets to demand justice? That’s just being a good Christian, according to the Rev. Traci Blackmon. “As a Christian, my theological understanding is—there is no ministry, especially the ministry of Jesus, outside of justice,” she says. Blackmon oversees the justice efforts of a collection of 5,000 churches, made up of nearly 900,000 members. She harnesses their collective power to push for affordable health care, for food justice, for shelter for all. There is nothing radical about fighting for any of these things, she says: “There was free health care, even in the ministry of Jesus.”
For her, the work leading up to the election meant sermonizing, phone banking, organizing, and listening. She focused especially on rigorous dialogue, which she said was desperately needed given the intense national division Trump’s presidency helped widen, which she says is especially notable among people of faith. She challenged people—“Do you believe what you preach? How are you reconciling what happens in our nation with who you think God is? How are you reconciling people being caged at the borders while serving Jesus, who also was himself once an immigrant?” They’re good conversations to have, she says. “Those conversations became more aggressive, and they also had to become more filled with grace.
“One of the things that I’m most proud of in this moment is that once again, Black women have saved the democracy,” she says, citing the 87% of Black Americans who voted for Biden, and the 90% of Black women who did so, according to exit polls. “The reality is that people of color mobilized because people of color’s lives were on the ballot. LGBTQ people mobilized because their lives were on the ballot.”
Blackmon devotes her life to justice. But she never, she says, judges people for their contributions. We don’t see everything that others do, she points out. She recalls that in Charlottesville, ahead of the 2017 alt-right rally, white, suburban churchgoers organized to park their cars in the rally space, just to inconvenience white supremacists. Or take one of her 80-year-old congregants, who can’t physically march but contributed by stitching the equivalent of five miles in hats for the homeless. “Just because someone is not in the streets does not mean that they aren’t in the fight.” There’s room for everyone, even if you don’t see yourself as political, or an activist. “For me, justice work is tantamount to living a righteous life, which means to live in relationship with others, with God, and with creation,” she says. “And outside of those things there is no gospel.”
Director of the Democracy Defense Coalition
Want to get a sense of just how bad voter suppression is? Angela Peoples almost didn’t vote—and she’s been a political organizer and activist for 12 years. When she moved to Florida during the pandemic, she learned that to register to vote, she would need an ID. And to get an ID, she would need to go through a confusing process that involved having to chase down a copy of her birth certificate. Then she had to go to a specific office to cast her vote, not just a regular polling place. If a person with professional political savvy struggles to cast her vote, what hope is there for everyone else?
“The barriers are just so significant,” says Peoples. “It’s not just that voters turned out, not just that women of color turned out—we worked hard to make sure that our communities were able to overcome the significant barriers that are put into place in order to prevent us from casting our vote, in order to prevent us from having control over our government, and over the decisions that are made about our lives.”
As the director of the Democracy Defense Coalition, an umbrella organization bringing together hundreds of pro-democracy groups, Peoples devoted her time ahead of the election to harnessing community power. She prepped activists for an enormous series of tasks: to peacefully combat misinformation, to potentially de-escalate violence, and to put pressure on local and state officials to understand, as she puts it, “there are people in the streets demanding that their votes be counted.”
Taking to the streets to demand basic democratic rights feels like it should never have to happen in America, but Peoples points out that it’s always been this way. “I do feel optimism,” she says. “Folks are recognizing that this is just not a sustainable dynamic—it’s not sustainable for us to have to jump and leap over hurdle after hurdle after hurdle after hurdle just for the majority of us to be able to participate in the governing of our country.”
The question is, she says, “How do we take this moment where we saw how very vulnerable our democratic systems are, and not just say, ‘Well, next year we’ll invest a couple more billions of dollars to go through this process again’? We cannot do this in 2022. If we’re going to call ourselves a democracy, then we really have to do the work to bring about the forms that are needed to make that so.”
“We know that when we invest in women of color, we win,” Ai-jen Poo tells Glamour. “We know that our political, economic, and spiritual freedom is bound to the freedom of women of color.” Poo’s activism focuses on domestic workers—that means cleaners, nannies, and people who care for the sick and the elderly. It’s a population that has had one of the rawest deals during the pandemic—domestic workers have been expected to keep everyone else safe and well, while they are completely unprotected themselves. Domestic workers, Poo points out, are disproportionately Black, Latinx, Native and Asian women, and immigrants. They are some of the most underserved Americans, and also one of the groups that has the greatest potential to build power and create change.
Through her work at Care in Action, Poo helped lead outreach to women of color in 10 states, making more than 17 million voter-contact attempts. Domestic workers, women of color, and immigrants face high barriers to voting, “from being purged from voter rolls to having polling sites in your community disappear, to working in jobs where you can’t take time off from work,” Poo says. “Those challenges are not the fault of voters but a choice on the part of elected officials to make it harder for people of color to vote.” Allowing poor people and people of color to vote would threaten the status quo.
The organization’s efforts were as broad as giant Get Out the Vote events, and as specific as assisting Susie Rivera, a home care worker in Texas whose $15-per-hour job supports her family of six, become a first-time voter this year at 62. While constantly pushing for legislative protections for domestic workers in Congress and at the state level, Poo’s organizations are also already on the ground in Georgia, getting out the vote for the January runoff election that will decide control of the Senate.
However you might feel about Biden’s victory, Poo says, the fight for justice cannot take a break. She’s working to bring about protections for domestic workers that haven’t existed under any administration. “Home care workers earn poverty wages, and domestic workers remain excluded from basic labor laws, part of a legacy of slavery in America that we have yet to address,” she says. “Most work without job security, access to health care, paid sick days, or paid time off.” Even now, domestic workers are organizing and pressuring elected leaders to prioritize legislation for care workers in the new administration, she says. They know they’re powerful, and they intend to be heard.
Originally Appeared on Glamour