In September 2019, I was holding my three-year-old son’s hand on my right and handing off a microphone to a volunteer that was resuming calling out numbers with my left. We were standing at LINC Up in the community event space on Madison and Hall. Crowds of people moved through lines, waited in chairs and wandered through the parking lot killing time. They were there waiting to get free legal support and a screening for their eligibility for expungement.
Expungement is the process of having one’s criminal record removed or sealed from public record. We were on our roughly 130th person and yet there was a line still of over 100 people into the parking lot. People needed help and I was there ready to give it. I had one volunteer waiting for me to get back to them with resources for a woman who shared that she was sleeping in her van with her two small daughters at night. An older Latino man had asked for my card so that he could learn more about the Black & Brown Cannabis Guild’s partnership with the state of Michigan to offer technical assistance with completing commercial cannabis license applications. I had run out of business cards an hour earlier and planned to write my info down on a piece of paper for him. I had been asked to come outside to update the individuals in the parking lot on how quickly we were moving because it was sprinkling and some didn’t have cars. I couldn’t remember who I had given my phone to and my mother had left to buy more bottled water and printer ink. In the next 15 minutes, I knew we needed to switch to the overflow plan for the folks that we wouldn’t have time to serve during the event. The feeling was déjà vu.
Organizing in the community always feels like there are 6 billion needs and you only have 2 hands and your child is holding one of them. Activists who double as grassroots organizers can all tell a story (or ten) of that overwhelming feeling of catching a glimpse at the wide array of issues in the community and wondering how to not bite off more than any one person or organization can chew.
Seeing so many people hurting because of poorly crafted policy, negligent governance, or lack of resources is frustrating. Living everyday in America wearing an identity marked and destined for relentless oppression—among the disenfranchised (like being a young, Black, single mother, born without entrenched wealth)—is infuriating. The most experienced organizers learn to avoid burnout by calculating where the greatest impact can be had, fighting where they are most passionate, building coalitions to grow their capacity, or shifting to where their advocacy can support the most intersectional outcomes and benefit the demands of most movements.
For me, that intersection has always been voting. Moving through the expungement fair, NextGen America and NAACP volunteers and staff were registering the people in the room to vote. I announced that policy was moving through the legislature to make expungements automatic for many and even more accessible and they needed to keep voting for leaders who believed in giving them their lives back.
Over the past 10 years that I’ve spent doing work to improve the quality of life for marginalized communities, the one call to action that has never changed has been to “go vote”. “If you don’t like the Governor using Emergency Managers to control and break small Black communities in Michigan, vote him out.” “If you want to see a Black woman on the circuit court to advance restorative justice, go vote her in.” “If you don’t want your local sheriff’s department working with ICE, go vote in a new sheriff.” “If you want the legal recreational cannabis industry in Michigan, go vote for the proposal.”
In every movement, whether I’ve been hosting a Families Belong Together protest or helping victims of the War on Drugs at an expungement clinic, I’ve seen how all of our collective strife comes back to the small circles on our ballot. Unlike some who have argued that voting doesn’t change things, I’ve had the privilege of sitting on the frontlines long enough to see how drastically our vote absolutely can change things.
I remember being in my hometown, Benton Harbor, accepting how common it was to see people smoking weed and learning that copping a drug charge—especially for many of the Black men around me—wasn’t necessarily abnormal. Weed was common but illegal then. That was over 10 years ago.
This March, a study conducted by the Michigan State University Center for Economic Analysis reported, “it is estimated that the level of retail sales once [legal marijuana] becomes widely available is approximately $3 billion with a total economic impact in excess of $7.8 billion. Employment in businesses along the marijuana supply chain is estimated to be 13,500 with a total economic impact on employment in the state of 23,700. Total tax revenue raised is $495.7 million of which $298.6 million is excise taxes and $197.1 million are in the form of sales taxes.” Weed is legal and becoming a huge asset to the state of Michigan in spite of the 250,000+ people who are still living with marijuana convictions. Lawmakers didn’t do that. Courts didn’t do that. Voters did. And I believe that voters can do even more this November.
Wildfires. Rising COVID Death tolls. Record-breaking unemployment. Childcare and education crises for employers/working parents. Domestic terrorism. Police brutality and racial injustice protests. I have a hard time understanding how anyone who feels the political earthquake shaking the ground beneath our feet wouldn’t vote.
Voting is an act of love for the people around you. Voting is an act of self-defense against an agenda that can break you and your community. This election, people will cast their vote out of concern for their children and grandparents’ health; people have to vote looking at the bank account knowing that they need a stimulus check to stay afloat, people have to vote out of fear that the rights they gained by court decisions will be overturned. These votes have been said to be for the soul of our nation but for those of us who have been advising the legislature and fighting for policy that will make expungement more readily available to hundreds of thousands of people with convictions, people who work jobs and juggle small children, people who have registered countless of voters over the years, or people who have neighbors and friends that they care about, voting in this election is for the never ending needs that we see in the community and the flickering hope that we can collectively close the gap between those that are hurting and those with the power and values to take that hurt away.
Learn if you are registered to vote, view your sample ballot, find your polling place or clerk’s office at www.michigan.gov/vote.
Written by Denavvia Mojet a Grand Rapids mother, organizer, entrepreneur and professional with a passion for equity and justice. Denavvia transplanted in Grand Rapids in 2012, graduated from Grand Valley State University and got involved working on political campaigns across the region. Denavvia has led in local reform efforts related to policing, diversity of government, affordable housing and cannabis justice. She is a founder/organizer of Juneteenth GR and today, Denavvia serves in leadership with the Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan PAC, acts as the inaugural Executive Director/Founder of the Black & Brown Cannabis Guild, and oversees legal compliance and strategic outreach for a Grand Rapids headquartered cannabis corporation. You can read more from Denavvia Mojet and follow her work organizing in the community or get connected to other racial equity focused causes at www.denavviamojet.com. Photo from Mojét Photography.