GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — They say the youth are the future. That’s why one North Carolina organization is investing time and money into them; specifically, disenfranchised Black and brown youth.
Common Cause is a national, nonpartisan organization that works to ensure fair elections by holding those in power accountable through lobbying, litigation, and organizing.
Bob Phillips is the current executive director of the North Carolina chapter. He started with the organization 20 years ago.
“When I started the job I was going around to all the colleges and I’m a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill — a predominately white institution. And I recognized that while the campuses were receptive to the kind of work we were trying to do, I also recognized as I would go to the HBCUs that maybe they needed our presence a little more.”
Coming in, Phillips didn’t realize his work with Common Cause would be primarily focused on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but he knew the need was great at those institutions.
“These are by definition underserved institutions. And so I felt that we could have a greater impact,” Phillips said. “North Carolina has the most HBCUs in the country, 10 and there are 40 thousand students collectively in these institutions and we want the young people to understand there’s more to being a participant in democracy than just voting. It’s getting involved, civic engagement and that’s what a lot of this program is all about.”
Common Cause is a predominantly white organization, but through its fellowship program at North Carolina HBCUs, it works to uplift and empower voices of color. The fellowship program has been operating for 16 years.
Vashti Hinton-Smith started with Common Cause as a fellow while she was a student at North Carolina A&T State University. She now works for the organization full-time.
“People may look at it and think why does this white organization have this program? But I think, a lot of times what I actually see is that I think that our students get access to resources and spaces and moments that they wouldn’t otherwise get access to,” Hinton-Smith said. “I get to go into communities that look like mine and teach them about this wonky stuff and figure out ways to make it more accessible.”
Miles Beasley is a current fellow and student at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh. Through his fellowship, he’s learned how universities like his and communities with people who look like him are often preyed upon.
“When we were talking about all the different things that are happening across the country, we were talking about the fact that gerrymandering is such a big thing in North Carolina, but in the south in general. Then how we talked about just the overall like the maps were being redrawn like what happened at A&T,” Beasley said.
Back in 2016 maps were redrawn right through the middle of NC A&T’s campus, splitting student voters, and dividing them into two separate districts for a few years.
“I was just like ‘whoa.’ All that can happen or has happened at my school. My little old private HBCU,” Beasley said. “It’s little stuff like that, that’s showing you ‘okay something is not right.'”
Policies like these, which often target communities of color are the ones Common Cause works to reverse and prevent.
“We have this legacy in our state again of making it harder for people of color to vote and cracking and packing districts that marginalize and dilute the voting strength of black voters and it’s wrong. And it’s not anything partisan or it shouldn’t be anything partisan,” Phillips said.
Through education and organization, they get young people involved in politics early, teaching them how to speak out against unfair laws and pass their knowledge on to people in their communities outside of school.
“When you get the knowledge that someone is actively working against you for no reason, it’s like oh wait a minute. Then you get more knowledge like this is what you could do,” Beasley said.
In addition to their HBCU fellowship program, common cause also writes letters to lawmakers, makes frequent lobbying trips to our state and national capitol and they submit legal filings to fight laws they deem unfair.
“We want young people particularly again to understand that they too have a voice in this democracy we are all citizen lobbyists,” Phillips said.