On the eve of the 55th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, LCV’s Voting Rights Director Justin Kwasa hosted a conversation about the importance of protecting voting rights and creating a stronger, more inclusive democracy, especially as, amid a pandemic, we approach an election that will be unlike any other in history.
Voting rights leaders Stacey Abrams and Eric H. Holder, Jr. were joined by the Conservation Voters Movement’s Gayla Tillman, who is a civic engagement organizer at Georgia Conservation Voters. As a community leader, Gayla illuminated the ways voting and the climate crisis are intersecting in people’s daily lives, emphasizing, “The fight for the right to vote — the fight for being counted — is very much intertwined with the fight to take a breath that is free from chemicals and harm. Black people, communities of color, and young people are paying attention and we’re getting involved because we care about equity for all of us.”
For more from these leaders, watch the full conversation here, and read Gayla’s remarks below.
Preserving a Voting Environment: The 55th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act
Remarks from Gayla Tillman, Civic Engagement Organizer, Georgia Conservation Voters
Thank you for the opportunity to speak here. I believe that the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act should be celebrated everywhere.
My name is Gayla, member of gen-z, organizer for Georgia Conservation Voters (GCV), First, I just wanted to give honor, as others already have in the program, to Congressman John Lewis. Not only did we lose a civil rights icon, but we lost an environmental justice champion. And, I think that is really important to lift up in this moment when we’re talking about the intersection of climate change and civic engagement.
We at GCV mobilize climate voters. And mobilizing climate voters is very much about mobilizing people around every day issues. I love that there has been such a push around absentee voting and voter awareness, though I do want to lift up the fact that people can’t go online and look up the status of their absentee ballot or request a ballot if they don’t have electricity. People can’t focus on an election if they haven’t taken a hot shower. It’s really important for us to center these intersections of the climate, like energy equity, in the fight for voting rights.
Recently, I watched a video of the mayor of Stonecrest — a largely black city in DeKalb County in Georgia — berating and demeaning residents for raising concerns about their air quality. He called them idiotic and stupid. I bring this up because it disturbed me, but it also reminds me that the fight for environmental justice and the fight for electing people who fight for the bare necessities of clean air and clean water is paramount — it is important and these are not separate.
I also wanted to talk about how the uprisings all over the nation have forced white environmentalists and people in general to re-evaluate how we think about race, but specifically environmental racism. This moment has forced us to reckon with the fact that environmental racism is real, and the fact that it impacts everything, and is not separate from the environmental movement at-large.
I say all of this because I want to help paint the picture of what it means to show up in Georgia. One of our campaigns at GCV is around the Public Service Commission races. The Public Service Commission is a group of elected officials that directly regulate energy and gas in the state of Georgia. Unlike other states, the Public Service Commission is elected — you can cast a ballot for people — and they regulate how much and who you pay for energy. So, when we’re having these conversations about environmental justice, there are elected offices that reflect a move toward more sustainability, more equity, for all of us — not just for certain groups that know who to call.
I really want to illuminate the power of local elections. All kinds of elections — Public Service Commission, County Commissioner Races, local offices to expand public transit — may not seem like they’re about the environment but they are. And no one should have to choose between paying for groceries or their energy bill.
The fight for the right to vote — the fight for being counted — is very much intertwined with the fight to take a breath that is free from chemicals and harm. Black people, communities of color, and young people are paying attention and we’re getting involved because we care about equity for all of us.
As a young person, I care deeply about this issue. I really appreciate the opportunity to speak alongside these brilliant leaders, and I look forward to joining arms with you all — please make a commitment to vote in local races. If you’re in the state of Georgia, please make a commitment to vote in a Public Service Commission race.
Solutions are feasible — everyone can participate — it just takes everyone coming together and doing it collectively.