From language barriers to felony disenfranchisement, a range of obstacles continue to prevent eligible voters from sharing their voice during an election. Another barrier? The voting process isn’t always fun (particularly during a pandemic).
Black Girls Vote, a civic engagement nonprofit based in Baltimore, is working to change the narrative that voting is a chore through its Party at the Mailbox initiative. I spoke to Founder Nykidra Robinson about the initiative’s origin and how the organization is making voting easy, accessible, and fun during COVID-19.
When did you start Black Girls Vote and why?
I started Black Girls Vote in 2015 in the aftermath of three key events. First, in April 2015, Freddie Gray was murdered in my neighborhood. It was such a painful time and young people were coming together to ask, “What can we do?” Next, in July 2015, I was working for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, as a political appointee and was let go due to an administration change. Later that year, a Black man was murdered near my home in Hanlon Park in West Baltimore. It was a lot.
I didn’t grow up in politics but after these events, it became clear to me that our government undergirds every aspect of our lives. And Black women need more of a say in politics and public policy. We need to elect leaders and advance policies that address our issues, like pay and educational equity and criminal justice reform.
I decided to start Black Girls Vote to engage, educate, and empower women to activate their voices by utilizing their voices. We launched on Nov. 30, 2015 on Shirley Chisholm’s birthday at Western High School, the oldest all-girls public high school in the United States and one of Baltimore’s most prestigious institutions.
Tell me about your newest initiative, Party at the Mailbox?
When COVID-19 happened, we knew we were going to have to pivot to get out the vote. I called my partner in crime, Sam Novey, co-founder of Baltimore Votes and Director of Full Participation at the National Conference on Citizenship. In 2018, Baltimore Votes and Black Girls Vote had partnered on Party at the Polls, a national initiative to increase civic engagement. Research from Civic Nation has shown that non-partisan election festivals appear to increase turnout substantially and cost-effectively. I thought, why not do a party at the mailbox, in response to the pandemic? My idea was to send voters a gift box to help them get educated and excited to vote. Sam loved it and Party at Polls became a Black Girls Vote initiative, fiscally sponsored by NCOC.
What is in the Party at the Mailbox?
We included a t-shirt, balloons, treats like Berger’s Cookies, Baltimore’s iconic cookie, and more to celebrate our community and make voting fun. We also include voter education literature.
The response was overwhelming! We received 5,000 requests from Baltimoreans for a Party at the Mailbox in advance of the Maryland primary and distributed 2,000 boxes.
For the general election, we have expanded to Detroit and Philadelphia. Our goal is to deliver 10,000 parties at the mailbox before Election Day!
I love it!
One of the great things about Election Day is that you get to see your neighbors. We can’t do that this year. Party at the Mailbox is a way to ensure that folks feel included. We want voting to be easy, accessible, and fun. We are also hosting a virtual party on Election Night.
What are your plans for civic engagement after the 2020 Election?
We’ll evaluate the impact of Party at the Mailbox to determine if we increased voter turnout on an individual and household basis.
In 2021, we hope to expand our programming by developing 20 collegiate chapters. The college students we are already working with are so excited to do more. We also want to support civic engagement for Black girls and young women by helping them to secure internships in policy and government.
Is there anything else you want to share?
Black Girls Vote is the hardest and most rewarding job that I’ve ever had. Our organization is led by passionate volunteers. In order to increase our programming in 2021, we need to raise $1.2 million so that we can hire full time staff. We also need access to places and people who can provide guidance and resources. I’m not privy to some of these rooms.
Support Black Girls Vote with your money, time, and talent.