Yesterday I chatted with the Shennell McCloud, Newark’s indefatigable activist for educational equity and parent empowerment. As Executive Director of Project Ready, she has already achieved the non-profit’s first goal of registering 1,000+ Newarkers to vote by mail, as well as hosted the annual New Jersey Parent Summit. Now Project Ready is embarking on an even more ambitious endeavor called #CloseTheGap Campaign, which kicked off yesterday, Election Day, by celebrating local advocacy. Shennell’s long-term goal is to turn Newark into a community where all voters raise their voices in unison to overhaul systems and policies that restrict educational opportunities. She and her husband Walter are life-long Newark residents, where they live with their two children, Avon and Adonis.
Laura: We last spoke (formally) about the Project Ready Vote by Mail Initiative when you and your team successfully registered over one thousand Newark eligible voters to vote by mail. Can you tell me what #CloseTheGap is?
Shennell: Newark typically has low voter-turnout. Even in the 2016 presidential election, only 49% of registered voters turned out at the polls. And during school board elections the typical turn-out is only 5%. That’s unacceptable — far lower than other communities. One reason for this is there are 25,000 Newark residents who are eligible to vote but aren’t registered. This impedes Newark voices in demanding change. And that’s the gap we want to close: The one between people eligible to vote and those that actually do.
Laura: How do you plan to close that gap?
Shennell: We have a three-pronged approach. First, we’re going to continue to target those 25,000 Newarkers who are eligible to vote but haven’t registered. Second, we’ll continue our Vote By Mail initiative, which is so important for parents or caregivers who often can’t make it to the polls. The third prong is based on research: When non-profits got involved in voter registration drives in New York and Texas, voter turn-out increased by 14%. That’s how we derived our #CloseTheGap strategy.
Laura: So you’re partnering with other non-profits?
Shennell: Yes. We started off with a goal of signing up 10 local non-profits to commit to each registering at least 250 new voters by mid-March — just in time for Newark school board elections in April — which we figured would lead to a 10% higher turn-out. But we were so humbled by the number of organizations that said “yes!” We actually have 19 groups working with us now and so we’ve raised our bar to close the gap by 20%.
Laura: Can you tell me some of the groups you’re working with?
Shennell: Yes, there’s Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Newark Trust for Education, La Casa De Don Pedro, NJ Re-Entry, Youth Opportunity Network, Newark NAACP, Rutgers University- Newark Democrats, C.U.R.A., BRICK Education Network, The Gem Project, NEED, Youth Media Symposium, Deaf Advocates Group, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and NJ Children’s Foundation.
Laura: Can you give me an example of how these groups stepped up?
Shennell: Sure! One of the 19 is La Casa de Don Pedro, which works to revitalize Newark neighborhoods, promote family well-being and healthy child development, educational achievement, energy conservation, and social justice. They were so excited to work with us that they said we could use all their facilities! Groups like that make our work so much easier.
Laura: So it’s really a community effort.
Shennell: It has to be. There’s so much at stake. We won’t create a better community for our children unless we all work together. The big picture is positioning our families to have access to a fairer criminal justice system, to careers, to a healthier environment, to high-performing schools. These are the things we need for children to have their best opportunities for success. If our adults are making careful and informed choices at the ballot box, our children will thrive.
Look, Laura, New Jersey should be a leader in enfranchising voters to use their voices. But we’re not. In fact, we’re one of only 12 states that don’t allow eligible voters to register to vote online. We need our legislators to pass progressive reforms that reduce barriers to voting and we plan to put healthy pressure on our legislators to do just that. Just that one reform — making it possible to register online — could result in 40,000 new voters! Governor Murphy and the Legislature need to step up and we’ll be letting them know that.
Laura: So you’re working at this from a number of angles.
Shennell: Yes, while we’re primarily grassroots, we’re not afraid to go grasstops when necessary. We’re determined to elevate the voices of Newark families because our children depend on our advocacy and activism. Once we harness that, there’s no stopping us!