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Voting, an ode to our ancestors

HBCU professors are ardent stakeholders in the upcoming election as their students contemplate entering the polls.

HBCUs have long been hotbeds of community activism. From the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to the Greensboro sit-ins, HBCU students’ track record of social justice involvement brings them to the front of burgeoning movements in myriad ways.

With the upcoming election cycle, HBCU faculty hope students honor their universities’ history of combatting disenfranchisement and segregationist laws by making their voices heard at the polls this November. According to the Pew Research Center, Generation Z and millennials account for 37 percent of eligible voters this contentious election cycle. This electoral cohort is known for being most involved in volunteerism and maintaining the pulse of monumental movements, but many universities are anxious that their students might not vote.

Florida A&M University prides itself on its students’ dedication to civic engagement. The Tallahassee bus boycotts of the late 50s, the 30 day sit-ins at the Capitol following the verdict of the 2014 Trayvon Martin case and the recent protests in response to police brutality cases are all examples of protest in the city. Yet, even amid a year

marked by repeated calls for political accountability, some students feel wary of voting come November. Florida A&M University journalism professor Douglas Blackburn urges students to recognize voting as a form of activism.

Douglas Blackburn

“I try to talk students into not being cynical or apathetic. This is the one chance we get every four years to have a say. Florida, in 2008 and in 2012, voted for Obama by a slim margin. It is no question that the African American vote propelled Obama to win Florida as it did in some other states,” Blackburn said. “It is really important for the youth to get out and have their voices heard. It’s part of being an activist. It’s a part of participating.”

Florida has 29 electoral votes, third-most in the country, and is a battleground state whose margins of victory are historically slim; every single vote has a pivotal effect on election outcomes. Students may be the group that tips the scale. At the state level, Blackburn hopes Amendment 2, the initiative to gradually increase Florida’s minimum wage to $15/hour, will motivate more of Gen Z to vote. “I hope it caught the attention of enough students and also brings students who are less engaged about who will be the next president and care more about how much money they are going to make if they have to work a minimum wage job,” Blackburn said. Alvenia Derban, a communications professor at Edward Waters College, is combating what she perceives as low motivation to vote. She reminds her students that the effects of elections trickle down to their local and personal spheres.

Alvenia Derban

“I know myself and other faculty members began to have offline conversations with the students,” said Derban. “Instead of focusing on the presidential election, the main focus is on local elections. How does your vote count? Think about the Sheriff and judge in your county who has a direct relation to how a friend or a cousin or a classmate was sentenced.” Derban aims to help her students realize their vote has the power to halt or continue policies and laws which may disenfranchise some groups. Several disenfranchisement allegations have troubled the state in past months.

In 2018, Florida voters passed Amendment 4 which would restore voting rights to over 1 million felons. Now, the same amendment is headlining nationally as Gov. Ron DeSantis is requiring felons to pay all fees and fines before they are granted voter eligibility. Black Americans, who are overwhelmingly Democrats in the state, also comprise a large percentage of the disenfranchised felons who are reentering society, and don’t have the financial reserves to pay the required fees in time.

For Valerie White, a journalism professor at FAMU, the revocation of felons’ rights is an egregious display of how ethics are dwindling in the political arena. “We have had an erosion of our morals and morality,” White said. “We make compromises and we make allowances when the advantages are going our way. We used to be ethical.” Florida’s punitive systems are not White’s only concern. The stacking of judges at the federal level and the recent nomination of Amy Coney Barrett as the Supreme Court Justice alarms her as well. For students debating whether or not they will make their voices heard this election, White hopes her students scan the zeitgeist of the climate around them and remember that they “have one opportunity every four years” to vote for president, yet “it affects [them] for the next four years and forever.”

Next: HBCU students in Florida are experiencing a change in their current political science education heading into a monumental election season, here’s how things are being taught differently.