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Black Voting Rights Activists Struggling With Burnout, Lack of Funding

Organizers for Protect the Vote GA, SisterSong, and Black Feminist Future discuss challenges — physical, mental, financial — leading up to November.

Protect the Vote GA co-founders Hannah Gebresilassie (from left), Crystal Greer, and Britt Burns stand inside beSocial in Atlanta for a “Slide to the Polls” voter workshop and reproductive rights panel in June. (Protect the Vote GA)

Community organizer Hannah Gebresilassie is tired, but undeterred.

On any given week, Gebresilassie and her fellow activists with Protect the Vote GA, a nonpartisan voter engagement nonprofit, spend an estimated 20 to 30 hours working to ensure Black and brown Georgians have equal access to the ballot box.

That’s on top of the 40 hours most of the organization’s 20-member team spends working regular nine-to-fives. Their voter mobilization and education efforts involve door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, and hosting events designed to energize and inform the public about where midterm election candidates stand on the issues voters care about the most.

The activists’ work sometimes involves protesting and sitting in on lengthy county and state elections board meetings, where officials review alleged election law violations.

Gebresilassie said the nonstop grind has taken a toll on her health recently.

“It’s to the point where even at night, when I’m trying to go to sleep, I’m getting calls, I’m getting texts, I’m getting emails,” she said. “I have to force myself to sometimes put things on mute because it’s starting to get to me physically. I’m feeling tension in my body. I’m feeling stressed right before I go to bed because you just don’t ever turn it off.”

Burnout and underfunding are two recurring problems cited by several Black grassroots activist groups doing voter engagement work in Georgia this year. Lack of manpower and resources makes it harder for them to help maximize Black voter turnout in November. More funding would allow them to hire and support additional staff that could lighten everyone’s workload.

College Park resident Yemi Combahee, a reproductive justice organizer with Black Feminist Future, has noticed similar stress-related declines in her own physical and mental health in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe. v. Wade.

Combahee’s organization is an Atlanta-based national nonprofit working to build social and political power for Black women, girls, and gender-expansive people. Its 12-member team uses tactics similar to Protect the Vote GA’s to help ensure Black and brown folks are aware of candidates’ positions on issues that directly impact women and nonbinary people.

“I’m talking to everyday working people, and so I need to be available to them on the weekends and in the evenings, when they are available,” Combahee said. “I’ll say that’s also a struggle and a challenge.”

Monica Simpson is executive director of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, an organization that made headlines after filing a state court lawsuit challenging a 2019 Georgia law restricting abortions from being performed in the state after fetal cardiac activity is detected. Simpson said SisterSong has a team of about 27 people, including full-time and part-time staffers and consultants. She estimates the group’s budget to be around $6 million, mostly generated from philanthropic donations, and says it’s a fraction of what many similar organizations, led by non-Black people, receive.

“When we think about philanthropy as a whole, it is a very white-led sector,” Simpson said. “They don’t trust people of color to be able to manage [organizations], and they don’t trust our expertise. They don’t trust us with money, and they don’t trust us with power.”

Not being trusted with the same money and power as other groups can be “disheartening,” Simpson said, and it also impacts SisterSong’s ability to provide abortion and maternal health services to Black folks in regions of the state where such aid is extremely limited.

Black women nationally are three times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related issues, according to the CDC. The situation is worse in Georgia, which had the second-highest maternal mortality rate in the nation last year, according to an International Journal of Maternal and Child Health and AIDS study published in December.

Many of the state’s rural counties don’t have an obstetrician/gynecologist.

“We have very deep rural parts of this state that really need people to get to them,” Simpson said. “If we had more access to those resources, we’d be able to get people into those places more.”

Simpson stressed that Black-led groups like SisterSong better understand the challenges faced by those they serve due to their own lived experiences. These groups, as a result, may be better suited to mobilize Black voters and help address their long-term needs despite receiving less funding help from major philanthropic organizations.

Their efforts are not going unnoticed.

State Rep. Park Cannon recently gave Gebresilassie a community service award for her voting rights activist work. Despite feeling overwhelmed at times, Gebresilassie said she and other Georgia activists like her are “still hungry to fight for change.”

“We know voting is one of the most powerful tools in our tool box, and we don’t want to go to waste this election season,” she said. “If we can use our power, we know we can see change for ourselves and the people around us.”