Danyell Smith wasn't shy about walking up to total strangers at the Security Square Mall over the New Year's holiday weekend and asking them, "Baby, are you registered to vote?"
Though Smith is a volunteer with a group called Black Girls Vote, neither she nor her organization aims to sign up only those people with two X chromosomes. They're eager to enlist anyone and everyone eligible to cast a ballot — males and females, teenagers and senior citizens, African-Americans and Caucasians.
That's how 18-year-old Omarion Costello of Catonsville found himself holding a clipboard and filling out a registration form while Smith helped him navigate the unexpected pitfalls of the election process.
"You should know," Smith told Costello, "that if you register as an Independent in Maryland, you won't be able to vote in the primaries."
It's that kind of respectful but assertive approach that demonstrates why the group can sign up as many as a hundred new voters at individual pop-up events. On a recent morning, it didn't take Smith long to persuade Costello to go one step further and volunteer to work as an election judge.
Before leaving the atrium with his 13-year-old brother, Evontay, the newly registered voter gave Smith a hug.
"I definitely am glad I did this," he said. "I feel like a man now."
Black Girls Vote was founded by Nykidra "Nyki" Robinson after a man was shot and killed over the summer in Hanlon Park, not far from her home. Registering people to vote — especially young African-American women — is part of the 33-year-old's plans to help change her Northwest Baltimore neighborhood and others. She wants to use the nonprofit to improve public schools, the job market and access to health care.
"It's a new year. It's time for new things. We can't sit back and make excuses," Robinson said. "Our vote is our voice. It doesn't matter if you don't have a GED, or if you have a PhD, we're all the same."
The nonpartisan group is planning "pop up events," like the one Friday, at hair salons, nail parlors, restaurants and big box stores.
The group is made up of about 15 core members, all but one of them women. Robinson said. Their hope is that registering a voter will be the start of a relationship. They plan to stay in touch with the people they sign up, and find creative ways to remove barriers that could prevent them from going to the polls for the April primary or November election.
They're collecting umbrellas to encourage people to vote even if it's raining. They're calling day care providers to see if they'll stay open later on Election Day, and asking grandmothers to offer to baby sit.
Robinson said the group is not focused solely on young black women, but sees them as key. By developing relationships with African-American mothers, wives, daughters and girlfriends, she believes Blacks Girls Vote can help entire communities understand policy implications and how choosing candidates who represent their needs can bring change.
"Black women are the matriarchs of the family. When women move, the men will follow," said Edward Clark II, the male member of the group's executive team.
In Baltimore, black women are a keystone of the electorate, said Nina Kasniunas, an associate political science professor at Goucher College.
"We have a strong population of black women who vote, but it's an older population," Kasniunas said, citing exit polling. "The younger you are, the least likely you are to turn out to vote."
While the State Board of Elections did not have a racial breakdown on registered voters in the city, data show 56 percent are women. Of the women registered, 9 percent are between the ages of 18 and 24.
Kasniunas said the success of Black Girls Vote will be tied to the group's ability to follow up with the people they register, encourage them to go to the polls and keep them abreast of the campaigns. Voting is a habitual practice, and candidates typically spend money only to mail fliers or knock on the doors of people who have a pattern of voting, she said.
The group launched with an event at Baltimore's all-girl Western High School on Nov. 30, the birthday of the late Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress. The day was a big success, Robinson said: 50 young women registered to vote.
After a television appearance, the group picked up its first donation ($50, pledged online) and it caught the eye of Barbara Stokes.
Stokes, a 77-year-old activist from Druid Heights, was moved after hearing Robinson on the television news segment. She went to her new computer tablet and sent Robinson an email — the first she ever sent.
"I have never met this young lady and she has never met me, but I know the need is great," said Stokes, who started a drug treatment program in West Baltimore after her son, Joseph, was shot and killed in 1988. "She seems sincere, and maybe in some little way, I can help her."
Armstead B.C. Jones, director of the city Board of Elections, has come to the group's events to answer questions and provided equipment to teach voters how to cast a ballot. Jones said the activists are offering a valuable service that he hopes finds broad support.
"They've been working hard to build this organization up," he said.
Robinson stepped away from a career in local and state government to run the group and recruited a volunteer team of professionals with experience in marketing, customer service and business management.
A first generation college graduate, Robinson earned a degree in business marketing from Frostburg University. She grew up in an apolitical home in Randallstown, the daughter of a mail carrier and laborer.
She said she had long considered how best to make a difference in her community after buying a house in the Hanlon-Longwood neighborhood about eight years ago. She registered the domain name Blackgirlsvote.com in May, but she said it was the 24-year-old man's killing in August that prompted her to act.
She doesn't know the circumstances of that man's life or death, but Robinson said she considers the city's homicide rate to be a consequence of lack of opportunity.
"It's economics," she said. "Who am I to judge? Desperate times call for desperate measures."
The group will focus on the Baltimore area for the 2016 election with hopes of expanding. Robinson said they are seeking community feedback to develop an agenda. Next, they'll dissect the platforms of various candidates to see how they align.
So far, group members have paid expenses, such as the cost of printing materials and developing the website, out of pocket. Robinson said the group's tax exempt status is pending, and they will soon start fundraising.
Kathryn Drabinski, a gender and women's studies lecturer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Black Girls Vote has the potential to have far reaching impacts. Involvement from minority groups in shaping public policy can change lives, she said.
"There are incredible efforts made to get wealthy white people to vote — whole systems to remind them how important their vote is," Drabinski said. "You need the same kind of attention to other groups.
"Without participation, the wrong decisions will be made. It's an old tenet: 'Nothing about us without us.'"
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