I am 37 years old. Bobby Perkins spent 37 years in prison. The math was not lost on me as I got to know Mr. Perkins over the weeks I spent with him in Baltimore.
In October of 2020, I went to Maryland with the goal of making a documentary about how the state was experiencing the 2020 presidential election. The project was part of my film work with the Bertelsmann Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. The idea was to compare the urban and rural experience in a (quasi) swing state. But I met Bobby on the first day of filming, and the project took an unexpected turn.
Bobby is part of a group of formerly incarcerated activists who fought to regain the right to vote after leaving prison. Having won, these activists are now community advocates, dedicating their lives to bringing marginalized people and communities into the democratic process. What our documentary found is that it is not just the individuals who benefit from rebuilding access to the democratic system. Rather, there are tangible spillover effects that benefit the city, state and country.
Bobby was one of three formerly incarcerated activists profiled in the resulting documentary, “Out to Vote.” Also featured were Nicole Hanson-Mundell, executive director at Out for Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to helping those impacted by the criminal justice system, and the pair’s close confidant, Monica Cooper, executive director of the Maryland Justice Project.
In the weeks leading up to the election, I followed Bobby as he marched through Baltimore’s streets, knocking on doors and stopping strangers to ensure everyone was registered to vote and that everyone had a way to get to the polls. Where none was had, Bobby would offer a lift.
The work appeared to have given a new meaning to his life. One beautiful fall day, Bobby was reflective about the meaning of being able to vote. “That’s why I go out and pound these sidewalks, to register people,” he said between puffs of a Newport cigarette. “Because I believe in it. I believe in the democracy.”
He added that when he went to jail, he was “angry at the guy who told on me, angry about getting locked up for the bank robberies. I was angry with the world. But then, as time went on, I started realizing that when you have your mind focused on something positive, nothing can stop you. If you’re sincere.”
As he spoke, I realized that this emotional transition that had only taken him a few seconds to explain had probably taken him decades in prison to accomplish. I could feel the weight of those decades and see the optimism he felt about this one final opportunity on the horizon.
How many other people in the United State currently view democratic participation as that one final opportunity on the horizon? I suspect few. Many Americans increasingly view democracy as rigged for elites. That disconnection and disassociation fuels a retreat from civic participation — or worse. Some who’ve lost faith in the system will actively work against it, supporting extreme candidates who improvise their own rules.
But the thing I found most captivating while filming “Out to Vote” was the knock-on impact of bringing just one person into the democratic fold. In one scene, Monica Cooper drives a man in his mid-30s to the polls. Thanks to her prodding, he is voting for the first time. On the way, he is affable but generally apathetic about his choices. He speaks of the process as if it were for others, as if democracy is not his.
He is a different person upon emerging from the voting booth, however. He is overcome with joy. The simple act of voting has, at least for a moment, transformed his perspective. Turning to the camera, he speaks authoritatively, offering advice to skeptics. “Cast your vote! It matters! Come show up! If you have a question, show up and ask the question! The best thing you can do is show up.”
Suddenly, a man who had been disengaged was not only a voter, but was encouraging others to get involved. It was a thrilling moment to be an American, and I was honored to have a chance to film it. It’s a moment that likely would have never occurred if Monica had not previously been given her own pathway to reengage with the democracy.
In the film, the young man turns and walks away with Monica, yet we can still hear him. “I feel so great. And who knows? Maybe someday you will be voting for me!”
Samuel George (Samuel.email@example.com; Twitter: twitter, @SamuelGeorge76) is a documentary filmmaker and analyst for the Bertelsmann Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization. To watch the 32-minute documentary, “Out to Vote: A Story of Redemption. A Story of Democracy,” go to https://bfnadocs.org/out-to-vote.