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Amid the pandemic, Baltimore-area activists push to turn out crucial voting bloc: Black women

They’ve done it eight times this year. They pick a location and gather with supplies in hand. Then, they form an assembly line, tucking stickers, water bottles and a 10-ounce bag of Utz potato chips into pastel packages the size of a shoebox. The most essential item is a stack of fliers that give information on candidates — and explain where and how to vote.

More than 3,100 Black women across Baltimore have received those boxes in the mail this election season, the work of a nonprofit group called Black Girls Vote.

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Founder Nykidra “Nyki” Robinson, who started her work five years ago to boost voter participation among Black women, couldn’t have imagined what 2020 would bring. In a time of COVID-19, protests and harsh divisions across society, the 37-year-old Baltimore activist has had to adapt: She’s established three college chapters, hosted roughly 20 Zoom brunches and recently trained 50 women to engage with eligible Black female voters in places like Starbucks.

She also launched the Party at the Mailbox campaign with the group Baltimore Votes and funding from Under Armour.

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To be sure, Black women are already considered the most powerful and reliable voting group in the city, and heavily Democratic Maryland is widely expected to give its 10 electoral votes to Joe Biden in the presidential election. On that ticket is a woman of color running for vice president, Democrat Kamala Harris.

But as people continue to practice social distancing amid the pandemic, it’s projected that more than 80 million votes will be cast through mail-in voting, according to a recent analysis. Robinson and others are pushing to make sure those votes get sent in.

They say it’s more important than ever before to get Black women registered and voting.

“We are going out on the ground,” said Robinson, who started the box campaign when she began to fear too many people wouldn’t vote. “We need to be passionate about our issues. Black women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs, new mothers are still dying at higher rates, and Black women are getting diagnosed with breast cancer at earlier ages, but are less likely to be covered [by insurance].”

Since it formed five years ago, Black Girls Vote has registered more than 16,000 Black women to vote in the greater Baltimore region, according to Natasha Murphy, the organization’s deputy director of advocacy.

They’ve reached older people like Barbara Stokes, who lives in Druid Heights and saw a television segment on Black Girls Vote a few years ago. Moved by Robinson’s effort to register women to vote, Stokes said she actually sent her first email, asking whether she could help volunteer.

“If you don’t vote, you don’t have a say,” said Stokes, who recently cast her vote by mail. “I think this is one of the most crucial elections ever … and I’m 82 years old.”

In a way, Robinson’s work harks back to the legacy of Black women who have been at the forefront of voting rights, starting 100 years ago during the women’s suffrage movement. They include civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, and journalist Ida B. Wells, as well as African American Greek organizations, like Alpha Kappa Alpha, Harris’ sorority, and Delta Sigma Theta Inc.

“It goes to show we have always been fighters who are resilient and passionate about our community,” said Robinson, whose group has also recently begun sending boxes to Black women in Philadelphia and Detroit. A total of 10,000 boxes have been sent.

Nykidra "Nyki" Robinson, founder and CEO of Black Girls Vote, gives an interview about "Party at the Mailbox," an effort she created to motivate people to vote. Black Girls Vote members, Under Armour employees and other volunteers assembled 1,200 custom boxes of Baltimore-related items for voters at an event Friday.
Nykidra "Nyki" Robinson, founder and CEO of Black Girls Vote, gives an interview about "Party at the Mailbox," an effort she created to motivate people to vote. Black Girls Vote members, Under Armour employees and other volunteers assembled 1,200 custom boxes of Baltimore-related items for voters at an event Friday. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Democratic state Sen. Jill P. Carter of Baltimore noted that Black women voted overwhelmingly against President Donald Trump in 2016. “Though it is not, and should not be, the Black woman’s burden to protect our democracy, recent election data shows that is what we do through our vote," Carter said.

This year, Republican Kimberly Klacik, a Black woman, is challenging U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore for Elijah Cummings' former seat in the overwhelmingly Democratic 7th Congressional District. She promotes another message, saying that just because someone is Black doesn’t mean they have to vote for Democrats.

Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who along with Carter was among the candidates in a Democratic primary for the seat, said the 2020 general election is critical for Black women, particularly young Black women.

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“We have a president who attacks Baltimore as if Baltimore is not even part of this country,” Rockeymoore Cummings said. “Truth is on the ballot. Health care is on the ballot. Jobs are on the ballot. And certainly our lives are on the ballot.”

Millennials and Gen Z make up nearly 40% of eligible voters this election year, according to the Pew Research Center, and Robinson’s initiative is also helping to inspire that younger generation of Black women.

Along with active chapters for Black Girls Vote at North Carolina A&T and American University in Washington, D.C., Robinson’s group is working with about 60 students at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Established in 2018 as the first Black Girls Vote chapter, members there register students to vote and do peer-to-peer information sessions, educating fellow students in particular about local issues and candidates.

“People may think that their vote doesn’t count because of the Electoral College or they may not want Trump in office. But if you’re a female saying that to me, my next questions are usually along the lines of: ‘Do you think about your reproductive rights?’ or 'Do you take birth control?” said Kayla Jackson, a junior and president of Morgan’s chapter.

For Morgan’s largely Black student population and active Greek organizations, having Harris as the Democratic running mate means that underrepresented communities are being seen, said voter registration chair Kayla Reid, who is also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.

“Kamala’s candidacy proves that our advocacy is changing the conversation for women of color, but specifically, Black women,” Jackson said.

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When early voting begins Monday, the university will host a voting center for Baltimore City residents. And the Morgan students will be there, volunteering as poll workers.

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Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture.

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