I knew Donald Trump was going to win the 2016 presidential election after only two weeks of working as a field organizer on the Hillary Clinton campaign. It was apparent that Clinton’s campaign leaders weren’t listening to voters, especially people of color. Our concerns were not acknowledged, even as we tried our best to rally a campaign that didn’t prioritize us.
None of the young Black and brown people we talked to were interested in voting. They said politics was a game. But party leaders didn’t seem to notice. Their strategy wasn’t focused on winning my Southwest Detroit community. Instead, they were focused on converting white moderates to save us from Trump, while failing to deliver an aspirational vision that could motivate the real swing voters: young people of color who have every reason to distrust the establishment.
I registered to vote when I turned 18 and I voted for Barack Obama. As a Mexican immigrant, brought to this country with a belief in the land of opportunity, I motivated everyone in my immigrant family to register to vote once they became citizens. However, the change I believed in didn’t come. I was heartbroken as the Obama administration deported three family members.
When trying to get people to register to vote in Detroit in 2016, I would be told by Black men, “I don’t vote. I voted for Obama and my family is still in jail. Nothing changed.” They weren’t wrong. I got all my friends and family members to help elect our first Black president, and still we had our water shut off, our houses foreclosed on, and our family members separated from us.
Many issues can be addressed at the local and state level, but we’ve been let down there too. I’ve never had elected county officials tell me what they’re going to do to reduce the number of incarcerations or how they’re going to file legislation that ensures families stay in their homes instead of experiencing foreclosures. We need to understand how we can hold all levels of government accountable to care and invest in our communities. Once I realized voting for a president wasn’t enough, I began to organize in my community.
This year I ran for office to replace a 20-year incumbent as county commissioner. I knew I had to run a campaign that was both inspirational and educational, otherwise it wouldn’t mean anything to my community. I had more votes on election night but ultimately lost by 1,200 absentee votes.
I’m a 28-year-old community organizer, an immigrant, a queer woman, raised in Southwest Detroit, and I almost beat a 20-year incumbent. My campaign was rooted in putting my community first, running a mutual aid effort that raised $80,000 for our neighborhoods and supported 300 families during COVID. Yes, we want to elect people who look like and sound like us but who also do the work of serving our communities every day, not just around elections.
The 2020 Democratic Convention was aimed at white, middle-class moderates. The party missed the opportunity to highlight young Black and brown leaders. The convention touched on many issues of race, yet failed to mention the Democratic Party’s commitment to combating it. The party hasn’t even signed onto the Breathe Act, which would defund our systems of oppression and return funding to our communities. The DNC could have shared the stories of our communities in Detroit or Flint, who have shown endless fortitude despite their local, state, and federal governments’ failures to protect and serve them.
The convention was rooted in fear, focusing on how electing Trump again would be the worst thing for America. Divisiveness and fear will not win this election. The party needs to give people something to believe in, and show them that it’s possible to create change. It needs to invite young people of color to lead, to share our vision of what is possible in our inclusive community, to help pave the way for a different Democratic Party, one that listens, changes with the times, and inspires voters.
Watching the DNC felt like watching an infomercial for a product that was not made for me, but that I’m being told to buy anyway. The Democratic Party not only needs to appeal to and welcome the scared white working class of middle America, but must also foster hope and engage all working-class Americans, especially people of color and young voters, on issues that are at the core of our morals and who we are as a nation. Meet us where we are, not where we don’t want to continue to be, to move forward.
Gabriela Santiago-Romero is policy and research director at We the People Michigan.