Score the goal: An activist overcomes his own obstacles to lead a movement to help formerly incarcerated people gain access to the ballot


Desmond Meade was visiting his hometown of St. Croix in 2014, several bottles of rum he had collected for friends in Florida on the table next to him when he heard the news.

The former drug addict who had been convicted of a crime was building a new life for himself. He was released from homelessness, incarceration and drug addiction. He had graduated from university and enrolled in law school. But the foundations he had built were fragile. He was already on academic probation and now law school learned that he had failed a key course. He was expelled.

At that moment, Meade stared at the bottles of rum. He reached into his pocket full of money. He thought about going into a pipe bender and spending the money on drugs.

Then Meade, whose journey since that day has made him a national leader in strengthening the foundations of democracy, rethought.

“The thing that ran through my mind was, how could I even get back to America now?” You know, so many people looked up to me, ”Meade said. “I had the money in my pocket to buy all the drugs I wanted. It was a great opportunity for me to relapse. But I did not do it. I picked up the phone and called someone.

When Meade returned home to Florida, he not only made it back to law school; a test determined he had a learning disability. He got help and went from almost being kicked out of school to being on the dean’s list. He graduated. And only four years later it made history.

In 2018, Meade led thousands of volunteers to push through Amendment 4, a Florida voting initiative that restored the right to vote to those who had served time for felony convictions. The movement had started with Meade and a small group of volunteers handing out brochures and painting signs.

Then it took off.

Approved by over 64% of Florida voters, Amendment 4 re-emancipated up to 1.5 million people in the state who are disproportionately people of color. It is the biggest expansion of voting rights in the country since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which banned discrimination in voting.

In September, Meade became one of 25 named as a 2021 MacArthur Fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Commonly known as “genius” grants, the scholarships are among the country’s most prestigious awards for intellectual and artistic achievement.

A year earlier, the Meade-led organization, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), received a $ 1 million Vote Your Voice grant from the Southern Poverty Law Center to support its important work. Meade’s story told in final episode of new SPLC season Looks like hate Podcast.

Desmond Meade, president and executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (center), speaks to Florida residents who have previously been convicted of felony on March 12, 2020, in Tallahassee, Florida. (Credit: Tori Schneider / Tallahassee Democrat via Imgn Content Services, LLC)

Find the right place

The recent recognition and funding of the SPLC is much needed.

Shortly after Amendment 4 was passed, the Republican-dominated Florida legislature hit it with a punch, approving a law requiring those previously convicted of felony to pay all fines, restitution. and fees imposed upon conviction before they can exercise their right to vote.

In many cases, the totals run into the tens of thousands of dollars. And in many cases, it’s hard for people to know how much they owe, let alone be able to pay.

Files are scattered around government offices and are often poorly maintained. In addition, the state continues to add new fees for court appearances. She sells the debt to private collection agencies, which charge interest of up to 40%. It suspends the driver’s licenses of people who miss a single payment on their debt, preventing them from keeping their jobs. And the law makes it a crime to vote if every penny has not been paid.

But Meade and the people he represents, a population he calls “returning citizens,” didn’t let the new law deter them. They’ve climbed higher obstacles before.

“The narrative that is always told is that progress is right up, up, up, isn’t it? It’s always a lot more complicated than that in life, ”Meade said.

He should know. A few years before that day in St. Croix, Meade found himself at another low, looking at a set of train tracks, wondering if he should stand in front of a train. Now he works in a room full of books in a comfortable home, running an organization with real political power in Florida. He is married and has five stepchildren. Most importantly, he dedicates his life to making a difference.

“There are going to be setbacks, there are going to be disappointments,” Meade said. “But I learned a lot from my own personal experience. What I learned is to see the possibilities, to maintain that sense of hope and to be able to break through the chaos and find that sweet spot, you know, that helps deal with adversity.

Since Florida lawmakers decided to undermine Amendment 4, the FRRC has continually sought this sweet spot, raising more than $ 27 million from donors to clear the court debts of tens of thousands of returning citizens. For this reason, the coalition estimates that in the general election of 2020, 44,000 people who have already been convicted of felony were able to vote. Since then, the FRRC has helped 20,000 others settle their debts and helps others navigate the legal maze to settle their debts.

Join the dots

Meade’s organization has also taken its fight to court, successfully persuading judges to convert fines and fees owed by hundreds of returning citizens into community service, making them eligible to vote.

And he broadened his goals. Currently, the organization is working on a range of criminal justice reform initiatives, including bail reform and reintegration programs, and is helping returning citizens find housing and employment. . As the coalition grew, it recruited returning citizens as volunteers and staff, thus boosting their confidence, professional skills and political commitment.

members of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition

Left to right: Sharon Madion, Fees and Fines Officer for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC); Darline King of Greenacres, Florida; and Desmond Meade, president and executive director of the FRRC, pose for a selfie after King completes the voter rights restoration process at an FRRC event in Riviera Beach, Fla. on Saturday, April 17, 2021. King a charges her fees after signing a paper and making a call, she said. (Credit: Thomas Cordy via Imgn Content Services, LLC)

As those who have been incarcerated gain the right to vote, Meade hopes political leaders will be more inclined to respond to new voters with improved policies on mass incarceration and reintegration into society, along with reform of the system. struggling criminal justice system and with programs that help people recover from challenges that tend to hit vulnerable communities the hardest.

Connecting the dots is what it’s all about.

“The goal is not to vote just for the sake of voting, it’s to vote in a way that will impact politics and directly affect the community, and that’s what the SPLC is trying to do. do by supporting these efforts, ”said Seth Levi, chief strategy officer. officer in the SPLC.

“These are policies that can impact the lack of affordable housing, the denial of certain permits to those convicted of felony, the cycle that forever marks people on the basis of a past mistake and makes it impossible for people, for the most part, live productive lives. “

Civil rights restored

Meade said he was pressured years ago to start working on voting rights restoration because it was an issue that affected him personally. He knew, he said, that until he could vote, he wouldn’t have access to the civic rights people around him already had.

Meade finally settled his own court debts and, in November 2020, voted in the election. After years of refusal, a Florida pardon council restored his civil rights, allowing him to pass the state bar exam and even run for office if he so chooses.

But he won’t rest until the sea of ​​people who have had the kinds of experiences he has can vote as well.

“Desmond Meade hits me as someone who doesn’t give up easily,” said Aubrey Jewett, associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida and co-author of Politics in Florida. Meade’s story “shows that one person can really make a big difference in American politics. But while he is the public face of this movement, he has a great community of people behind him. They are looking for other ways to extend the franchise to as many citizens as possible. “

“Listen,” Jewett added. “I’m not going to paint a rosy picture of what they’re up against. It’s hard to score goals. But they’ve already scored one. And the match is not over.

Photo above: Desmond Meade is the president and executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. The t-shirt under his jacket reads, “Let my people vote.” (Credit: Xavier McCleary)

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