This group has a plan to ensure NC’s Black rural voters are better represented

2020 Elections

Fayetteville State University students in March, 2020. (Photo by Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images)

By Michael McElroy

December 19, 2023

New Rural Project helped elect several candidates in 2023 by listening to rural voters who sat out in 2020.

In the 2023 municipal election, four candidates of color won town or city council seats in communities with majority Black populations and majority white leadership.

That’s what can happen when candidates better reflect the areas they hope to represent, Cynthia Wallace, co-founder of the voting rights and civic engagement group New Rural Project, says.

Wallace and New Rural Project staff members spent the run-up to the elections in these areas trying to persuade infrequent voters to re-engage in the process, she said in an interview last month.

They knocked on doors, sat on front porches, huddled into barber shops, and listened more than they talked, Wallace said.

It’s been their approach since Wallace and Helen Probst Mills, both former candidates themselves, formed the organization in 2021 after the 2020 elections.

New Rural Project focuses on increasing civic engagement in rural voters by listening to their needs instead of simply reciting a stump speech in their direction, Wallace said.

“What we really are focused on is giving voice to those who feel voiceless and helping those that feel unseen be seen and heard,” she added.

‘Full circle’

New Rural Project launched in 2021 by focusing on seven rural counties on the southern border of the state, Wallace said: Union, Anson, Richmond, Scotland, Hoke and Robeson. They started in Union and followed Highway 74 East, she said, essentially drawing a line of small towns from Hemby Bridge to Boardman, some 120 miles away.

“We did a lot of listening in our first year,” Wallace said.

In 2022, the organization started a series of barbershop conversations in these counties that brought together groups of Black men under 40 for “these deep conversations about civics, voting rights, local engagement,” Wallace said. “But also about entrepreneurship, jobs and wages, about crime and the criminal justice system, and bringing them together in a space so their voices could be a part of the conversation.”

Some local elected officials attended, too, she said. Soon, people who’d never met their town officials were now talking to them face to face, and in many cases seeing

“They’re local elected officials that also demographically look like them,” Wallace said. “And in most cases, the men in the barbershop are doing the talking and the elected officials are doing the listening.”

One of the barbers in those conversations, Garrett Snuggs, won the most votes of any candidate for the Wadesboro Town Council last November.

This year, New Rural Project added Beauty Salon conversations to the list.

“Every Black woman I know has spent her share of time in a beauty salon,” Wallace said. “And we’ve seen that happen in those beauty salons that the barriers kind of break down and you’re in a space that’s familiar, comfortable, and talking about your issues and your concerns.”

At all their events and information sessions, Wallace said, they provide resources for public services and help for a host of day-to-day challenges. Local entrepreneurs, business leaders, and other community members are also on hand to talk to attendees

“We connect the dots between whatever their issue is and their civic life,” she said. “So it’s still trying to bring it back full circle to why your civic engagement can actually solve these issues that you care about.”

David, Meet Goliath

This focus on voters who feel forgotten or abandoned by the process is the key to winning elections, increasing representation, and solving civic problems, Wallace said. It may also be the way Democrats can break a Republican logjam in state and local governments.

Republicans have drawn new election maps that seem to make it all but impossible for Democrats to win in several key districts in 2024, especially in rural areas. But even the Death Star had a weakness, even Goliath was vulnerable to stones.

There were some 60,000 registered voters of color in North Carolina who didn’t vote in 2020, Wallace said.

Those are the kind of numbers that change elections.

In 2020, Wallace pointed out, Cheri Beasley lost her race for Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court by 401 votes.

Looking ahead

Wallace said that her group is also trying to get the attention of Democrats, who often pour their resources into cities and suburbs, but neglect rural areas, which have become far more conservative in the last decade.

A new focus on rural areas is gaining momentum among a new generation of Democrats in the state, as well. The North Carolina Democratic Party Chair Anderson Clayton, who at 25 is the youngest state party chair in the country, has also focused heavily on rural areas, pushing against the belief that these communities are destined to vote Republican.

“People think that to win you’ve got to only focus on Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Asheville,” Wallace said. But, she added, “there’s a whole world of majority-minority places today where the turnout rate is what’s changing and impacting how elections are ending and who’s winning or losing.”

Like in November.

Despite the group’s successes in 2023, the way forward in 2024 remains uphill, Wallace said.

“There’s still a lot of apathy,” she said.

“We are definitely going to keep pushing for the turnout and leverage some of these wins and these new faces in office to spread the message themselves.”

She added: “Because the people who live in the community are the best ambassadors.”

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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