Organizing communities of color during COVID-19

Organizing communities of color during COVID-19
© Getty Images

I have been working on campaigns for over 30 years and currently own one of the nation’s only 100 percent-minority-owned and operated political consulting firms in the nation. Thanks to my institutional knowledge of the way political and nonprofit campaigns are run, I’m worried about the 2020 general election and the lack of efforts to mobilize black and brown communities in the age of social distancing during a global pandemic. 

We already struggle with culturally competent organizing of black and brown communities during campaign seasons that aren’t conducted under the shadow of COVID-19. There are two narratives about our communities, for example, that are blatantly false: one, Latinos don’t vote; two, black voters are just a GOTV universe. These narratives are peddled by established consultants who don’t understand the nuances of our communities. There are alarmingly few minority-owned consultants working at the highest levels of the political and nonprofit campaigns, so our counter-arguments are rarely heard.

Because of these false narratives, the organizing model used to turn out our communities’ vote is almost solely based on face-to-face interactions at someone’s home, church or community-based event. These interactions normally only happen in the final 30 days of a campaign prior to the general election. This is why I'm worried that the little money that is normally spent on our community, usually in door-to-door interaction, will further limit our ability to interact with this often ignored voter segment. 


During the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, I served as a senior advisor to the Bernie 2020 campaign. My firm was hired as the primary vendor for most of the paid communication to all voters — not just Latinos. Because I had budgetary authority, I made sure the outreach program to Latinos was treated with the same priority as the general paid voter outreach, which gave us a window into how campaigns can prioritize outreach to voters who are typically ignored. We have already tested this model with real voters and it worked to historical levels, helping Sen. Bernie Sanders dominate the Latino vote in a Democratic primary by huge margins simply because we invested in the Latino community at the same rate that we invested in white communities. 

For Democrats to be successful in November, we need to find an alternative to door-to-door canvassing. During the 2020 primary, we built a virtual distributed organizing tool to solve this problem. This tool allows canvassers and volunteers to log into an online portal and call and text voters to have the same conversations you would have at their door. We used this technology during the campaign to connect Spanish-speaking volunteers in non-early states like Florida to Spanish-speaking voters in early states like Iowa and Nevada. We also used the tool in states with high volunteer capacity like California. The key to this working in the general election is starting early and making sure your targets are expanded to include new and sporadic voters. 

The second key to persuasion and mobilization is paid investment. There will be hundreds of millions of dollars spent talking to white voters via digital, television and radio ads and direct mail. Historically, that money has not been targeted to black and brown voters until the very end of a campaign. However, we proved that the narrative that Latinos don’t vote is wrong — if campaigns invest in reaching out to the community.

Seven months before the Nevada caucus, Sen. Sanders was losing to former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe Trump outraises Biden in July, surpasses billion for the cycle Duckworth: Republican coronavirus package would 'gut' Americans With Disabilities Act MORE by five points among Latinos. By caucus day, we won 73 percent of the Latino vote. To achieve this level of success, we sent Latinos 15 pieces of mail, expanded the target universe to include new and infrequent voters, ran digital and radio ads in Spanish for four months and ran a month of Spanish television ads on top of the distributed and in person organizing mentioned earlier.  

The untested variable going into November’s elections is COVID-19. It’s hard to know the effect this virus is going to have on the mental state of our electorate. Black Americans are dying at over twice the rate of white Americans and communities of color are also losing our jobs at an alarming rate. People are desperate for help and our government is turning its back on many of our people. If you’re an immigrant or live in a mixed-status household, you did not receive any relief from the government. Not only are we dying and losing our jobs faster, but our government is not protecting or helping our community. 

As campaigns think about their outreach strategy to communities of color ahead of November, COVID-19 has to be at the forefront of every paid communication. Black and Brown Americans need to know how the virus affects their communities, what our government is - and isn’t - doing to provide relief and hear candidates’ plans for help. We can turn out new voters by motivating them with plans and action if the Democratic party and donors invest in communities of color with the same commitment that they invest in White communities. So far, I don’t think they’re doing so but I hope I’m proven wrong.

Chuck Rocha is a political consultant, Democratic Party strategist and president of Solidarity Strategies. He was a senior advisor for both of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersProgressives soaring after big primary night 'Absolutely incredible': Ocasio-Cortez congratulates Cori Bush on upset victory over Lacy Clay Sanders supporters launch six-figure ad campaign explaining why they're voting for Biden MORE’ presidential campaigns and makes frequent appearances on MSNBC and HillTV. You can follow him on Twitter @ChuckRocha.