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Layla Ahmed of TIRRC Votes working outside the Nashville Public Library Southeast Branch in Antioch. // John Partipilo

Tennessee civic engagement groups grow programs for immigrant and Black organizers

TIRRC Votes and The Equity Alliance Fund promote year-round education


By Holly McCall, Tennessee Lookout

Layla Ahmed, a 2022 Vanderbilt University graduate, signed up to be a civic engagement coordinator for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition Votes shortly after graduation, figuring her political science studies and prior volunteer experience on campaigns would come in handy across the state.

But the highlight of her work came close to home.

“Campaigns don’t usually target my neighborhood,” said Ahmed, who lives in a South Nashville neighborhood she estimates to include about 90% immigrant and refugee residents, including recent arrivals from West Africa and Afghanistan. “People who live in my neighborhood aren’t usually considered reliable voters or persuadable voters.”

Many of her neighbors are wary about opening their doors to strangers but upon seeing her canvassing, their faces “lit up.”

“‘Oh, it’s Layla! What message does she have for us: We know her and trust her,’” Ahmed said of canvassing.

Ahmed is one of 500 first- and second-generation young Tennesseans who have been trained to provide civic education to the state’s Black and brown residents through a partnership between TIRRC Votes and The Equity Alliance Fund, while the latter’s LiberTEA Collective has trained 400 Black political operatives

With the 2022 midterm election in the rearview mirror, leaders from both groups are assessing results of efforts in the last election cycle and adding programs to train more young organizers like Ahmed to educate Tennessee’s immigrants and Black Tennesseans about civic engagement, including voting.

“Organizations like ours need year-round investment in Tennessee,” said Tequila Johnson, CEO of The Equity Alliance, a 501(c)3 nonprofit and the Equity Alliance Fund. “The culture of politics is always about the candidate and there’s a top-down approach. What we need to be doing in prepping the community and going out and creating sustainable relationships with people and not just treating voters like one-night stands.”

The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) was established in 2003 and The Equity Alliance in 2016. Until 2018, TIRRC, a nonprofit group, focused solely on direct services to immigrants including immigration legal services.

But after the 2016 election, organization leaders realized they needed another tool for educating immigrants.

“We were busing refugees to the polls (in 2016) and were shocked to find out that a lot of refugees were getting off the bus excited to vote for Donald Trump, but as a 501(c)3, we couldn’t do anything,” said Lisa Sherman Luna, executive director TIRRC and TIRRC Votes. “It was then “we realized that our communities needed a political home and political organizing to really understand the issues and where candidates stood on the issues.”

Cue the formation of TIRRC Votes and a 2018 partnership with The Equity Alliance on the Black Voter Project, which resulted in 90,000 new voter registrations in Tennessee.

Sen. Charlane Oliver, left, and Tequila Johnson, right, photographed at the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Monument in Nashville’s Centennial Park by John Partipilo. Johnson and Oliver founded The Equity Alliance.

Elected officials “who look like us”

report issued by the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee in March showed the state’s immigrant population is just more than 5% but expected to increase in the next two decades, with Hispanics being the fastest growing group of residents. The report predicts the Hispanic share of Tennessee’s population will grow from 5.9% in 2020 to 10.2% in 2040.

Democratic candidates still tend to get a large portion of Hispanic voters but partisan allegiance is no longer a given.

“Across the country, more and more, you’re seeing the Latino vote being split, so it’s important for us to establish that political home and ensure our communities are hearing from a trusted source,” said Sherman Luna.

Sherman Luna and Johnson’s organizations are nonpartisan, although they may choose to work on behalf of individual candidates that support pro-Black and brown campaign issues.

“Black people aren’t monolithic: there are Black Republicans,” said Johnson.

“If you see a person on the side of the road bleeding, you’re not going to ask them if they voted for Donald Trump, you’re not going to ask them if they’re Democrat or Republican: you’re going to get them help,” Johnson said. “We want to win in a way that’s going to support our people and if that means taking power from (political parties), then we’re going to do it.”

“Our ultimate goal is to actually have our communities feel the impact of having elected officials who are accountable to them, who represent them, of having folks who look like us run for office and run campaigns,” Sherman Luna said.

Along with the Asian American Advocacy Fund, which is based in Georgia, the Nashville-based advocacy groups will hold a nonpartisan training titled “Rising Tide Southeast: Immigrant and Refugee Candidate and Operative Training” on April 28-30 at TIRCC’s Nashville offices.

And with the Tennessee General Assembly opening its 113th session in a month, Johnson and Sherman Luna expect Tennessee to again be a bellwether for major issues, like cuts to education for children who are undocumented.

In 2022, Rep. Bruce Griffey sponsored House Bill 1648, which, had it passed, would have allowed local schools to deny public school enrollment to students based on their immigration status — a potential violation of Plyler v. Doe, the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that schools cannot discriminate against undocumented students.

“We have a really important role to play in holding the line not only in Tennessee but in the rest of the country,” said Sherman Luna.

Ahmed, the Vanderbilt graduate, now has a full time job serving as a civic engagement coordinator with TIRRC, a development she didn’t anticipate when first signing up last summer.

“TIRRC Votes specifically wanted to target these people because we know that if given the right information, if given the agency to have a voice for themselves and speak up for themselves, they will jump at the opportunity. Many are escaping countries where they weren’t given that chance,” said Ahmed of her neighbors.

“You meet people who are so impassioned and so happy to receive information from a source that is trying to help them and give them more power and more agency in their own lives.”

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal.

Now more than ever, tough and fair journalism is important. The Tennessee Lookout is your watchdog, telling the stories of politics and policy that affect the people of the Volunteer State.

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