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In the middle of a pandemic, Heartland Workers Center found innovative ways to safely engage with voters, build leadership, and strengthen community. Corbin Delgado, Lily Reyes, and Penélope León, organizers with Heartland Workers Center, share their experience.

LR: Most of our work is about building strong communities, building strong leadership, and developing a sense of ownership to participate in the civic process. We used phonebanking, canvassing, and social media to touch base with the community and educate and encourage them to vote. We had to adapt during this difficult time.

CD: This was a statewide effort to increase voting in Omaha. Every one of our groups helped out with us. We targeted areas with the highest rate of low propensity voters, people who are 50% or less likely to vote. The way that we did this is that we targeted the people who weren't being talked to by anyone else because they deserve to be as much a part of the process as anyone else. If we are committed to creating change, we cannot let a single person have their voice unheard. We also made sure we kept up with those we had previously contacted in the previous elections. If we're building a culture of civic engagement, that doesn't stop after one contact. From there, we built up community core team leaders. We see core team leaders as not just people who are engaged in their community but have a vision for its future. We hold very strongly to the fact that if you have an imagination for where you see your community going, you can create more change. The fact that we raised voter turnout in the Omaha elections was great. but the real fruit of our labor was seeing people go from, "Oh, I've never voted in an election before," to "Alright, I want to be a core team leader. I want to help as much as I can with registering people and getting them out to vote." That's how we knew that we succeeded.

LR: Our big objective was to create a culture of civic engagement. We approached people during phonebanking and socially distanced canvassing to speak with the communities about their issues. The big idea is the educational piece. That's why we are working with underrepresented communities who didn’t have this kind of voting culture. You don't have any idea how exciting it is to work with communities who feel ownership to be part of this process, to help others make their voices heard. Hacer que las voces de los demás también puedan escucharse es algo muy bonito que se trabajó.

PL: For phonebanking, we prepared all the materials for our volunteers and gave them training. One of the main things is that we want to get in touch with low propensity voters. We also ask if you prefer to vote in person or by mail, if they need some forms, ask them what are the issues in their community that they think are the most important. At the end, I send a report to all of them of how many calls they did per day and how many surveys they filled out. The volunteers start competing to see who will get in the first place!  

CD: We started doing our social distanced canvassing during 2020. We had planned everything out we were going to do and then, of course, COVID hit. What are the things we need for our leaders to make sure that they are safe when they go door to door? We developed a plan: we had bags full of personal protective equipment, we had masks for folks, we had hand sanitizer. We gave them best practices and said, "Hey, when you knock on the door, you're going to leave the materials there and then stand ten feet back so you're out of that six foot range for droplets to go and you guys are safe." In all my years of doing organizing, we had the highest canvass rate that I have ever seen. Our canvass rate was either at or above 40%. Which is insane, because usually you have a 30% canvass rate and you're like, "Oh my god that's amazing, we usually only have 20%!"

PL: I think this was the only good thing about COVID! People were in their houses!

CD: And they were so excited to see us come there! That carried over to 2021. We kept track of all the issues by precincts because what might be an issue in one precinct isn't going to be an issue in another. We had some places saying, "Trash is a huge problem." Other areas were like, "Parks are what we really care about." What they cared about was the stuff in their community; when we talked about issues in the community, people went on. That's how we got that engagement from folks, by making everything local. The look of joy and relief on people's faces when we said, "We are a nonpartisan organization. We don't care who you vote for. We just want to make sure that you go out and vote.” The fact that we weren't trying to sway them one way or another opened them so much to us. That's what the joy was of our socially distanced canvassing program, was that we were able to talk to people in a way that kept them safe, that made them feel like they were a part of something. We were just there to ensure they were empowered.

LR: For me personally, you don't have any idea how exciting it is. I’ve been working with the community for 25 years. To get this opportunity to hear them, to motivate, to educate, in their own space, it's really nice. I’m proud of our work. We learn a lot about the community we work with. Ellos se sienten muy agradecidos con nuestra presencia. Es una experiencia muy bonita. When you encourage other leaders from the community to do the same and make them feel this kind of emotion, you feel amazing. 

PL: This was one part of the work we do here at Heartland Workers Center. The main thing we do is to find, train, and develop leaders inside of underrepresented communities. We don’t just encourage them to vote and make their voice heard; we also invite them to be part of our work to make permanent change instead of just bandaid solutions. If we do it all together, we can accomplish that, not just for now but for a long time.

CD: I personally know the power of being asked to be involved. I grew up in Papillion and no one ever knocked on our door. We were in a lower-income area. No one ever asked us to be involved. It wasn't until I was in high school that I had a mentor who said, "Hey, you're going to go canvassing.” For me, it really made things click. I got to talk with people in my community. This is what informs my work doing anything in the community. There are so many of us who aren't asked to participate. The amount of times I've talked to folks and they've said, "Well, nobody's ever asked me to do that before. Sure, why not?" That's their first step. Seeing people take the steps that I took and going from having no knowledge whatsoever to acting for themselves and having the power for themselves is the most rewarding thing that I can do. It doesn't just affect them, it's going to affect their families. It has this huge widespread effect. There's just so much joy and magic that comes from seeing a community take the reins for itself. It's personal and it's public and it's wonderful.

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