Activate85; Grassroots Effort to Raise Voter Turnout


March 30th, 2016


DSC_0573_webWhile the nation focuses on the presidential election, a grassroots effort is underway to convince voters in North Omaha to concentrate more on local elections.

In the last two presidential elections, black voters turned out in record numbers to support President Barack Obama.

Felisa Dillon was one of those voters.

“It was such a historic campaign,” Dillon said, “a ‘no one thought it could happen in your lifetime’ kind of thing. So we were caught up in that, and then kind of shame on us that we didn’t support the President we promoted.”


Frank Hayes addressed a small crowd on March 17th. However, Activate 85 co-founder Juanita Johnson said the groups notoriety is increasing through word-of-mouth, and Activate 85 will now hold several more forums before November. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

Dillon lives in Omaha’s predominantly black 2nd District. She’s an avid voter, but said many of her neighbors are not.

In the 2014 midterm election, with the governor’s seat and two congressional seats on the ballot–only about 15 percent of district two voters actually voted. Which means about 85 percent of the registered voters, did not vote.

That’s a lot of people who could vote, who maybe did vote before, not voting. And it’s why Dillon was at North Omaha’s Salem Baptist Church on a weeknight, not for a prayer group, but to learn about a grass-roots organization called Activate 85. Their mission, as the name implies, is to get that 85 percent of registered voters who didn’t vote, to vote again.

“We fought for this right,” Frank Hayes, one of Activate 85’s founding members, said.

“I came up in the South, at a time when we couldn’t even vote,” Hayes said. “We couldn’t even go to the polls, and the people that preceded us fought long and hard to get this right, and now it’s disappointing when we don’t exercise it, because it’s right there for us. It doesn’t mean that anything and everything you want will get done, but you certainly have a voice, and  you can express that voice.”

There are all sorts of reasons why people don’t vote—work, illness, bad weather—but Hayes said what’s happening in District 2 is more than that. He said, like other black communities, there’s a dis-connect between voters and local government. He said it’s a shame, because most of the politicking that matters is local.

“It’s your mayor; it’s your city council,” Hayes said, “These are the people that are making a decision about your community. The President, he is not doing that. There’s an indirect impact, but the direct comes locally. If you vote, you have a voice in whether your streets get cleaned up from snow, whether they get repaired. “

Hayes said voting is the only way to keep elected officials accountable. If people don’t vote, he said those officials have no obligation to listen. He hammers this point home during his presentations for Activate 85.


Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian Kruse told people at Activate 85’s March 17th meeting there are no plans to change any polling locations this election cycle. However, he said not all the contracts had been signed. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

“Why should [elected officials] listen to you if you don’t vote?” Hayes asked the crowd at Salem Baptist. “When you vote, you have a voice. You can bring investment back into your community. The officials who make those decisions on where the money is invested, they’re the ones who you vote for.”

Activate 85 doesn’t want to double the efforts of other organizations already providing people with information about candidates; groups like the league of women voters for instance.

Activate 85 is strictly focused on convincing people to vote.

Felisa Dillon said that’s easier said than done. She said, “The African-American community, as a whole, [doesn’t] believe government really represents them. People of color don’t think about how government really represents them or how [government] can help them. It’s not the first answer. It’s not the first thought. So there’s a myth or lack of understanding, and then there’s some sense of truth to it too, when we don’t see things change.”

There are two black senators in Nebraska’s 49-seat Unicameral.

Two of Omaha’s seven City Council members are also black.

Aside from a one day political ploy in the 1980’s, the City has never had a black mayor.

On the national political scene, the U.S. Government has never been more diverse. To be fair, government still doesn’t mirror society in terms of racial breakdowns, but the fact 17 percent of Congress members are a minority is still a historic high.

Hayes said people in North Omaha should take the excitement of voting for the Nation’s first black president, and apply it towards voting for things like school bonds, city council members, county commissioners, and so on.

“If we can get to that point what will happen  immediately,” Hayes said, “is this community will have the attention of the elected officials, and if the elected officials are looking at us and wanting to know what we’re going to do, that at least gives us a voice.”

Because without a voice, the concerns of a community can’t be heard.

Reporter’s Notes:

Activate 85 will hold its next forum on Thursday, April 7th. It starts at 6pm at Salem Baptist Church, 3131 Lake Street.


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