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For ‘Black and Engaged’ millennial activists, politics is local

Jahvaris Fulton speaks at rally Sunday for Black and Engaged in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of Ifeoma Ike.

PHILADELPHIA — A group of black millennial activists meeting in Philadelphia over the weekend spent a whole day talking about how to organize and mobilize African Americans to more effectively wield their political power. But the subject of the Nov. 8 presidential election never came up.

Instead, the organizers of the group Black and Engaged urged participants to focus on the issues that were important to them, such as education, policing, immigration reform and the rights of LGBT individuals, and to develop strategies to hold elected officials accountable for addressing their communities’ needs.

The Philadelphia meeting, which drew about three dozen activists, advocates and artists, was the first of four gatherings that are scheduled across the country and are funded by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Workshops in Atlanta, Los Angeles and St. Louis will take place over the next three weekends.

The sessions are purposely focused on local and state issues, which more directly affect people’s everyday lives, Ifeoma Ike, one of the organizers of Black and Engaged, said in an interview.

The idea for the workshops grew out of some of the issues raised by in the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly the events in Ferguson, Mo., where unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot to death by a white police officer in 2014. Brown's death not only pushed the issue of the use of lethal force by police against unarmed African Americans to the national stage but also highlighted how that community had little or no representation in a local government that encouraged aggressive policing and the issuing of citations to generate revenue.

“The question became how do we engage more of our communities to at least see this as a concern, connect this concern to their day-to-day lives, and figure out what are some of the strategies that need to be in place to change policies, and to the extent we can change the political makeup in those communities,” said Ike, a co-creator of the civic engagement organization Black and Brown People Vote.

On Saturday, participants talked about identifying and framing issues that mattered to them, figuring out who would be supporters and allies of their demands and how to develop campaigns and apply pressure to get what they want. Activists involved in politics, research and data collection, communications and social media, and the performing arts were brought in to lead the sessions.

The workshop came at the end of a week in which two black men were shot to death by police: Terence Crutcher, 40, in Tulsa, and Keith Lamont Scott, 43, in Charlotte.

Two years after Ferguson, where is the police reform?

Presidential politics made an appearance on the second day of the workshop. But again the conversation was not about whether to support Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump. Instead, the group engaged in a spirited discussion about whether to bother with the presidential contest at all and focus instead on down-ballot races. Some argued that the political system, especially at the national level, is so unresponsive to concerns of black communities that voting is futile; others said that those who rely on fragile safety-net programs can't afford to opt out.

One of the speakers at a closing rally for the event was Jahvaris Fulton, the brother of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teenager who was shot to death by a self-described neighborhood watch captain whose acquittal outraged young African Americans and was a pivotal moment in the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Prior to the murder of my brother, I was black but not engaged. Not woke. That made me part of the problem,” Fulton, 25, a special assistant to New York City's Young Men's Initiative, said during brief remarks at the rally in downtown Philadelphia. “I’ve heard so many people say: ‘I’m not voting. It doesn’t matter.’ That’s definitely not true.”

“Voting matters and not just presidential elections, the midterm elections are important as well,” Fulton said. “You have to make sure that you are putting people in office that share your views and your values. If you can't find that person in your community to run, maybe you should be running.”