In a City Where 15 Percent of Voters Elected the Mayor, Downtown Is Claiming Power

Formerly incarcerated citizens are leading the campaign to get more voters to the polls on Election Day.

POWER Northeast organizers get out the vote in a still from an upcoming documentary about the group's work in Allentown. (Photo by Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz)

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In 1984, Sydney ‘Trek’ Mckenzie’s middle school class assembled to listen to Geraldine Ferraro, a vice presidential candidate, speak to a crowd in Allentown, Pennsylvania. This simple class trip, organized by Mckenzie’s teacher, was a moment that changed his life. It was the moment that he realized the power in politics.

Mckenzie still lives in the same Allentown neighborhood he grew up in and refers to himself as a political enthusiast who is heavily interested in local politics. But the first time he ever found himself casting a ballot at a voting booth was in 2008 when he voted for Obama. “I was registered to vote since high school,” says Mckenzie, “and it was such an easy process to register that I almost didn’t think it would work when I went to vote for Obama. I thought there was no way I was still able to vote, that it could be so easy.”

Registering voters has long been a tactic of organizations seeking to improve voter turnouts, especially in local elections. In downtown Allentown, the League of Women Voters sets up voter registration tables at the art museum, the community college and at the homeless shelter. According to Timothy Benyo, Lehigh County Elections Deputy Chief Clerk, it may be easier to register to vote in the city compared to the suburbs due to targeted registration drives downtown and alternate language requirements that provide materials in Spanish and access to translators.

But while putting voters on the rolls may be easy, getting them to show up at the polls is an entirely different matter. POWER Northeast (Pennsylvanians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild), a grassroots community organization that aims to disrupt racial inequities in the Lehigh Valley, also focuses on voter registration and voter engagement efforts — during the recent presidential election, they hired people, most of them formerly incarcerated, to knock on doors across Allentown registering people to vote. They knocked on close to 15,000 doors and ended up registering over 1,000 people. However, the organization acknowledges that voter registration is just one small part of the process. For POWER Northeast, the difference between a registered voter and someone who votes is whether that person feels connected to their individual power and their community. On Nov. 7, Mckenzie and his fellow Allentown citizens will either re-elect a mayor — Ed Pawlowski — who is currently under indictment for 54 counts of fraud, bribery and extortion, or put into office one of 4 other candidates hoping to capitalize on the controversy. And if history is any indication, the election will likely be decided by less than 15 percent of Allentown’s 72,000 registered voters. In fact, Pawlowski was able to secure his position as the Democratic candidate for mayor of Allentown with only 1,682 votes last May. Some precincts in the 50 percent low-income and 50 percent low-income city saw fewer than 100 voters well into the primary day.

With support from Solutions Journalism Network, the Reentry Coalition has supported the development of a documentary film about Power Northeast. 

A City Divided

Hamilton Street is the main drag that brings you from the more suburban west side of Allentown into the heart of the city, Pennsylvania’s third largest. The wide commercial boulevard once served as a shopping district for white middle-class residents of Allentown who flocked to center city to shop at Hess’s upscale department store, attend concerts at the beaux arts symphony hall or view paintings at the city art museum. But when shopping malls started to spring up in the outskirts of the city in the 1970s, white shoppers were lured away from downtown Allentown and Hamilton Street’s storefronts slowly emptied. The last few decades have been a tale of two cities. As white residents and their spending power fled the city, Puerto Rican and Dominican families, some of whom were priced out of New York, began to fill vacancies in the downtown district but remained economically segregated as the wealth of the white middle-class was diverted to other parts of town.

Latinx immigrants have reanimated the residential sections of downtown Allentown. (Photo by Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz)

But 2014 saw a renewed interest in Hamilton Street when a massive new tax-subsidized hockey arena opened, followed by an attendant orbit of bars and restaurants targeting those game-day crowds. Today, white middle-class families now park their cars on Hamilton street and wander around the fledgling city center, exploring the fountains at PP&L Plaza or peeking at the giant vats of beer in the windows of Fegley’s Brew Works. But travel a little further down Hamilton Street, past the new Starbucks and the Moravian bookstore, and you eventually reach the Lehigh County courthouse, the county jail, the social security office and beyond that, the homeless shelter. Visitors to the newly aestheticized downtown don’t tend to venture to the neighborhoods that exist just beyond its boundaries.

The city is a microcosm of the raw identity politics exposed by the Trump presidency. There is a large Latinx population that lives downtown in majority-minority rowhome neighborhoods that once housed working-class white people, many of whom worked in manufacturing industries like the now defunct Bethlehem Steel (and the inspiration for Billy Joel’s famous song that pays homage to that time period). White homeowners tend to live on the city’s 86 percent-white west side. The city’s racial and economic divide neatly predicts voting patterns — the closer one lives to the heart of the city, the less likely one is to vote.

POWER Northeast dates back to 1998 when it operated as CUNA (Congregations United for Neighborhood Action). In 2015, then-newly hired Executive Director Jude-Laure Denis, moved POWER Northeast into an office within the city center, where communities most affected by Allentown’s economic depression reside. Here, the organization noticed another geographic pattern: The closer you were to downtown, the more likely you were to meet people who had been in jail. “Within those particular zip codes,” explains Denis, “it is rarer to meet someone who hasn’t been touched in some way by the system.” And there is a distinct connection between mass incarceration and voter disengagement. “You are talking about people who are so busy meeting their basic needs that they’re not thriving,” says Denis. “You are talking about people who experience educational failures. You are talking about people who feed the school to prison pipeline. Pretty much that describes Allentown.”

The ways in which mass incarceration disassociates people from their communities are deeply embedded in larger systemic issues of racism. Spending time in the prison system creates a feedback loop that your life doesn’t matter, that you aren’t important. Hasshan Batts, a healthcare and community development consultant in Allentown who along with Denis, co-founded POWER Northeast’s efforts to engage the formerly incarcerated, described his own experience in the prison system as demoralizing. “As a prison survivor,” says Batts, “I can tell you that prison is a traumatic experience, but the difference between prison and other forms of trauma is that it’s perceived in our society as earned trauma.”

For Allentown, the prison system and mass incarceration are imbedded in the racialized history of the commonwealth. “The prison system started in Pennsylvania, and the world watches us in many ways,” explained Batts. “Pennsylvania recently passed a law for predictive sentencing by zip code and it’s the only place in the country that does this. It’s an actuarial tool.” That means you might earn additional time during sentencing not because of your crime, but because of where you live. Such criminal risk assessments that factor variables that are beyond an individual’s control, such as age, gender and zip code are rife with problems, according to a recent report by the Marshall Project and FiveThirtyEight. Writers Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Ben Casselman and Dana Goldstein warn that Pennsylvania’s algorithm will “in some cases, penalize residents of urban areas, who are far more likely to be black.” And an analysis by ProPublica of algorithmic forecasting for violent crime in Florida found that algorithms were “particularly likely to falsely flag black defendants as future criminals, wrongly labeling them this way at almost twice the rate as white defendants.”

Compounding the difficulties in returning home after incarceration is feeling unwelcomed by communities that don’t acknowledge the impact of that trauma. “The current power structure relies on the cycle of disenfranchisement, hopelessness and isolation of communities with historically low voter turnout” explains Pastor Greg Edwards. Edwards was board chair of POWER Northeast during the 2016 re-entry campaign. Inspired by witnessing these efforts, Edwards in September announced his candidacy to replace Charlie Dent’s soon to be vacant seat in Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District, which includes Allentown. “The Democratic party continues to ignore” the populations that need most to be reached, Edwards says. POWER Northeast’s 2016 campaign offered Edwards a glimpse of an organizing model that could reach and galvanize communities who might vote “if there were a candidate worthy of their vote.” His campaign aims to build from this tradition to bring reluctant citizens to the polls and shift the “existing political paradigm on its head.”

Power in the Local

POWER Northeast’s political mobilization did not stop at the presidential election; the national election was a means for POWER Northeast to engage people in the larger, more pressing fight in local politics. “You want to impact mass incarceration?” Denis says. “Talk about the local district attorney.” On Nov. 8, 2016, as POWER Northeast canvassers were knocking on doors to remind residents across downtown Allentown to vote, they were also leaving pamphlets inviting residents to a series of three town halls to interact with the candidates being considered for the superintendent position at the school district.

In these town halls, canvassers who only a week prior had been knocking on doors throughout the city, were now posing questions to the superintendent candidates about racial equity, jobs training, and culturally sensitive education. POWER Northeast paid canvassers a fair minimum wage of $15 per hour to attend the forums and pose questions. For the roughly two dozen formerly incarcerated individuals who were hired by POWER Northeast during the recent election, this work is more than just a $15 an hour job; it’s a lifeline to a community that they may not have realized had a space for them. “It sends that message to those that are incarcerated that you do have a place. That we will fight for you to create a space in Allentown,” says Batts.

On Sept. 6, Mckenzie and a group from POWER Northeast decided to occupy Congressman Dent’s office to protest DACA. The next day, Dent announced he wasn’t going to seek reelection. A few days later, Edwards announced his run for the seat. When Senator Toomey spent the summer avoiding his constituents who were concerned about his support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, POWER Northeast was part of a coalition that held “Town Hall without Toomey,” a direct action that brought the community together to express their concerns, with a suit on a hanger as a stand-in for the senator. A video of the stunt made it onto garnering national attention. In fact, you can see Mckenzie in the video, manning his own camera as he documents the town hall for his youtube channel. “POWER Northeast helps cut through all that crap so you know who the players are,” explains Mckenzie. “It put me on ground zero meeting politicians and seeing how they act. POWER Northeast says we got to keep calling politicians to hold them accountable. If I stop calling, who’s gonna make that phone call?” Mckenzie’s political engagement has grown exponentially since the initial fire was lit at that Ferraro rally in 1984. Since finding his community at POWER Northeast, Mckenzie’s passion for politics has found expression in ways that have brought him closer to seats of power than ever before.

Sydney ‘Trek’ Mckenzie (Photo by
Emmia Newman)

So how do you start to forge meaningful connection in communities where the trust is broken? “You keep showing up,” says Denis. “You are a member of the community, and they keep seeing you as a credible partner, and you continue to bring issues of justice to the front and you continue to be honest about where you have power and where you don’t.” Over time, people buy in, she says.

“Voting Scares the Hell out of People”

Perhaps the ultimate proof of the power of a single vote is in the very restrictions that the government attempts to use to deter voting. “Voting scares the hell out of people,” says Batts. Consider the Trump administration’s newly formed Election Integrity Commission which seems positioned specifically to restrict access to the ballot among people of color. In an interview last spring with NPR, author Ari Berman explained how the history of voter suppression is rooted in “white segregationists who were not going to give up power or not going to do anything on civil rights as long as so many black voters were disenfranchised.” But Allentown’s voter disengagements can also be a secret weapon for those looking to get their foot in the door. A race that may be decided by a few hundred people means every vote does count. And the key to getting people engaged may be as simple as showing up.

When Mckenzie registered to vote in high school, it was so easy he barely realized that anything significant had occurred. “There’s a huge difference between getting people to register to vote and getting them to vote,” says Batts. “There’s a lot of voter intimidation. We have to pick people up and give them rides, to deal with systemic barriers, police harassing our workers.” For example, Pennsylvania is one of only three states that has over 1,000 municipal governments. “The voter ID rule is confusing and we have legislative districts that are gerrymandered and oddly shaped and so many municipalities,” says Jan Little, president of the League of Women Voters of Lehigh County. “People who move around don’t necessarily know where to go to vote.” In fact, POWER Northeast found that using phone banks to reach people in Allentown was a practice in futility — the transitory nature of the population meant that phone numbers were dead ends in trying to reach those living downtown. Engaging the community meant resorting to the old standards, a door knock and a face-to-face conversation.

For Faiz Shakir, national political director of the ACLU, it boils down to one fundamental question: Do you think we should make it easier to vote? “The long lines, the cumbersome restrictions, the lack of knowledge about the process are just ridiculous in a democracy like ours,” he says. “So hearts and minds need to evolve to understand that the big problem with voting rights in America is not that fraud is too easy but rather that voting is too hard. We need a nationwide grassroots movement to expand voting rights.” In Pennsylvania, the ACLU is working with Keystone Votes to make voting more convenient by advocating for same-day voter registration, optional voting by mail and in-person early voting, ideas that have been successfully implemented in other states.

POWER Northeast combats the misinformation and confusion around voting with a strategy of nurturing what it calls “credible messengers.” When Batts asks people living downtown to identify the role of a school board member, city council or county commissioner, he tends to get blank stares. “It’s a secret society in their mind. White middle-class families understand what the school board does.” Credible messengers, according to Denis, are people whose lives are directly impacted by the issues and who “feel brave enough to actually engage with the issues, from a real place, and in talking to each other, come up with a stronger way forward than anyone of us could have done separately.” It’s a seemingly simple idea — help the disaffected feel the power of their voice and they will exercise their power to vote and to advocate. They also aim to foster a sense of agency among staffers, with a program they refer to as “power analysis.” Power analysis teaches staffers how government works at both the local and national level to “help people identify and recognize the structural issues that exist in their lives,” according to Batts.

Informed by these power analyses, it was not uncommon for POWER Northeast canvassers to cite the numbers of people who had voted in the last mayoral race, or to debate the candidates in the active superintendent search taking place in Allentown. On the Monday before the 2016 presidential election. Michelle Collazo, a POWER Northeast canvasser, spent half a day in the parking lot of C-Town, a grocery store serving a Spanish-speaking population in downtown Allentown, speaking to reluctant interlocutors who each had their own reasons for not voting. At one point, an elderly woman puffing on a cigarette while holding a POWER flyer proclaimed that she had no intention to vote. She seemed, as did many others, skeptical, presuming that POWER Northeast was merely a vehicle for a particular political candidate or party. Michelle spent several minutes explaining in Spanish that POWER Northeast is nonpartisan: “It’s not important who you vote for, just that you vote.” Michelle also explained that she was formerly incarcerated and that POWER Northeast not only hired her when other places wouldn’t, but taught her how she can be part of the solution to community issues. Regardless of whether or not she convinced the woman to vote, Michelle found the conversation energizing.

“Candidates have not done a good job of explaining why politics matters to people, nor have they connected the dots between everyday pain and politics,” explains Edwards “When communities are empowered to vote for someone who is close to their struggle, someone who can see their full humanity, and someone who will truly represent them, we will see a shift in our current political paradigm. Once that happens, and people who have been made invisible realize the power in their vote, civic engagement, and being heard, we will see stronger and more connected communities.”

For Batts, surrounding himself with people that believed in him gave him the push he needed to realize his power within his community to affect change and advocate. Batts voted for the first time in 2008 after meeting Denis, who helped him realize that his incarceration and parole didn’t prevent him from exercising his power at the ballot. “After speaking with our staff in the aftermath of the work they did during the election, I can see that they are really aware of how much it mattered,” says Denis. “And a lot of them registered for the first time only because they were working for us.” POWER Northeast, which is part of the PICO National Network, aims to build on their 2016 initiative and develop a year-long paid community organizing fellowship to nurture formerly incarcerated and re-entering community members as “credible messengers,” the “go-to people who can point their community toward information and resources,” says Denis.

“We’re really trying to build a village. And we don’t build it overnight, we don’t have huge machines; it’s like manual labor. One brick at a time. And ultimately that’s what it will take: one relationship at a time.”

Additional reporting by Emmia Newman and Sydney “Trek” Mckenzie. POWER Northeast’s work will be featured in an upcoming documentary film produced with support by the Solutions Journalism Network’s Reentry Project, a collaborative news initiative about solutions to the challenges facing people returning from prison. This piece was also made possible with support from The Reentry Project.

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