I had the privilege to speak with Black Girls Vote founder, Nykidra Robinson, and intern, Chia Obilo, about the importance of mobilizing communities to get out the vote. Black Girls Vote has unlocked the cheat code to encourage civic engagement and celebrate the act of voting as a community event. I’m in awe of their work, especially in galvanizing and centering Black women who are often the game changers in elections but left out of substantive discussion and strategy.
You can find our interview below as a video and text transcript. And you can learn more about Black Girls Vote and how you can support at BlackGirlsVote.com and @BlackGirlsVote on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
Mitu: Hello, and welcome to Channel Kindness Radio! My name is Mitu, and I’m a member of Team Born This Way Foundation, and I’m so excited to be joined today by Nykidra Robinson, founding CEO of Black Girls Vote, and Chia Obilo, intern with Black Girls Vote. Can you introduce yourselves to our community?
Nyki: Yes, hi Mitu! Thank you so much for having me! I’m so excited to be here with you. Again, my name is Nykidra Robinson, but everyone calls me Nyki, like the Goddess, not the shoe, and I’m the founder and CEO of Black Girls Vote. And I’m so happy to be joined with our amazing intern, Chia.
Chia: Thank you, Nike and Mitu. I’m Chia, I’m a senior at Harvard, studying human developmental and regenerative bio with a minor in anthropology. I’m so excited to be working with Black Girls Vote. I started out working in the summer and that’s how I met Nike, and I’m so passionate about Black women’s issues, and that’s why I’m here.
Mitu: That’s amazing. We’ll get into it further later, but when we had an opportunity to meet Nyki on a call a few weeks ago, the second I learned about Black Girls Vote and your initiatives, it felt very “duh” to me in the sense that, you know when you hear a great idea and you’re like, “how did this not exist?” So, I’m very grateful to be here with you both.
Nyki: Same, same. And again, as you mentioned the call a few weeks ago was so awesome. When I got the email connected by Kristen, you know, Maya’s best friend, shout out to Maya, your Executive Director, I was like, “oh my gosh, Lady Gaga Foundation, this is so cool. And you guys were just so amazing, and just to be able to continuously- continue to dialogue and build has been a true joy. I’m so excited to continue to build with you all.
Mitu: Same here. So for anyone in our community who may be unfamiliar, can you share more about Black Girls Vote and your exciting initiatives for 2020?
Nyki: Sure! So Black Girls Vote started in 2015, so we’re up on year five, which–I cannot believe it’s been almost five years. We started because life happened to me, as a Black woman. One of the things–the first thing that happened–being in Baltimore, from Baltimore when the riots happened when Freddie Gray was murdered. That was my community. People were watching from all over the country, however, that was my neighborhood. The next day I was out in the community. We saw young people who were out there and they organized in a matter of minutes, no matter what you may think of how they responded. And I thought that was really critical. Something else had happened: I was working a government job, and I lost my government job because of the change in administrations, and that’s political, right, and then last but not least, there was a murder that happened directly across the street from me in Baltimore, and those three things happened, literally within four months, and I had thought of the idea of Black Girls Vote, but I hadn’t moved on it, and then I shared it with a friend, and she was like, “you gotta launch.” So, we launched on November 30 on the birthday of Shirley Chisholm, and we are a community that’s committed to engaging, educating, and empowering Black women to use their collective voting power, particularly young women–so those are the Chias of the world, right? And so, we’re so committed to making sure that we get out to vote, but more so, we’re creating policy in exchange for our vote.
Mitu: When we had an opportunity to connect, and immediately after our conversation with you, I called my boss and we were like, “one, Nyki’s amazing, Black Girls Vote is amazing, and two, they’ve unlocked the cheat code to voter engagement. What you’re doing with Black Girls Vote, with Party at the Mailbox, is you’re recruiting voters, you’re finding new voters, and you’re celebrating them. So, it’s not just, “you must vote and it’s your obligation,” but also celebrating the act of voting and making it a collective experience. How did you come up with the structure for that initiative?
Nyki: Thank you, Mitu. And you know, like many of us, COVID-19 happened, and our 2020 plan for Black Girls Vote: Party at the Mailbox, was not a thing, and many of us–we had to adjust–and me, as a Black woman, I’m sure Chia will speak to that, we just adapt, and we get it done. So, we were thinking, “what can we do to engage voters in election 2020, but in a safe way, in an engaging way?” And we’re known for our fun events, our staff. And so, many people are familiar with Party at the Polls, an initiative that you would go to your polling locations and you would see these parties all over. I said, “well we can’t do that.” How about we Party at the Mailbox? And so, what that means is that your mailbox became your ballot box in the primary election, and we wanted to provide this fun festive box. Again, people are getting gifts. It’s like getting a gift in the mail, but it’s all themed around voting. We partnered with our partner Baltimore Votes, and NTOC, and was able to do this extraordinary campaign–we sent over 2,000 boxes to Baltimoreans that had a T-shirt and a coloring book and window signs. We had Baltimore-themed snacks, which is really, really exciting. And then we sent them out, and folks responded, all over the city. We saw people making videos, T-shirts, young people, old people, really engaging in the election, and we did an evaluation afterwards. We’re doing it because we did a lottery. And we proved that there was a higher percentage of those who got the box who voted versus those who didn’t, but more importantly it had an impact on low propensity voters. And those high propensity voters are voters who are very likely to vote, like I’m a high propensity voter. However, my boyfriend may not be. But there was a 12.4% increase in those individuals who are less likely to vote, who are in a household of high propensity voters–so that was really, really cool and exciting. We’re so excited, and we’re expanding for the general election. We’ll be back in Baltimore, we’re going to Detroit and Philadelphia.
Mitu: That’s amazing. And we’re in the midst of our Be Kind 21 campaign, which anyone tuning in can join using BornThisWay.Foundation/BeKind21. And we’re so proud to have you on as a partner, because voting is this powerful act of kindness. How do you view voting, as an act of kindness for the community or the collective?
Chia: Well, kindness is about making people feel good, and how do you make people feel good? You include them. So voting does that; voting is about leveling the playing field–balancing things out in terms of equality and accessibility. For voting, there are people who are really disenfranchised, and you don’t hear things like “accessibility” and “equality” in the same sentence as “disenfranchised.” Voting levels that out and provides that opportunity for them to be listened to, for them to be heard. And furthermore, in terms of kindness, with voting, it’s really important, you know, looking to other people in your community, other people in your neighborhood, and seeing what issues are affecting them. What issues do they care about? And in that, you can see kindness, because you’re caring about what other people are going through beyond yourself.
Mitu: Nyki, if we had any partners, or any other organizations tuning in, how can they be of support to Black Girls Vote?
Nyki: For those who are interested in being a partner, again, we’re doing it in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Detroit. You could donate–we still have a funding gap to be quite honest, and so we want to make sure that the folks in those respective cities don’t just get a box, but they get an experience. It’s all about the experience that comes with the box. So, you can support in that way, whether it’s sharing it, follow us on social media to get more information if you’re in those cities where we partner with community organizations. If you’re part of those community organizations, in the next few weeks we’ll be on our website just saying, “Hey, we want you to be a part of this as an inclusive campaign and it’s so critical that you get out to vote and bring someone with you to do that.”
Mitu: That’s awesome, and your organization is called Black Girls Vote, and I am a Black woman who has been eligible to vote for the last 10 years, and I feel very passionately about the way that Black women like me are and aren’t addressed in political discourse when we’re often the game changers before, on, and after election day. So why do you think it’s important to focus on women, and Black women specifically, when we talk about voting?
Chia: You answered your own question. Black women are the game-changers. We are the ones who are making change. Any good thing that has happened has probably had a Black woman, or just a woman, involved with it. So it’s really important that our voices are included in these conversations. Usually, they’re not. Historically, they haven’t been, so it’s really important that through voting, and in this time–especially this time right now, that our voices are heard and that we express them. We’re at a place where women, and Black women specifically, really just need to think: “where do I want to go, what future would I like? What issues do I care about: maternal mortality, health care, what do we care about? So it’s really important that we stay tuned to Black women and women voices in general.
Nyki: Now you see why it was so critical and such an amazing experience to have Chia as an intern for us this summer. She’s amazing. She’s dope. But just to piggyback on what she said, 1,000% it is so critical that Black women vote, because we’ve seen time and time again that Black women are saviors. It’s funny, because I recently did an article, and the article came out today, and in the article, I said, “Black women, we need to hijack the Democratic Party. When I meant “hijack,” meaning, “let’s talk about the issues that are impacting our community and making sure that these are on the forefront of whoever’s agenda. Whoever gets into office, make sure that Black women matter, and our vote matters, and we deliver time and time again. But, you know, we don’t want the symbolism anymore, we don’t need the street renamings, we don’t need the plaques and awards–that’s great, but when it comes to saving our lives, when it’s also saving our babies, saving our communities, creating more economic opportunities and closing that racial wealth gap, those things matter. And so it’s so critical that you get out to vote, but whoever we vote for knows that Black women should be the forefront of any agenda that you have.
Mitu: That was a call to action if I’ve ever heard one, and I agree that I’m very glad that you are joining us in the conversation, Nyki, but also for you, Chia, and I’m also curious about your experience as a young person, you’re a young Black woman, you’re making change with Black Girls Vote. How do you want organizations and these larger entities to show up for you and support you as you’re changing the world?
Chia: I think that oftentimes large organizations and entities usually have their own visions for how they want social justice work and civic engagement work to be done, and oftentimes they exclude the voices and the narratives of Black women, and I’d really appreciate it if, for once, they’d give us the microphone, they’d listen to us, they’d follow our lead. Oftentimes, they have a vision–a perception–of how plugging in and engaging with the Black community looks like. And a lot of times that means excluding Black women. So I think that for once, just take a step back and listen to us, give us the mic.
Mitu: We have these graphics that our Digital Associate, Josh Hollin, makes for #BeKind21, and it’s these graphics with prompts like, “Kindness is voting. Kindness is showing up for your loved ones,” and one is “Kindness is passing the mic,” and I wanted to make it my phone background, my laptop background–I just want to see it everywhere I go, because that’s what it is: it’s having opportunities to have the communities that you’re looking to serve speak for themselves, because they know their issues best. They know the solutions best. That’s what we firmly believe in at Born This Way Foundation: we follow the lead of the young people whom we work with, and they’re the ones that are going to create the change, and it’s up to us to support them and go with what they’re telling us.
Nyki: Yeah, it’s so interesting that you say that Mitu, because I agree 1,000% with what Chia said, but I was fortunate enough to join your partner call that you had a few weeks ago. And not only are you guys saying it, you’re doing it, because you passed the mic to the young people there. There was a young lady and her brother and they shared a personal story and a personal incident, and a traumatic incident that happened to them their lives, but you gave them the ability to speak up–not someone speaking up for them, or representatives saying, “let me tell you about this person who did XYZ,” they shared their own story, and so it is so critical in this day and age that not only are we passing the mic, I say, “pass the torch.” I know that it’s my job to get out of the way for the Chias who will come in. We have another intern who isn’t here, Hoda, who’s amazing. And then we also have another intern, so making sure that we’re preparing the space and a place for them. That’s so critical and so important. And that’s kind.
Mitu: I’m gonna have Josh make “Pass the Torch. Kindness is Passing the Torch,” if you don’t mind us taking that from you, and we’ll send it to you first. I love that!
Nyki: Just make sure you give us credit, Chia and Nyki. Give us credit for it! (Laughs)
Mitu: Will do, and I should also add–for anyone tuning in–that those two young people who shared their story in our #BeKind21 partner call are named Hannah and Charlie Lucas, and they co-founded the notOK app, and I think I am the most ardent member of Hannah and Charlie Hive, but our whole team are very big fans of them, and you can learn more about notOK app at notOKapp.com. Speaking of Black folks and Black work and Black liberation, I am of the belief that Black joy is a radical act. So where do you both find hope and joy?
Chia: As you said, Black joy is a radical act, and it’s also just not common, or it’s at least just not openly displayed, you really have to search for it. So that’s where I find it, I find it in seeing young people like me on the front lines of Black Lives Matter protests, of seeing Black mothers holding up whole households, of seeing Black women getting their higher education. I just see it in all these role models, all these inspirations. Even people like Nyki, just people who are constantly pushing the barriers and pushing the bounds on what it means to be Black and constantly redefining that.
Nyki: Yeah, and I would say I find joy in people like Chia!–in the young generation, and she’s so humble, too. But just seeing that. In my generation, I didn’t feel the love of them saying, “let me prepare a table for you. Let me help you. Let’s talk about building Black wealth, let’s talk about economics, let’s talk about those things, and create an access, because social capital is real, and we know the saying that “your net worth is your net worth.” But more importantly, let’s unify. So, I find joy when I see collaborations–and not competition. When I see other people supporting each other and genuinely support each other, particularly Black people and Black women, and saying, “you know what, I have your back. I’m rooting for you, sis.” So that brings me so much joy and also when people support Black Girls Vote, and giving us amazing opportunities. Again, I shared that it was one of the most challenging times of my life, and Black Girls Vote has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s been absolutely the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. So I find joy in people supporting us and saying, “Hey, we want to donate to your cause! We believe! We want to start a chapter, all these great things–it’s very humbling, but it fills my spirit, as well.
Mitu: I love that. I find so much hope and joy in the work that you both are doing. And to echo you, Nyki, I find hope in you, Chia, and what Black Girls Vote can mean for recruiting more young organizers who are just going to completely change the game.
Nyki: They are already changing the game.
Mitu: Oh, yes! For sure.
Nyki: It’s either get on board or get out of the way, but work together. So again, that’s why I’m so grateful to you all: Maya, the Born This Way Foundation, #BeKind21 campaign, just for giving us this opportunity and this platform to share our story and share our truth. So it’s such an honor.
Mitu: Oh absolutely! Our co-founder Cynthia Germanotta likes to say that young people aren’t our future leaders, they’re our leaders right now, and it’s clearly on display in this conversation, and you’re making a difference across the country, many communities at a time, but I also hope that you’re both taking time for yourselves! How do you make time for your own care, and how do you self care?
Chia: I’m a college student, and college can be really rough sometimes! From exams to Psets, because I’m STEM. But you know, and also like living in the Zoom world, going to the “Zoom University” right now–it’s kinda rough, but hey, I think that sometimes I just pause. I’m like, “in five years, is this work gonna matter? Is this Pset going to matter?” The answer is no, so what I do is I close my laptop, and I close my books, and I nap. Or, I order some UberEats, or I’ll take a walk to somewhere and just try out something new. Another thing that I’ve gotten into is just really reconnecting back to my childhood, and doing things that I found fun when I was a kid. I used to do ballet, I haven’t gotten back into that, but something else I used to do was roller skating, so I started doing that again. I bought new skates, and I’ve just been roller skating in my apartment. Hopefully, I end up going outside and doing it. So there’s that. And yeah, just taking time to myself and being really cognizant of if I’m doing a lot of schoolwork, if I’m doing a lot of organizing work, or if I’m doing things that are genuinely fun to me.
Mitu: I love that. I am a very big fan of roller skating, too. I’m also glad that you’re recognizing that it’s okay to close your laptop and take a nap. I wish that I had done that more when I was in college, and as someone who is–I can’t remember how many years out from college now, I think seven years–and you’re right, all those problem sets and things I did, they don’t matter, choose the nap sometimes; it’s okay.
Chia: One thing about me is Imma skate!
Mitu: And Nyki, how do you self -are?
Nyki: You know, I’m sitting here thinking about skating, and I wish I could skate! I cannot skate! However, even though it sounds a little cliché, Self Care Sunday for me works, whether it be washing my hair, taking a bath, meditating–Sunday’s I have to take my bath. It resets me for the week and it gets me prepared for the week so that’s so important. Just resting–not so much closing my laptop now, because we’re 55 days away from the election, so I don’t have that luxury and we’re building, and just hanging out with friends. Last week me and my friends, we just went to the pool and said, “Hey, we’re gonna go to the pool today,” and we sat at the pool. So just the little things, and just having good relationships and good people and friends that you can just laugh with and just disconnect from the work, and just have fun.
Mitu: That’s a good one too. I find, even just my group chats with my friends to be so restorative, and it just feels good to have that connection and the reminder that even if we’re physically distancing, even if we’re physically apart, we’re always socially connected, we’re connected to our people, and we should keep up those connections for our care and theirs.
Chia: Absolutely. One more thing, I think it’s just really important to not be too serious all the time. I think that’s something that I’ve learned through my short life, 21 years, just taking time to joke about things. I’ll even joke about things with Nyki, as if we’re the same age, and we’re not. Just taking time to laugh and just joke about things, even when you might be in a serious environment. It just really helps.
Nyki: And me, with young people around me–I pick with Chia all the time. The energy is good and transferable, so keeping young people [around] and to learn from young people is so important. So, yeah, that helps me as well.
Mitu: That’s a good one. We are very big fans of always hearing from young people, and we’re very big fans of using humor as a form of care, as well. Before we close, I wanna make sure that we tell everyone tuning in how they can support Black Girls Vote. So, how can people support Black Girls Vote, where can they donate? How can they help your mission?
Nyki: Yes, please visit us at www.blackgirlsvote.com, on Instagram it’s @BlackGirlsVote, Facebook, @BlackGirlsVote, Today we hit our 10,000 mark of followers, so I’m so excited! Follow us! We’re not there where you guys are yet, but we’re getting there! We’re growing! And so, when you guys follow us, it helps us. Spread the word! If you wanna donate, you can go to our website and donate. Donations help a whole lot, they really, really do. And whether if it’s five dollars–please don’t think anything is too small for us. So, that’s it, and continue to uplift us, send us messages, comment on our posts–that helps us. That supports us. And just positive energy is transferable. And just being kind to us! Just being kind.
Mitu: Those are all action items I’m sure our community is willing to take. We’ll donate, we’ll follow, we’ll comment, and we’ll be kind.
Nyki: Thank you!
Mitu: Thank you for joining us, and go to ChannelKindness.org for more stories and conversations like these. We’ll also include in our transcript all the links so that you can support and follow Black Girls Vote, and help further along their important mission.