"People fought many battles, people fought too hard for you not to go out and exercise the power” of voting, civil rights organizer Ray Rickman told an audience of mostly students who filled the Janikies Family Innovation Forum Nov. 1 for an event highlighting the importance of the Voting Rights Act. The event, “The Right to Vote Is a Human Right: A Student-Led Conversation,” was held days before the Nov. 6 midterm elections.
Rickman, the opening speaker, founded the Providence-based nonprofit Stages of Freedom. A former R.I. State Representative and Deputy Secretary of State responsible for elections, he also recently received the National Park Service’s 2018 Frederick Douglass Underground Railroad Legacy Award presented to individuals "who continue Douglass’s and the Underground Railroad’s important legacy of promoting social change and work across racial, class, gender, political or any other lines that divide us to make the world a better place.”
“The right to vote is one of the most important powers we have.”
Speakers also included:
- Scott Reels '19, a member of the Narragansett tribe, who spoke about voting rights and citizenship issues concerning Native Americans, the last group in the United States to gain formal citizenship. He noted that in North Dakota as many as 5,000 tribal members who have post office box numbers instead of street addresses cannot vote;
- Quinton Law '19, President of the Young Democrats at Bryant, who explained the concept of voter suppression and the fallacy of voter fraud. He reminded his fellow students that “the right to vote is one of the most important powers we have”;
- Elana Williams-Leonard ’19, a writer for The Archway, and Christopher Groneng ’19, Editor-in-Chief of The Archway, who discussed felony disenfranchisement, an especially pressing problem in Florida where one-third of all those disenfranchised due to felony convictions in the United States live. Groneng pointed out that in Maine and Vermont, people convicted of felonies can vote while in prison, while Florida has no legal standard for restoring felons' right to vote. Williams-Leonard noted that felony disenfranchisement disproportionately impacts men and women of color.
Professor of History Antoine Joseph, Ph.D., closed the event by discussing the history of the Voting Rights Act during the time of its passage and signing by President Lyndon Johnson.
“I was heartened to see our students bring considerable knowledge and passion to this project," Joseph said afterward. "We have generally found that student engagement is higher when they are given major roles in events. The right to vote is a critical issue for all democracies, and the more awareness students have of the obstacles to the exercise of that right, the more determined they will be to vote themselves. In times like these, we all need to remember that by voting, we are, as citizens, influencing decision making in American democracy.”
Sponsored by the Department of History and Social Sciences and the PwC Center for Diversity and Inclusion, the discussion was organized by Kevin Martins, Assistant Director of the Center and and the coordinator of the Intercultural Center; Professor Joseph, and Associate Professor of Political Science and Global Studies Nicole Freiner, Ph.D.