Thursday night, at the end of an interactive program on gerrymandering put on by the Keshet Arts and Justice Youth Leadership Council, the facilitator asked everyone in the audience (OK, only about a dozen of us) to summarize the experience in one word. “Frustrating,” said one older woman. “Exciting,” said one young woman. “Impressed,” I said.
I was impressed by the way Council Co-chairs Juliana Gorena and Emani Brooks, both 19, used clips from the documentary Slay the Dragon to explain the history and impact of gerrymandering better than almost anyone I’ve seen try. It’s a complicated issue! And you know what? They slayed it.
I’ve been writing about redistricting for years, including a major 2019 report for NMID, and it took me a long time to get a grip on the process. When I give talks about redistricting it’s usually to a group of politically engaged adults who’ve lived through the decennial redistricting process oh, six or eight times. And even their eyes start to glaze after half an hour. But these young women had a group of all ages engaged for more than two hours.
I would have summed up my experience with the one word “hope” except someone else had already used it. And I could have said “shocked” because I never expected to find so much expertise and energy on this subject from people in ballet shoes.
OK, they weren’t dressed for it Thursday night, but Juliana and Emani are dancers and have been involved with Keshet for a long time. Juliana told me she got interested in social justice in middle school before getting hired as a youth leader.
If you’ve heard of Keshet you might know it as a professional dance company that teaches classes for people of all ages and physical abilities. But Keshet has been active in juvenile justice for more than 20 years, not just teaching dance to incarcerated youth, but helping them transition through release and parole—and advocating for systemic change. The Leadership Council is part of that.
Gorena and Brooks did a great job of using the clips to explain how gerrymandering can have direct—and dire—impacts on regular people. The film connects the problems with lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, to redistricting in 2010, when gerrymandered maps delivered control of the Michigan Legislature to Republicans, who then engineered the takeover of majority-Black cities including Detroit and Flint.
The move was broadly unpopular and voters rejected it in a statewide referendum—but lawmakers defied the will of the people and used a legislative loophole to make the emergency management law permanent and irreversible. That move allowed the crisis to build and prevented its resolution despite residents’ pleas.
After each clip they’d engage the audience in conversation. A woman with a white ponytail said she attended because she was interested in gerrymandering but didn’t know much about it. With each clip she got more animated.
And she asked excellent questions! Why do they redraw the lines? What does it have to do with the census? How do map-drawers know how you’ll vote? Each one, the Council co-chairs handled with ease.
“It’s really rotten, isn’t it?” the woman with the white ponytail concluded, then asked, “Did I hear somebody say we’re gonna learn what we can do about it?”
Indeed, the Keshet Arts and Justice Youth Leadership Council shared an action plan that includes adopting an independent redistricting commission and supporting Census participation.
OK, the next Census is eight years away. But these young people will barely be out of grad school and running their first statewide races by then. (I’m kidding! But also: I double dog dare them to do it.) And they have high hopes for change between now and 2031.
Thursday night a voice from the audience gave them encouragement. “You have the power to change this!” said state Sen. Bill O’Neill, a longtime supporter of an independent redistricting commission. “Keep this work going,” he exhorted the council members. “This is very inspiring. Don’t be too depressed!”
I’ll be writing more in the coming weeks about New Mexico’s 2021 experience with redistricting and what it means for communities around the state. Stay tuned! Don’t be too depressed!
The next Keshet Arts and Justice Youth Leadership Council meeting is set for April 21. For more information email Julie!KeshetArts.org.