Interview With New Georgia Project and New Georgia Project Action Fund CEO and Organizing Director, Kendra Cotton and Billy Honor

Happy Black History Month Hustle and Soul Magazine readers. Today we are highlighting a powerful, visionary, innovative, and inspirational Black-led grassroots organization that has a proven track record for making change where it matters.

New Georgia Project, and its affiliate New Georgia Project Action Fund, are nonpartisan organizations working to register, civically engage, and build power with the New Georgia Majority–the large and growing population of Black, brown, young, and other historically marginalized voters in the Peach State.

We obtained an exclusive interview with NGP and NGPAF’s CEO, Kendra Cotton, and Organizing Director, Billy Honor.

Happy Black History Month! I’m so excited to learn more about the New Georgia Project. How did it come about?

Kendra: So NGP is the brainchild, if you will, of Stacey Yvonne Abrams: her being here in Georgia and serving in the State House, becoming jaded with the status quo as to how progressives were moving or not moving—where black and brown people were concerned. She saw that we have the votes that we need to move progressive policies forward across the South. The issue was that a lot of our voters had become so disengaged and disaffected that they didn’t want to participate in the process any longer. Also, there was no real intentional outreach toward those groups. Stacey wanted to expand the electorate and get these folks on the rolls. That’s the genesis, if you will, of NGP. 

Billy: Initially, it was to get people signed up for Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act. It had a healthcare emphasis because in our state, we’ve had governors who’ve refused to expand Medicaid. Stacey’s been a longtime advocate for that. So when the Affordable Care Act was passed, the concern was if there would be a lot of black and brown folks who would sign up for it. So we went knocking on doors.

Kendra, What do you think are some misconceptions of your organization that you are constantly clearing up for people who just aren’t aware?

Kendra: The primary one is the affiliation with leader Abrams; we just absolutely do not have one any longer. However, we will never shy away from the fact that she was the founder of the New Georgia Project. And we’re very proud of that. That being said, I think another misconception of the organization is that we are simply a tool of the Democratic Party. We are not; we are wholly nonpartisan. What I can tell you, Tammy, is — and Billy can attest to this — if you are not doing what you are supposed to be doing to deliver progressive policy outcomes that are going to serve the communities that we are advocating on behalf of, anybody can catch this smoke. It doesn’t matter what’s behind your name, a D or R, whatever.

We’re trying to become the political home for those who feel like they’ve been cast aside or dismissed by the parties. The deep relational organizing that Billy and his team embark on day in and day out, is what lends the credibility to New Georgia Project.

What I do is raise money, I’m a fundraiser. In his squad, they’re doing the work. They’re the ones out talking with the community, they’re the ones out building trust, and we are trusted messengers. When people see our purple shirts coming down the street, they know that we’re going to be talking about issues that matter to them.

They know that we’re trying to educate them and connect the dots, we’re trying to teach people what we know, and that civic education in America is sorely lacking. There are a lot of people who really just don’t understand the political process, which is why they don’t participate.

Would you say the resources from the organization are education and knowledge?

Billy: For sure. Part of what we do is try to get people in the civic gym. First thing, we get them registered, but then they have to use it just like anyone would use a gym membership. Alot of people get registered to vote and never exercise and practice that right. So part of what we’re also doing is we’re getting people certified, and we’re getting them in the door. Then we’re teaching them what we call “building power.” You build power by participating in elections. We tell people how they could be involved in those processes. I think education is a part of all of the steps I just named in that we’re teaching people how to exercise their civic duty and build power among themselves.

What are some of the milestones that both of you are extremely proud of, from your time being a part of the organization?

Kendra: For me, I’m a little internally focused on the organization, but I am super proud of the way that the New Georgia Project was able to manage its growth after 2020. In 2020, with that election and the fact that Georgia federally was instrumental in moving to a blue level — even though we’re red, but, federally, we are blue. The New Georgia Project played a huge role in that. And because of that, we had like a fundraising juggernaut.

Alot of organizations without a sound infrastructure can buckle under that type of spotlight, that type of scrutiny, and that type of expectation. In the moment, there was a lot to manage it because we realized some real exponential growth, and some historical growth.

Coming out of that, we were able to set up a robust financial reserve for the organization that will ensure the New Georgia Project is around for a long time. We feel like there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done, and we were able to further professionalize the organization so that we’re doing our work more efficiently.

When I look at things like that, that’s what I am super proud of. We want people to know that you can build a career in a black-lid, grassroots organization. The money is just as green over here as it is somewhere else. We can have the same or similar system set up for our folks who are doing advocacy and grassroots organizing work to retire in an organization like the New Georgia Project.

Billy: I want to just add my affirmation to what Kendra is saying, as somebody who’s worked in organizing and worked with faith-based organizing institutions for a long time. One of the impediments to doing incredible work long term is just a lot of times not being able to have strongly internally organizations.

Having a black-led organization invested in building power for black and brown people specifically in the south is just a great thing. Some of the things that we’ve done makes people want to invest in us. There are hundreds of thousands of people who filled out voter registration forms in the state of Georgia to get registered to vote that would not have done so, presumably, if it had not been for the New Georgia Project.

Nearly 100,000 people just last year alone, pledged to vote or made some commitment to vote because of our work. People who we know we have directly influenced and had conversations with show up and make their voices heard because of our work. I’m very happy about the ways in which our organizing has worked over the years and that we helped to be responsible for how we push conversations in this state around having better laws around elections.

We’re also organizing around a number of issues we’ve seen impacting communities across the country, like student debt; we have been a part of that coalition that is pushing for student debt cancellation. We have been a part of coalitions that have pushed for the advancement, in many ways, of criminal legal reform in our state. We have a number of municipalities that no longer practice the criminalization of poverty by making people have to stay in jail for long periods of time, simply because they cannot pay bail. We’ve been fighting against that for many years and we’re a part of coalitions that got policies passed.

There are people who were incarcerated, who were able to vote by mail because of our work. And then during the pandemic, we have a long record of having provided nearly 100,000 masks to currently incarcerated folks to protect them while they were incarcerated to make sure that they wouldn’t die simply just because they may have committed a mistake and found themselves detained. We wanted to make sure that they were covered. There’s a long list of other things that I could talk about all day and we’re gonna do some more great things this year.

I want to know about those more great things. Tell me about it.

Billy: I already mentioned that we’re trying to reduce the rate of black women dying from maternal mortality during pregnancy. We started a “Black M.A.M.A.S.” campaign and we’re all in trying to get municipalities around the state to make commitments to put in place educational methods and tools that will reduce it.

The other thing we’re trying to do is “We Want All The S.M.O.K.E.”, we want to see the decriminalization of cannabis and marijuana in our state. We also want to provide more pathways to entrepreneurship for so many of our young people who are already engaged in the practice. We want to make sure that we have the same pathways in our community that are being made available to other communities. We’re also going to continue our fight to see that the federal government makes good on President Biden’s commitment to cancel federal student loan debt. We’re also trying to decrease utilities because in too many of our rural places around the state, the utilities are just too damn high.

The other thing that we’re going to be doing — and I’m really, really excited about this — is we’re going to be talking about stopping hospital closures. Georgia is way too high on the list of states, with Tennessee and Texas, that have had hospital closures all over the place in both urban and rural communities. We want to reduce that because we’re closing hospitals while we’re opening private prisons all over the place. We’re going to stop that and say that we need to make sure that people have adequate access to health care.

Billy, as the organizing director, I would love to know about the current volunteer opportunities that are available. Are you currently seeking volunteers? How can people get involved and what can they do specifically?

Billy: Oh, yes, and thank you for the question. We always have our hands open, and ready to receive volunteers into the fold because the work is so plentiful in what we’re trying to do here in our state. One opportunity is to be a volunteer, just show up to help us at events, hold up actions, sign people in, and up and more. Also if you want to give a little bit of that time to help give an extra hand, make phone calls to folks, and text people.

Another way is a little more skin in the game, which we call membership. If you want to be a member of the New Georgia Project Action Fund (NGPAF), that means that you want to be a part of a political home, a place that helps to shape your consciousness politically and helps you to stay informed about the ballot measures and the candidates.

Then there’s an activist opportunity. If one of the issues that we organize around is really important to you such as stopping the rising rate of people who are dying during pregnancy, or student loan debt, I could go on and on, then you can be an activist with us. You would work with our organizers to create change and community around these issues.

Those are the three main buckets of ways that people can volunteer with us. Of course, during election time, we get a whole set of other ways that people can lean in when people start casting their votes.

Any last words you want to give to anyone who’s just learning about the New Georgia Project?

Kendra: I would want to encourage folks to follow us on all of our socials — @newgeorgiaproject on IG, @NewGAProject on Twitter, and @ngpaction on both! I would also like to tell folks that if anybody is in Georgia, to please look out for our socials because we’re going to be giving away a couple of Beyonce tickets for the August show for free. They’ll have a little caveat, they’ll have to actually like do something with civic engagement, but it won’t cost them anything. So we’re super excited about that.

I would also want folks to open up their minds a little bit and not believe a lot of the myths and disinformation that’s out there trying to keep black folks from voting because it’s all to hustle us out of participation so that they can keep the status quo as it is. We need to really wake up and understand and reclaim our power and not fall for the Okey doke in that kind of way.

Billy: I would just say that is part of why we do the work we do. Most of it is because change is not inevitable. The change we want to see only happens when we force it to and when we collectively organize people to make it happen. I often say that the enemies of our liberation are not afraid of our speeches. They aren’t afraid of our rhetoric, but they are most afraid when we get organized. So support groups like the New Georgia Project and the New Georgia Project Action Fund and become a part of a movement happening all over the south. Black southern folks are standing up for the power that they have been demanding and we’re at the forefront of that movement.

We want our brothers and sisters and others in the north to join us in that in that movement because we know it’s not only happening here. We’re glad to be a part of it. And we hope there’ll be other people who join us.

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Tammy Reese

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