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Bloomington-Normal NAACP tries to reach the 'disconnected' through civic engagement forums

 Georgene Chissell
Ryan Denham
Georgene Chissell chairs the Bloomington-Normal NAACP chapter's political action committee.

The Bloomington-Normal NAACP is giving a civics lesson to encourage more people to vote and get involved in local government. It hosted its first civics project workshop last month, and has three more planned this spring, including one next week.

Georgene Chissell chairs the Bloomington-Normal chapter's political action committee. Chissell said she learned how disconnected many people are from local government when she campaigned for city council in 2019. She said many complained they didn’t want to get involved in politics.

“If you don’t vote your conscience, then somebody is going to (get elected) who you don’t want in there and then you are going to be complaining — and you’ll have no right to complain because you did not vote,” Chissell recalled telling disinterested residents. “I was beating my head against a brick wall with some of these people.”

Chissell said the first session on local government was held virtually and drew nearly 50 participants.

The next session is 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 31. It will explain how county governments and school boards operate. It will be available on Zoom.

Robert Garcia
Robert Garcia

Committee member Robert Garcia said the forums are intended to reach people who aren’t registered to vote, so they can better understand how they can make a difference.

“We are trying to get to those folks who are disconnected, that are cynical, that are apathetic,” Garcia said. "We don’t blame them. There’s lot of good reasons to be that way. In fact, a majority of the public is that way.”

Garcia helped plan a workshop specifically to help Spanish-speaking voters. He said many of them have an especially hard time voting with English-only ballots.

“There’s a lot of folks that are just very honest. (They say), ‘I don’t’ vote because I don’t want to make a mistake. I don’t want to show up there and can’t understand the ballot. Maybe I’m not voting correctly, or I filled out the ballot wrong and it’s invalidated,’” Garcia said. “They fell like it’s pointless and they feel a bit helpless.”

That session will be held from 5-7 p.m., Saturday, May 21 at Western Avenue Community Center.

Garcia said many Spanish-speaking residents are unaware they are allowed to bring a translator with them to vote. He said he has advocated for Spanish-language ballots as an option for voters, but said the McLean County Clerk’s Office and Bloomington Election Commission have declined to draft those ballots.

The final session on May 26 will focus on state and federal government.

Chissell said she has helped in previous door-to-door voter engagement campaigns through the League of Women Voters and saw it had success in boosting turnout in areas that typically saw fewer people go to the polls. She said it takes persistence to make a difference.

“You’ve got to be up and in their faces. I learned that from Stacey Abrams,” said Chissell, referring to the voting activist and Democratic candidate for Georgia governor. “You’ve got to give them a reason why they need to come out and have their voices heard.”

Several organizations have helped the NAACP with planning the forums, including the YWCA McLean County, AfroSoc BloNo, Conexiones Latinas de McLean County, League of Women Voters of McLean County, Western Avenue Community Center and thee Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington Normal.

Registrations for the forums are available on Zoom.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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