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BLOC is registering, but also reminding: don’t take African American votes for granted

There was no shortage of soul searching after Donald Trump’s surprise Wisconsin victory in 2016. Did he pull off the 22,000-vote win because Hillary Clinton didn’t make a campaign stop in the state after the convention? Was it due to Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein siphoning a combined 137,000 votes? 

Or, is there validity to a common assumption that a devastatingly low black and Latino voter turnout, especially in Milwaukee, was the major factor? To Milwaukee resident Angela Lang, that attack on low turnout does not address the real issue: No candidate spoke to minority voters’ problems.

“It was harmful,” said Lang, founder and executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, or BLOC, a group focused on registering and mobilizing black voters on Milwaukee’s north side. “It doesn’t capture the real reason why people didn’t show up to vote, and it also places the blame on a disenfranchised community that wasn’t engaged.”

As the 2020 presidential election draws near, Wisconsin is at center stage as Democrats attempt to take the swing state back and Republicans try to hold their narrow advantage. Both sides are heavily targeting black Milwaukee voters. The state GOP recently opened a field office on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in the city’s historically black Bronzeville neighborhood. 

“Everyone knows the importance of the black vote, so everyone’s going to try to turn us out,” Lang said. “But not everyone’s going to be able to relate the way that we can.”

Lang started BLOC in November 2017. The organization, which employs part-time “ambassadors” for $16 an hour and up, has made about 300,000 door-knocking attempts in majority-black neighborhoods. The efforts have a special focus on residents in the infamous 53206 ZIP code, which is known — with some degree of hyperbole — as one of the most heavily incarcerated and impoverished ZIP codes in Milwaukee. 

“We always ask people, what does it look like for the black community to thrive?” said Lang, 30. “A lot of times people are skeptical because people aren’t used to someone knocking on their doors and then asking them what they need.”

Perhaps the highlight of BLOC’s efforts is the “silent canvass,” which requires its guests to remain silent and listen to residents’ concerns. Politicians can sign up to walk with ambassadors for several hours, but only the ambassadors are allowed to speak. Former Democratic presidential candidates Julian Castro, Cory Booker and Beto O’Rourke participated in silent canvasses last year, and the surging Amy Klobuchar came for a visit but was unable to do the silent canvass.

And BLOC has been turning heads. Look no further than the Washington Post, NPR and the Associated Press, which have all run features on the group’s operations. That’s not counting the mushrooming group of local and state-based outlets that have written similar stories. 

“I’ve heard people call us innovative,” Lang said. “Like, I appreciate the compliment, but I also feel like we’re just doing the things that should have been done 10 years ago or 20 years ago — just talking to people and stripping down the data, the polling, the research. All of that is vitally important, but it doesn’t really compare to having an honest, face-to-face conversation with someone that also understands your challenges because they also live in the same community you do.”

When Lang spoke with UpNorthNews this week, she said a “national publication” was writing a profile on her and had just finished up fact-checking the story. As BLOC has moved into the spotlight, Lang’s personal life and history has remained largely untold. She said she considers herself “a relatively private person,” but added “not anymore, apparently.”

Lang was raised in Milwaukee by a single white mother. When Lang was 12, her mother was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer. As she watched her mother’s struggles to provide for her daughter while also simply surviving her diagnosis, Lang began to understand the importance of politics. She began studying at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with aspirations of being a doctor, but those plans quickly fizzled out.

“I blame Scott Walker,” she said. Early in her college career, Lang got involved in local elections, but the work was all nonpartisan. Once the former governor introduced his signature Act 10, “I was like, “OK, I don’t know if I want to do this nonpartisan stuff anymore,’” she said.

Lang organized busloads of students to go to Madison and protest. From there, she switched her major to international relations and hasn’t left the political realm since.

While Lang has adapted to intense media attention, she still takes the spotlight with an air of reluctance.

“It’s a little scary to have your life story literally be written in a national publication,” she said. “It’s scary; it’s nerve-wracking. You feel a little exposed, you feel raw. But I think it’s really powerful at the same time, because everyone has a reason why they show up to work every day.”

And to BLOC, every single resident’s story and experience is just as important. Ambassadors speak with people, even if they can’t legally vote due to incarceration, probation or parole stemming from a felony conviction. The ongoing voter roll purge lawsuit has also thrown BLOC ambassadors a curveball. The door-knockers need to reassure residents that they can still re-register to vote even if they end up being purged.

As the election season ramps up, BLOC — which currently employs 47 ambassadors — will increase its staffing to 100 ambassadors with tiered pay rates, Lang said. The organization’s budget has ballooned this year, tripling from $1 million to $3 million. It has already raised about half of that through grants and donations, Lang said. The extra funds will help ensure that no one can point fingers at the black community for low turnout.

“No one was a super-voter when they were born,” Lang said. “They had to get there, and that’s because someone talked to them.”