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Getting out the vote in Clarkston
Hannah Joy Gebresilassie grew up going to church in Clarkston. Now, she's trying to help inform residents in the community about the electoral process.
Just outside of the Thrifttown grocery store in Clarkston Village Plaza, Hanna Joy Gebresilassie stood behind a table with her 10-year old nephew and his mother. A large sign with the words “Protect the Vote” was propped up in front of them, along with flyers including information on how to register to vote and key dates. Behind them, a long line stretched out. Dozens of members of Clarkston’s diverse community were waiting in the thick heat of July for a quick Covid jab, which came with the reward of a 100 dollar gift card. They're among the hundreds who have turned out for the town's health fair.
Hannah is the executive director of Protect the Vote, an organization dedicated to fighting voter suppression and mobilizing voters in minority communities. At the event on Saturday, her table wasn’t drawing the same crowds as the snow cone van or the tent with free tablets and phones, but, she said she was able to reach some people. “I met a 17 and a half year old, who is so excited to vote, and told us that the only thing that's stopping him is that he's not a citizen yet. He was saying as soon as he gets that official, he will be signing up. We gave him all the information, so he is ready to go.”
Since 2016, nearly 116,000 people in Georgia have become U.S. citizens. What’s unclear, and what many voter mobilization groups are focused on, are how many of those newly naturalized will turn up at the polls in November.
“We're seeing folks who are already registered, they just don't know about the upcoming election. They don't know what we're voting for or what's on the ballot.” Organizers with Protect the Vote focus on filling in those gaps - providing information to people about when and where to vote and what candidates are running. That same day, volunteers were also running a booth at a back to school event in Fulton County.
Guiding new citizens through the electoral process comes naturally to Hannah. Her parents moved to the U.S. as refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea in the 1980s and ever since she’s been of voting age, she’s been taking them to the polls. “I go with my dad, I go with my mom….I take them and make sure they get to the polls. And before we go, we review the ballot together, and we review all the candidates.”
Hannah feels tied to Clarkston. When her family moved from Los Angeles to Atlanta, her mother’s first job was at the Dekalb Farmers Market just down the road. “I remember how much it meant to her to have that farmers market…I grew up here." One of the churches her family attended was in Clarkston, and she grew up going to the restaurants and markets in the area.
The Clarkston Community Health Fair on Saturday, July 30th at the Clarkston Village Plaza. TOP PHOTO: Hannah Joy Gebresilassie passes out voter information at the Health Fair.
Typically, one of the biggest challenges to voter engagement, she said, is the language barriers. Hannah speaks Amharic and Tigrinya, which helps, but on Saturday, she said the language support was phenomenal. “At this event, they have translators from 10 different languages…that's not a privilege that we have at every event we do. I think we need more of them - more translators, more accessibility.”
She also recognizes that it takes time for people to feel connected to the process of electing their local governments and officials. "There's a lot of work that needs to be done. But slowly and surely we're starting to create those bridges." She pointed at a table across from her. "Our friends over there at the Asian Pacific American Council - they're out here providing multilingual literature.... we're starting to see a wave of new organizations that are catering specifically toward communities of interest and providing specifically tailored information."
Hannah credits two major influences in helping shape who she is as a person. Her parents, and the community in Clarkston which helped them raise her. So returning to help here is the least she can do. "When our parents came here, they did so much for us. What are we going to do now to make our communities better?”