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Meet Cromwell Day Speaker LaTosha Brown


Published October 20, 2021

LaTosha Brown, an award-winning civil rights and voting rights activist, says she wants people to engage in democracy because “I want them to care about themselves and their future.”

“I believe in self-determination,” says Brown, who is co-founder of Black Voters Matter, an organization that played a key role in the outcome of the 2017 U.S. Senate race in Alabama.

“Every decision—from our freedom of movement to where we work—is determined by public policy,” she says. “Anything that impacts me and my family, I absolutely should be a part of that decision-making process.”

Brown is the keynote speaker at this year’s Cromwell Day celebration on Thursday, Nov. 4. Her address, “Reimagining American Democracy: The Role of Women, Young Voters and People of Color in American Politics,” will take place at 1:30 p.m. in John M. Greene Hall for students, faculty and staff participating in the college’s asymptomatic testing program. Brown’s talk will also be livestreamed on Smith’s Facebook page. (Viewers do not have to have a Facebook account to access the livestream).

Classes will be cancelled on November 4, so that students, faculty and staff can listen to Brown’s address, as well as participate in workshops and other activities designed to encourage reflection and education about diversity, racism and inclusion.

The committee is also inviting students, faculty and staff to submit artwork for a digital quilt that will be unveiled on Cromwell Day.

In addition to leading initiatives aimed at boosting Black voter registration and turnout, Brown is co-founder of Southern Black Girls & Women Consortium and principal owner of TruthSpeaks Consulting, Inc. She also is the 2020-21 Democracy Fellow at Harvard’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History.

Brown recently previewed her thoughts on reimagining democracy.

How did you first get interested in voting rights?

“I am a native of Selma, Alabama, and Selma is infamous as the birthplace of voting rights in this country. I grew up surrounded by those stories and knowing people who had been in the movement—including my family. As I got older, I realized the impact that policy has on shaping a community’s reality. My question has always been, ‘What do I need to do to help my community advance?’ Really thinking about how to impact policy and actually have leadership got me to the place of, ‘Okay, I need to be politically engaged.’”

Many people are alienated from the political process. How do you convince them that voting is important?

“I think there is a lot of justifiable frustration with the political process. I get frustrated, and this is my body of work! My goal is to help people see how they can be an intervention in that—why it’s necessary for us to shift and transform that process. It’s not so much that I’m trying to convince people to care about politics. I want them to care about themselves and their future.”

What are some key strategies for strengthening American democracy?

“Right now, our biggest fight is to demand that we have federal voting rights legislation— the For the People and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement acts that have been presented. But even that, I don’t think is enough. … Young people, in particular, have the opportunity to reshape the entire framework of the political landscape of this country. Young people have the numbers now to say, Where is the priority for policies? How do we hold institutions and leadership accountable, and how do we reimagine and create something different so that we can actually advance our communities and advance this nation?”

Why is it that African Americans have so often been the strongest defenders of American democracy?

“Democracy is a framework that says all people matter. It’s a framework that lays out a system for shared decision-making. The other thing that it does is fundamentally affirm one’s humanity, when you have a system that says every single person has the right to participate. Those are the things that have literally been under attack for Black people in this country every day. We understand and deeply feel the danger and the harm that comes when you exclude people. Because of that experience, we have been relentless and consistent with our fight for democracy—and not just for our community. We recognize that in order to actually open up and move forward, we’ve got to have the kind of system where people’s humanity is being honored.”

What worries you most right now about the state of American democracy?

“That we won’t recognize the immense opportunity we have in this moment. My grandmother used to always say, ‘Where there is great pain, there is great promise.’ Right now, we are still dealing in the midst of COVID in a very racially intensive and politically divided environment. My biggest concern is that we will treat this moment like it’s just another blip on the historic map and not recognize that the trajectory of this nation and this world for the next 100 years is being set right now.”

What gives you the most hope?

“Young people. Young people are changing the game. They are showing up in remarkable ways and pushing the envelope of what could be different and what should be different. Black Lives Matter, the March for Our Lives—all of those efforts and uprisings that are being led by young people. As challenging—and in some ways as scary—as it is to some, there is so much possibility.”