Usher Raymond was signed to LaFace Records when he was 14 years old. Probably in 9th grade, he was thrust into a world where he was supposed to show up and perform but was perceived to be too young to make an impact.
But at 16, when his debut album Usher was released, he sold over 500,000 records. As a minor, many did not see just how major a force of influence he would become in the entertainment world. It is from that space of youth empowerment, nurtured by mentors like his mother Jonnetta Patton, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, and Sheri Riley, that he has built the foundation of his nonprofit, Usher’s New Look (UNL).
It is also with that sense of nurture, engagement, and advocacy, that the leadership of UNL created the “I Can’t But You Can Vote” initiative— a series of presentations led by the young leaders trained by the program to educate their peers and the public invited to the sessions.
“I Can’t But You Can Vote” seemed to have the primary mission of creating awareness by bringing speakers on to teach and inspire these youth, but after eight sessions it was clear that so much more was accomplished. The team, that consisted of students and an adult moderator walked the guests and audience through an agenda that allowed for a welcome, some type of spoken word performance, a biographical introduction of the speaker, a youth lead Q&A component, and a charge to encourage voting aged siblings, parents, friends, and neighbors to participate in this crucial election. They were able to do this because they were armed with an understanding of the issues that are important to people in their communities.
Because of the initiative’s intentionally diverse programming, the participants (as hosts and guests) developed an informed appetite for the voting process and walked away with a fundamentally-rich experience.
Program planner and UNL’s Chief Operating Officer, Geoff Streat, said on the Da House 94 Podcast that this type of work is “critically important.”
“We’re really pushing with our young people the concept of servant leadership,” Streat says. “Students lead projects and try to figure out how do they have impacted the community.”
“The idea is to empower young people that are not of voting age to have [participate in] get out the vote efforts.
“Research says that the younger people get connected to voting, the more likely they are to vote over their lifetime.”
The series started on September 24th with a virtual GOTV event that looked at the history of voting, voting rights, how elections are conducted in the USA, and how young people can show up. Award-winning actor and activist, Eden Duncan Smith; the Freedom March Co-Founder, Nialah Edari; and Project South’s Leah Paige; all served as youth panelists, sharing their advocacy journey and their own disruptive understanding of the power of action that their generation has at their disposal.
They were accompanied by Cliff Albright (Black Voters Matter Fund), Genesis Aquino (Community Organizer), Trupania Bonner (Project South), and Nsé Ufot (New Georgia Project). This session opened and closed with performances by the talented Lena Santana, Sydney Williams, and a piece from visual artist, Harley Vinsonhaler. The student moderators were Kendall Montley and Ryann Richards from UNL Atlanta and Ashley Foster and Sophie Schultz from UNL Brooklyn.
The next panel was entitled, “Policy 101: Demystifying Policy & Advocacy” led by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) with Whitney Butts, Kayla Tawa, and Duy Pham. Sydney Williams was the highlighted performer of the day. Richards and Schultz were moderators and were joined by another student from Atlanta, Roderick Thomas Jr.
This session was followed up by the “Youth Engagement Matters” session with attorneys Mo Ivory (Professor of Law Director of the Entertainment, Sports & Media Law Initiative at Georgia State University College of Law) and Mawuli Davis ((Co-Founder, Davis-Bozeman Law Firm; Co-Founder, Black Man Lab).
The fourth panel featured the brilliant historian and educator, Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries who serves as an associate professor at Ohio State University. Name sound familiar? Well, it should. He is the nephew of the former Black Studies professor at the City College of New York, Dr. Leonard Jeffries and brother to Senator Hakeem Jeffries (you know the one who quoted the lyrics of The Notorious B.I.G. during the impeachment trial of the current president).
This panel, “Making Sense of the Moment: Fighting for Voting Rights,” focused on the history of voting legislation. UNL’s Lena Santana performed and Hannah Byrd (UNL Atlanta) and Eric Devonish (UNL NYC) were the moderators.
“Leveraging Technology in Voter Mobilization” where the discussion was led by Phillip Agnew (Co-Founder, Dream Defenders, and Founder of Black Men Build). He charged those on the hour and a half zoom to change the political landscape for themselves. This was the first time that Imani-Jahsmin Jean Charles (UNL NYC) was the moderator. She was partnered with Devonish.
The next week, UNL hosted a voter suppression and advocacy training with And Still I Vote, a program that truly is based in millennial and generation z energy to fight the good fight by creating awareness tools and a road map for the complicated political terrain that has hijacked the promise of America since the nation’s origins. Nevasha Noble, Jordan Fitzgerald, Lindsey Walker and Aklima Khondoker led the session, supported by moderators Hannah Byrd (UNL ATL) and Thomas, Jr (UNL NYC).
The October 27th session was done in Spanish (with moderate English translation). This virtual panel, “No Puedo Pero Tú Puedes Votar,” featured UNL partners from la República Dominicana and Nueva York. The panelists, Genesis Aquino, John Sanchez, Obed Joel Martinez Matias, and Sergio Aquino, masterfully platformed the unique circumstances of Latinx, Hispanic-Caribbean, and Afro-Hispanic people in the 50 states and 14 territories (colonies) under the president’s governance.
The moderators were Emily Mehia from New York and Abel Aquino from the Dominican Republic. This was followed up by another Spanish session called “Your Voice is Your Vote.”
Sister activists, Yessii Burgos (Youth Organizer, YVote), Yuleimy Rosas Garcia (Youth Organizer, YVote), and Sonyi Elena Lopez (Producer, BronxNet Tv) blended easily —for those who often feel left out because of their African, Indigenous, and Spanish heritage— culture and political action, opening up opportunities for validation for Brown people who are sometimes left out of the conversation because of Eurocentric and binary ways of thinking.
Perhaps the most powerful session was its last, “Athletes as Advocates,” which happened the day before the election. The session focused on gender identity, LGBTQIA advocacy, and the courage of standing with the marginal … even when the dominant culture rejects, belittles, and essentially religi-sizes them into self-hatred.
This bold conversation from basketball stars Reggie Bullock (NY Knicks) and Layshia Clarendon (NY Liberty) were the most transparent of all the guests. Tears flowed as they both told stories of rejection and identity-based shame. However, they also shared stories of great joy, celebration and strength only found in their ability to use their platform to change legislation and mindsets of those who blindly practice hate. The moderators for this show were Byrd and Devonish.
The Usher’s New Look’s young people were professional, prepared, and had perspectives that were incredibly fresh and … disruptive.
Just as their founder changed the music industry with his bold ideas, natural talent, ability to learn from others, and his disruptivating attitude about life, these leaders from his organization will do the same in their field. You just can see it all over them.