PHILADELPHIA — State laws have stripped almost 1.4 million black men of the right to vote because of felony convictions, according to estimates from the Sentencing Project. But the particulars of the laws vary: In Florida, for example, felons are permanently disenfranchised, while in Pennsylvania those currently serving sentences cannot vote but most former inmates can.
With the launch of the new program Sharp Insight, Philadelphia community leader Duerward “Woody” Beale hopes to help untangle some of the problems that may be holding back African-American men in his city from the electoral process.
“[T]hey think because if they had a felony they're unable to vote,” said Beale, executive director of Philadelphia’s Youth Outreach Adolescent Community Awareness Program (YOACAP), a nonprofit that has worked with barbershops and salons to help register black voters and screen for STDs. “What we want to do is inform men to say, ‘Listen, and check out your own status. Here is where you go to find that type of information out.’”
Sharp Insight is one of 22 winners who will share $3.2 million in grant money from the Knight Foundation News Challenge to provide voters with better news and information about candidates and issues, and increase voter engagement in the election process. Through Sharp Insight, YOACAP will receive $250,000 to recruit Philadelphia barbers and educate them on voter rights restoration and voting issues through the 2016 election cycle.
“Through the barbers being trained, having printing materials for the barbershops, having an outreach team to work with barbers and using technology [mass texts, social media], we can affectively increase knowledge, change attitudes and improve voter and community engagement,” said Beale.
Hi focus is particularly on men since U.S. men vote less frequently than women, and in the African American community the gender gap in voting is almost three times larger than for whites. While the 2012 presidential election was the first since 1968 in which a higher percentage of black Americans voted than white Americans, only 61 percent of voting-age black men voted compared to 70 percent of black women.
Furthermore, according to a recent The New York Times article, Philadelphia ranked third in the country after New York and Chicago for black men who are “missing” from everyday life — largely because they suffered early deaths or because they are behind bars.
While getting his hair cut at DTails & DSigns barbershop in Center City, Philadelphia resident and lawyer Terrence Mack said barbershops continue to play an important social role in black communities.
“Some of the most important tactics regarding the sit-ins or the Civil Rights Movement were discussed at barbershops. It’s a place where all classes of blacks get together, from lawyers to janitors.”
Barbers will be paid $75 each to attend electoral training at YOACAP’s offices. Beale’s goal is to reach between 90,000 and 100,000 Philadelphia men with the project by surveying customers and encouraging them to read nonpartisan election information. The barbershop that reaches the highest number of voters will win a radio promotion.