Activist Profile: Angela Lang
Voter participation fell to its lowest point in two decades in Wisconsin in the 2016 presidential elections. President Trump became the first Republican to win the state of Wisconsin since 1984. While this decreased participation rate included African-American voters, Milwaukee-based activist Angela Lang noticed some Democrats unfairly placing the lion’s share of the blame for the outcome of the election on black voters. In response, Lang launched Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), a grassroots organization building political power for black Americans in Milwaukee.
According to a report by Priorities USA Action, a Democratic Party super PAC, part of the low turnout in 2016 has been attributed to Wisconsin’s strict voter ID laws. These laws, which were put into place in 2011, require voters to present state identification or a passport to cast a ballot.
Another reason black voters in Milwaukee did not show up, according to Lang, is that they didn’t see genuine engagement from candidates in their communities.
“I think there’s always this expectation that black people just need to fall in line, and we don’t necessarily need to engage or talk about the issues,” Lang explains. “There were White progressive people saying ‘Vote blue no matter who,’ but if we’re feeling that those candidates are not engaging us or those candidates aren’t putting forth policy — or [are] talking about things that are actually harmful to our community — how are we to blame?”
Through BLOC, Lang wanted to develop an agenda to serve the Black community for the long-term and to create more civic engagement opportunities for black Milwaukeeans before crucial elections. In 2017, Lang and organizers surveyed the community and outlined the changes they wanted to see for safety, housing, health, food, water, education, purpose, dignity, democracy, and freedom, and justice.
“We weren’t just going to pop up during an election a couple of weeks before and try to extract as many votes as we can, and then we’ll see you next cycle,” she says. “We really wanted to build a sense of community.”
Three issues that black Milwaukeeans are especially concerned about are mass incarceration, quality education and programs for the youth, and living wages, says Lang. Milwaukee is the most racially segregated city in America. And although black Milwaukeeans make up 40 percent of the city’s population, the city has the highest incarceration rate of black males in the country.
“Everybody on my team has been impacted by the criminal justice system either directly or indirectly or a family member or a friend,” she details.
BLOC’s staff and ambassadors come from Milwaukee’s black communities and are on the ground informing their communities about local and state policies that impact their quality of lives, voter rights education for people who are currently and formerly incarcerated, and voter registration deadlines.
BLOC’s work is done by knocking on doors and engaging people face-to-face. They also lead silent canvassing, in which a political candidate or public figure remains silent and listens as they go door to door and listen to Black residents in Milwaukee speak about issues that matter to them while accompanied by a BLOC ambassador.
Lang measures BLOC’s success by more than electoral wins. “I want people if they have an issue that they’re dealing with, to know exactly what to call it and how to advocate for it,” she says. “I want people to feel that they are part of this political process that, for decades, wasn’t meant for us to participate in and reclaim that power.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the current stay-at-home order in Milwaukee, BLOC organizers are working remotely — making calls, sending texts, and posting on social media — to reach out to Milwaukee residents and keep them up to date about the Democratic primaries on April 7. The April election is important, as voters will decide on a referendum that could give Milwaukee public schools an $87 million property tax increase, which would allow schools to expand programs for students. Residents are also deciding several local races such as an open seat on the state Supreme Court, and the mayoral race. Mayoral candidate State Sen. Lena Taylor could become the first black mayor of Wisconsin if elected.
Because of the current social distancing orders, BLOC, along with organizations League of Women Voters and Soul to the Polls, are calling for Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers to delay the primaries. But regardless of whether or not Evers heeds that call, Land and her team are urging residents to vote by absentee ballot and assisting residents in doing that.
It’s important to note none of the work that BLOC has done so far would be possible without its mostly women staff. Three years into running BLOC, Lang is noticing more black women in her network are engaging in politics and running campaigns.
“There’s not a lot of us that run campaigns and run organizations, but it’s increasing,” says Lang, who began organizing as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, working on voter registrations and advocating for students of color on campus. Black women are at the forefront of many social issues and social movements but aren’t always given respect for their work, she adds. But Lang thinks that tides are turning and more political campaigns have realized Black women voters’ influence. “I think black women are seeing that as a point of leverage in real political power, that if you want our vote, you need to earn it.”