Meet two young women of color turning out the vote in Tyler this November

Kerrigan Sanders, left, and Emily Pinal, right, are involved in registering students to vote ahead of the November midterm elections. Photo by Jamie Maldonado

Emily Pinal, 21, remembers the first time she got political. She was eight years old, and her dad worked as a steelworker at Vesuvius USA in northeast Tyler. He and 100 of his coworkers were going on strike over a labor contract, and Emily’s dad outfitted his daughter with a megaphone and took her to the picket line. “I didn’t really understand it, but I wanted to help him and the people he worked with,” she says. “I held up the megaphone and I was shouting, ‘Local 58! Local 58!'” Later, when the contract was successfully negotiated and the ten day strike was over, her dad’s colleagues made a point of thanking Emily. “That was the beginning for me,” she says. “Seeing that you can show up, say what you believe, and make a difference.”

For Kerrigan Sanders, 22, it started with a childhood ritual. “My parents made my sister and me sit down and watch the news at 5:30pm every day, and we had to read the Sunday paper every week. Afterward, we had to tell them what we learned, and if there was something we didn’t understand, they would explain it to us.” She remembers hating the tradition growing up. Now, she’s grateful. “They taught us that you have to pay attention, you have to be informed, and you have to make your voice heard,” she says.

Democratic candidates and party leaders across Texas are counting on people like Pinal, the daughter of Latino immigrants, and Sanders, who hails from a deep-rooted Tyler family of black educators and organizers, to turn out and vote this November like never before—even in Republican strongholds like Smith County. Texas Democrats like to say that Texas isn’t an impenetrably conservative state so much as a non-voting state. Texas ranks nearly last in the country in the number of people who register to vote and who show up at the polls. Texans who do vote are usually older and white—groups more likely to vote for conservative candidates. Data from a regional Democratic party official shows that in 2016, Smith County voters over age 65 voted at six times the rate of those between 18 and 24.

Progressives running statewide races say they can’t win without mobilizing far more of Texas’s four million black residents, or more of the 11 million Latinos who make up 40 percent of the state. Given that both of those populations trend younger than the state’s white residents, and given that a significant portion of older Latinos aren’t eligible to vote due to their citizenship status, there is extra emphasis on young people of color ahead of the November midterm elections. Pinal, for instance, is one of two paid field organizers working in East Texas for the campaign of Beto O’Rourke, the El Paso Democrat who’s captured national headlines for his attempt to unseat Republican Ted Cruz from the U.S. Senate.

“Someone like Emily is the future of Texas, and who I want leading us in that future,” O’Rourke told The Loop. “There are people who have not been represented in Texas political life despite the fact that they make up significant and growing numbers of the electorate. Too many of us have been pushed to the margins, and ensuring that everyone has the chance to lead is not only the right thing to do—it’s perhaps the only way we can win.” (Read our complete interview with O’Rourke here.)

Pinal and Sanders met a year ago over coffee at The Foundry, introduced by a mutual friend who’s also involved in local Democratic organizing. Since then, they’ve helped found the Smith County Young Democrats. They’ve registered students to vote on campuses across the city, from U.T. Tyler to Grace Academy to Tyler’s two big public high schools. Sanders represented Texas Senate District 1, which includes Smith County, on a platform committee at this year’s Texas Democratic Convention. Pinal, a student at U.T. Tyler, heads the biggest student chapter of Jolt, a Texas-wide organization aimed at energizing young Latinos to vote. They’ve spent hours knocking on doors and handing out party literature across the city. And in the course of working together as political organizers, they’ve come to better understand each other’s backgrounds.

“I’ve become more aware of issues affecting Hispanic communities than ever before—like I.C.E. raids and family separation—and I have to thank Emily for that,” says Sanders. “And I feel like they [Pinal and other young Hispanic organizers she’s met in the last year] better understand when we talk about being black and dealing with disproportionate problems with healthcare and law enforcement. We’ve gotten to understand each other’s cultures as we’ve become friends.” Sanders notes with pride that her grandfather majored in Spanish at Texas College and was a Spanish teacher at local high schools. “It feels like this is the way it’s supposed to be,” she says.

Recently, Pinal was stopped by a police officer while knocking on doors and canvassing for O’Rourke in South Tyler, near Hubbard Middle School. She said the officer mentioned a concerned neighbor, and told Pinal that her t-shirt, which read “Beto for Senate,” might have had something to do with it. Pinal showed the officer her campaign literature and explained what she was doing, and he told her to carry on. (The Tyler Police Department says the officer was responding to a call about a suspicious vehicle in the area.) In an interview with The Loop, Pinal stressed that the officer was courteous and just doing his job. “But I was also thinking about everything that’s been going on with people of color and police, and I was just scared,” said Pinal. “It’s important to be able to talk about what different communities are dealing with, and we have to listen when people say there are problems. That’s the only way we can work together.”

Both Pinal and Sanders say policies and statements of the Trump administration have electrified people their age who might not have tuned into politics otherwise. Nationwide, over half of all millennials identify as or lean Democrat, according to a 2017 study from the Pew Research Center, and a rapidly growing share identifies as “liberal” Democrats. Sanders says that when she talks with young people on local campuses, the president’s ban on travel from some heavily Muslim countries, his decision to end DACA, and his equivocal reactions to self-described white supremacists are often part of the discussion.

Cristina Tzintzún, the executive director of Jolt, the statewide Latino organizing group with a chapter at U.T. Tyler, says young people fired up by such issues can be instrumental in convincing their elders to vote. Like many immigrants, Tzintzun’s mother feared voting for most of her life. “This last election,” says Tzintzún, “we said to her, ‘The only way we will win our community the respect and dignity we deserve is by voting. If you love your children and your family, this is one of the best ways to protect them.’”

Mary Lou Tevebaugh, a Longview resident and president of the Democratic Women of East Texas, has knocked on doors with both Pinal and Sanders. She says organizers like them bring a different dynamic to political organizing, especially when canvassing in neighborhoods of color or when there’s a language barrier. “It can make it more comfortable for the person we’re trying to speak with, and help them relate,” says Tevebaugh. She says that older black women who make up a solid part of the party’s local base are also encouraging more of their younger family members to register and participate in local organizing. “That’s what I’d like to say to young minority voters: don’t just vote. Get involved,” says Tevebaugh. “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu. You can’t sit back and say, ‘Listen to me,’ unless you’re willing to put forth the effort.'”

A surge of new minority voters this November could also benefit Republicans. For instance, conservative governor Greg Abbott captured 44 percent of the Latino vote from Wendy Davis in 2014. Sanders says that’s that’s okay with her. “When I’m going to register students at a college or a high school, I say that even if you’re going to vote for a Republican, I just want you to vote. You’re a young person, and you need to vote.”

Ultimately, Sanders hopes that national-headline-grabbing statewide races like those of Democrats Beto O’Rourke and Lupe Valdez, the openly gay Latina sheriff challenging Governor Greg Abbott, will ultimately translate into increased attention and lasting support for local Democratic candidates here in Smith County and East Texas. And she hopes they’ll encourage young people to show up not just every four years for big presidential elections, but midterms and local races, too. “We need to have more minority men and women running for office at all levels in Texas, and as young people,” she says, “we need to have the audacity to get involved.”

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Tasneem Raja is the Editor-in-Chief of The Oaklandside. A pioneer in data journalism and local nonprofit news startups, she co-founded The Tyler Loop, a nationally recognized community news platform in East Texas. She was a senior editor at NPR's Code Switch and at Mother Jones, where the team she led helped built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She started her career as features reporter at The Chicago Reader and The Philadelphia Weekly, and lives in Oakland with her husband and two imperious terriers.