By Emma Sarran Webster
On August 21, Illinois Governor Jay Pritzker signed two bills into law that will vastly expand voting rights for inmates in the state’s prisons. SB 2090 requires county jails to allow detainees awaiting trial to cast ballots during elections, and to provide those detainees with voter registration forms and voting rights information, while HB 2541 (or Re-Entering Citizens Civic Education Act) provides people being discharged from jail with peer-taught civics classes.
For 31-year-old Jen Dean, the Co-Deputy Director of Chicago Votes and a recipient of the 2019 MTV Leaders for Change grant, the Governor’s actions were a crucial step toward expanding voter access in Illinois. “It turned Cook County Jail into the first [jail] polling location in the country,” she tells MTV News.
Dean and her colleagues helped write both bills, but they believe their work is far from over. Their organization is dedicated to voter registration, education, and engagement — and working to increase the incarcerated vote is only part of the picture. The team also focuses heavily on youth voting, as well as training the city’s youth to organize alongside them.
“We’ve run a number of leadership development programs [and] graduated over 200 young people to go and work in different nonprofits, campaigns, and other organizations around the city of Chicago,” 30-year-old Stevie Valles, Executive Director of Chicago Votes and also a recipient of the 2019 MTV Leaders for Change grant, tells MTV News. “We’ve also helped pass a number of different bills — including online voter registration, same-day voter registration and automatic voter registration — and we’ve run a number of campaigns and initiatives to get more youth active in the city of Chicago in terms of politics.”
So how do they do it all? MTV News chatted with both Dean and Valles to learn how they achieve their goals, what they do when activism gets overwhelming, and how they make working in politics fun.
MTV News: Chicago Votes has been working on and achieving some big goals. How does the organization work on a day-to-day basis to do so?
Stevie Valles: Every single day is different depending on what's the most urgent. We run a program in the Cook County jail, we work in legislative bodies, we do advocacy work with administrators, we sit on 11 different coalitions, and we still do voter registration and other events to get the word out. We're just young, and we're scrappy, and we're all over the place talking to as many people as we can and trying to get them involved in the work that we're doing, while also trying to lend a helping hand in the work that they're doing so we can make Chicago a better place to live.
MTV News: In addition to writing laws that expand voter rights, you work to register inmates at Cook County jail. Tell us about that.
Jen Dean: We run a program called Unlock Civics. On the grassroots side, we are entering jails and prisons to ensure people have access to the ballot and also access to correct voter information. One of the biggest [misconceptions] we hear is, “I have a felony; I can't vote,” which is not true. Once you are released in the state of Illinois, your voting rights are restored. But you have to re-register.
There are a lot of loopholes folks are not aware of; we try to make sure people know the truth about voting and how they have the agency to create change in their communities. So, making sure that people know: if you care about this issue, here is how you can change it through politics, or here is how you reach out to your alderman; here is how you hold a judge — who either gave you a second chance or sentenced you harshly — accountable. There are a lot of ways that can give people hope for the situation they’re in, and I think this program definitely allows people to feel that.
MTV News: A lot of people may assume writing legislation only happens in Congress. How does an organization like yours enter that conversation?
Dean: I wish I had known 10 years ago that I had the ability to write laws. You think you have to go to law school. You don't. You can literally sit down and say, “I want something to be this way,” assuming it's ethically correct and not a crazy budget. So for us, me, [attorney] Michelle Mbekeani, and Stevie Valles sat down on MLK day, and we really just wrote [SB2090, the voting in jails bill] on a computer. Once it's written, you just find a lawmaker who will carry it for you. I went through and Googled every single voting-in-jail bill that has ever been proposed.
MTV News: What are the biggest misconceptions you encounter when it comes to voting rights?
Dean: I always assumed that people in power and our government were enthusiastic about voting rights and civics. But what I've realized is that there is more effort being put to oppress people's right to vote than there are people in government on your side. So the fact that I've been fighting for this work for two years now is sad — you shouldn't have to fight to make sure that somebody’s constitutional right to vote is upheld. That should be a community effort that we're all on board with, especially people who work in government because we're the ones who are paying for those positions to be in government. We're paying those tax dollars for that state rep to be in that position, for that person to be at the Board of Elections, for that clerk to be in office. And when there's pushback against bills — especially civil rights bills — it's very disheartening and shocking. You hear about all the stuff that went down in the ‘60s with voting rights and how great that was that people were fighting for it. But we're still fighting those same fights.
MTV News: You do so much work to make large-scale change, but does it ever get overwhelming looking at all of the changes you want to make?
Dean: Yes, it is extremely overwhelming. For example, [with the] voting in jail bill, you think about the fact that 30,000 people a year are released out of prison, and that most of those people don't know that their voting rights exist. And then you have another 4 million people with a criminal conviction on their record who mostly don't know that they have the right to vote. You have 20,000 people who are detained in pre-trial detention. And that bill, SB 2090, affects all of those people. So when it's the night before a vote in committee or it's the night before it hits the floor, I sit there at home and I'm like, ‘Oh my God, I need to be doing everything possible right now to pass this bill,’ because it feels like [all these people are] relying on me.
But when you break it down and you stick to your to-do lists, it's not as overwhelming. But this work is a lot of pressure. There are so many people relying on you, which is why I think a lot of activists and organizers deal with mental health issues. We're also super empathetic people, so when feedback comes in, we really do take it to heart. That’s why I think it's important to build programs like Rest for Radicals — it's really supposed to make us sit down as a team and think about, ‘How do we take care of ourselves as a community?’ A lot of it is relying on each other, and also making sure that the work stays fun.
MTV News: What are you most proud of when it comes to your work?
Valles: The best part of it for me is recognizing that you are actually changing the world. We are making things, ideas, law. People's lives are going to be better — and that's a huge payoff for all of this. We do still get overwhelmed from time to time, but at least it's not hard work that doesn’t truly pay off.
I've worked in the United States Senate; I've worked in the Texas legislature; I've worked on a lot of political campaigns. And the difference[s] between those places and here are that we like each other, we treat each other with respect, we have fun while we're doing this work, and we're still winning. You don't have to have the hierarchy, you don't have to have a toxic culture, you don’t have to be in boring places where you have to wear a suit every day. I have on Daisy Dukes, a polo, and tennis shoes; and I biked to work today. But we're still changing laws and we're still impactful.
MTV News: If you could tell readers one step to take to help the cause of voting rights, what would it be?
Dean: For us, a lot of our calls to action — which can be asking people to call their senators, asking people to file a petition, [or] fill out witness lists — are directly through our social media. Do some research and find out what organizations are out there similar to ours. We are all over the country. Groups always need volunteers, and a lot of their asks are through social media, so really utilizing that … to take political action.
Valles: And just put yourself out there a bit. Talk to the people about issues; Google so you can learn a little bit more. You can always do the bare minimum, and the bare minimum is taking the time to learn more about the issue.
MTV News: And what advice do you have for people who want to get involved in activism as a full-time career?
Dean: I would recommend you start extremely small and to volunteer at an organization that’s doing similar work that you like to do. Usually, you don't have to reinvent the wheel — somebody’s probably already doing the work — so you have to find people who are at the same level of passion that you are, and you find those people by showing up to events.
And then for those who are really serious about starting a nonprofit, I would highly encourage them to take a business class at a local community college or online. You absolutely have to know how to keep track of a budget, how to write plans, and what your employee labor laws are like. Those are all things that the IRS comes down on people and shuts down organizations [for]. So if you're ahead of the game as far as your operations go, the sky is the limit for success.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Leaders for Change is an MTV grant program that invests in young people doing extraordinary work at the local level to advance voting access. From getting polling places on college campuses across Michigan to registering voters in Chicago jails to providing rides to the polls in Georgia, these young leaders are breaking down the barriers that make it hard to vote in their communities.