Courtesy of Rodnika Cockroft/@miami_dreamdefenders

Meet The Florida Activists Making Sure Serving Time In Prison Won't Stop Folks From Voting

25-year-old Rodnika Cockroft of Dream Defenders is a recipient of the 2019 MTV Leaders for Change grant

Rodnika Cockroft is sick of working within a system that led to one in four people she knows unable to vote — so she’s changing it.

Four years ago, when the 25-year-old Miami, Florida, local was in college, she began working with Dream Defenders, a black and brown youth-led organization dedicated to building a multiracial voting block and, as Cockroft put it, “putting the power in the hands of the people and centering people over corporations.” She worked with the group for two years while she attended school in Gainesville; when she was set to graduate, a member of the Defenders leadership told her they had a chapter in her hometown of Opa-locka, Florida.

“I was like, ‘I definitely don't want to leave my city without seeing and creating change in it,’” Cockroft, a recipient of the 2019 MTV Leaders for Change grant, told MTV News. So she began leading organizing efforts in Northwest Miami-Dade to educate and empower people to vote for Amendment 4, which would restore voting rights to returning citizens that have served time in the prison system.

The amendment allowed all free Floridians, except those convicted of murder or sex offenses, to cast their ballot. But it didn’t go into effect smoothly: after voters passed the amendment in November 2018, the Republican-controlled state Legislature signed into law a stipulation that meant anyone who was freed would have to pay off all of their court fines, fees, and restitution before they could vote.

“We're talking about over a million people who have gone to jail,” Cockroft told MTV News. “They're out in the street and they can't vote. They had their rights stripped away from them and Florida, especially under Rick Scott's tenure, just refused to restore people's votes or their voting rights.”

While working on passing the Amendment, Cockroft discovered something about her friends and family: “I didn't realize how many people in my life could not vote because of these nonviolent offenses,” she said.

So she fought specifically for them, too. MTV News sat down with Cockroft to talk about the difficulties of fighting against a system that has spent years garnering strength, the importance of voting in local and national elections, and why Florida will be such a crucial state in the upcoming 2020 election.

Courtesy of Rodnika Cockroft/@miami_dreamdefenders

MTV News: What does Dream Defenders do?

Rodnika Cockroft: We just want to make sure that we are building power both on the local level and the electoral level because just talking about it in our communities is not enough and our state and our respective counties have the funds to make sure that our communities are safe in a way that is transformative. Not putting more police on the streets, but actually investing in infrastructure and schools, making sure that we have proper programming and things.

MTV News: Over the past four years that you’ve been working with Dream Defenders, you spent a lot of time working on Amendment 4. Why was that so important to you?

Cockroft: We're talking about over a million people who have gone to jail. They're out in the street and they can't vote. They had their rights stripped away from them and Florida, especially under Rick Scott's tenure, just refused to restore people's votes or their voting rights.

That is also something that affects one in four black men across the state. It was like giving them the rights back was the biggest thing that we could do. Also, we're still fighting this because our legislature's terrible and they don't want to give us things even when we win them. When we voted on Amendment 4, [we were] voting to restore the right for folks who have nonviolent felony offenses to vote. That was the end of it.

MTV News: But was it?

Cockroft: Overwhelmingly, [voters] said, "Okay, this is something I'd back." … Then we [heard] from legislative session and they're like, "Actually, it was too broad. It was too broad. Let's add some conditions, making sure fines and fees are in there and you have to pay before you can have your rights restored." Again, that's another way to disenfranchise poor people who already don't have it.

MTV News: Is that what you're spending a lot of time fighting for right now?

Cockroft: We're still doing that work and every chapter has their individual campaign that they want to work for. All of them are ways that we can help end mass incarceration in the state of Florida since Florida is the prison state.

MTV News: Why do you think dismantling that and making sure that folks do have voting access is imperative to protecting our democracy?

Cockroft: Everyone should be allowed the right to vote. Period. All of our lives are affected by who is in office and the legislation they push and what they decide to put the budget money into. It all affects our lives and no one should be barred from voting in the first place. That's first.

Second, Florida [is] such an important state when we talk about elections in general, whether it be gubernatorial or national elections during the presidential elections. To have a million-plus people who have just been working towards getting their rights restored for decades on end, we have the power to… bring them into our organizations and fight for the things that we want and need because they know what it's like to be disenfranchised… We're definitely about to flip this state back blue.

MTV News: Do you think that Florida being such a purple state is one of the reasons it's so important for young Florida voters, in particular youth voters, to get involved in voting and not just for presidential candidates but also for these local candidates?

Cockroft: That's something that we definitely want to put emphasis on. We'll be registering 15,000 folks to vote and we're targeting young folks so that we can increase the percentage of young folks that are turning out because our futures are on the line, right? We don't want these old people in power making decisions for a world that will not phase them one way or another.

We proved this past election that we care about elections outside of the presidential cycle. Florida had its largest turnout in a gubernatorial election ever last year, so we definitely want to put emphasis on bringing the youth out. I think we know more now more than ever how pivotal it is to vote in all elections.

MTV News: Can you tell me a little bit more about your efforts to register young people to vote?

Cockroft: On National Voter Registration Day, we'll be walking our first set of folks that are going to be registering folks to vote. They'll be in Miami-Dade and Broward County.

In Miami, we're going to be doing a registration/presidential forum where we'll be discussing where different candidates stand on race, immigration, prisons, and police. This is the first of a series of conversations that we're going to have with our community, with young people about the people who are trying to get our votes and pushing them into voting in the primaries.

In 2016, I think a lot of young people learned, especially in certain states, "Whoa, we don't really know much about how this voting process works. We thought that it was just, 'Oh, I'm going to go vote. This is what it is, I show up. I vote.'" It's like, no. You’ve got to make sure — especially in places where voter suppression happens, like in Florida — that you have all your information on your voter registration card on point, making sure that the address is on point, making sure you're in the correct party, especially if they're talking about voting in the primary. That's what we'll be doing over the next couple of... well, until 2020, really.

MTV News: What are you looking forward to that’s getting you excited about this fight?

Cockroft: I'm really looking forward to the voting drive that we're going to do. I'm really looking forward to our voting guide, especially on the local level because those are some of the things that are going to affect us the most. Then outside of that, definitely looking forward to seeing these Democratic [presidential] candidates move a little bit more to the left because we don't want anyone who's going to go in and maintain the status quo. We really want someone who is going to challenge Donald Trump.

This is a nerve-wracking time but it's also exciting because I know that we're going to make sure that we get the outcome that we need and deserve as people.

MTV News: How do you think securing this grant from MTV News will help you, and Dream Defenders as a whole, accomplish those goals?

Cockroft: I think that this grant is going to help us get folks involved who are not able to get jobs, for example. When we're talking about going out and registering folks to vote, the people who we want to lead the way are the people who are affected the most. We want to center the most different franchise people.

I think that this grant would definitely help us with making sure that we are having people who are still actively fighting to get their rights restored back get the work… I think this could help us give them some jobs and push them into registering folks to vote while we try to get them their rights as well. We're going to win. Just know that we're going to win.

This interview has been lightly edited for length.

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.