Every week, you count on us to recommend events. But there’s none we’ve ever recommended more strongly than Election Day voting. (Get your voter guide right here.) From Rock the Native Vote to Tri-City Collective, local groups have been hitting the streets to register, educate and motivate Tulsans to get to the polls. There were twice as many new voter registrations here this year as before the 2016 election—pretty impressive. When I asked a few activists what's been going on out there, they all said the same thing: you gotta talk to Sam Flowers. Thanks to his irresistible, impassioned work with Folk the Vote, the Woody Guthrie Center registered 152 voters in 2020. (He literally helped build the WGC as a day laborer eight years ago and has been involved ever since.) I asked Flowers and the WGC’s director Deana McCloud about Folk the Vote's efforts this year. By the way, they’re looking for volunteers to help with early voting at ONEOK Field, October 29-31. You'll get to hang out with Sam, too: icing on the cake.
AC: What's been the biggest factor in the success of this registration drive?
SF: We could not have done it without the support of organizations like Magic City Books, Beatrice Ice Cream, Buck Atom's Cosmic Curios, Silhouette, Philbrook and others who let me set a table out in front of their locations. Sometimes, despite how close we are to Black Wall Street, I’m pretty much the only Black person in the arts district, so it was important to me to get the message out in the Black and Latino communities. So from July through September I got out into some of the Greenwood businesses, over to Springdale shopping center, Rubicon on the north side, out to 21st and Sheridan. I’ve had a team of 10 wonderful volunteers helping people fill out their applications. We wanted to make it easy and accessible: no bugging people about candidates, no party one way or the other, just sign up and tell a friend to sign up.
AC: Could you give me a sense of the ways Folk the Vote has been working this year? What's been your biggest priority with the program?
DM: Woody had a series of artwork about voting, so as the caretakers of his message and legacy, we feel that it's important to share his message about the ways to let our collective voices be heard as we speak up for diversity, equality, and justice. Our biggest priority is to encourage everyone to register, educate themselves about candidates and issues, and then make sure to go vote! We've been doing that through an exhibit in the gallery and a digital exhibit that explore the connectivity of music and politics, panel discussions, PSAs from artists and local figures so that we all have information prior to voting, and by having a voter registration booth available to make it more convenient for folks to register or change their address.
Sam Flowers with Folk the Vote | Photo by Bea Baker
AC: What did you learn through the different sectors of the community you've engaged with?
SF: There's a great response from the general population. The Black women came out in droves for me! They’d pull over on the side of the road and register themselves, then bring somebody back. But a lot of people don't want to hear about voting—either because they're "not political" or because they're discouraged about the process. When I’m out at the smoke shops and I see the youth, I yell out, “Hey young brother, let me talk to you about the vote!” And they say, “Hey man, I just don’t believe in it, I don't trust the system.” “But did you know those marijuana laws and those tattoo laws changed because of voting?” Sometimes those who are dissing the vote are the same ones who benefit from the vote. Sometimes those who always have a sarcastic opinion about the world realize they’ve got to contribute, instead of just talking. A national election can feel a bit bigger than you, sure. But you have to make people see that the changes that come from voting are part of their everyday life.
AC: What's kept you all going this year? (I can imagine Woody's example is pretty inspiring.)
SF: A social consciousness has always been part of me; I was the guy organizing sit-ins in the high school cafeteria during Black History Month. As soon as I found out there was going to be a museum dedicated to the prophet of folk music, Woody Guthrie, I had to get there. I started doing these tables after we shut down in March, and when people started sharing on social media it started picking up. We just wanted to rally people up and generate some energy around voting. If you look at how people were talking before the mayoral and city council election, right after Juneteenth and the Trump Rally, everybody was all fired up on both sides, but only 23% of people turned out to vote! Everybody who was mad got un-mad real quick. Once we get the chance to express our opinions in real life, it’s “Oh, I forgot that was today, they gonna do what they wanna do no matter what, it don’t matter anyway.” But then you hear other people say, “No one party speaks for me. But I’m gonna vote.”
DM: I think we made Woody proud with this effort. Really, all props go to Sam Flowers. He was outside during some of the hottest days of the year, taking the registration forms to the people, along with some music, lots of smiles, and positive attitude. It was wonderful when businesses started texting him to schedule the booth for a day, and then the volunteers started popping up to help, which was even more of an indicator of how important everyone realizes it is to vote and let your voice be heard. Now, we shift the energy from registering to encouraging everyone to make sure they vote based on their heart and the issues as we select those who will best represent us and decide on the initiatives on the ballot. This land is your land—VOTE!