|Vote Hope :: 2 of 6|
The Vote of the Dream Generation
Online-only: full interview with Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Hip Hop Caucus
Listen to the interview
Sarah van Gelder: Last election season, Hip-Hop Caucus did an enormous amount of work on mobilizing young people and mobilizing voters. Can you talk a little bit about what that was like?
Lennox Yearwood: We were mobilizing the Hip-Hop Generation—what I call the Dream Generation, because we are the first generation born after Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. So we are the ones who are working together whether you are black or white or Latino, male or female, straight or gay.
We had a goal of registering a million people, and we actually registered 1.3 million people. We did it over the Internet, though summits, town hall meetings. We also used TV, culture, PSAs, radio ads, and peer-to-peer contacts. We had campaigns like “Vote or Die,” to convey the urgency. We learned a lot, and were extremely successful. And now are ready to do that again in 2008.
Sarah van Gelder: Can you say a little bit more about what your plans are for 2008 and some of the issues you'll be looking at?
Lennox Yearwood: First, we're really beyond party line politics. We have to be issue-based, particularly about the issues that affect us from health care to education, to, obviously, civil and human rights, this war and how we deal with poverty—Katrina really kind of pulled the rug back on that.
We're going to be mobilizing again in 2008, but it will probably be really difficult this year. The people came out in 2006. They put a lot of faith in voting and literally changed the scene from Republican to Democratic. Some of them felt the election was stolen in 2000, and was stolen again in 2004, and now they're discouraged that this current Congress had the clearest mandate but didn't work against this war, didn't respond to Katrina, didn't put forth a healthcare plan, didn't fix education as it should.
So it becomes harder to ask people to become involved, to vote, if they don't think that the structure itself is even worth voting in. We have our work cut out for us this time.
Sarah van Gelder: What is your long term strategy?
Lennox Yearwood: What I want to tell my generation is to be involved, because this is a longterm process. Elections and politicians need to be more aligned to the people's concerns than the corporate concerns. We know this won't be changed by 2008 or even 2012, possibly even 2016. But you know, when you have 20/20 vision, you can see clearly--so by the 2020 election we can see more clearly a better structure of politics in America. We have to get big money out of elections; we have to return the power back to the people.
Sarah van Gelder: Do you see opportunities during this election season to change the direction that we're taking with the war?
Lennox Yearwood: I do. For somebody who was an officer in the Air Force and is a member of Iraq Vets Against the War, that states my position.
But I will say this: most of the candidates running—Denis Kucinich, Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton—are members of Congress, so they can actually change things now. I don't want them to wait until they actually become president.
Speaker Pelosi took impeachment off the table, and I would just say she's taking something off the table that is the people's Constitutional means of recourse.
They are two issues that literally can destroy us as humans. If we don't fix the Middle East, if we don't return respectability to our country, the situation can spin out of control. Likewise with the climate—if we don't fix that then literally we are going to destroy ourselves. Ironically these issues are connected, because of our dependency on fossil fuels.
Sarah van Gelder: So as you're doing your mobilizing, are you also raising up these issues, and, if so, what form is that taking?
Lennox Yearwood: One of the things we were criticized for in '04 is that we were just trying to energize and not inform. We know now that the issue base has to be there. People have become so disillusioned with this system, we have to remind them that this is why you have to vote; these are the issues we have to keep at the forefront.
Sarah van Gelder: I'm also curious about local organizing mobilizing, and also local elections. Are you getting involved in organizing at the local level that sustains in between the big presidential elections?
Lennox Yearwood: That's an excellent question. This issue really showed with Katrina. We actually did voter registration in Louisiana in '04, and other groups did as well, but there were no sustainable organizations after the election. If there had been, then the people could have mobilized and organized themselves much better for Katrina.
That was probably one of the most disastrous things that we learned; we had tons of money going into voter registration, organizing people, but nothing was left on the ground that could deal with the catastrophe. And that could happen anywhere, you know, it could be San Francisco, is could be New York, it could be wherever. I am against the military-industrial complex, and I am also now against this new NGO-industrial complex, this mentality of just parachuting into communities, and not building things. I think funders must hold people accountable. If we're going to give you millions of dollars, part of your mandate needs to be to leave infrastructure.
People are wondering why we aren't like the conservatives, why aren't we building up from the bottom up? Why are we working from the top down? When really, the best way to build power in our communities is from the dogcatcher, from the sheriffs, and the prosecutors to the president of the United States. So that when you have these cases like the Jena 6, if those officials are elected, then that has a huge impact.
Sarah van Gelder: How did you go from being an officer in the Air Force to having this different perspective on the war, and becoming a leading activist?
Lennox Yearwood: I joined the military as part of the poverty draft. I had been a minister since June 23 of 1993. Actually I was a White House intern at the time, and I became a minister. I started to work for a homeless shelter, and it was really cool, because you fed the poor, but then I began to question why the poor were poor in the first place. And I think that really wasn't the question a lot of churches were trying to really answer.
I went to the seminary, and the best way I could think of to take care of myself and my family was to join the Air Force Reserves, as a chaplain. So I was midway through seminary when the war began to be ratcheted up. I had looked into the evidence, and I was actually at Andrews Air Force Base and I had to preach, so the title of my sermon to all the generals and everybody was “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” (laughs).
So, that was the starting point. I knew at that point—I knew then what I didn't want to know now—that there would be so many babies, grandmothers, grandfathers, fathers, mothers, who would lose their lives. So now four years later, there've literally probably been a million Iraqis who have been exterminated from the face of Earth. And so that's what stirred me, knowing we had to get more people involved in democracy. So I took some of my friends and said, “you know, we really need to get more people involved,” and that's how that whole thing started going.