Celebrating civil rights

Heartland Alliance and READI Chicago staff regularly discuss the importance of civil rights with participants by uplifting the ability to make themselves heard through voting, while also acknowledging the work still to come.

Civil rights ensure that every individual has the opportunity to participate in civil and political life without discrimination or repression. These rights have been fought hard for throughout our nation’s history, but truly culminated in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which finally brought communities of color, who had been historically disenfranchised, a voice.

While the Voting Rights Act was enacted to address entrenched racial discrimination in voting and promote equal opportunity for every citizen, regardless of race, we still see disparities when it comes to truly being able to take part in the voting process. In almost every state in the nation, citizens cannot vote while incarcerated. And because our prison system disproportionately impacts communities of color, the very populations meant to be protected by the Voting Rights Act are denied the opportunity to exercise their civil rights due to the strict policies excluding people who are incarcerated or have criminal justice involvement.

In Illinois, people can vote upon release from prison, but in many states people cannot vote while on probation or parole, and a handful of states do not allow anyone with a felony conviction to vote without submitting an individual petition or application to the government.

READI Chicago participant Steven discusses civil rights

“These are people who will one day be released, and if these individuals are excluded from the process to help shape what our communities look like, you’ve basically taken a huge part of the population and said, ‘You’re no longer a citizen and can’t take part in what I would call a human right,'” Englewood Community Project Manager Marlon Chamberlain said. “That removes millions of voices from being able to say what they need and what they think their community should look like.”

DeSean, a READI Chicago Englewood participant, said he feels like individuals like him, and those within his community, are discouraged from voting and that many don’t even realize the importance of voting.

“We’re still citizens, and we’re still working for this country,” DeSean said. “We need to exercise our voting rights and exercise them wisely.”

Marlon said it is vital to keep discussing civil rights within READI Chicago and to focus on solutions and root causes to empower communities from within.

“We’re human beings, regardless of the mistakes we make,” Marlon said. “You still need to participate in civic engagement — it shapes our policies, our laws, and if you exclude people, you exclude their voice. The more people we can engage in the process, it helps, giving them a way to think in terms of solutions.”