AFTER FOUNDING BLACK LEADERS ORGANIZING FOR COMMUNITIES in the wake of the 2016 election, Angela Lang began engaging Milwaukee’s long-ignored Black residents in the political process – an unprecedented effort that has captured the attention of presidential candidates. Now the COVID-19 pandemic is showing the world what the 30-year-old, one of the nation’s fastest-rising young civic leaders, has been advocating for years: that reaching out to low-income communities of color is not just an every-four-years transaction; it is a matter of life and death.
When Angela Lang talks about the city of her birth, she always acknowledges the duality – the good as well as the bad – of the only town she has ever called home. “I tell people all the time,” the ascendant young political organizer says, “Milwaukee breaks my heart and inspires me every day.”
April 7 of this year would be no exception.
On that Tuesday, in the middle of one of the worst public health emergencies in modern U.S. history, Wisconsin stubbornly plowed forward with an election. More than a dozen other states wisely delayed their elections due to the quickly escalating coronavirus pandemic. Wisconsinites who did not secure an absentee ballot were forced to make a painful choice: head out to a polling place and risk contracting the potentially fatal respiratory disease COVID-19 or stay home and be deprived the right to vote.
Lang awoke early on Election Day, reached for her phone and began scrolling through social media. “I saw pictures of people already standing in long lines at polling places,” she says. “Elderly folks and younger folks, some with masks and others without masks.” Due to a pandemic-related shortage of poll workers, Milwaukee election officials opened only five of the city’s usual 180 polling places. Outside, lines stretched for blocks. “My feeds were flooded with people expressing sadness, anger, disappointment,” Lang says. “They were unsure if they could physically stand in line for hours and worried about being infected with the virus.” One woman tweeted that her sister, a cancer survivor particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, had requested an absentee ballot that had not been delivered; she would not be able to vote. Lang heard from African Americans who had marched in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and were aghast that they were being disenfranchised in 2020. Lang says she cried twice before 10 a.m. “Just knowing people were going to get sick for exercising their right to vote, that was absolutely heartbreaking.”
In the months before the outbreak, Lang had been steadily ramping up her operation’s get-out-the-vote campaign. The 30-year-old founded Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) in 2017 as a “year-round civic engagement organization” to increase political power in Milwaukee’s majority Black neighborhoods, specifically the North Side, historically neglected by traditional political canvassers. The area has been hit hard by poverty, disinvestment, violence, mass incarceration, and has seen a disproportionate number of COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths. BLOC’s field program – what Lang, the group’s executive director, calls its “bread and butter” – consists of an army of “ambassadors,” currently numbering 50. Before the pandemic, they knocked on some 350,000 doors to talk civics, discuss candidates, rally residents around issues and gather answers to a simple yet profound question: What does it look like for Milwaukee’s Black community to thrive?
BLOC’s unprecedented effort drew interest first from local and statewide officeholders, then a handful of Democratic presidential hopefuls. They have met with the organization’s representatives, sought the group’s increasingly coveted endorsement and shadowed ambassadors during a “silent canvass” to hear residents speak about their needs. In 2018, higher Black voter turnout in Milwaukee, thanks in part to BLOC organizing, helped elevate liberal candidate Rebecca Dallet to the state Supreme Court and nudged Democrat Tony Evers past Republican Scott Walker in the gubernatorial race.
BLOC’s success has propelled Lang to prominence among a new generation of young Black civic leaders in the nation. With Wisconsin poised to be a must-win in November, BLOC is now integral to delivering the swing state to the Democratic nominee. Black turnout across Wisconsin fell nearly 20 percent between Barack Obama’s victory in 2012 and Donald Trump’s narrow defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016. The linchpin of the party’s 2020 strategy involves ramping up organizing to goose turnout in Milwaukee County, home to 70% of the state’s African American population. “If voter-suppression Republicans control the courts and the Legislature,” Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Ben Wikler recently told The New Yorker, “the most powerful method to protect the vote is organizing.”
That’s where Lang comes in. “If you want to meaningfully engage with the Black community in Milwaukee,” she says, “folks now know you have to talk to BLOC.”
But the public health crisis around COVID-19 that metastasized into an electoral crisis has made organizing extraordinarily challenging. On top of that, the vote will come after a wave of angry protests touched off by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, one of the latest incidents in America’s long and tragic history of police brutality against people of color. The situation has given Lang her fiercest test yet: How do you engage a community in an election when they’ve lost jobs, health, loved ones, basic joy, faith in the systems of power – nearly everything?
How, in other words, do you organize for the apocalypse?
As the number of coronavirus cases in Wisconsin crested past 100 on March 18, Lang suspended BLOC’s field program and shut down the organization’s office, which is located upstairs from the Greater Spring Hill Baptist Church in a brick building in the Franklin Heights neighborhood on the North Side. That same day, Evers ordered public schools closed statewide. “That was the ‘oh shit’ moment for me,” says Lang, who graduated from Riverside University High School. “As a product of Milwaukee Public Schools, I know MPS does not close willy-nilly. When I was a kid, there would be a blizzard and school would still be open. So that’s when I knew this was going to be a really big deal.”
Over a whirlwind 48 hours, Lang overhauled BLOC’s operations for the social-distancing era. “We have some older folks who, when we were in the office, had to be shown how to turn their phone’s ringer off,” she said on April 3. “And not everyone even had Wi-Fi at home. So we’ve had to navigate some technological gaps.” Lang and BLOC’s six other full-time staff members remotely trained ambassadors to use mass-texting and virtual phone-banking programs. The tools allowed organizers to stay in touch with their network of tens of thousands of Black Milwaukeeans, transforming BLOC into a clearinghouse of information, from requesting an absentee ballot online to tips on slowing the spread of COVID-19. These communications proved critical: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told The Washington Post that in the early weeks of the pandemic, with church and community meetings suddenly on hold, city officials struggled to disseminate warnings about the pandemic to residents of the North Side. During one interaction typical of many BLOC handled, community organizer Keviea Guiden led a woman from the North Side, her daughter and her sister through the process of changing their address online so they could register to vote. “I helped two generations of Black women vote,” she says. “I thought that was kind of awesome.”
On March 26, BLOC joined a coalition of activist organizations and unions filing suit against the Wisconsin Elections Commission in an effort to delay the vote until after the expiration of Evers’ safer-at-home order. That effort would fail. On the eve of the election, Evers finally invoked emergency authority to postpone the election. Republican legislative leaders challenged the order, and the state Supreme Court overruled Evers.
“We wanted the election to happen as badly as anyone, until there was this deadly wave of disease coming right toward the communities we serve,” Lang says. “It was reckless, specifically to endanger Black and brown lives when officials knew we were being disproportionately affected by this virus.”
In Milwaukee County, where Black people make up 26% of the population, African Americans accounted for 50% of the first 200 deaths from COVID-19. “I don’t say that COVID-19 is racist, but it is an opportunist,” U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, said during an April 28 conference call co-hosted by BLOC to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the Black community. “It takes advantage of anybody that is vulnerable. And you are vulnerable if you live in a very dense population, as African Americans do in Milwaukee County.”
The pandemic has only further exposed the already stark disparities of Milwaukee, the most racially segregated metropolitan area in the country, according to a 2018 study by the Brookings Institution. BLOC concentrates much of its effort on the 53206 ZIP code, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. Nearly 95 percent of the area’s population is African American. Organizers there swim against a tide of apathy, residents embittered by the decades-long procession of elected officials who have failed to significantly improve their quality of life.
“Many times we knock on doors and people tell us, ‘I don’t see the point in voting. I voted consistently, and I’m still struggling,’” Lang says. “The challenge is getting Black folks to understand the power that they have in a political system that really wasn’t meant for us to participate in. And so we want to have the big, long-term conversation: How are we, as Black people in Milwaukee, making our voices heard beyond an election? Historically, canvassers have had a transactional relationship with the Black community: ‘Hey, I’m with candidate X. Are you going to support this person?’ BLOC is about establishing a transformative relationship. And you start to do that just by listening to the people.”
As the spread of the coronavirus began amplifying pre-existing insecurities in Milwaukee’s Black communities, Lang quickly recognized BLOC needed to listen more than ever. “If people’s basic needs aren’t being met – when they’re out of work, struggling to put food on the table and pay rent, and figuring out how to stay safe – it’s difficult for them to keep an election at the forefront of their minds,” she says. “We started getting some feedback from people like, ‘Look, I appreciate the election information, but I’m just trying to figure out how I’m going to make my food last.’”
Lang knew BLOC had to reconcile the traditional get-out-the-vote drive with an effort to ensure residents had necessities to survive the pandemic. The organization’s calls, texts and e-mails began taking the form of wellness checks. “We had elderly folks, who were telling us, ‘I need a ride to the grocery store. Who do I call?’” she says. “Other organizations were sending out text messages that were exclusively about the election, which turned a lot of residents off. This is what happens when you only want to extract as many votes as possible in a pandemic. There were people posting screenshots of our text messages and saying, ‘This is how you do a get-out-the-vote effort during a pandemic.’”
While BLOC isn’t set up to provide resources directly, staff have been connecting those in need to organizations around the city such as Metcalfe Park Community Bridges, which has been delivering aid in the form of food, toiletries and personal protective equipment, in addition to voting information.
“We always kind of knew this, but the coronavirus pandemic magnified it: We need to show up as real and full human beings, as an organization that cares about our community and not just an election,” Lang says. “We can talk about what people need – really listen and empathize with what people are going through – and still have an electoral conversation.”
“A core part of organizing is being able to relate to people,” Lang says. “It adds an extra layer of empathy and compassion. I can look someone in the eye and say, ‘You know what, I understand. I have a similar experience.’”
Lang grew up working class in Merrill Park, a predominantly Black and economically depressed neighborhood on Milwaukee’s West Side, in the shadow of Marquette University High School. She remembers, as a girl, thinking it was unfair that friends of hers could not afford to attend the private, all-boys prep school, even though they lived across the street. It was an early lesson in Milwaukee’s socioeconomic inequality.
Lang was raised by her mother, Ann Lang, who was white and worked as a receptionist at various places throughout Lang’s childhood: Planned Parenthood, Central Library, the Ambassador Hotel. Lang’s father, an African American from Milwaukee, has never been a significant presence in his daughter’s life. Her parents never married. “My mom and I made the decision not to have him in my life,” she says. In the absence of siblings, Lang grew exceptionally close to her mother, who she describes as “my best friend, my confidant, my cheerleader.”
When Lang was 12, Ann was diagnosed with breast cancer. Doctors gave her 12 days to 12 months to live. She began chemotherapy and continued to support her daughter by working at a Walgreens store. Ann would live an additional eight and a half years – long enough to watch her little girl blossom into a politically-minded young woman.
When Lang was in seventh grade, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq focused her attention for the first time on geopolitical events. She brought along her mother to anti-war protests. “She was very supportive,” Lang says. “She cared about the issues. She wouldn’t use the word feminist to describe herself, but she absolutely was a feminist. We watched the news together and would spend hours talking – about how we felt about the world, about elections, about candidates.”
When she turned 18 in 2008, Lang couldn’t wait to cast a ballot for the first time. Lang saw something of herself, or perhaps her future, in Barack Obama, the son of a white mother and a Black father, who, as a community organizer in the early 1990s, spearheaded voter registration movements in Chicago’s low-income Black communities.
After enrolling at UW-Milwaukee, Lang became involved in the student group United Council and the American Civil Liberties Union, which often conducted voter registration drives. The international studies major also helped found the Inclusive Excellence Center, a resource center where students could have intersectional dialogues. “Being Black, being a woman, being pansexual – all of these different intersecting identities,” she says, “I wanted to make sure we were learning from each other and that students didn’t feel like they had to pick one identity over another.”
Lang’s social consciousness was expanding rapidly, but she says she wasn’t truly “radicalized” until 2010, when tea party darling Scott Walker was elected governor. As part of a so-called budget repair bill, he moved to curtail the collective bargaining rights of state employees. Thousands of protesters flooded Madison. “It was that election, participating in the protests at the Capitol, witnessing the pushback, watching democracy play out – I feel like I got a crash course in organizing. That’s really what solidified it for me,” Lang says. “So thanks, Scott Walker, for my career!”
Not long after graduation, Lang interviewed with the Service Employees International Union. Bruce Colburn, the union’s vice president of health care reform, liked Lang’s chutzpah. She was exactly the kind of person he needed to advance SEIU’s movement to unionize nursing homes. The work was challenging. Lang was in the field for 10 hours a day, knocking on doors, engaging in difficult one-on-one conversations with employees. “The ask was that they go against management and join a union,” she says. “It’s scary as all hell.”
The job would teach her a vital lesson that would come to serve her well: Organizing is a trust exercise. “If I didn’t get inside the house and have a 45-minute conversation, I’d failed,” she says. “I was talking mostly with Black women in their living rooms and kitchens about why they should be a union member. Meanwhile, they were doing laundry, babysitting, meal prepping. Several of them were like, ‘Yeah, I’m down for the union – I’m just not that political, though.’ I’m like, ‘We just had a 45-minute conversation about how you think child care should be free. You are absolutely political!’ Black folks don’t always feel that we’re political because we’re like, ‘Oh, politics, that’s reserved for old white dudes smoking cigars and drinking bourbon.’ That’s what I thought growing up. It’s why I never thought I’d be doing this work.”
After nearly three years at SEIU, Lang was hired in May 2016 as the Wisconsin political director of For Our Future, a union-funded super PAC formed to defeat Trump in pivotal battleground states. Lang’s boss John Grabel, then state director of For Our Future, was impressed by her vision for organizing in neglected communities. “She grasped that you can’t come in and say, ‘Hey, we need to win this election,’ without understanding where residents are at in their lives and the challenges that they have,” he says. “She knew to be successful it wasn’t just about paying canvassers to knock on doors around election time. It’s about building real community involvement and investing in organizations that have at their heart the desire to get people permanently involved in government and politics in a way that will better their lives.”
In the small hours of Nov. 9, 2016, Grabel called Lang to thank her for her work on For Our Future. “It was a hard conversation,” he says. “All of us were feeling a lot of pain that night.” Lang had been on her couch for hours watching the election returns in disbelief, attempting to find some modicum of comfort in a gradually emptying bottle of tequila. Trump had narrowly defeated Clinton. And it stung Lang that he had won with Wisconsin’s help.
“She knew that night that people were going to ask, ‘How did Wisconsin go for Trump?’” Grabel says. “And one of the first things people were going to look at was turnout in Milwaukee. And there was going to be a blame on the Black and brown communities of Milwaukee for their turnout, because it was down from 2008 and 2012. She anticipated that reaction and knew that was not going to tell a full, true story about the election.” The established narrative usually omits, Lang argues, that “the Black community wasn’t meaningfully engaged.”
In May 2017, Lang and Grabel, along with representatives from For Our Future and the progressive group Center for Popular Democracy, locked themselves in a room to discuss what an organization dedicated to engaging Milwaukee’s communities of color would look like. Out of that meeting came BLOC, and Grabel asked Lang to run it.
Six months later, BLOC ambassadors began going door-to-door on the North Side. “People were a little skeptical,” Lang recalls. “They were like, ‘What are you here for? What do you want?’ We’re like, ‘We’re here to listen. What do you think it takes for the Black community to thrive?’ That really piqued people’s interest.”
Ambassadors, each of whom work 30 hours a week, note residents’ responses, recommend elected officials to call about neighborhood issues, and record contact information for follow-up conversations. BLOC puts each of its ambassadors through 30 hours of civics training before they knock on a single door. They’re schooled in all levels of governmental power, the candidates’ positions on issues important to the community, the ins and outs of voter registration and ballot access, among other things. “We’re spending time pouring leadership development into our ambassadors,” Lang says. “People are hesitant to get involved in politics because it seems so complex, and people don’t know how to jump in, make their voices heard and interrupt this system. Our belief is that if people understand how the political process works, they will be more likely to get involved.”
When BLOC began talking to many North Siders unaware of vital city budget hearings, ambassadors helped turn out residents to testify about how lopsided spending was hurting their communities. Ambassadors have also helped unite people around shared issues. “Your neighbor down the street said he also wants a speed bump installed. Here’s your alderperson’s number. Call them,” Lang says. “Then we circle back and hear, ‘I did get in touch with my alderperson. I’m sitting down and having a meeting with them.’ To see those tangible wins and people tapping into power that they may not have realized that they have, it’s powerful.”
BLOC’s program director Keisha Robinson, the first person to knock on doors for the organization, says ambassadors often encounter formerly incarcerated people who erroneously believe they’ve permanently lost their right to vote. One ambassador met a woman who went years without voting, not understanding that in Wisconsin any ex-felon who has completed his or her sentence, including probation, is eligible to vote. “About 15, 20 years had passed, and no one told this lady that she could vote,” Robinson says. “She said that if BLOC hadn’t showed up on her doorstep, she would’ve never known that her rights had been restored. That was an emotional moment.”
On Election Day in April 2018, Lang heard poll workers were cleaning up fliers BLOC had distributed featuring its candidate endorsements, including Rebecca Dallet, the liberal judge who would win her state Supreme Court race that day. “People kept our literature and brought it with them to vote,” Lang says. “It was in that moment that I was like, ‘Wow, people trust us.’”
“That first year, when we helped elect Rebecca Dallet for Supreme Court, I just wanted to know what was next,” says BLOC field operations manager Maletha Jones. “By us getting out there and talking about the issues and tying them back to elections, a lot of people started to step up and make their voices heard.”
Shortly after BLOC kicked off its door-to-door program, state Sen. Chris Larson approached a BLOC ambassador at a holiday party. He asked what BLOC was hearing from the residents of 53206. The ambassador suggested that if Larson wanted to better understand Milwaukee’s Black community, he should shadow her. Lang loved the idea. BLOC sent an invite to Larson, in addition to other state, county and city officeholders. “You’re just here to listen, observe,” they were told. “You’re not here to interact.” The silent canvass was born. Larson texted Lang afterward that he had found the experience illuminating. “I saw the best and worst of Milwaukee in the span of two hours,” he wrote.
The concept quickly caught on. Before long, several candidates for governor signed up. Democratic presidential hopefuls followed. In March 2019, Beto O’Rourke participated in a silent canvass, followed by Cory Booker in April and Julián Castro in July. In September, Amy Klobuchar met with BLOC in a discussion the group broadcasted live on Facebook. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we’re already engaging with presidential candidates!’” Lang says. “People understood the power that our community and our organization has. They know that if they want to build trust with [Black Milwaukeeans], we are the vehicle.”
As BLOC evolved and its influence grew, Lang had her sights firmly set on 2020 as an important litmus test for the emerging organization. If Milwaukee’s Black residents turn out to the polls in large numbers in the November election, Lang’s vision for community organizing will be validated at the highest level. “I’ve read so many articles that say Wisconsin is going to be the state that decides the election. Or Black folks in Milwaukee are going to be the demographic that decides the election,” she says. “I try not to internalize it and carry that weight by myself. But it can be a struggle sometimes. It already felt like a lot of pressure. And then put a global pandemic on top of it.”
Amid all the heartbreak on Election Day, Lang managed, as she always does, to find something in Milwaukee to be inspired by.
The pandemic and the subsequent electoral chaos were expected to suppress voting. In the end, turnout was extraordinarily high. Seventy percent voted by mail, up from around 6% in previous elections. “It inspired me to know that despite it all, people were still saying, ‘I’m going to make my voice heard,’” Lang says. The showing helped four of the five candidates BLOC had endorsed emerge victorious, including David Crowley for Milwaukee County executive and Jill Karofsky for the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
“Even if our candidate wins, there’s a lot of organizing yet to be done,” Lang says she reminds her staff. “As important as voting is, voting isn’t a silver bullet. Things aren’t going to change overnight. These are long-term fights, and it’s not just over on Election Day. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
That work is now focused on Wisconsin’s partisan primary on Aug. 11 and the general election on Nov. 3. Thanks to an infusion of funds from BLOC’s financial backers – foundations, grants, unions, individual donors – Lang was able to increase the organization’s operating budget this year from just shy of $1 million to roughly $2.5 million. Her plan to use some of the money to double the number of BLOC ambassadors to 100 by September now hinges on whether door-to-door canvassing will be deemed safe as pandemic strictures are gradually loosened.
In early May, Lang had a meeting on Zoom with all the ambassadors. They said they missed being out in the neighborhoods talking to residents. “You can only call and text people so many times. There is something very powerful about being in front of someone, to read their body language, to be welcomed inside or sit out on someone’s porch and have a conversation,” she said afterward. “In the meantime, we’re trying to figure out different ways that we can be in the community while also being socially distant. Can we do community groups in a socially distant way? How do we connect to more people in the digital realm? Does that mean more Facebook live events? Does that mean virtual town halls with candidates? Not everybody we need to talk to is connected to us in the digital space, so we’re trying to figure out ways to still connect with them, too.”
As BLOC staffers trickled into a recent videoconference, Lang eyed Guiden’s Zoom background, a sun-drenched tropical scene. “I’m so jealous!” she said with a laugh. “I want to be on a beach right now.” Instead she was in her home on the East Side, near the UWM campus, sheltering in place with her roommate, a fellow community organizer.
“I’ve just been increasingly agitated lately,” Lang told me. That feeling, she says, is something she works through in weekly therapy sessions, figuring out how to use it for fuel. “I think agitation is part of how we organize people. You harness people’s frustration and turn it into something positive by having them make their voices heard. And these days I’ve been incredibly frustrated.”
In late May, as Milwaukee and many other cities across the country roiled with demonstrations against police brutality, Lang wrote in her weekly newsletter that she was feeling especially “raw and vulnerable.” “The murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and now George Floyd (and the thousands of others) are terrifying and heartbreaking. Occasionally, thoughts creep up from the back of my mind, just how dangerous our organizing can be at times. I think of those that came before me that put their bodies on the line in order for us to be where we are, and yet calling out the police department today can also lead to terror and danger in our own work.” That work now appears more crucial than ever. As Barack Obama pointed out in a June 1 post on Medium, the protests in response to Floyd’s death could lead to lasting criminal justice reform – if more people vote in local elections, which typically see low turnout.
“We’re getting a real-time crash course in civics, how the people that we elect – their policies and their responses in a crisis – directly impact us,” Lang says. “I’m hoping people remember this feeling of frustration that they have now and we keep that same energy at the ballot box.”
For now, BLOC will continue putting people before any election. “This crisis has been a good reminder that elections, while incredibly important, don’t matter if your community is suffering and dying,” Lang says. “We need people to be alive to vote.”