Wylecia Wiggs Harris

November 10, 2015
Library of Congress

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Thank you all for joining us tonight.

Why the League of Women Voters, why now?

I have been asked these two questions quite frequently the past several weeks. The short response is that there are defining moments in each of our lives that require us to reassess, take stock and have the moral courage make a change. This great organization was founded on moral courage and the desire to take the impossible and make it possible.

My journey to the League began several years ago as I started to think about my legacy to society; the tipping point that it was time for me to shift sectors and bring my skills and experiences to the civic engagement arena was triggered by the tragic events on June 17th of this year.

On that day, my mother was sitting in church in Columbia, South Carolina when a shooter walked into a church two hours away and systematically murdered nine people.

The Charleston shootings awakened my inner activist, a part of me that I had tucked away after college.

They awakened my commitment to standing up for the rights of others and the underserved.

And they awakened my desire to engage in the important conversations around the issues that define our society.

I have always been service-minded. I have always pursued careers that were based on helping others, but this awakening left me wanting to do more. 

And just at that moment, the stars aligned and I learned about the opportunity to lead the League of Women Voters.

I will admit that I’m not a typical executive for the League. I am not only new to this position; I just became a member of my local League for the first time. But I already know that this is where I belong.

Because we don’t just engage in the conversations around the issues that define our society, we lead them.

Standing up for the rights of others is written into our DNA.

My inner activist has been set free!

I come to the League with an appreciation of what this organization has accomplished over the past 95 years, a respect for the generations of those who worked, day in and day out, to encourage participation in the democratic process, and commitment to not only finish our first century as a strong organization, but to set it up for a successful second hundred years as well.

At the close of our first century, we are the gold standard for civic engagement. For many Americans, the League of Women Voters is synonymous with candidate forums, voter guides and election protection.

But we cannot rest on our laurels, and I also come to the League with an understanding that we need to change.

There is an entire generation of individuals who I believe will engage with this organization if we create doors and opportunities for them. But we need to recognize that they won’t affiliate in the same ways that our current membership has.

They want to help. They want to serve. Their inner activists are fighting to get out.

They also see the world differently than those who came before. The victories and successes of past generations have shaped this generation’s worldview and their expectations. Their grandmothers and great grandmothers fought for the vote, their mothers fought for social and economic equality. And as a result, they are leaders in their workplaces and their communities.

They volunteer differently. They engage differently. They see their capacity differently. They want to be involved with organizations that do meaningful work, but they want to do it on their terms.

To harness their energy, we have a choice. We can either evolve, or we can lose them forever.

I am not willing to lose them. We cannot let that happen.

Because this is not the time to let our guard down.

The hard fought victories of the past 95 years will not remain in place for the next hundred years if we don’t remain vigilant.

And make no mistake. There are still fights to be fought. There are victories that need to be won.

Make no mistake. We still need our army.

The League’s perspective is as relevant as it ever has been. Voters today don’t need less education. Election officials don’t need fewer partners. Our democracy doesn’t need fewer advocates.

We live in a time when all the world’s information is no further than a click away, yet too many Americans say the lack of reliable election information is one of the reasons that keep them from voting.

We are in a year that marks not only the 95th anniversary of our organization, but also the 95th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment and the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.  Yet for the first time in my memory, many state legislatures are actually working to erect new barriers to voter participation.

As the League heads into our second century, it is clear to me that our mission is as vital as it has ever been. This country needs the League to thrive to continue Making Democracy Work®.

When I came to the League, I made it clear that I wanted to make the changes that would help us build for the future.

I’ve been through this before, and I know no change journey is easy. In order to move forward and grow, we will inevitably have to leave some things behind.

Over the coming months, I want to hear from as many people as possible about the direction we should take for the future. With more voices in the room, we will have a better understanding of what’s working and what isn’t, and I will get a better sense of the changes we need to make.

There are a few, though, that are obvious to me.

I believe the national organization has a mandate to lead. If you go back to our history, the national League has always led. It’s how we got out of the gate. It’s how we made change.

Our federated model relies heavily on the work of local organizations, but  we also lack a presence in many of the areas where we are needed the most. Local elections officials and voters need our help, not matter where they live, and we must make that help available to them. To strengthen the work of the local Leagues, Making Democracy Work® in every precinct in America, we need to provide an ability to affiliate with the national organization and make our resources and expertise easily available throughout the country.

The world in which we operate is changing. And those changes are taking place with greater speed every day.

Some of these changes—for example online voter registration and greater access to early voting —further our goals of expanding democracy and afford us the opportunity to bring more Americans into the electoral process.  In these cases, we may need to change the way we conduct voter registration drives and voter education so that we may seize new opportunities.

Other changes threaten those same goals. Voter ID laws, the closing of polling places and confusing changes to voting technology require a vigilant, nimble organization, capable of mobilizing our resources quickly—before a proposal becomes a policy.

It is a simple fact that, in order to remain relevant, we need to move faster and become more accessible to more people. We need to adapt the way we do our work to match the pace of our world.

We are competing for time, their attention and yes—money—against organizations using 21st century infrastructure to reach 21st century audiences. The new generation makes quick judgments as to whether an organization understands who they are…and an organization that looks and feels like the last generation won’t get a second look.

The League of Women Voters deserves that second look. I believe we have earned that second look.

One cannot step into this position without an appreciation, a respect and a reverence for those who have come before me. They are the giants upon whose shoulders I now stand. It is because of them, because of their legacy, that I am able to see our future.

We are an organization with a formidable history, and I am honored to be the keeper of that legacy as we move into our next hundred years.

Today, we are just about a year from electing a new president and a new congress. We will also elect 12 governors, 86 state legislative chambers and hundreds of mayors, city council member, and county commissioners.

But every year is an election year. Every year brings the opportunity to make voting better.  Our work is never done.

I look forward to getting to know all of you in the coming months, to hearing your concerns, and to building on your strength.

We will face challenges in the weeks and months ahead. But now that my inner activist has been unleashed, and with the help of our staff, our Board, and the thousands of League members around the country, I know we are up to the task.

Thank you.