What Now? Miami's 'Living Room Project' Go Into What The 2016 Election Revealed About Black Voters

Nov 20, 2016

Black and African-American voters played a key role in electing Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 -- but didn’t turn out with the same enthusiasm in 2016.

 

That has a Miami-area group getting together to talk through what’s next. They call themselves the Living Room Project.

 

The Saturday night after the election, 15 or so millennials gather in the living room of a middle-class house located between Miami Shores and North Miami. They work at tech start-ups, fashion blogs and in real estate. They’re mostly black, most with families from Haiti and Jamaica.

 

Makisha Noël organized this in the house where she grew up and still lives. She’s calling the discussion “The Aftermath.”

 

But she starts the conversation with a question that goes back before Election Day.

 

"2008, the year Barack Obama became president. Where were you?"

 

For Noël and a lot of the crowd here, it’s a fond memory. Noadia Doirin recalls the feeling in the air. "You hear Beyoncé sing, you’re like oh, okay, all right," she says. "So I just remember that feeling and being -- happy."

 

Doirin's memory of Obama’s election brings up others.

 

"Weren’t people, like, running through the streets and clapping on pans and stuff? All through North Miami?" Jeff Noël, one of Makisha's brothers, asks the group. (He's the organizer of a similar discussion group, BarberShop Speaks.)

 

Makisha Noël remembers the impact for people who thought they would never see a black president. "That was a very, very joyful moment," she says.

 

But the tone of the conversation quickly changes. Levelle Strong says he was hoping for more progress during Obama’s presidency.

 

"There were a lot of deportations," he says. He adds he was disappointed by Obama's response to the deaths of black men, including Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, at the hands of white police officers.

 

"I didn’t really see support that Obama’d given that you hadn’t seen white presidents give," Strong says.

 

Christ-Lynn Smith agrees. "I do feel like he was there to pacify us a little bit. Everyone’s okay, like, oh, we have a black president, don’t worry about it," she says. "But he didn’t really show up."

 

Living Room Project participants began their evening with an icebreaker, talking about their passions and listing topics they think should be discussed more widely.
Credit Kate Stein / WLRN

Despite Obama’s shortcomings, most of the crowd voted Democrat again -- for Hillary Clinton. Some felt excitement at potentially electing the first woman president, a former secretary of state and a champion of families. But others voted for Clinton out of a sense of desperation, to keep a man who talks about groping women and building walls out of office.

 

Still, not everyone here’s a Clinton voter. Some voted third party or voted only on down-ballot races. And David Frederick says he brought cake to his office to celebrate Trump’s victory.

 

"So many times we will try to follow someone’s else interests for the good of the community," he says, "while your own interest is in the back and no one is paying attention."

 

Frederick says a key reason he voted for Trump is the Clintons’ record in Haiti. He holds them responsible for what some call the “Miami rice” fiasco. During Bill Clinton’s administration, tariff decreases allowed American rice (much of it shipped to Haiti via Miami) to flood the Haitian market, driving thousands of Haitian farmers out of business and making it harder for the country to feed itself -- a serious problem, especially in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake and this year's Hurricane Matthew.

 

Because of all that, Frederick, who came to the U.S. from Haiti in 2008, couldn’t bear to vote for Hillary Clinton. But he’s quick to say Trump was a less-than-perfect candidate who does not necessarily represent African-Americans and blacks. And he, like many in the room, thinks the issue starts with voters.

 

"As a black community, most of us look to vote party line," he says.

 

Some in the group disagree. They say Clinton took the black vote for granted because of Obama's successes in 2008 and 2012, but she failed to really represent black voters. So in many cases, they say, people opted instead for Trump.

 

Or, they just didn’t vote.

 

That’s why they gathered.  To process the election and discuss how to get candidates that represent their community. Sakena Whilby suggests one way forward is to encourage participation in local politics - something she’s seen among Hispanics here.

 

"They’re out in their local elections. They're supporting their mayors when they're re-running," she says. "I don't think that we are doing that because we’re not educated on the importance of doing that."

 

Marilyn Figueroa says her education, particularly getting to know an undocumented student in a class at Miami Dade College, inspired her to become politically engaged.

 

"My eyes were more open to not only what I lived through," she says. "I think that happened through education... when you start to connect the dots of the world and how it impacts you."

 

And education, the group concludes, starts with face-to-face conversations.

 

They hope those conversations will begin in living rooms in Miami, and across the country. They’re planning to meet again.