2022 is set to be a huge election year in the United States, not least because the midterm elections will determine the control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. During my seven years living in this country as a photojournalist (I’m originally from China), I have witnessed the shifting landscape of voting rights here.
A century after the passage of the 19th Amendment and one year after the Jan. 6 insurrection that shook American democracy, I have witnessed many women activists working at the forefront of the fight for equal voting rights.
Over the course of two months, I spoke to 21 activists, including an Indigenous attorney in Colorado, a grass-roots activist in Georgia and a youth mayor in D.C. Each one of them lent insights; here are their photos and stories.
Growing up in Tallahassee, humanitarian Arndrea Waters King, president of the Drum Major Institute, has been a leader in voting rights activism along with her husband, Martin Luther King III, the son of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
Waters King, who believes women have always been “at the forefronts of human rights activism” and the “soul of the country,” hopes to see the passage of the Freedom to Vote Act. “We will continue to stand for the building of democracy until there is federal legislation that expands and protects access to voting,” Waters King said. “My daughter, when she is able to vote, we will give her and her daughter a democracy that is more perfect and protected.”
Waters King is pictured here with her daughter and emerging activist, Yolanda, 13, in their home in Atlanta.
“If you want to see a change, then go vote,” Yolanda said.
Reverend Leslie Watson Wilson, 62, lives in New Jersey and serves as the director of the African American Religious Affairs program at People For the American Way. She often travels to D.C. to support voting rights rallies.
“It is just unbelievable how much time that we have had to spend on something that is just a fact, that is just fundamental to us, to every citizen, to this country,” Wilson said.
Ema Angulo Rodríguez, 20, is the community manager for Future Coalition. On Nov. 3, she attended a voting rights rally in front of the White House to demand the passage of voting rights legislation.
“I believe voting rights is where everything starts — is when we are able to decide what the future of this country looks like,” Rodríguez said.
Ría Thompson-Washington, 42, is a grass-roots activist and organizer living in Brandywine, Md. As the daughter of a Dominican immigrant mother and a Black sharecropper father, Thompson-Washington said she grew up watching her parents build everything from scratch. Her mother always brought her along to vote, so she learned the power of voting at a young age, she said.
“My goal is to teach communities about how they’re racially segregated and how this all goes back to being able to vote for your elected officials,” she said. “My father, a Black man, also deserves to see change in his lifetime.”
Terry Ao Minnis is senior director of the census and voting programs for Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC. Born and raised outside of D.C. by a mother of Hong Kong descent and a father of Macao descent, Minnis has been involved in human rights activism work since the early 2000s.
“A barrier facing Asian Americans is the perpetual stereotype of the perpetual foreigners,” Minnis said. “There is something in the [John R. Lewis] Voting Rights Advancement Act, the current iteration, that would help address the needs of our emerging communities.”
Darkeysa Townsel, 43, traveled with her family, including her daughter Zah’Nay Thomas, 27, from Michigan to a voting rights rally in D.C. on Nov. 17. “I was happy to be able to have this experience with my daughters. It is important for us women of color,” Townsel said. “My grandmother at 87 came here to support voting rights, and it meant a lot for her to witness that I am here doing something.”
Sabrina Khan, 38, is deputy director of the Voter Protection program at the Advancement Project in D.C.
Her family immigrated from Bangladesh in the 1970s, which has helped inform how she approaches her work. “I’m constantly reminded that there’s such a pressing need to bridge more of the gaps in political education between Asian American communities and the Black community,” she said. “Advancing the Asian American community also means working together hand-in-hand and fully supporting and doing everything in our power to uplift the Black community.”
Armani Eady, 25, grew up in Harlem. When she was a girl, she had to get up early in the morning and travel a long distance for school, she said. The experience inspired her to get involved in her community through activism.
Now the national coordinator of election protection at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Eady engages with national and state partners on voter protection programing. “I’m going to be unapologetic about it until we get to a place where everybody has equal access,” she said.
“I remember the first time I could vote, my mother was unable to cast her ballot and asked to provide proof of residence,” Virginia Kase Solomón said, describing her motive for becoming a human rights activist. “She was treated very differently because she was a brown-skinned woman.”
Now, Solomón is chief executive of League of Women Voters. Voting rights, in Solomón’s words, are “access to the future.”
“Women are really forging a path into the future. And so for me, being able to be a part of that to lift up women’s voices, to be able to tell our stories, to be able to fight for the things that we believe in and to build collective power with other women — that, for me, is a privilege,” Solomón said.
Wanda Mosley, 51, works as the field national director at Black Voters Matter. Voting rights activism has been ingrained in her DNA since her great-grandmother worked at a polling station inside the elementary school she attended, she said.
To Mosley, voting is “a way to build power.”
“Black women are the heads of households, leaders in the community, leaders in our civic organizations, and so this responsibility just comes naturally to us. We almost can’t help ourselves but to lead the work,” Mosley said. “I see my job, though, as sort of like an ambassador of hope, if you will, saying to our people, this can happen. You just have to believe and we flex our collective power at the voting polls, then this is what will happen.”
Joy Gonzales De Guzman is a first-generation Filipina American originally from Southern California. From a young age, she said, her parents struggled to navigate the U.S. system, which led her to want to improve the quality of life for people like her parents through activism.
In her role as community engagement manager at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, she works on a voter hotline, which helps address language barriers, a lack of outreach, and misinformation and disinformation within Asian American communities, she said.
Lourdes Robinson, 15, is a D.C. youth mayor — an elected position whose goal is to address issues the District’s youth care about.
“I definitely think that the main concern for me right now is helping youth see that their vote does matter. Their voice does matter because, after a lot of times, we only care when it happens with the presidential election,” Robinson said. “But we don’t see how most times local politicians influence or sway the culture of our communities and cities.”
Saundra Mitrovich, 42, a tribal citizen of the Tyme Maidu and a descendant of the Yahmonee Maidu, started out as an educator. She made the transition to human rights activism, she said, because she kept hearing stories about the education system failing Indigenous youth. As a civic engagement associate at the National Congress of American Indians, Mitrovich works on outreach and education.
According to Mitrovich, many Indigenous communities face voting challenges related to language and identification. “We continue to find those moments where we’re constantly and actively continuing to engage so that we never fall off,” Mitrovich said.
Jana Morgan is the director of the Declaration for American Democracy. “In the next election cycle, I want my activism to have made a difference,” she said, noting that she wants to see the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act passed. “I want to see people be able to show up and register to vote on the same day. I want to see people who can’t vote in person or who don’t want to vote in person, be able to vote by absentee ballot. I want to see a country where there is a fair representation.”
Lena C. Taylor, who grew up in Milwaukee and lives on the same block she grew up in, is serving her fourth term in the Wisconsin state Senate. She said she gives “the credit to who I am in regards to being involved civically and politically more to my grandmother.”
“She was teaching me early on that to whom much is given, much is required,” Taylor said. “She was teaching me service and giving to others early on in life.”
Born in a refugee camp in Thailand to two Vietnamese parents, Tram Nguyen’s family immigrated to the United States in 1981. America is the “only home” she knows. “Being able to raise my right hand and being able to register to vote and have a say was such a life-changing experience,” she said.
Now she serves as the co-executive director of New Virginia Majority. “It is so important for women of color to lead these charges because we bring in so many intersections of identity,” Nguyen said. “They have given us a path forward.”
And as a resident of Richmond, Nguyen said she is proud to have served as an advocate for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of Virginia.
Jacqueline De León, an enrolled member of the Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico, works as a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.
“Voting rights means to me that they are the right of every American,” she said. “To determine the shape of their community, to access resources and to participate in American life. And I think that avenue is very powerful and Native Americans deserve to access that avenue.”
Noelle Damico, 56, director of social justice at the Workers Circle, grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in Trenton, N.J., where her parents’ families benefited from the New Deal’s social programs, she said.
“We want to see President Biden and the Democrats in the Senate fix or eliminate the filibuster to get voting rights legislation, specifically the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, passed,” she said. “That’s what we want to see in the near-term, because that’s what’s necessary to protect our democracy right now.”
For D.C. youth mayor Addison Rose, 17, her parents have played a monumental role in her realization of the importance of “not conforming to the society’s normality” and “giving back.”
In this “critical time of voting rights,” she said, she hopes to teach other teens that they can start doing something now.