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Conversations with Charlane Oliver and Tequila Johnson

Today we’d like to introduce you to Charlane Oliver and Tequila Johnson N/A.

Hi Charlane Oliver and Tequila Johnson. We’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
We met in 2016 while working on the campaign to elect Christiane Buggs to the Metro Nashville Public School Board. During that time, we saw firsthand how Black communities were intentionally left out of consideration when it came to engaging voters. This shed light on the lack of solid voter registration, education, and participation in communities of color. The campaign was successful, and Christiane was elected, but we couldn’t escape the information we’d learned and the disparities we saw.

Then the United States elected a new president in November 2016. That is when everything came to a head. Charlane sent a text to gather a group of women who refused to sit idly by, have our voices silenced, and watch our democracy increasingly decay. It was during our meeting that the idea for The Equity Alliance began. We each invested $250, and it has become a 2.5 million dollar 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that advocates for Black Tennesseans to build unapologetic, independent civic, economic, and political power.

We apply multifaceted approaches to manifest the life-improving changes that Tennesseans want and need. Sometimes it is through voter registrations at churches, barber and beauty shops, clubs and lounges, and parks and parking lots. In 2018, we registered over 90,000 Black and voters of color. It can also be through suing the State of Tennessee for unjust policies, including winning the right for voters to have expanded access to mail-in ballots at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other times it looks like our rapid response actions, one of which occurred due to the March 3, 2020, tornadoes that devastated residents in North Nashville. We asked for 300 volunteers, and more than 600 showed up alongside natural disaster experts, legal professionals, local businesses, and community organizations to provide food, financial support, and valuable resources. As a part of this, our #DontSellOutNorf campaign educated homeowners on how to resist the predatory real estate developers who lurked overhead with drones seeking potential land grabs.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle-free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth?
The road to liberty, justice, and freedom for Black people has never been easy because we never created the systems for them to be easy for other people of color and us. And that’s what makes our work necessary. We’re holding elected and appointed officials accountable, watching the power players, challenging systems of oppression, and educating and empowering individuals to use their unique power for good.

One of our struggles was being targeted by the Secretary of State and Tennessee Legislature for large-scale voter registration. Instead of providing clarity and consistency across the state for voter registration procedures and practices, they proposed and passed legislation intended to penalize organizations like ours that submitted forms that attempted voters incorrectly or inaccurately completed. Regardless of the obstacle or challenge, we know we are graced for the journey and the victory.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
Some of The Equity Alliance’s proudest moments have contributed to the improvement of Tennessee’s low-ranking voter turnout by engaging Black people and voters of color, challenging unjust policies and legislation – and winning.

Beyond those achievements, the ability to welcome everyday people into this space is beyond words. There’s amazing power in raising someone’s level of consciousness genuinely, then guiding them in positively impacting their circles of influence. Two of those ways are our TN Voter Guides and the LiberTEA Collective.

Every Tennessean should vote with confidence. However, we know that it doesn’t happen that way. We began producing free, nonpartisan voter guides containing valuable candidate profiles, elected position definitions, ballot issues, and key voting deadlines and information to effect necessary change. The first voter guide was for Nashville, and now we have them for Memphis and Chattanooga. We partner with local businesses and organizations to produce and promote them. Voters can download the TN Voter Guides at www.tnvoterguides.com.

The LiberTEA Collective is our signature 8-week leadership program that brings a range of Black people from political novice to political savvy into a welcoming, safe environment to be vulnerable, learns, challenge and grow, intending to cultivate a pipeline of Black Liberators for every space. It is for those who desire to transform Tennessee one group, family, neighborhood, Parent Teacher Association, political office, community organization, or corporation at a time. We’ve successfully graduated four cohorts and will start the fifth cohort in Summer 2022. For more information, visit www.theequityalliance.org/collective.

Ultimately, we know the work, the movement, and the impact are bigger than the two of us; it always has been and always will be. We understand that The Equity Alliance is fulfilling a higher calling for local and statewide communities. So to see the impact in real-time and over time is a blessing.

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Image Credits
Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean Travis McQueen Photography

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