On a beautiful Wednesday evening, nearly two dozen activists and voters transformed a corner lot at the 2200 block of Wiley Avenue in the Hill District into ground zero for democracy in Pittsburgh.

Speaking on behalf of the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP), longtime community activist Celeste Taylor reminded the small media scrum and her fellow activists that they were gathered together on the 10th anniversary of National Voter Registration Day.

A partial list of the local organizations that help register voters includes the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh, the Alliance for Police Accountability, Voter Empowerment Education & Enrichment Movement, Repair the World, Wake Up the Power, the Hill District Consensus Group and the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh.

Kim Williams of the Alliance for Police Accountability said she’s been knocking on doors to get to know voters.

“I’ve been hearing from people: ‘I only vote during presidential elections,’” said Williams. “It’s important we vote in every election. Local elections are more important than presidential elections, so I’m asking everyone, even if you’re registered to vote, to check to make sure you know where your [polling place] is.”

In addition to registering people to vote, the Alliance for Police Accountability offers workshops on expunging police records, credit repair and “knowing your rights.” 

Elaine Harris-Fulton, Lea Blumenfeld, Billy Hileman and Yvonne Raine at a civic meeting in the Hill District on Wednesday, Sept. 21. Photo by Tony Norman.

Across the street, a DJ with a massive sound system stood ready to add a layer of sonic festivity to the civic gathering. Two workers at a nearby construction site were dismantling a fire escape with the loudest power tools known to man. But as loud as they were, the eloquence of the speakers was somehow louder.

“We’ve been doing this, we ain’t turning around,” said Yvonne Rainey of the John Lewis Transform Justice Coalition and Boots on the Ground. “We’re not turning around because our vote matters, our democracy matters and we’re in it to win it.”

Randall Taylor and KL Brew-Coleman. Photo by Tony Norman.

One by one, local activists added their voices to the call for greater voter participation. Billy Hileman, vice president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, and former longtime school board member Randall Taylor echoed the theme that the upcoming midterms would be one of the most important elections in our nation’s history.

“There are three branches of government as they say,” said Elaine Harris-Fulton of Wake Up the Vote, “but I like to say there’s a fourth branch — we, the people. We’re the largest branch and we can overturn the other three branches by who we put in office.”

Harris-Fulton then began singing a modified version of the McFadden & Whitehead hit “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” later popularized by Luther Vandross. The lyrics were updated to reflect the importance of voting in every election:

“Think you can take away our rights / voting is the way we fight / ain’t no stopping us now / we’re on the move. / We are organized / exposing all the lies / ain’t no stopping us now / we’re on the move. / Increasing voting is what we do / ain’t no stopping us now / we’re on the move. / Nov. 8 will be the day / All our work will pay … ”

At that point, the DJ with the massive sound system jumped in with the song’s original instrumentals to accompany the activists for another verse or two. It is ragged and unruly, just like American democracy itself, but it complements the spirit of the song.

B-PEP Chairman and CEO Tim Stevens delivered a sober message of hope and civil engagement to close out the presentation.

Within minutes, music was playing again. A few women from the neighborhood, braving the odd juxtaposition of hope and the end of democracy, danced on the sidewalk. 

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.