How to Build a Better Democracy:
North Carolina Edition

October 31, 2016

University of North Carolina, Charlotte

Really, North Carolina?

Fans of democracy, justice, and inclusivity know that it’s been a rough few years for the great state of North Carolina.

We first visited North Carolina in December 2015 as part of our learning journey on racial equality. Inspired by what we saw, we’ve been working hard on voting rights, voter registration, and racial justice campaigns ever since.

With Election Day approaching, and an eye on races and issues all around the country, we’d like to share some of what we learned over the past year.

Man with sticker, Ben & Jerry's democracy campaign

Photo credit: Leslie Frempong

History, Repeated

It all started with the Supreme Court’s dismantling of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, which allowed states like North Carolina to change their election laws without oversight from the federal government. And NC was ready, rushing an extraordinarily restrictive bill through the legislature and signing it into law in a matter of months.

To voters like 94-year-old Rosanell Eaton, this was, sadly, nothing new. She was required to recite the preamble to the Constitution, from memory, in order to cast a vote back in 1939. She had thought that such disenfranchising tactics, hallmarks of the Jim Crow era, were a thing of the past. She was wrong.


Understanding Injustice

We admit that we didn’t know quite how bad things were when we first traveled to North Carolina last December. About 25 of us went to Greensboro, a city central to the civil rights movement, to learn about systemic racism. At the Beloved Community Center, Bennett College, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, and elsewhere we heard from those who’ve experienced, and continue to experience, bigotry and discrimination every day.

We learned about overt discrimination like that faced by Rosanell Eaton, and subtler kinds. For example, UNC Asheville student Austin Dowdy lamented "unnecessary hassle of having each dorm being in different precincts," created by the practice of intentionally splitting campuses down the middle during the districting process, sowing confusion amongst young voters.

Democracy is in Your Hands, Ben & Jerry's

Ice Cream in Action

We were impacted by our visit to North Carolina and decided to do whatever we could to help those engaged in the fight for voting rights and racial and social justice.

  • We partnered with local organizations, including the North Carolina NAACP, NCPIRG, YouCanVote, Common Cause NC, and Democracy NC.
  • We worked with partners both to register voters and to educate them about their rights.
  • We brought ice cream to partners’ events at campuses, transit stations, public housing developments, breweries galore, and more!
  • We launched Empower Mint in May, on the campus of North Carolina Central University, with a donation based on proceeds from the new flavor going to the North Carolina NAACP.

Ice cream really does bring people together. Our social mission and marketing coordinator in Chapel Hill, Anna LaRocco Masi, said:

We talked to a lot of people, especially young people, who were able to register easily because of the work we did with our partners…and it’s all because we brought ice cream to their campus!

People fill out voter pledges, Ben & Jerry's

We’re proud of the work we and our partners have done in NC in 2016:

  • We hosted over 90 events
  • We registered 3,383 voters
  • 13,694 pledged to vote!
  • And we served 40,000+ scoops of ice cream (and smiles)!

Ben, Jerry, and Reverend Barber at Ben & Jerry's Empower Mint flavor launch.

Good News!

Led by inspiring and powerful leaders like Rev. Dr. William J. Barber and relentless activists like Rosanell Eaton, the fight against NC’s voter suppression law never let up. They pushed it on the streets and through the courts, and this past July a federal appeals court struck down the law. Writing for the court, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz said, “The new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and “impose cures for problems that did not exist.” Rev. Barber proclaimed that the court’s decision was “a people’s victory and a victory that sends a message to the nation.”

Indeed, anti-voting laws have since been blocked in numerous states, a cause for hope and an indication that our movement is making a difference.

Ben & Jerry's democracy campaign

Lessons Learned

We witnessed how people all across North Carolina came together, whether seasoned and passionate 94-year-old activists or college students registering to vote for the first time, and we’re seeing the same thing happen all across the country. In fact, more people are registered to vote now than ever before! There’s nothing we can’t accomplish when we work together.

But you have to get out there, you have to meet and talk to people where they are. And it doesn’t hurt to start off the conversation with a scoop or two of ice cream.

With progress on issues including LGBTQ equality and voting rights on the line in races for the Senate and the governor’s office in North Carolina, we can’t let up. We’ll be supporting get-out-the-vote efforts through Election Day.


Vote, Vote, Vote

So be sure to vote—and take your family and friends with you! Make your voice heard! Every single person reading this, in North Carolina and all over the US, can make a difference. We know it’s true; we’ve seen it happen.

And then, no matter who wins, keep pushing for change, for equality, for voting rights, for a democracy that works for all of us, all the time.

Take Action Now!

Sign the Petition to Restore the VRA