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The Woman Who Started #WakandaTheVote to Register Voters at 'Black Panther' Screenings

Activist and organizer Kayla Reed shares how she and her co-organizers Jessica Byrd and Rukia Lumumba started a massive voter registration campaign in over 100 cities.

Linda Yang

Linda Yang

Photos courtesy Disney and Kayla Reed.

One week before the premiere of the highly anticipated and blockbuster hit, Black Panther, St. Louis-based activist and Electoral Justice Project organizer, Kayla Reed, wasn’t scrambling to find a ticket to the highly-anticipated premiere. Instead, Reed—alongside co-organizers Jessica Byrd and Rukia Lumumba—was working against the clock to put the finishing touches on the #WakandaTheVote campaign, an initiative that allows people to set up voter registration events at local movie theaters or register to vote via text message.

While the three activists had each been long anticipating the movie’s release, it was just the week before the premiere that they realized the film’s potential role in a grassroots voter registration initiative. “We saw that the themes depicted in Black Panther are really important to the political climate that we’re in right now,” Reed said. “The movie really aligned with our vision of change and through our voter registration drive, we wanted to have those conversations shift from the world of fiction to reality.”

In one week, Reed and her co-organizers got messaging materials out, recruited organizers to set up voter registration booths, and completely overhauled the Electoral Justice Project’s website to showcase the #WakandaTheVote initiative. Since then, over 100 cities have hosted voter registration drives at Black Panther showings.

Broadly spoke with Reed to learn more about the campaign, the importance of planning voter registration campaigns early in the election cycle, and what comes next for the Electoral Justice Project and #WakandaTheVote.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What made you think to register voters at Black Panther ?

The Electoral Justice Project was really founded to help activate and mobilize Black people throughout the entire political process. That often starts with political education and voter registration. The thinking behind the Black Panther voter registration was: Let’s meet people where they already are. We were all so highly anticipating Black Panther’s release and we knew that we would be at the theaters along with millions of other folks. Why not set up voter registration booths so that folks waiting in line, in between grabbing some popcorn or even leaving the theater, could get registered to vote?

You’re based in St. Louis, Missouri. Was that the site of the first Black Panther voter registration drive?

We’ve had some voter registration booths here in St. Louis but it’s only one of many cities that registered to host. What this initiative really depends on is local organizers who want to do some kind of action in their community. For the Black Panther voter registration, we put out a national call for people to get involved. Along with that we put out flyers and sent emails to folks the Electoral Justice Project had previously partnered with.

Photo courtesy of Kayla Reed.

Since Black Panther hit theaters two weeks ago, how many people have been registered to vote?

There are two components of the campaign. You can either sign up to host a registration drive or you can just register to vote from your phone. We’ve had over 100 cities sign up to have registration drives at Black Panther premieres and we’ve had a couple thousand folks register to vote via just phone technology.

How did you feel after watching the film for the first time?

I was so hyped. It was incredible and we did voter registration work right before the film. It was so amazing to see so many people dressed up to come to the movie. I thought it was a magnificent film and it exceeded my expectations. I loved watching the uplifting of Black women as not only as nurturers of our community but defenders of our community.

Why is Black Panther such an important political and cultural event?

I think Black Panther really connects to everyday folks because it’s this beautiful story about a nation without oppression. It allows people to dream about what self-governance and the right to self-determination could actually look like. What’s also important is that it depicts Black people outside of the very narrow tropes that Hollywood limits us to. There were no rappers or basketball players. There were no drug dealers. It spoke to the majesty and brilliance of Black folks. We are superheroes, too, and we should be depicted as such. We can always have blockbuster hits in the theaters but people have intentionally not invested in our ideas and our skills.

Why is it so important to register Black voters early in the electoral process?

As a millennial and someone who is an active voter, even watching the last presidential cycle, I’ve seen that political parties have a very extractive and exploitative relationship with Black communities. They come in late and they come in lazy. The [Electoral Justice Project] can’t come in October and expect an increase in voter mobilization. We have to invest early and often. We’re really hopeful that by having conversations early, we’re able to embed the belief that democracy and voting is one of the many tools we have at our disposal to really bring about change.

What’s next for #WakandaTheVote and the Electoral Justice Project?

We didn’t think of the Black Panther voter registration drive more than a week in advance but we now know what we can do. We’re currently thinking about all the opportunities to host voter registration drives at the premiere of A Wrinkle in Time, which is happening in a couple of weeks. Also at the end of this month, we’re announcing the Electoral Justice League, a campaign fellowship where we’ll be training organizers on how to become political experts around campaigns, whether it be running an elected official’s campaign or working on a policy initiative. We want to invest deeply on local organizers who are in their community for a long haul.