Desmond Meade is the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Committee, which surprised and inspired the nation with a policy win few saw coming. His grassroots campaign passed a groundbreaking constitutional amendment with a supermajority of more than 60% of the vote. It restored voting rights to one and a half million people with prior felony convictions who had served their time. Desmond says the key to success was transcending typical divides and mobilizing volunteers, donors, and voters from all backgrounds and beliefs.

Time Magazine called him one of the world's most influential people. He’s a MacArthur Foundation Genius Fellow. A Ford Foundation Global Fellow. And his organization was nominated for the Nobel Prize. Doug Hattaway sat down with Desmond Meade to talk about ideas you can use to create campaigns that transcend divides to achieve great things.

The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

CW: Drug use, thoughts of suicide 

Doug Hattaway: As a native Floridian, I have to start by saying thank you for all the work you do. I’ve been following your work for years, and I appreciate everything you do.

Desmond Meade: I appreciate that. Thank you so much.

Doug: Our audience is anxious to hear from you. A lot of folks who tune in are in the work of achieving great things against uphill odds, which you clearly were able to do and continue to do in Florida. But I wanted to start with your story for folks who might not have heard it. These issues were personal to you when you founded this organization. Let’s start with your story.

Desmond: Yeah, Doug, you’re right. This issue is definitely personal to me. I call myself a returning citizen, and [that’s a] term we use—there are other terms, too, as well, like justice-impacted people or formerly incarcerated people—but I’m an individual who had a previous felony conviction. Because of my drug addiction, I found myself getting arrested multiple times, in and out of jails or prisons, and eventually, in 2005, because of my substance abuse, I found myself actually standing in front of railroad tracks waiting on a train to come so I [could] jump in front of it. 

That was August of 2005. That moment I stood there, I was a broken man. I was at the lowest point of my life. I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel for me, and so I waited for this train to come, but thankfully, the train never came. I ended up crossing the tracks, and I walked a few blocks further, and I checked myself into a drug treatment facility. And after four months of treatment, I was able to graduate, and I moved back into a homeless shelter.

While there, I decided to enroll in one of the local colleges, and I did pretty well. [I] graduated with highest honors and pursued a bachelor’s degree in public safety management. Eventually, I got accepted into law school, and in May of 2014, I graduated from Florida International University College of Law with a juris doctorate degree. Along that journey, I discovered what it meant to really give back. I discovered what it meant to serve, and to make this world a better place. And that’s what I’ve dedicated my life to ever since.

Doug: You had the vision of restoring voting rights to folks in your situation. For folks who don’t know the story behind this amazing campaign, please tell us about that.

Desmond: When you just look at my story, of course [I] made some mistakes in the past; [I was] able to overcome those mistakes, sought treatment, and then went to school and dedicated my life to giving back. But in spite of all of [what] I was able to overcome or accomplish, because I lived in the state of Florida, I still could not vote. My rights were not restored. I was one of, at the time, 1.68 million Floridians who had served their time, but faced a lifetime bar from ever voting [again]. Just my story alone was enough to open my eyes, but what really drove me was the story of other people.

[I met] a veteran named Howie, who served our country and fought in wars for our country and came home with disabilities and found it hard to provide for himself and [made one small mistake]. For 30 years, this man could not vote. He couldn’t get his rights restored. This is a guy that put his life on the line for our country, but because he lived in the state of Florida, and he made one mistake, the state of Florida said [he] would never be able to vote again—that [he] would not be able to experience what it felt like to be a full citizen.

No matter where I went in the state of Florida, I would hear stories like Howie’s. At the end of the day, there’s no greater indicator of citizenship than being able to vote. And when you’re stripped of the right to vote, you’re stripped of your citizenship. Because that is so important, I really felt that the decision on who gets to vote or who don't get the vote should never, ever be left in the hands of politicians.

In the state of Florida, there are four politicians that made that decision. I felt that left too much room for partisan politics to play a role in whether or not an American citizen is able to participate in an election. I came up with the idea of taking it out of the hands of politicians and putting it in the hands of people. Let the people of Florida decide whether or not a person like me deserves to participate in our democracy.

Doug: And it was considered a real uphill battle. Folks did not see this, and part of the secret of success was bringing together folks of all kinds—liberal, conservative, moderates. How did you do that?

Desmond: That was the heart of it, Doug. Some people might find this hard to believe, but voting is not as political as people make it out to be. I discovered this when I voted for the first time. My first presidential election was in 2020, and in that process, what I discovered was that voting was more about affirmation of a person’s place within a society, than a political party or the color of a person’s skin. I wasn’t voting as a Black person or white person or Democrat or a Republican. No, I was participating in a very sacred act that affirmed my humanity and my place within this society as a citizen of this country. 

That is very critical for people to understand. When you look at why these politicians were not allowing people who made mistakes to vote, it was purely political. It had nothing to do with criminal justice. It had nothing to do with public safety. It had nothing to do with common sense.

At the end of the day, if a person is an American citizen, they should have a say, especially if they pay taxes as well. They should have a say on how their community is run. And as far as individuals making mistakes, we have loan forgiveness; we have bankruptcy court. There are all these mechanisms to give people a second chance, to forgive past transgressions. Why are we stopping when it comes to allowing a citizen to vote?

And so seeing that it was purely political, we had to approach this [issue] in a nonpolitical way. Folks were telling me, “hey Desmond, that was an amazing bipartisan campaign you ran.” And I would tell them, no, it wasn’t. It was not a bipartisan campaign. And they would say, “oh, we meant a nonpartisan campaign.” And I would say, no, it’s not that either. It was an organic grassroots movement that welcomed and enjoyed bipartisan support. The difference is, we did not lead with the politics. We led with people. There’s so many things in our society, in this country, that [are] really about humanity, about people, and not about politics.

Doug: So putting people in the picture, leading with the human element, the human story. What are you not doing then in this campaign? Are you not using political buzzwords? What are you not doing when you’re keeping people at the forefront?

Desmond: Not only are we not using political buzzwords, but we’re [also] not excluding people. Sometimes we get caught up in excluding people. I’ll give you a great example. When I was discovering [the realities of] felon disenfranchisement, I kept hearing “one out of four African American men in the state of Florida could not vote because of [a] felony conviction.” I kept hearing [this fact] over and over and over again, and it started making me believe that only Black people couldn’t vote in Florida. The reality was that African Americans only made up a third of the people who could not vote. 

Now, I don’t ignore the fact that African Americans are disproportionately impacted by felon disenfranchisement, but that does not exclude the two thirds of white people who could not vote. And so was this an effort to give Black people the right to vote, or was this an effort to give people with previous felony convictions the right to vote? And it was the latter.

When I was arrested [and] appeared before a judge, nobody asked me if I was Democrat or Republican. When I got hooked on drugs or alcohol, the drugs and alcohol didn’t distinguish between whether or not I was a Democrat or a Republican. People from all walks of life make mistakes. People from all walks of life suffer from substance abuse issues. People from all walks of life deserve to have a say in our democracy. If we’re talking about fighting for democracy, that means that we can’t just fight for people that vote like us or look like us. We have to fight for people who disagree with us, who may not look like us, may not have the same religious beliefs, but we have to fight for them just as hard as we fight for ourselves. Because the minute we stop doing that, then we’re not champions of democracy, we’re champions of tribalism.

The approach I’m talking about is inherent in every one of us. Whenever there’s a natural disaster, people come together, irrespective of their political differences, their racial differences. All of that is thrown out the window, and we connect with each other along the lines of humanity. When someone’s driving on the highway and see an accident ahead and stop and get out of their car because they want to go help and approach that injured person, I promise you their first question is not going to be, did you vote for Donald Trump? It’s not going to be, what’s your immigration status? It’s not going to be, what’s your sexual identity, or how much money [do] you make? When you come up to this person, the first thing you ask is, are you okay? Or, how can I help?

And it’s in those moments that [we see] this country is beautiful. We come to each other’s aid. All of that other stuff that separates us just fades away. I think that the approach [this campaign took] is already inherently in us. It’s just clouded by a political back and forth that politicians use to keep us divided as a country. As long as they can keep us divided, then they’re not held accountable to what we [the people] want.

Doug: I was inspired to reach out to you when I saw the article in The Nation, which had a great headline from Desmond Meade, “Why Love Is the Most Powerful Word in the Universe.” And our audience would love to hear about that. Why is love the most powerful word in the universe?

Desmond: When you look at the Amendment 4 Campaign, love did what all of the experts thought couldn’t be done. [We were] talk[ing] about engaging in a very controversial subject, such as letting people with previous felony convictions be able to vote, [and] doing it in a controversial state, [and] during a very divisive political climate. And so all of the [people told us] we're not even getting this [amendment] on the ballot, much less winning. Especially when we’re in a state where you need a supermajority to pass a constitutional amendment, not just a majority, but a supermajority, 60%. And we got 65% [of the vote]. I tell folks that we did this not through fear, not through hate, but through love. We showed the world that love can, in fact, win the day. Love can make the impossible possible.

Doug: I’m hearing a combination of keeping people in the picture with [highlighting] a shared humanity, which sounds very natural, organic, as you said, but it’s also kind of strategic, right? Everyone can see themselves in this campaign.

Desmond: It is very strategic, but I also believe it’s natural. I find it hard to believe that the majority of people that are living in this country want to wake up every morning being fearful of their neighbor or hating their neighbor. I find that hard to believe. I find it hard to believe that no one wants anyone to smile at them and say hello and treat them humanely. I tell folks we don’t have to live the way we’re living now, that we could do much better as a country; we could do much better as a community. We could have our differences. 

I mean, I’ve been married over 10 years now, and let me tell you, my wife, we disagree on a lot of things—she’s a Philadelphia Eagle fan, [so] I had to give up being a Dallas Cowboy fan and a Miami Dolphin fan to become a Philadelphia Eagles fan. But the thing is that in spite of our differences, we still find ways to love each other and treat each other with respect.

Doug: Yeah, growing up in Tallahassee with the Seminoles and the Gators, that was a tough divide.

[Both laugh.]

Doug: Our audience loves to learn about effective tools and techniques for campaigns. I wanted to start with language, which you mentioned earlier, using the term “returning citizen.” [I’m] thinking about how we are talking about people whose rights are being voted on here—tell us about your thinking there. What’s the importance of words around this particular issue? What was your thinking behind using “returning citizen?”

Desmond: [Our words] are extremely important. Let me tell you two quick stories. I came up with the [term] “returning citizen” because Florida State, which has one of the top criminology doctoral programs in the world, actually did research on this, and found that when you call someone a felon or an ex-con, you actually increase the likelihood of them recidivating. That makes sense, because we’ve heard the adage that if you call a child stupid, they’re going to grow up thinking that they’re stupid. That’s how we came up with the word “returning citizen,” to try to bring some dignity and some humanity back to the individual.

Folks use “justice-impacted people.” There’s a people first campaign going [on] across the country that’s really trying to get people to see the humanity in a person first. That person that’s incarcerated is someone’s son, daughter, father, mother. They’re a human being first. They made a mistake or committed a crime, but they’re still a human being first.

Story number two [involved] seeing historically what words can do. Prior to [the United States government] bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they engaged in a very massive propaganda campaign that depicted the Japanese people as evil and dangerous individuals. They exaggerated caricatures of them; they [drew] fangs, slanted their eyes, exaggerated everything [about them], and created this hysteria about the Japanese people. They were able to do two things: [first], they was able to dehumanize the Japanese people. [Second], they was able to desensitize us to their humanity. 

So when the United States dropped a bomb and killed many innocent women, children, and men, rather than outrage, there was actually a celebration. Because we did not see them as people. And so when you use terms like convict and felon, you dehumanize. I’m going to show you the power of [the] word. You could take an immigrant, and all you had to do is put one word in front of immigrant; just put the word “illegal” there. That’s it. And that person was immediately dehumanized, and you were immediately desensitized to their plight.

So words are extremely powerful, and words can be used to allow atrocities—when you’re talking about incarcerating kids before they’re even teenagers, [or] when you talk about putting a human in conditions that you wouldn’t even put an animal in. When you talk about solitary confinement, we allow these policies to exist in this country because we did not see the individuals that were incarcerated as human beings. We looked at them much differently than if they were our mother or our father, our son or our daughter. So how do we get people to see the humanity in each other first? And that will help drive sensible policies in every area.

Doug: You mentioned an interesting example earlier about the use of the term disproportionate, the factual matter that this issue, for example, disproportionately affected Black people in Florida—which is a factual statement, but to you, that [fact] also obscured the larger reality of the situation.

Desmond: It definitely did. What we seen in 2020 is that there was a huge portion of our society that felt ignored. We weren’t speaking to them, and we weren’t speaking about them unless we were talking down to them. So I think that when we become more inclusive in our conversations, we’re able to engage people in meaningful ways and find out that we actually have more in common than divides us. And I think that we can build around the things that we have in common.

[With] Amendment 4, Florida is a very hard state to run a statewide campaign in because sometimes folks say [it’s] three states in one, and you have to adjust your messaging depending on what part of the state you’re in. We didn’t do that. We kept our message, pure and simple. Right. And we started our conversation with one question: is there anyone who you love who’s ever made a mistake? That’s it, and that message resonated with folks, whether it was in South Florida, Central Florida, North Florida—it did not matter, because everyone had someone who they cared about who made a mistake. Or they themselves have made a mistake, and understood [the] power of forgiveness, redemption, and restoration. And so I think if we could just touch on the values, some very basic core values that we can all agree on, we could accomplish much more.

Doug: Absolutely. It’s reminded me of the marriage equality movement, which I worked on over the years, and love was the big idea when we started with a similarly simple question. If marriage is important to you, why? Why do you want to get married? And it started out with love and family and all the basic human things.

Desmond: Don’t forget the power of love. It’s the power of love.

Doug: Yes. Back to this article from The Nation, there was an intriguing quote, [a] provocative one: “Being able to love those who despise us gives us power at a time when people feel divided. It’s like you have to conquer those bad people over there. Loving those who despise us could be a mind-blowing idea.” Say more about the power of love.

Desmond: I’ve heard [the saying] so many times, about when you give people space in your head, right? When you’re mad at someone or you’re hating someone, and they occupy that space in your head, that takes away from you.

I’m a person of faith, and what I do know is that there’s this chapter in the Bible, First Corinthians 13: it’s called the Love chapter, and it talks about how you could do a lot of impressive things, but it’s not really that impressive if you don’t know how to love someone who might irritate you. And Jesus talks about that; if you don’t go and visit the sick, if you don’t go to the prisons, if you can’t love that person that’s homeless or that person that’s addicted to drugs, then how could you say you love me? The love that you profess for me is empty and hollow and sounds like tinkling symbols. It sounds like a bunch of noise. If you want the [sound of] harmony, then you have to be able to love.

And when you do that, you get rid of that negative energy that does nothing but wear you down. It takes less muscle to smile than it does to look upset. My mission is to get people to love who they despise the most. That is the kind of love that Jesus talks about, because it’s easy to say you love someone that confers a benefit to you or makes you feel good. Real love is when someone tries to hurt you, but you’re still able to see their humanity. You’re still able to have empathy or compassion for them in spite of the fact that they may disagree with you or they may hate you. You’re still able to recognize that they’re still a child of God. They’re still someone’s mother, someone’s father. How can I treat them with respect and love their humanity?

Doug: Absolutely. I was raised with First Corinthians as well, and the idea of loving your enemy was hard to understand. But it’s interesting how social science talks about some of this. The polarization in society is driven by people’s fear of others and what we think they think of us. So having anger and fear and hate towards somebody is a two-way street, but if you let it go, they may not see you as a threat, and thus their level of anxiety and anger goes down, but somebody has to go first, if you will.

Desmond:  One of the things that I [told] folks at the beginning of the campaign, especially people of faith—I would go [up] to conservative folks and I would say, “hey, do you believe in second chances?” And they would say, “well, lalala whatever,” [and] I would remind them of the story of Christ when he was on the cross, and the criminals [were] right next to him, and the criminals asked to be saved. What I tell them is that Jesus didn’t say [they] had to wait five or seven years. Jesus didn’t say [they] had to go through [a] probationary period. What Jesus said was, “this day you shall enter into paradise.” That’s what he said. And that is the foundation of our faith, the concept of forgiveness, redemption, and restoration. Grace was instantaneous. We know that if we want to be forgiven, then we’ve got to be willing to forgive others.

Doug: To your earlier point, you were saying [that] love, and the capacity to love and see the humanity of others is a natural, organic, human thing which may or may not be rooted in religion. I hear you’re telling us your story, similar to mine growing up in a community of faith, but it’s something everyone can tap into. They don’t have to have been raised religious.

Desmond: Well, of course. When we think about our democracy now, what we do know is that we as individuals, we have all the power. But what we’ve done was, we gave up some of that power in order for us to live collectively, because we figured out that it’s much better when we can live together rather than be by ourselves. It’s just a natural instinct that we have to be in a group, to be a part of something bigger than us, to believe in something greater than us, whether it’s a higher power or whatever. You don’t have to be religious to have those instincts; it’s already inherent in each and every one of us. The religious piece just helps us refine those instincts and put stories to it.

Doug: So to recap what I’ve heard over [our conversation]: we’ve got the putting people in the picture, keeping the shared humanity front and center. Tapping into those universal human aspirations might be a way to talk about connection to others, for compassion. To your point, [those instincts] are built into our humanity, and that’s good for us as individuals. The science is [certainly] showing that it is. Compassion, kindness, [and] forgiveness toward others [are] actually good for us psychologically.

Desmond: And physically as well.

Doug: Absolutely, the mind and body work together. And also interestingly for [readers of this conversation], it can also be strategic, because you’re expanding your reach; you’re expanding the appeal, if you will, of your issue, of your cause, of your campaign to many, many more people who can see these aspirations reflected.

Desmond: You got it right.

Doug: Well, that’s really helpful, inspiring, provocative, thoughtful food for thought for our audience. What’s one parting word of inspiration you would give for those looking to achieve an uphill battle like you have and continue to do?

Desmond: I would tell them to buy my book, Let My People Vote. Listen, I’m just an ordinary guy, a guy that was standing in front of railroad tracks waiting on the train to come so I could jump in front of it. Today, I’m a MacArthur Genius Fellow, was [voted] one of the 100 most influential people in the world from Time Magazine. My organization is now nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. I have a law degree, and I’m leading this amazing organization, The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. But I’m just Desmond.

I remember when I went to the gala for Time 100, and I was sitting at the table with some executives from Time Magazine, and I told them that they dropped the ball big time, because on that issue of Time 100, they had Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson on the cover, and I told them they should have had me on the cover, and not because I was conceited; I’m not conceited. But what I told them was that their readers needed to know that you don’t have to be a movie star; you don’t have to be an actor; you don’t have to be an athlete, or a billionaire or politician, to have an impact in your community, in your state, in the country, or even the world.

That if that guy that’s on the cover, Desmond Meade, can go from being addicted to crack cocaine and in and out of jail and prisons to being one of the 100 most influential people in the world, then what does that say about me? What does that say about you? My parting word is that each and every one of your audience [has] within them what it takes to do great things, to be one of the 100 most influential [people] in the world, and all kinds of other accolades, and that you have the ability to impact the lives of not just your family members or friends, but your community and even the world.

But you have to want to do it, and you have to be able to, number one, be powered by love. But always just keep people first, and do it not for your self-gratification, but do it because it’s the right thing to do. Do it because it’s the natural thing to do. That we fight for each other. Let’s not wait for natural disasters to happen before we love our neighbor. Let’s love our neighbor in spite of [our differences]. [Say] we’re going to love our neighbor every single day despite our differences. And if we do that, we could change the whole trajectory of this country. 

Doug: Powerful words, indeed. Thank you so much. I appreciate your time and your wisdom today.

Desmond: Thank you so much for having me.