Through this series, When We All Vote is highlighting some of the people who work with us to ensure their communities are registered and ready to vote. So many of us make history every day, and we are proud to honor these Black Historymakers.
Alex Rias, Esq., an attorney, policy strategist, and proud New Yorker currently serving as Vice President for Equitable Justice at the National Urban League (NUL), has been an active community partner with When We All Vote since 2019. Through this active partnership, the NUL has leveraged When We All Vote’s online digital tools through their voting portal and has participated in several When We All Vote events including the Culture of Democracy Summit in 2022.
Outside of the NUL, Alex serves on several boards and advisory committees, including EduColor, Nonprofit Vote, and National Voter Registration Day.
What inspires the work you do? And why is it essential for this work to be done in your community?
My grandparents served in the military and helped to build our families from the GI Bill. My grandmother, until she was about 70, worked as a home health aide for folks who had severe disabilities and my parents both work in healthcare serving patients and the community, so public service is in my DNA and has always been at the core of what I do.
I grew up in Queens, New York, and my borough is what we would call the “world’s borough.” This allowed me to learn about different cultures and people from all walks of life. I learned about the struggles with their needs, wants, and desires. I know firsthand what it feels like to be left out of the system. As a young adult, I was violently stopped and frisked by police officers in my neighborhood (Jamaica, Queens) — which inspired my career in the legal system. I have also experienced my fair share of voter suppression. After receiving my voting card, I was unable to vote because my name wasn’t on the list. I felt confused and frustrated and had no idea who to turn to for next steps.
Tying those two experiences together has influenced my work in voting rights, civic engagement, and ballot access. Voting and policy are tied together. You can’t just rewrite the laws without voting. Voting is at the core of all policy changes in this country. And so, understanding that element of democracy and the other things that I’d like to see change in this country is what has inspired me to continue my work in this space.
What’s the most rewarding part about doing the work you continue to do?
The most rewarding part of this work is the wins that we can master along the way. I’ve had a diverse career and have been able to work in law policy and collect wins along the way that have kept me fueled and recharged at the National Urban League. I’ve had great opportunities to work with folks from across the country, through our wide affiliate network and through our partnerships and coalitions.
For example, during our “Reclaim Your Vote” effort this year, I met an older gentleman while doorknocking who wasn’t sure if he was registered to vote. So we pulled out our phones and went over to When We All Vote’s online voting portal to quickly check his voter registration status. We learned together that he was registered, but needed to take some additional steps. He was concerned because he had a criminal conviction on his record, but due to some law changes, he was eligible to vote even with that conviction. He had to file some specific documents to reinstate his old registration, but he was insecure about his reading abilities which made me happy about being there with him. If I wasn’t there, who knows if he would have stayed the course to complete his registration. Small wins like this are fuel for bigger ones. The wins are in helping people who want to be informed but don’t know where to start. The wins are seeing how voting has changed laws that matter most to people in our communities.”
You must have faced some challenges over the years in being active around voting rights. Do any stand out for you? How do you overcome these obstacles?
We are currently facing a historic set of challenges to democracy and ballot access. The specification of voting legislation by level (local, state, and federal) presents the challenge of “how do we present solutions and remedies” to folks in real time. Every state has its own laws, but also counties within these states have specific laws as well, which presents an even bigger challenge.
Building coalitions across the country with like-minded missions, driven by folks who believe in the expansion of democracy in this country and not the exclusion of people, is what’s important. I think that is a metaphor for life. You know? It takes a village to raise a child — and it takes a village to support a community. That’s what we’re doing here in the voting rights and ballot access space. We’ve come to realize all of us in this realm individually and collectively believe that coalition building is the right path forward. I’d say that’s always been the path forward in civil rights, but it’s taken on a different look with new tactics — which is important for sustainability.
History has shown time and time again that our collective power moves mountains — who are your favorite history makers? Past or present and why?
You know there are so many obvious answers, but I’m from New York City, so names like David Dinkins come to mind. He was the first black mayor of New York City. Barack Obama also comes to mind. Seeing someone who looks like me on the national and international stage is something that opened my eyes to possibilities that I didn’t see for myself before. Then we have Carter G. Woodson, a historian of Black history and culture, who made it so that this nation would have an anthology of Black history — and then triumphed and created Negro History Week which we now refer to as Black History Month.
And then lastly, I have to shout out Vernon E. Jordan (Former President and CEO of the National Urban League), Percy Sutton ( Owner of the Apollo and Media professional), and Shirley Chisholm (First Black Congresswoman) for leading charge in their respective lanes, by not accepting “no” as an answer and doing things their way.
A lot of New Yorkers, I know lol.
What about our community brings you joy? What is your favorite part of being Black?
We love us some us! That brings me immense joy. There is an understanding in our work that we don’t have to defend. We understand that we need spaces to share, spaces to learn, and spaces to practice patience — and that comes from a community that understands community. Whether we win or lose, a fortifying feeling is always there, which is unmatched in my opinion.
Although this work brings joy, things can also be heavy at times. Any advice on how to decompress?
Find mental clarity. On an individual level, I encourage physical health. Pushing yourself physically opens yourself up to mental challenges and promotes discipline and calm. Whether it’s gym time, walking, running, or anything physical — focus meditating promotes a sense of calm that keeps one balanced. No matter what realm you’re working in, whether it’s law, politics, government, teaching, or health care — get your mind and body right!
If you had to fill in the blank, I am a history maker because ____. What would you say? How do you want to be remembered as part of history?
I’m a history maker because I’m the first attorney in my family. I have a nephew who’s a young black boy who knows that it’s possible for him to be an attorney. I am a history maker because the odds are always against us, and I’m still here. How will it manifest in the future? I don’t know, and I’m not in control of that, but I know that I get to do this every day and push the needle forward. Can I share a story real quick?
My boys and I were on the train a bunch of years ago. We were in our mid to 20s or so and on our way back home after hanging out a little bit and laughing so hard — enjoying ourselves, you know? For context, we are a group of Black and brown men from various diverse backgrounds, a nice mixture. Anyway, I forget what we were laughing about, but this older Black man came and sat closer to us and of course, we thought this was a little weird. He didn’t say anything, just looked at us. He finally expressed how when he was a kid riding these same trains he couldn’t be so outwardly joyful. He said, “It looks like you guys are doing well, professionally, probably educationally, but you’re also doing well enough to share joy outwardly and loudly.“
That made a big impression on me because he shared how big of an impression that made on him. I think that’s history-making too. That’s evidence of how one generation can see another generation and open doors. I don’t question whether or not I’m able to smile and laugh with my boys, but a generation ago, that was a question. And so I don’t take that for granted.
How do you honor that in your everyday life?
My parents are very straightforward folks, and they would always say “just handle your business.” Just handle your business and get it done. That’s how I honor that in everyday life being a Black man in this space. Working with Black folks in this space, whether comfortable or uncomfortable — just get it done. Getting it done is the evidence, right? It’s the evidence that we can persist, that we do persist, and that we can overcome any challenge.
Thank you for sharing so many personal stories with me today. Before we go, do you have any recommendations for our audience? Activities, literature, articles, books, documentaries, etc.?
Yes, I have two books to offer. One is The Evidence of Things Not Seen by James Baldwin. It’s a book that folks don’t often refer to, but given the recent incident in Memphis where Black officers are seen killing a Black man — I think it’s fitting. It’s similar to the common thread in The Evidence of Things Not Seen where a Black man was tried for killing a bunch of Black kids under an administration that was Black-led, right? My other book is One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy by Carol Anderson. It gives a great history of how voter suppression is destroying democracy and undermining America’s promise.
Any last words?
Yea, I want to reiterate that it’s our job and our duty to not just develop all of these tools to help folks gain access, but also to go where they are. Building is one thing, but building a road to the solution is how we really empower our community. I truly believe that’s the core of what our work should be.