Social Justice Game Changer: Desmond Meade

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

Name: Desmond Meade

Game Honored: Orlando Magic vs. Miami Heat (12/23/20)

Background: Nearly 160 million people in the United States voted in the 2020 presidential election, the most ever in our nation’s history. One individual in particular who helped increase voter turnout, not just in 2020 but the last couple years as well, was Desmond Meade, a voting rights activist and the executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC).

Once homeless and addicted to drugs, Meade turned his life around and is now one of the most inspirational figures around the globe. He is proof that by having the right attitude and persevering through adversity that anyone going through tough times can transform their lives.

One of his greatest accomplishments to date came in 2018 when he led the FRRC to a historic victory with the successful passage of Amendment 4, a grassroots citizen’s initiative that restored voting rights to over 1.4 million Floridians with past felony convictions. Amendment 4 represented the single largest expansion of voting rights in the U.S. in half a century and brought an end to 150 years of a Jim Crow-era law in Florida.

Recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world for 2019, Meade presently leads efforts to empower and civically re-engage local communities across the state. Also in 2019, he was named Floridian and Central Floridian of the Year.

“I have a great love for the community,” said Meade, a graduate of Florida International University College of Law. “When we’re able to help people successfully reintegrate, it’s not only good for that person it’s good for everyone. In particular, the biggest thing that it really touches on is voting, as far as how are we not only re-enfranchising people with previous felony convictions, but how are we doing it in a way that would actually energize even other people to participate in democracy knowing that the more people we get to participate in democracy the more vibrant it is and that’s good for everybody.”

A Powerful Story: Not that long ago, Meade met a woman who was given six months to live. Her dying wish was to be able to cast a ballot and to be able to feel like a complete citizen and have her voice heard.

She had been trying for over 20 years to register to vote, but because she had a drug addiction and a previous felony conviction she thought we would never get that opportunity. Finally, while with Meade and others, the woman with tears of joy flowing down her face filled out a registration form and prayed she would live long enough to vote.

Just four days after she registered, however, she passed away.

“That ripped my heart out,” Meade said. “Every time I told that story I was crying.”

Shortly after that devastating news, Meade called her sister and she told him voting was all she wanted to do. Meade, in an effort to lift up the spirits of the family, worked with local officials to create an honorary voting certificate and presented it to the surviving sister.

Making the story even more incredible and heartwarming, the sister brought her sibling’s ashes to go vote.

“When we went down to actually present her with the certificate, we did it in the very same room in which she voted with her sister,” Meade recalls. “That person registering to vote was a win for that person, but also it was a win for the family and if she had gotten to vote it was going to be a win for democracy as well.”

Working with the Magic: Around the time the Orlando Magic arrived at Disney for the restart of the 2019-20 season, the team along with the FRRC united to form a voting registration campaign with the theme: "Get Off The Bench. Get Into The Game. Vote." Magic players wore t-shirts around the Disney campus with that message on them, which Meade says definitely made a huge impact on the Central Florida community and beyond.

“One of the best things we came up with was Get Off The Bench. Get Into Game. Vote,” he said. "It said so many things. One of the things that pops out is we can sit back and complain about how things are going on in our community or the country and just keep on having to deal with it over and over again or we can get off the bench, we can get registered to vote, we can participate in elections and be a part of the change that we have been crying for.”

Grateful to have the Magic on his side and extremely honored to be recognized by them at a recent game, Meade is mesmerized by the organization’s unrelenting commitment to assisting the Central Florida community.

Making the partnership even sweeter is the bond he has formed with Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford. The two continue to collaborate on projects aimed at increasing voter turnout for future elections.

“The relationship with Coach Clifford, I value to the upmost because it is indicative of the type of country that we can live in where a black man and a white man with two different backgrounds, with two different experiences can still come together because there’s a common bond that ties us together, which is the love of humanity, the love of people, believing that people are deserving to be treated with dignity and respect,” Meade said. “Showing that it doesn’t matter what our political preferences are, doesn’t matter the color of our skin, what matters most is that we love our country, what matters most is that we love the human race and we believe people can be treated in a very respectable way. I value it. We need more of it.”

About the Program: As part of the Magic and Clifford’s continuing efforts toward social justice reform, he created the Social Justice Game Changer program to honor one local leader who has made a difference in the realm of social justice issues. A cause close to his heart, Clifford is extremely active in programs that support equality and justice for all people in the Central Florida community.

Through this program, Clifford looks to put the spotlight on those continuously doing the hard work, day in and day out, fighting for sustainable change. As part of his program, one person is selected and honored each game. The honorees are given tickets, provided by Clifford, to the game and featured in-arena on the Magic Vision screen at center court.

“The purpose is to honor and to celebrate so many of the people in the Orlando community who are fighting for change and who commit their lives to making Orlando a better place,” Clifford said. “It’s just a way to celebrate them, what they stand for, and what they do for our community.”