Phyllis Irene Bennett came all the way from Harrisburg to Philadelphia on Thursday to show her support behind a new non-partisan push called the O.V. Catto Voter Empowerment Initiative.

“I believe voting is extremely important, and we need to encourage people to come out,” she said. “This is one of the most critical elections of our time, and the reason is because people can’t afford to stay at home.”

The initiative has collaborated with numerous organizations in an effort to get more minorities registered to vote and to protect and inform them of voting rights. The group is targeting 16 counties they have identified where people of color are underrepresented, and party political participation could be increased. The drive is named after civil rights activist Octavius Valentine Catto, who died on his way to vote on Election Day.

“This is a culmination of working since the May primary across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with leaders in the community, churches, community-based organizations and others,” Joe Certaine, director of the Initiative, said during a news conference held at Triumph Baptist Church at 1648 W. Hunting Park Ave., in North Philadelphia. “People have to realize the importance of this election and to get people motivated to get themselves involved, their friends and neighbors involved.”

Approximately 30 leaders — the majority of them pastors — took the stage during the announcement. Many of the speakers talked about the importance of voting.

NAACP Pennsylvania President Joan Duvall Flynn said the struggle for minorities to vote has been ongoing since Emancipation.

“This effort is specifically intent on insuring that African Americans, Latinos and Asians understand what their rights are, (that they’re) registered and that they vote,” Flynn said. “(We’re here so) that people will be informed, educated and have access to the ballot.”

As of Sept. 12, Philadelphia County has approximately 821,984 registered Democratic voters and 120,454 Republicans, according to the Commonwealth’s Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation. Calls to officials of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party were not returned.

However the Republican Party of Pennsylvania said the GOP has been on the ground across the state in an effort to get people to the polls.

“We’re constantly working on ways to reach out to new voters,” stated Megan Sweeney, the RPP’s communications director in an email. “Last year, the Frederick Douglass Inclusion Council was launched with the express intent of working on the increased inclusion of African-American candidates and voters in the Party.”

Rahim Islam, Convenor of the Philadelphia Community of Leaders and President and CEO of Universal Companies, said he senses no enthusiasm about the election, and that needs to change.

“The lack of vote could have a damaging effect on us for a long period of time,” he said. “People think it can’t get any worse, (but) it can. If we don’t succeed in this election many of those gains will be threatened even further.”

Others who spoke or were listed as part of the collaborative were Rev. Robert Shine, President State-wide Coalition of Black Clergy; Rev. Jay Broadnax, President Black Clergy of Philadelphia & Vicinity; Judge Nelson Diaz, Senior Advisor, Catto Initiative; Bishop Daniel Sutton, President, Greater Philadelphia Clergy Union; Rodney Muhammad, Philadelphia Branch, NAACP; Paula Peebles, Chairperson PA National Action Network; and “other leaders of the faith community, organized labor, civic Organizations, sororities and fraternities, community-based organizations and advocacy groups.”

J. Jondhi Harrell, executive director of The Center for Returning Citizens, a non--profit that assists incarcerated citizens returning into society, was in the audience for the press conference.

Afterwards, he told a reporter, “This is a opportunity for these folks to get together to publicize what they’re doing, which is all well and good, but where’s the real work? The real work is the kids on the street who are not going to vote?”

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