Babe on the Ballot: Brittany Norris
Edited by Chelsea DuDeVoire + Mara Strobel-Lanka
Almost a year after interviewing and featuring Brittany Norris as our second Babe last August, we are even more impressed with her today. Since then, she has founded a local, nonpartisan political activist group in addition to keeping up with her nonprofit, her 9-5 hustle and maintaining a backyard organic garden among a myriad of additional community involvement. Today, she's campaigning for a seat in local government as City Commissioner Seat No. 5 in Atlantic Beach, FL, and we were lucky enough to borrow some of her time to chat about the experience. We hope you'll hear out what she has to say, and in turn, become inspired to dig just a little bit deeper into your local political involvement. Thanks, Brittany!
What have you been up to since your BWH interview last year?
Since my initial interview with BWH, I started a citizen activist group called Coalition to Participate. The goal of this nonpartisan group is simply to get people involved in local government. Last year’s national election demonstrated that too many of us have been disengaged for too long. There’s no excuse to not know your local representative or be involved at the local level. What we do locally sets the stage for what happens years from now in national elections.
When did you make Atlantic Beach home? Where does your passion for the community stem from?
I fell in love with Atlantic Beach - on, of course, a beach day - back when I attended the University of North Florida. Driving by the bungalows and under the spreading tree canopy, I was sold. I remember telling my friends that someday, I would live here. And now that I’m here, I want to invest in the community I call home. I don’t know who said it originally, but I was once told “There’s no value in digging shallow wells in a hundred places. Decide on one place, and dig deep.” So, I’m digging deep.
What does the Commissioner Seat 5 role entail?
A commissioner seat is part of the legislative body of the city. For Atlantic Beach, our form of government is Commission-Manager. Commissioners create policy and enact on choices on taxation and ordinances. Basically, they should be problem-solvers for the city as a whole. The full powers of the seats are defined in the city charter. If you want to know what your local representative can and can’t do, check out your city’s charter.
Did you ever envision yourself getting involved politically before this point? Why or why not?
I didn’t. I’ve thought myself too honest to be political. But following the last national election, I realized that I needed to practice what I preach. I’m a broken record when it comes to telling people to be engaged at the local level. What better way to be involved than to participate in the democratic process?
What has your campaign experience been like?
"Interesting" is the word I’ve been using when folks ask me this. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first signed up to run. I’ve been able to meet some very amazing people, and I have also met some very disappointing people. There has been a lot more work than I expected, but also a lot more support than I foresaw. I’ll definitely be better after having this experience, no matter how the election pans out.
What are the major platforms you hope to hone in on in your potential role?
Major issues would be what is and isn’t happening in the marshside area along Mayport Road. From decreasing the speed limit to updating codes and city communication between business and residents, there are a lot of improvements to be made. I’m also watching the lessons that we as a city learned with a recent issue on Atlantic Blvd. A business came in that residents didn’t want, and we’re opening that door again on the West side of Atlantic Beach by changing ordinances without input from residents. It frustrates me that we’re ignoring lessons already learned, and I want to do something about that.
Leading up to the decision to enter the race, what has your community involvement looked like? How has that involvement aided you in organizing and implementing your campaign?
Before the campaign, I co-founded a nonprofit in the city along with more recently, starting a citizen engagement group. I was working to build up the community before the race and however this pans out, I plan to be doing the same after the election. Those endeavors gave me a ton of great experiences. I have dealt with supporters and participants, organized events and meetings, and got a good look at local government from different angles.
Have you received any pushback for pursuing the position? What’s your approach to handling that?
Just a couple of days after I announced my plan to run, I received a rather passive aggressive email. The individual chose to stay anonymous and said they wouldn’t be voting for me. According to them, in some previous interaction, I hadn’t returned their email. Because of this, and combined with my youth and involved social life, they told me that I wouldn’t make a good commissioner. I have since received additional sexist comments and outright anger. Now... it seems eerily funny. I realize that being an "adult" doesn’t mean you’re wise or that you’ve learned from past mistakes. It doesn’t make you a kinder or better person. I feel like I’m becoming aware of an elaborate joke. My response in these interactions is to breathe slowly and engage calmly. I try for a conversation, and if ultimately they’re unwilling to talk, I work to leave graciously. There’s no battle to win. There isn’t some enemy to defeat. My worth as a human being isn’t defined by a person’s opposition or support.
How would you say that your gender or ethnicity has affected your campaign experience?
I’m not fully sure. A lot of people are excited to see a woman running... and even more excited when they learn I’m a person of color. Then they get really excited when they find I’m a young woman of color. As of now, I’ve heard good feedback. I’m sure there are haters, but I haven’t been privy to their opinions yet.
How has the campaign process changed your views of local government?
In some ways, it has changed my view for the better. For one, local government is very accessible. Running is hard - but not as hard as I thought. I'd be lying if I didn't say that unfortunately, I am also now privy to some of the pettiness that runs behind the scenes.
Who are some women in government, locally and nationally, that you look up to?
Locally, folks like Blythe Waters on the Atlantic Beach City Commission and Chris Hoffman on the Jacksonville Beach City Council. Beyond that, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg - and even though she’s not real.. Leslie Knope.
What are some major roadblocks you’ve hit during your campaign, and how did you overcome them?
I’m glad to say that I haven’t encountered anything that I would classify as a major roadblock. It’s not over yet, so that could change. I’ve still got a couple more weeks.
What’s something you’ve learned about AB during your campaign that you didn’t know prior?
I’ve learned that there are still sides. The election at this level is nonpartisan, but that doesn't mean there aren’t groups of people waging for power and influence at city hall.
Do you feel that the election process is fair and just?
At the local level, it has gotten better. Just in the past decade, residency restrictions were placed on commission seats. Basically, it means that if you’re going to represent an area of town, you need to live there. This is slowly allowing folks in underrepresented areas to claim a seat at the table.
With low voting rates nationwide, how have you compelled your community to vote? Why do you think it’s so hard to get people involved, especially locally?
I think folks my age need a personal invitation to engage. And they need to understand why. I took city services and rules for granted. It wasn’t until I saw problems and got involved that I realized the importance of participating at the local level. There’s also something to be said for the campaign style of most candidates. There’s a lot of emotional buildup and vague promises. Rarely do candidates share actual ideas or speak to the less sexy parts of the job. I know acknowledging the slow pace of government isn’t sexy, but it’s honest. I wonder if constituents would be less burnt out and bitter if those in leadership spoke truthfully.
What kind of support system do you have behind your campaign?
It started with a few good friends and has now grown to folks I haven’t even met. That being said, the core support group is still pretty small. They’re the ones that show up to volunteer events, write letters, walk on weekends, and more. There are maybe 15 to 20 people... and I couldn’t be more grateful for them.
What advice do you have for Babes looking to get more involved in their communities?
No matter how you choose to engage, there will be naysayers and people waiting to pull you down. There will also be lots of folks who support you and stand with you. But for some reason, the haters always sound louder. So know where you stand and why you stand. When the hard times come, they’ll be able to say of you, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
What advice do you have for Babes looking to get involved politically at a local level?
Don’t wait. If we’re going to change the shape of American government for the better, then we need people in positions of authority. It’s easy to come up with a hundred reasons for why you shouldn’t run, but that’s a cop out, and a disservice to ourselves and our communities. It sucks, but the good and right things aren’t easy.
What do you need most from your supporters in this campaign? How can we help you succeed?
I need people to spread the word. They can call their friends and neighbors in Atlantic Beach and solicit their vote. They can write letters to the Beaches Leader and the Florida Times Union. I’m walking the community every weekend right up until election day on August 29th, and I appreciate the company of anyone who is willing to walk with me.
This interview has been condensed and edited. All photos belong to Brittany Norris unless otherwise specified.
This interview is not an endorsement of Brittany Norris, nor do we have intentions of endorsing candidates in any future local or national elections. However, we believe that the key to a successful democracy is an informed electorate. We encourage you to check out your local Supervisor of Elections to form your own educated decisions.