Organizers to celebrate democracy with Election Day BBQ

MARFA — Earlier this year, Presidio County was facing abysmal census response rates of just around 25 percent. So some local organizations, including the Judd Foundation and Marfa Steps Up, made a deal with tri-county residents: If they filled out and returned the 2020 Census, they’d get enrolled in a raffle where they could win burritos, ice cream and more.

The initiative was a success — and Shelley Bernstein, an organizer at Marfa Steps Up, started wondering if she could do something similar for the other big civic event of the year: the 2020 elections.

“I’m not going to say we had a huge needle move,” Bernstein said of the census efforts, “but we do think we had an impact.” By organizing a similar push around voting, Bernstein hoped to reaffirm that local residents “really care about civic participation.”

Bernstein and Marfa Steps Up, the organization she helped found, have played a big role in keeping Marfans afloat during the coronavirus crisis. Earlier this year, as the crisis was just beginning, the group raised more than $35,000 to help local service industry workers, many of whom found themselves out of work as restaurants and bars across the region and country closed.

Later, Bernstein also helped start the “Marfa Solidarity Bonds” project, which allowed residents to buy local artist-designed bonds to help struggling restaurants. That project ultimately raised more than $85,000 for local businesses and was, as The Big Bend Sentinel reported in July, arguably a win-win-win. Local artists got to share their work, Marfans got to take home cool artwork, and local restaurants got a helping hand in a time of need.

Now, in Marfa Steps Up’s latest service for the community, there’s an Election Day barbecue. In an interview this week, Bernstein said she hoped the barbecue would address two problems.

For one thing, getting a free barbecue plate lunch could help create “a good experience around voting,” especially for first-time voters, and especially at a time when some Texans are wary of heading to the polls for fear of getting sick. On top of that, Bernstein pointed out that food insecurity is also a growing problem across the country.

She cited a recent article in The New York Times, which reported that as many as one in eight Americans now face food insecurity. That figure is even higher in rural communities, she said.

Meanwhile, in Marfa, demand is up at the local food pantry. Food deliveries are now coming twice as often. “I started to look at [those problems] and put it together with the civic participation equation,” Bernstein said. That led her to the idea of an Election Day barbecue.

The barbecue has several local sponsors, including the Judd Foundation, Communitie Marfa, Ballroom Marfa, KMKB radio and The Sentinel. Convenience West is cooking. The event runs on Election Day, Tuesday, November 3, from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m. or “while supplies last.” It’ll be at the Marfa Bank parking lot, just across the street from the polling site at the USO Building.

Masks and social distancing are required — but, Bernstein stressed, voting on Election Day isn’t. People who voted earlier are also welcome to come get BBQ, she said.

“No matter when you vote, your voice matters,” Bernstein added. “Come celebrate that with free barbecue.” When the event is over, leftovers — if there are any — will be sent to the Marfa Nutrition Center, where they’ll be distributed to seniors.

In an interview this week, Mark Scott, a co-owner at Convenience West, said Bernstein first approached him about the idea a few weeks ago. He was sold.

“It seemed like an exciting way to be part of things,” Scott said. “We always like to help out with good causes like this.”

In more normal times, Scott added, Convenience West would likely be on the road, cooking at barbecue events. In February, for example, they cooked for a Judd Foundation fundraiser in Manhattan.

Now, big travels like that are largely out of the question. “We get to take our smoker to the bank parking lot,” Scott joked. “I guess that’s our big road gig.”

Scott wouldn’t say much about what he was serving — he was still ironing out the details — other than to say it would be a “pretty killer sandwich.”

Convenience West was previously part of the Marfa Solidarity Bonds project. Bernstein, Scott said, had “knocked” that project “so far out of the park.” That experience gave him confidence that she could organize a great Election Day barbecue.

“When a bunch of nice people ask you to be a part of something, why wouldn’t you want to be?” he said. “We’re excited about [the barbecue] and to see what the buzz is like. Hopefully it’ll be kind of a scene — but a safe one at that.”

With Election Day still around a week away, turnout from early voting is already smashing records in Texas and beyond. But this election has also already seen problems, as state leaders in Texas and elsewhere have enacted rules that many see as blatant attempts at voter suppression. In Texas, for example, Governor Greg Abbott and others have fought hard in court to restrict who can vote by-mail and limit how many ballot drop-off boxes a county can have.

In Presidio County, Bernstein stressed she was pleased with how local officials were handling this election. “The county has been, I think, really, really responsive and efficient,” she said. “I think there’s a difference between what’s happening in the rest of Texas and what’s happening here.”

Still, with the 2020 election seeing unprecedented levels of voter interest during an unprecedented crisis, Bernstein wanted to help that process along. Her hope is for voting in Marfa to be not just easy, but also fun.

“I think the more we can do this kind of thing — the better experience we can create around voting — the more people might want to do it in the future,” she said. “That’d be my hope.”