Nsé Ufot is a force. Born in Nigeria, Ufot moved to Georgia as a young child and, by 14, had her first taste of government work when she accepted a role as a page in the Georgia House of Representatives. She was driven to understand power, in the context of how the country and democracy operate—a desire that would foreshadow her role today as the CEO of the New Georgia Project.
Though her career began in law, Ufot’s life’s work shifted after witnessing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. She applied her skills to organizing and politics, eventually joining the Stacey Abrams-founded New Georgia Project in 2014. Here, her search for understanding power has become a mission to build it, particularly among everyday people, the folks in her hometown, communities of color, young voters, and those who’ve been discouraged from participating in our democracy. And it’s working.
To date, Ufot has led the efforts to register over 550,000 Georgians to vote and helped usher in a new era of politics in the Deep South with the 2021 elections of Georgia's first Black senator, Raphael Warnock, and first Jewish senator, Jon Ossoff. While she’s not interested in running for office herself, Ufot’s sights are set on registering an additional 55,000 this year alone, helping to ensure all future elected officials reflect the majority of those who show up to the polls every Election Day. How she’s doing it? Ufot innovates outside the box, from working with local faith leaders to creating a video game that engages young voters, and much more to come—the likes of which we surely haven’t seen yet.
"At this moment, while our elections are being attacked, we need to have overwhelming participation in our elections so that the will of the people can be reflected in the results of our elections."
ON BREAKING INTO POLITICS AT AGE 14
When I was 14, there was a state representative named Georgina Sinkfield. She was really powerful and loud and different from some of the women that were in my life. She and my mom were working on a community project when she told her about the page program at the Georgia House of Representatives. That’s how I came to participate. My mother and I weren't citizens and so part of my interest was a desire to understand how power works. I wanted to know how this country worked and how you got things done. That's been a consistent theme in my life. At the time I was a math and science nerd and I was going to be a doctor because that’s what smart immigrant kids did. So, looking back on it, becoming a page sparked a series of experiences that would lead me to my current career.
ON BEING A THIRD-CULTURE KID
They call us third-culture kids. As immigrant children, we have the culture of our parents, the culture of the country and region where we’re raised, and this hybrid culture where we maintain a foot in both worlds. We’re creating a third thing where you can thrive and where you can bring the best of the culture that you come from to the world that you're trying to build. That is a big part of my organizing and the effectiveness of my organizing.
America is a melting pot—or gumbo—where the ingredients are distinct, but they come together to make up this other thing. And so when we think about the collective “we” in “we the people,” it’s helpful to be as expansive as possible if you're trying to develop solutions that work for the majority of us and our families.
ON PIVOTING FROM LAW TO ORGANIZING
At the time, I romanticized America. I was working in the general counsel's office for a large energy company and conflated the personal and professional progress that I—a poor immigrant kid who was raised by a single mother—made with that of the country. And then Hurricane Katrina happened. I saw the devastation from so many angles—climate justice, racial justice, economic justice—and how fragile physical and human infrastructure can lead to such disaster. It did not have to.
Because of the failure to invest in the physical infrastructure, the failure to take climate change seriously, and the comfort that we have with extreme poverty in our cities when Mother Nature came through and did what she does, the people in the Fourth Ward didn't stand a chance. That moment felt like an opportunity to marry the things that I was good at with my desire to bring about change in the world, to change the circumstances around me, for people like me.
I started doing informational interviews with activists, organizers, and elected officials, trying to figure out what I could do with my skillset that could help build power with ordinary people. I got a job in the legal department for a union and then moved to the organizing department where we were thinking about how to build power and grow leaders. Then, that work moved me to the political department. Those three distinct avenues and approaches to advocacy and world-building inform my work today.
ON MEETING STACEY ABRAMS AND JOINING THE NEW GEORGIA PROJECT
I had a brief stint living and working in Canada for the Canadian Association of University Teachers. I had a visit from a very good friend of mine who introduced me to Stacey Abrams. She and I had brunch one day when I was home in Georgia for the holidays and she laid out her vision for the New Georgia Project. I was blown away, but also thought it was virtually impossible given what I knew about the politics of Georgia. I had 30 reasons why this couldn’t work and, if you know or have had the pleasure of working with Stacey, she had 32 reasons why it absolutely could. A few months later I drove home, moved back into my childhood bedroom, and started working for the New Georgia Project the next day.
"I am forever anchored by love in my decision-making and the way that I see the world. Here's the thing: We're all really good at pointing out the things that we hate. But what do you love? What is worth fighting for?"
ON HER CURRENT WORK GOALS
This year, our work is to help an additional 55,000 Georgians register to vote. And while we continue to make history and add tens of thousands of new people to the voter rolls, people are turning 18 or moving into the state every day and they all need to be active, registered, engaged, and informed.
I'm super excited that we're going to help move 150,000 new voters to the polls. At this moment, while our elections are being attacked, we need to have overwhelming participation in our elections so that the will of the people can be reflected in the results of our elections. We're approaching that work in creative and interesting ways. For instance, we built our first video game and released it this year at SXSW. It's a great way to engage young people, remind them about the voter registration deadline, inform them about issues, and continue to foster the two-way conversation with some fun graphics in a cool game that's, you know, responsibly addictive.
ON THE RENEWAL ENERGY SOURCE THAT FUELS HER WORK
I am forever anchored by love in my decision-making and the way that I see the world. Here's the thing: We're all really good at pointing out the things that we hate. But what do you love? What brings you joy? What is worth fighting for? Those are the things that I tend to focus on in my work fighting for justice, for a new future. And it could easily get overshadowed by all the things that are working against it, but it's my grounding force and my north star. The outrage button that is constantly being pushed by the atrocious things we hear about every day, that fire burns hot, but it burns out quickly. So being motivated and focusing on love feels like a renewable energy resource that I can consistently go back to.
ON THE POWER OF PERSONAL STYLE
Doing this work in the Deep South, in Atlanta, Georgia, I’m in the cradle of the American civil rights movement. You can't shake a stick without hitting someone who claims they marched with Martin Luther King Jr. People have very clear ideas in their minds about what a civil rights leader or voting rights leader should look like. I don't look like that and I'm okay with it.
As a frustrated artist, fashion might be my medium. I enjoy being able to tell myself and others a story with my clothes, with my eyewear. My vision's pretty poor and it has been for most of my life, and having really bad vision as a poor immigrant kid in the ‘80s meant your glasses were trash. So after decades of awful eyewear, when I grew up and got decent health insurance, I started to get creative with it and it's been fun and I enjoy it. A Southern leader doesn't have to have a six-button pinstripe suit, hard-bottom shoes, and a hat in order to be effective, to move people to action and inspire them to change. Hi, I'm here. I'm Nsé. I do that.
ON THE FUTURE OF ORGANIZING WORK
When I think about the impacts of the New Georgia Project, I'm excited for the future. We've leveraged technology to run better, smarter campaigns, and it’s technology that's been built by actual practitioners in the community. It's also been exciting to explore blockchain as a foundation for cryptocurrency—what it means for future economic justice, as well as how it can be used to make elections more difficult to hack.
I also think about my work around culture. It’s not just “let's roll out the rappers, let's roll out the celebrities,” but culture as the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves, the world around us, and the world that we want to build. That work has been fun and interesting, spanning art, television, video games, music, and film. Organizing can get stale, it can get boring. It’s asking "Are you registered to vote?" 100 times a day for six days a week for months and years. So, how do we keep ourselves inspired and how do we evolve this kind of work with how people engage and learn about the world around them?