When YahNé Ndgo went to the first presidential debate at Hofstra University, on Long Island, she had a lot on her mind. She had to pack for a couple weeks of appearances and travel along the West Coast. She wanted to buy her 19-year-old daughter some groceries, and maybe even cook some dinner. She hoped they’d have some time to spend together in her hometown, Philadelphia, before Ndgo had to leave on an early morning flight to Arizona.
Ndgo wasn’t afraid of getting arrested for protesting the exclusion of Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein from the debate, but she just didn’t have the time.
YahNé Ndgo has travelled far and wide during this election but perhaps the journey for which she is best known was from within the tent of the Democratic Party to outside it. Ndgo promoted the “Bernie or Bust” movement among the Democrats’ left flank. Followers of the movement vowed that if the party didn’t put forward the progressive Vermont senator Bernie Sanders as its presidential nominee, they would either write him in come November or seek a candidate elsewhere. When Hillary Clinton won the nomination, Bernie or Bust adherents like Ndgo followed through on their threat—defying even Sanders himself. That’s how, despite being way too busy to afford it, Ndgo ended up getting arrested for Jill Stein.
During the protest at the Hofstra debate, Ndgo said she felt solidarity with her fellow demonstrators. Police officers repeatedly asked them to move to a “free-speech zone” out of sight and out of the way—no doubt trying to force them out of mind. But Ndgo couldn’t leave. Throughout the day, police arrested and detained the 21 other protesters along with Ndgo. The Stein campaign calls them “the 22 Hofstra Heroes of Democracy.”
Decades of advocacy and public protest eased Ndgo's fears of arrest. But no level of familiarity with her struggle could lift the frustration she felt. Most of all, she was upset that Stein still wasn’t getting the national attention she believed the Green Party candidate deserved.
A few weeks later, we sat in the backyard of the Los Angeles area home where she was staying for a West Coast campaign stint. The constant frustration remained a theme, especially with how the Green Party has been portrayed. The Huffington Post has called the third-party and its top of the ticket candidate Jill Stein "disorganized." The liberal magazine American Prospect blamed millennial support for third-party candidates like Stein and Johnson on “white skin privilege.” Even at the Democratic convention, celebrities like Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler called Bernie or Bust supporters who refused to vote for Clinton—people like Ndgo—“ridiculous.”
Ndgo, a 44-year-old black woman, defies many of the stereotypes. She’s a woman of color, a mother, an artist, an activist (though she told me she prefers “freedom fighter”), and a strong believer in the Green Party’s four pillars: ecological wisdom, social justice, non-violence, and grassroots democracy. She’s well-versed on the issues and, to stay informed, depends on first-hand experiences of local organizers—people like herself—rather than solely on mainstream media. She cares about the struggles of the people of Honduras, Rwanda, Libya, and Haiti as much as she cares about the hungry within our borders. She was Bernie or Bust, but she was no “Berniebro." For her, the issues come first, and Jill Stein’s positions come closest to matching Ndgo’s own.
One thing is for certain: She will never vote for Hillary Clinton. "A lot of people,” she told CNN during a high profile appearance in April, back when she was speaking on behalf of Bernie or Bust, “perceive the Bernie or Bust movement as being something that's almost like a temper tantrum for people who support Bernie. And I think that it's really important for people to understand that Bernie or Bust is really a representation of how we feel about Hillary Clinton. We don’t like Hillary Clinton, and we can’t support her.”
Her inability to sign on with Clinton eventually led her to Stein. “I really like her platform,” Ndgo said of her candidate. “I like the emphasis on foreign policy based on international human rights laws. I like the emphasis on using the power and influence of the United States to bring about peace and diplomacy rather than to perpetuate war.” She saw something of herself in Stein’s willingness to listen to advocates and people directly affected by various policies in order to best determine the a remedy for their ills.
As the November election approaches, Ndgo travels nearly non-stop, meeting and speaking with organizations and voters. Her role as a spokesperson and national organizer for the Green Party candidate’s campaign came together slowly, over several months. Jill Stein's campaign reached out to her after her appearance on CNN in April; though she remained committed to Sanders, she began learning about the Greens. In July, she rallied outside the DNC with a group of Bernie or Bust supporters who walked out as part of the #DemExit. By August, she had changed her party registration and was fully on board with Stein. Since then, she has spoken on behalf of the Stein and her running mate Ajamu Baraka around the country, including giving the keynote at the Green Party National Convention in Houston.
“It's our job right now to save humanity, and I don't want you guys to think that this is some cute speech,” she told GNC attendees in August. “I want you to understand that I mean this shit right here when I say that it is our job. We have to do it.”
As an activist, Ndgo has worked on issues as diverse as food insecurity, gardens in schools, the revitalization of Philadelphia’s Vernon Park, and the fight against police brutality. She has met with Black Lives Matter activists and spent time with the campaign talking to Caribbean immigrants crossing at the Arizona border. Before the election is over, she will have traveled up and down the West Coast and through the South, meeting with community organizers and connecting them to Green Party members in California, Washington, Oregon, and Montana; she will also support Baraka on a tour through Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and Texas.
“It's not about my position or my ability to get into position or, you know, some promise of some elected seat or a job,” Ndgo said. “I will do whatever is necessary in order to push forward my goal—which is to actually see the development of a world where everyone is okay.”
While the Stein campaign has challenged Trump specifically in tweets and email blasts to supporters, Ndgo herself rarely talks about the Republican candidate at all in her public speeches. At a recent rally in downtown Los Angeles, she mentioned the Republican ticket only briefly. Even the signs held up by the hundreds gathered to hear her speak failed to mention Trump at all: “VOTE Jill NOT Hill,” read one.
Occasionally, though, Ndgo has tweeted about Trump, usually in response to comments made to her by Green Party critics. "We already know Trump is terrible. We don't need help with that,” she tweeted earlier this month. "But can't use him to ignore how terrible HRC is." Ndgo told me she thinks Trump is an "imbecile." "I think that people are very accurate in their understanding of Donald Trump being a terrible, terrible candidate for president," Ndgo said. "Definitely don't want him, never will vote for him." But, she adds, "Clinton is terrible. Definitely don't want her, never will vote for her. That's why I'm voting for Jill Stein."
Ndgo admits that it is possible—even likely—that Hillary Clinton will win the general election despite the fact that, according to Gallup, 57% of voters polled wished for a third-party option. Though she questions the validity of polls that report single digit support for Stein, Ndgo isn’t letting those get her down. She still believes in the possibility of something “magical” creating a groundswell of support for Stein before election day. Regardless, Ndgo said her focus is to build up awareness of the Green Party even after the election, so they can take up important offices in local elections and gain national attention.
“What Jill Stein's campaign does—whether she wins or not, she brings attention nationally to the Green Party,” Ndgo explained. “Now that we have done that, we use that to continue to really get a jump start on that local building in a way that was not able to be done before.”
Jackie Wong-Martenson, a fellow Green Party supporter, candidate, and one of the other 21 Hofstra Heroes of Democracy, said she was with Ndgo outside the first presidential debate as the police prepared to arrest them. “I remember going up to the front and sitting next to YahNé, being like, ‘YahNé, are they gonna hurt us?’” Wong-Martenson said. “And she was like, ‘I don’t know.’” The two were arrested together, and spent hours drifting in and out of sleep in a makeshift cell.
Ndgo said she has been an activist ever since she was young, when she found out that people were dying because they did not have enough to eat. She claims the mantle of an advocate for those who need it—a trait that led her uncle to give her the nickname the “mother of all mothers.” She plays the part to a tee in her public speeches. She is kind, but firm, able to welcome in new supporters from the Democratic Party, but unafraid to read them theories that claim Sanders was serving as the Democrats’ “sheepdog”—herding left-leaning activists back into the fold—for Hillary Clinton the whole time.
Ndgo is also an actual mother: She has a 19-year-old daughter who followed her footsteps into singing. Ndgo reminded a crowd gathered for a recent Green Party rally in downtown Los Angeles that she hasn’t been able to see her daughter much since hitting the trail for Stein. It’s tough, Ndgo said, but it’s a sacrifice she has had to make.
“We are out of time. We have to do it now. We have to protect this earth,” she said. “You cannot cast your vote for anybody in this election but Jill Stein if you actually want this planet to be here for us and our children.” It was late into the night, and Ndgo was getting wistful. “I'm going weeks and weeks without seeing my daughter. I'm going weeks and weeks without seeing my man. I'm going weeks and weeks without seeing my mother who's ailing, you know, because I believe so much in the fight that we have to do.”