How Organizers in Rural North Carolina Plan To Build Working-Class Power in 2018

Sarah Jaffe

At just six months old, Down Home North Carolina has big plans for the coming year. (Photo courtesy of Down Home North Carolina)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now nearly one year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators, and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world.

Brigid Flaherty: I am the co-founder and co-director of Down Home North Carolina, and I live in Balsam, North Carolina.

Juan Miranda: I am an organizer with Down Home, and I live in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Kischa Peña: I live in Nevin, North Carolina, and I am a member leader of Down Home North Carolina.

Sarah: Give people a sense of what Down Home North Carolina is. When did it get started?

Brigid: Down Home North Carolina is a member-led grassroots organization. We believe in building power for working communities in small-town and rural North Carolina. We actually were formed right after the election. Todd Zimmer and I have been friends and organizers for many years. When we saw the results of the 2016 election, we felt really inspired to do something different and make big changes in our lives, because it felt like the political realities that we were facing required that of us.

We were looking at the political makeup of North Carolina and what had happened since 2010 and the far-right takeover of the state. Moving into 2016, we watched that happen at the federal level. It felt like the best offense that we were going to have was to make sure that we were building strong local leadership in places in North Carolina that weren’t necessarily the places that had a lot of infrastructure. For us, this felt like a long-term project that needed to happen in order to make sure that working people get what they deserve.

We said in November that we were going to start Down Home and then actually got off the ground in June this year. We have been around for about six months. Originally, it started out just Todd and me doing the organizing. I moved back to the mountains where my mother lives, and I was actually living with her for the first few months and Todd was organizing in Alamance in the central part of the state. We went door to door using a listening survey. We went with three broad questions: What are the issues that matter most to you and your family? Who or what is responsible for those issues? What are your solutions?

One of the things we learned from the 2016 election is that a lot of working people don’t feel listened to. The parties have never contacted them. It felt like a lot of people were speaking for them and yet they were like, Y’all have never come to our door. You have never sat in our living room.”

Kischa: I met Juan and Todd in my apartment complex. It started for me at the end of September. I went to a meeting that was led by a resident of Nevin. There is a lot of racial tension that is kind of swept under the rug or no one really talks about, but we know it is there. So, for me to hear about and see a diverse group of people in a room together talking about building power for working people in Alamance County — black, white, whoever — that was interesting to me.

When we did the surveys and talked to people in Alamance County, that was something that I had never done. I had never actually listened to my neighbors. Some people actually invited me into their homes, and I sat down — whether they were having dinner or just sitting down watching TV. I got to sit and listen. I guess I didn’t realize, like Brigid was saying, that people didn’t feel like they had a voice or that their opinion mattered, because I am used to being online and seeing everybody giving their opinion on any and everything. But rural town people, a lot of people don’t have access to the internet or computers in their home. I guess they are kind of sitting there confused or angry or bitter or concerned in their homes by themselves and they don’t feel like they have anybody to talk to.

Sarah: What were some of the things that you were hearing people talk about that they wanted to change? What were the issues that you were struggling with?

Kischa: Healthcare is definitely a concern for me, because I am a cancer patient. In the back of my mind, that is a concern, but it is not something I sit around and really become fearful about. But I did find that a lot of people are worried, especially older people. Senior citizens are worried about losing their healthcare, are worried about losing their Social Security. Minimum wage is an issue here, as is affordable housing.

Sarah: Juan, do you want to tell us about the process of getting the organization going and some of the first things you started to work on as a group?

Juan: It is definitely very slow and grinding work. We have been very disciplined about not just dictating what the issues were and what the solutions were, but really just going in and talking to people. As we said, working people are the experts on their lives, right? So, we started the surveys talking to people, as many as we could, identifying the issues and then trying to follow up with them. Obviously, people had different levels of engagement with the survey. Many people were skeptical for very legitimate reasons. I really appreciate Kischa’s skepticism four months in, because it speaks to how deep people’s disengagement and sense of betrayal is: They’re just feeling forgotten and tricked and duped. There have also been people who, as skeptical as they have been, are talking to us more, inviting us to their house. It is surprising how open people are to inviting you into their living rooms and trailers.

People have skills. People organize every day in their communities. People organize every day in their jobs. It is basically just helping them see the talented organizers they are already and helping channel that. We started doing the listening tour and then helping folks organizing their own house meetings or sometimes even bigger meetings. Then, we started doing some basic trainings and talking about power. That is a very important thing in how we organize. Power is at the center of it. We are in this to build power and to be able to make some real differences. We understand that we can only do that if we have an organization that is powerful. By that, we mean lots of members who are actively engaged and building organization and taking action.

Training around racial justice issues is also a key component. We are in a county that is diverse — and in a state that is diverse in many ways. We know that racism, obviously, plays a huge role in people’s lives, and we are explicitly an anti-racist organization.

Brigid: We really felt that, to win, you have to be so strong in your communities. This means leaders from the communities building the organization and running the work. Yet there were moments throughout the summer and the fall that we took to mobilize and get into the streets, because we are a fight-back organization. We are an organization that believes that you need to make demands, and you need to be taking on interests that are making your life harder. We were finding those moments over the summer to basically make interventions around healthcare and in response to Charlottesville, and we have been working around the Duke Energy rate hike.

When Charlottesville happened, like Juan said, we are very explicit about being a multi-racial organization that is trying to defeat racism and build a world and a North Carolina that values everyone and sees the dignity in everyone. We did a vigil in Waynesville, which is where I organize in the mountains in Haywood County. Over 200 people turned out, which was huge for that area and really showed the ways that there are folks that are really saying that hate has no place in rural red counties.

We did anti-racist trainings following that for Haywood. In Alamance, there were two panels: one at the Graham Civic Center and one at Alamance Community College. That brought together the Black leadership within Alamance, as well as historians and academics and community members

Sarah: It was a year. I don’t even know what adjectives to use for it anymore. What are some of the big takeaways that you have from this work in the last year?

Brigid: One of the things that I am taking away is that I am deeply proud of the members. We have seen it is important to take the time to listen and take the time to tell people that they have the ability to lead in their community — to come together and determine what solutions they want to see to improve. There is a fighting spirit in these counties where people know they deserve better, and they want to fight for power to make their lives and their county and their communities better. It is about building that vehicle that folks can own to do that work that I have really seen in action.

There is a narrative out there that we are in a moment of despair and that the bigger political forces are out-organizing us. In some ways that is true. But if you actually create the vehicle in places that haven’t had infrastructure before, folks will come in, and they will work and they will use their work break to actually do a call list to get people to come out to a meeting. If you have real folks from communities leading, more people are going to join because it is going to be authentic and people are going to be really motivated even if they weren’t motivated by other efforts in the past.

Sarah: What are you looking forward to working on in 2018?

Juan: In Alamance, with our members we identified some of the things we want to take on for the first month around this Duke Energy rate increase, for mobilizing folks to the hearing and doing some canvassing and recruiting around that. In Alamance they recently decided to bring back 287(g), which is the deportation program. It deputizes the Sheriff’s Department to act as immigration officers. They are bringing it back and, now with Jeff Sessions and Trump in office there is even less oversight over what happens. It is really energizing to see folks, immigrants and non-immigrants, taking on this question and really talk about the importance of organizing around something that creates so much fear and devastation in the community and at the same time, being able to make those broader connections. Obviously, it is important to talk about the fact that attacks on immigrants are not independent from attacks on other communities of color and police brutality and the way that these resources are being used to police immigrant folks.

Brigid: Part of our work is to be able to rebuild the democracy so that we have governing power, and the agenda at the state level reflects the agenda of working people. We are going to be active in the midterms and make sure that we are growing our civic engagement power. We are going to be doing get-out-the-vote work. We are going to be using that as an opportunity to hold candidate forums and really make sure that people who are running in these districts are going to be in favor of the agenda of Down Home members. And if they are not, they should be ready to be held accountable around that. For us, this is also about flexing that political muscle, using the base that we have built through the listening process, using the base that will be developed in these issue fights — and turning that into the electoral moment and using that as a way to really make sure that our democracy is working for us and our interests and not the super wealthy and corporations. That is going to be a big thing for us for the midterms.

Kischa: This next year, I am excited because there are a lot of things that we have to work towards. But I am excited about the unknown more than anything, because we still have the opportunity to grow. We still need new members. We have a lot more people to talk to, to meet, to educate ourselves on. I am excited about learning more about my community and the issues that are going on, because I feel like I had been distant for a long time — just kind of living here and not paying attention. I am excited about getting involved and growing that power that we are talking about all of the time. This next year is going to be awesome. If these last five or six months is any indication of what 2018 is going to look like, we are about to build that power we have been talking about and make some great changes in Haywood and Alamance County and continue to grow across North Carolina.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The Progressive. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous books are Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone and Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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