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

Sarah Jaffe January 3, 2018

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.

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of 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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