How are grassroots organizers building community ties in rural areas and small towns so that all families can be heard and issues affecting their lives can be addressed? Equal Voice visited families in rural North Carolina to find out.
BURLINGTON, N.C. – The text message on Justasia Drayton’s cell phone was refreshingly direct: “We believe working people in Alamance County deserve better. Do you agree with us?”
“It just spoke to me,” said Drayton, who was working at Walmart in this city famous for the Burlington Coat Factory and a once-burgeoning textile industry that shifted overseas. “Yes,” she texted back.
On a foggy, winter morning in December, Drayton sat in a donated barber chair inside the office of Down Home North Carolina. The community organization operated a storefront office in a barren but colorful strip mall in largely rural Alamance County, in the central part of the Tar Heel State.
Down Home North Carolina – founded by organizers Brigid Flaherty and Todd Zimmer – works with rural residents to elevate their voices and take collective action for community progress.
Organizers sent text messages to Drayton and other people in the area to let them know that their voices were important in a region where many people struggle financially.
“It can never be wrong in a democratic society to ask people what they want and help them get it,” said Zimmer, co-founder of Down Home North Carolina.
For Drayton, a Black woman originally from upstate New York, that text message was the start of realizing that residents in this part of the U.S. South share her desire to improve conditions for workers, their families and the community.
“I want to be part of something, to make positive change, to see things go in the right direction,” said Drayton, who supported a $15 minimum wage when she lived in Washington state. “I’m someone who wants to get things done.”
On that foggy December day, community organizers brought people of diverse backgrounds together, planting the seeds of social change that will take root in the months and years to come.
With November’s midterm races over, attention is shifting to Election 2020 – the marquee names of political candidates who might run for president, the rush to raise money and set up focus groups to test whether partisan messaging will resonate with voters.
In this top-down political strategy from Washington, D.C., one idea is noticeably absent: Finding common ground – of some type – and building relationships among people at the grassroots who might have different political views, skin colors, surnames and hometowns, but who all want to make their families’ lives better.
The genesis of this common ground – which can serve as a foundation for long-term social change – does not occur overnight.
It can take months of asking questions to find out what’s important to families – and months of building trust by designing bottom-up policies and action steps that address the lived experiences of those families.
Community organizers say it’s one of the best ways to build movements for equity and fulfill the promise of a better life for all. It is democracy and populism rooted in a community-based tradition of progress – not an authoritarian one designed to divide and conquer for political power.
The conversations about building stronger community ties and trust occur where families are – at the only coffeehouse for several counties in the Appalachian portion of North Carolina. Or in the hallway of a former yarn mill in North Carolina, now converted to affordable housing. Or in the mobile home of a White woman who holds several jobs but is studying for a new one.
During the presidential election of 2016, some rural residents raised their voices – coal miners in Appalachia, farmers in the Heartland and people in the South – to say they were overlooked by national leaders in big cities on both coasts because they live in “flyover country.”
People’s Action, a Chicago-based grassroots organization working with Down Home North Carolina and other local groups nationwide, took note because building trust for long-term positive change is important in all locations. “It is urgent to address the pain and suffering in these communities,” People’s Action wrote in its April 2018 report, “The Promise of a Progressive Populist Movement.”
In North Carolina’s Alamance and Haywood counties, there’s a concerted effort by Down Home North Carolina to fill the void and listen to residents. This effort started in 2017 and involves people from urban and rural parts of the country.
The focus is on common interests – on good jobs and the minimum wage, access to affordable health care, public transit and overall transportation and affordable housing, for example – in regions where political views aren’t monolithic.
For Zimmer, Flaherty and others who stepped up to talk with neighbors, it all coalesces around a key idea: Working people of all backgrounds, especially in rural areas and small towns, deserve better.
“We believe that our differences make us stronger,” Down Home North Carolina’s core values state. “We will make a way out of no way.”
The morning fog was still clinging to buildings in Alamance County, home to about 162,300 people, on that December day last year, about a week or so before Christmas. Zimmer and Drayton had just dined on biscuits from fast-food chain Bojangles, along with Down Home North Carolina Field Director Juan Miranda.
Zimmer stood next to a wall map of Alamance County in the sparsely filled office, near folding chairs and know-your-rights literature about being detained by the police. He’s from North Carolina but worked as a community organizer in the San Francisco Bay Area. After watching politics unfold in his home state, he realized his community organizing efforts were needed back home.
“I’m a North Carlonian,” Zimmer said. “We share this place. We have our differences, but we have a major point of unity.”
Alamance County, he added, has seen its share of economic decline, political tension and intense racial divisions, especially in the past 10 years: “We’re trying to get over that.”
The strip mall office that Down Home North Carolina operates from in Burlington once was home to an outlet for Dixie Outfitters, a clothing company that incorporated the Confederate flag into a sign still visible outside. In the region, there is a Confederate statue. Armed militia members, residents said, have stood near it.
By early afternoon, Zimmer was driving his Toyota Prius to the home of Gina Wade, a White woman who, on this day, had three jobs, including ones at a supermarket and a university dining hall.
In the back seat were Miranda and community leader Kischa Peña. Zimmer pulled into a mobile home park complex and maneuvered his car to an inlet with a ring of houses.
Inside Wade’s house, on an end table near the couch, was an oval-shaped rock engraved with the word “Hope.” Peña, who is Black, sat on the couch next to Wade.
Miranda sat on the floor as they talked about economic and social challenges in the area, including low wages and the rising cost of living, as well as possible solutions.
“I knew these issues were out there. I was doing a lot of praying about them. Now, I know there are things we can do together,” said Wade, who was studying at the local community college for a job as an English-as-a-second-language teacher.
“If you get more people who want to pursue the same interest, then you get something done,” she added.
Peña said these honest discussions across racial lines have shown her that people from different backgrounds care about the same issues – and that they affect everyone.
Just a few years earlier, she felt like no one in the community was doing anything to make progress. During the presidential election of 2016, she was not that interested in the campaigns for elected office.
“Having these conversations is a step forward,” Peña said. “I see people who are willing to support the community.”
In the year or so after Donald Trump became president, a renewed focus on grassroots organizing arrived in 72 counties in rural parts of the country: People’s Action launched outreach efforts spanning 10 states. The goals were to listen and learn, knowing strong community relationships are just as crucial in rural areas and small towns as they are in large coastal cities.
“We don’t merely want to find the most powerful message or narrative, we want to find the most powerful ways of being in relationship with more people,” People’s Action said in its April 2018 report.
Down Home North Carolina was one of the first to conduct this type of outreach and organizing to learn more about rural families of all political backgrounds.
In North Carolina, organizers knocked on doors and attended community meetings to find that residents still were reeling from lost jobs in the collapsed textile industry. They found people were working several minimum wage jobs to get by, but community bonds and a sense of place have remained strong for generations.
“Many people we spoke to expressed feelings of anger and betrayal by a government they felt was co-opted by the rich and had abandoned them,” according to the People’s Action report.
Low on the list of concerns from residents who were surveyed: Immigrants and recipients of government benefits.
The 230-mile drive west from Burlington to Waynesville in Haywood County, which has about 61,000 residents, can take about four hours.
On a cold, gray December day during the same week last year, long-haul trucks rushed down Interstate 40. A talk-radio host bellowed about how the president is unlike other national politicians, and how he was getting things done in Washington, D.C.
But the talk-radio host focused largely on ideas the president had only discussed or proposed, in general. The radio host believed that discussing ideas was a sign of progress.
About 30 miles west of the popular tourist destination of Asheville, Brigid Flaherty opened the other chapter of Down Home North Carolina. The New Jersey native once organized sanitation workers in New York City, but she moved to Appalachia to be with her mother – and to trade the skyscrapers of Manhattan for the natural beauty of the Smoky Mountains.
In her years of organizing, she learned how visiting families at their homes can build trust and lead to important insights.
“There should never be a crushing weight on families,” Flaherty said. “Listening is the most powerful tool we have in organizing.”
The Panacea coffeehouse in Waynesville serves as one of the few meeting places in Haywood County and the surrounding area. Many residents in Appalachia have strong ties to the mountains, which are some of the oldest in the world. Generations of families have called this land home.
But in this portion of Appalachia, the economy is not as strong as larger cities, such as Raleigh. Residents said poverty can be crushing and a cause of major depression for families. Some young people leave the region in search of jobs in larger cities.
Seated at a wooden table at Panacea, Sam Malone, a father and Down Home North Carolina community leader, talked about his family in Waynesville. He spoke of the importance of second chances in a region in which drug use exists, and about the need for good jobs.
At one point, Malone shared that he, too, faced drug addiction. “I’m really tired of my generation and our kids being considered as garbage,” said Malone, who believes more funding for drug rehabilitation is better than incarcerating users.
Flaherty listened to Malone and pointed to his community leadership skills. She highlighted that he had recently led and facilitated a 25-person community meeting. That comment prompted Malone to say: “I want to change how people view people.”
Chelsea White, a Down Home North Carolina community organizer who grew up in nearby Sylva, also was at the coffeehouse table.
“Opening that door and giving people dignity is important,” she said.
In the coming year, organizers from Down Home North Carolina will continue speaking with families about how they – collectively – can build bottom-up social change. Already, members in the state have voiced concerns about law enforcement actions, criminal justice reform and immigration – all in rural America.
“People love where they live. They have lived here for generations. It’s worth fighting for,” Flaherty said. “It feels good to meet people in the community and let them know they’re not alone.”
As Malone sat at the coffeehouse table, he mentioned this area once had a movie theater where families could go for entertainment. If possible, he would like to see a bowling alley open in Haywood County, where families could be together and relax – particularly on weekends.
This part of Appalachia still lacks the amenities of larger cities. If a bowling alley does open, he hopes it will be a meeting place in which community bonds can flourish – and that no person will ever be deemed a piece of garbage by fellow residents.
Or as Drayton, the Walmart worker in Burlington, observed while sitting in that donated barber chair in the rural flatlands of North Carolina: “I see so much potential in this country.”
Brad Wong is content editor for Equal Voice. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.
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