No one is trash.
As a child growing up in an environment where I knew my family was being judged for living in trailer parks, moving around so much because we had to chase jobs, I became a fighter at a young age. My family was not what they called me when I was in another new school in another new town. My family was laughter with my nana on a back porch. My family was hoagies and watermelon and above ground pools with my cousins.
The pride I had in who I was and where I came from carried me into the calling for social justice. It made me sick to my stomach to watch my mom work so hard to support my sister and I when I had a growing awareness that others made a lot more money without ever sacrificing their health, their family. They were rich at the expense of people like her and in my soul I knew that I would commit my life to fighting for the respect and dignity of all working people, across race and gender.
Flash forward to the night of the 2016 elections and “the fateful 3AM text” as I now so lovingly call it. Todd Zimmer and I had been coordinating work from afar throughout the election season. We were doing our best to contribute to a larger progressive outcome and yet on November 8, 2016 it became clear that something greater was needed to advance justice in the coming years. It was in those early hours after the election that Down Home North Carolina was birthed. We were all heart, all gut, and all in.
Listening to so many pundits blaming working rural people for the outcomes of the 2016 election, I got that same sick feeling in my stomach I had as a kid when I knew something was wrong. I knew their analysis was total bullshit and Down Home was an antidote to that sloppy, careless thinking.
When building out our vision for Down Home, the idea of home--as in creating a political home--was foundational.
Home was a word I longed for as a person who moved around so much in my early years. I craved it. And, through the years, I also learned how to find it in the people I was surrounded by; it was an understanding that community could provide just as much stability, relief, and resilience in the face of hardship as any physical structure could. For me, THIS is what I wanted Down Home to become for Black, Brown and white working folks in rural North Carolina. I wanted to help build a political home for folks who loved their community, loved the land on which they lived, and who wanted to ensure a brighter future for their children and grandchildren.
Building a home takes work and it isn’t easy. In the early months, I gave myself endless pep talks as I was driving around Haywood County. With the listening survey printed out on my clipboard, I had so many doubts swirling through my head. Could we build this? Would anyone talk to me? Door after door, you could see the looks on some folks’ faces. Who is this random woman and why is she asking me these questions? Some days I only had one person talk to me after being out on the doors all day and it would be a blow off. I will not lie: on those days I cried on the way home. We had no safety net. There was no backup plan if this didn’t work out. Did you know that only 6% of money that supports progressive organizing in this country goes to rural organizing? But even with all of the loneliness, I had the commitment. I was determined to help build a people-powered vehicle for working folks across race in rural NC. I had a deep passion for the mission of the organization and I was down to do whatever it took to make the vision real.
Slowly, after months of being in the community, I began to see forward movement. People were talking with me and I had a good amount of surveys. I met Chelsea White, who became our first organizer in Haywood, and together we were able to talk to more people and bring in our first leaders. The work in Alamance with Todd Zimmer and Juan Miranda was also building momentum at the same time. We were walking the walk.
Looking back after four years, I am humbled at where we stand today.
Thousands of people have taken action with us on critical issues like expanding healthcare, ending the criminalization of the poor, raising the minimum wage, taking on white supremacy, and building a democracy that works for Black, Brown and white rural North Carolinians. We have had dozens of members and supporters run for and win local and state office. We have even had members tell their stories to the White House!
We have done things right and we have done things wrong. We have had successes and we have had mistakes. There are things I would change if I could. But as they say, without the dark we wouldn’t know the warmth of the light, and I would do it all over again if given the chance.
I am filled with immense hope with the leadership transition of Dreama Caldwell. As a member, as a Black Woman, as a person who has navigated so many oppressions and come out the otherside powerful and present, there was never any doubt in our minds that Dreama was the right person to take Down Home forward and to new places. She carries at her core an understanding of what to do when we feel alone and how to bring us all together. Thinking back to our hard and humble beginnings, I know this is the leadership we need for our next beginnings. Down Home’s future is strengthened by her presence, experience, and her love of our members and the work.
Looking to the future, I see the strengthening of relationships happening in our current and new rural chapters across the state. I hear that laughter, I see people breaking bread together, I see folks coming together to show that the racial and class stereotypes of rural NC are shams. I see folks coming together to change how their economy and their democracy functions in order for it to work for us, for all us. I step away from Down Home knowing that the best is yet to come for this organization.
If you’re reading this letter and you’re inspired to grow your voice and power in rural NC, well, do it like Down Home and say “Come on In Y’all, We Got Work To Do.”