Playing the Long Game: Reconnecting with our neighbors to build community and connection.

By Bonnie Dobson, Deep Canvass Manager at Down Home

It’s easy to get discouraged.

When I heard about Charlotte Democrat Tricia Cotham changing parties and the new ill-gotten supermajority held by the North Carolina  Republicans, I was angry, outraged. I felt defeated. 

Then when Mark Robinson announced his candidacy for governor–trying to use his impoverished roots and the color of his skin right here in my Alamance County backyard to somehow explain his divisive and extremist agenda, I felt insulted. 

When the NC Supreme Court acted as the political arm of the GOP and overturned precedent to heavily curtailed our voting rights, I felt despairing. 

And then they took the first step to banning abortion. It was as if the punches just kept coming. 

It’s easy to feel upset when you aren’t certain what to do. 

Bonnie Dobson speaking to a group in Craven County, North Carolina

With all these developments, I know that people in my community are at great risk. The new supermajority– one that voters rejected just a few short months ago at the ballot box– nearly guarantees that the hateful, dangerous bills being pushed through the NCGA are now likely to become law. Even though they remain unpopular with the vast majority of North Carolinians, bans on transgender children in sports, bills that grossly regulate how and what teachers can teach, and even the newly introduced anti-drag legislation, all could become law. All of this legislation will not only take us backwards, but it will be fueled and whipped into a frenzy by the extremist tirades of Mark Robinson now that he is on the campaign trail.

It is very likely that people who I care about– people in my family and community– are going to be hurt. 

So, I felt despairing. How did we so quickly fall back so far? Is it true that with every step forward in North Carolina, we take two steps back? But nothing in the long history of Southern movements has had a quick fix. For the changes that poor and working class Southerners need to occur, we need to be in this for the long haul. 

Someone once said to me this is chess, not checkers. Chess is a long game. The Civil Rights movement began in the late 1940s and didn’t end until the late 60s after I was born. My dad is 91. He was born in 1932 and lived through segregation in North Carolina. He was refused service in restaurants and sat at the back of public transportation and in the segregated section of the theaters. The house I first lived in was bought by one of my dad’s white Jewish friends from the NAACP, Gerald Becker because my family couldn’t purchase a home because of the color of our skin. Everything was segregated, from roadside picnic tables to bathrooms. And my dad kept working to make changes every day. Recently, I asked my father if he was ever ready to give up during those years, and he said, “HELL no.”

My dad knows: It took more than twenty years of a deliberate, conscious, organized movement to gain rights. Chess, not checkers. 

Instead of despairing, one of the things we need to do right now is reconnect with our neighbors. After years of separation– busy lives, online lives, the disruption of the pandemic– North Carolinians are hungry to be back together. My work at Down Home North Carolina is to help people have deep, meaningful conversations about the things that matter. Our Deep Canvassing work teaches folks how to have difficult, meaningful, and transformational conversations with people who don’t necessarily think like us— conversations across divides.

What we find when we have these conversations is that most of us want and care about the same things– despite what the politicians tell us. We want decent and affordable housing, good schools, and healthcare. We want to feel safe in our communities, not fearful. We want to feel hopeful, not scared. What I have learned through thousands of deep canvassing conversations is that people can come to agreement. People do respect each other.

Volunteers deep canvassing together on Zoom.

We need to lean in across differences and connect over the values and needs that we share, just as Mr. Becker and my dad did. This is our work for the next year and a half, through the slew of cruel legislation that will be lobbed at us and through the undoubtedly bellicose campaign that Mark Robinson will run. When they tell us we should be afraid of trans children or drag performers, we should reach out to each other and learn that we are not actually afraid. When they tell us we should be skeptical of our neighbors, we should talk to them and find out what they need. When they tell us we shouldn’t learn about history, we should call up my dad and learn from his stories. 

So, folks, this is the long game. We cannot give up. We must keep fighting to win the changes we want and deserve for ourselves and our families. And while it may be chess and not checkers, history teaches us that it’s the actions we do along the way that help us win long term. It’s a slow build, but like my dad and the people of his generation, we have to keep our heads high down and push through. There are so many things we can do now to stop the bleeding, take action, see change, and get involved that will help people suffering now, in 2024, and beyond. We can not wait to start the work of winning, we have to lay the groundwork now.

I hope that you all will get involved in your local chapter organizing, if you live in a community with a Down Home chapter. Or join up with our statewide public school organizing, where we are building small teams of parents and teachers in every county of the state. Or perhaps you will join me this summer as we learn together about deep canvassing and we do the hard, important work of having conversations with our neighbors, reconnecting, and building again.