I started the Piedmont Peace Project (PPP) with the help of so many from my work in North Carolina, South Carolina and other places. The first foundation to support me was Chuck Shuford from the Youth Project who also became a close mentor. Chuck came from a working-class community and the same area where I grew up. He thought that if I could really organize something in this region of North Carolina, it would be miracle! My first individual donor was Bob Mazer. Bob became a good friend and life-long supporter who passed away just this year.
A Different Way to Organize
PPP was a multi-racial organization that covered an entire Congressional District in rural Piedmont – 12 counties about the size of the state of Massachusetts. Chuck wasn’t the only one wary about organizing here. Many activists and organizers predicted that we wouldn’t be able to organize this region. There had been several failed attempts by labor organizers, brown lung organizers (a lung disease many textile mill workers died from) and farm groups. But never had the organizing been led by local, low-income folks.
All our staff and volunteers came from the Piedmont communities where we worked. These communities were very spread-out – that is the nature of rural organizing. We started with very oppressed areas and by listening. We asked people what they loved about their community. We asked them to tell us their concerns. We began to call these our “listening projects,” and as we got to know the neighborhoods better, we would discover who people looked up to as the natural leader. It was never an elected official, but usually a woman elder down the block. We made sure we got her involved and she would help reach others, most often going with us door-to-door.
Many people lived in sub-standard housing, often without running water. In one low-income community, we were told by the white folks that the Black community was so “trashy” because of all the trash thrown down the side of the hill, like mattresses, old appliances and other garbage. In the Black community, one of the complaints was how white folks came to the entrance of their community and dumped their trash down the hill. It was impossible to keep it clean, even though they conducted clean-up days where the neighborhood people volunteered to work.
A First Gathering
In one of our first meetings in one neighborhood, all the white, low-income folks sat on one side and all the Blacks sat on the other side, even though we originally had all the chairs in a circle. Listening and storytelling became the way to bring folks together. We asked the first question: “Tell us about your concerns about your children and their future.” As everyone began to talk about their children, they realized they had many things in common. A lively, engaged conversation followed, where they found they were more alike than different. Similar conversations took place around housing, healthcare and the local environment.
As always, we followed up a meeting with food, usually a potluck, and singing. People built even closer relationships with each other as a result. We never held a meeting without storytelling, food, childcare and fun!
We had many failures – but we refused to call them that! We had all dealt with class and race oppression. We received regular messages from the society at large that we were “failures” and weren’t good enough. So, when something didn’t work, we said it was a “learning moment.” We just had to do it differently. It totally changed how I looked at things and how I felt about myself.
I use those learning, listening and organizing moments to this day.
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