I had always said I wanted to go back to North Carolina to fight the KKK, but I finally understood from my mentor in South Carolina, Septima Clark, that I couldn’t fight them. “That’s what they want and they will win!” she told me. What I needed to do, she said, was go back home to create a society where the KKK could no longer exist.
A New Way of Thinking
I started looking for a job as an organizer, and I fell into a conversation with a peace activist in North Carolina. She told me that an organization in Charlotte was hiring. I lived about 90 minutes away, but I applied anyway. North Carolinians for Effective Citizenship hired me to do non-partisan Voter Registration/Get-Out-the-Vote work, traveling and organizing from the Piedmont to western North Carolina.
It was my first opportunity to organize volunteers doing door-to-door work for Voter Registration and Get-Out-the-Vote. I had always voted, but until then, I had not been involved in linking the political issues we cared about to the power of voting. I learned so much from that job and mentors like Cathy Howell, John Wancheck, James Andrews and Si Kahn. Even though we weren’t successful in electing the candidate we hoped for at a national level, there were many wins at a local level.
During this time, I flew on a plane for the first time at age 30 and attended meetings where I was part of people thinking about political power. I went to workshops that showed me the link to economic issues affecting my life. I began to see how to use political power to make change. I also learned the power of truly listening and not making assumptions.
Listening to Build Power
In Charlotte I also organized a group of middle-class peace activists to go out into the African American community to ask about people’s concerns. When our group came back to share what they heard, they said people wanted more policemen to provide safety.
I was very curious about this. I knew police violence toward people of color was an issue. So I wanted to explore further exactly what people in the community had said.
Most stated things like, “We have too many people selling drugs on the streets and our children aren’t safe.” Or, “There’s violence in our neighborhoods.” No one had actually said they needed more police. That was an assumption.
So, the next weekend I sent our folks out into the same community to ask, “What do you think the solution is to drugs and violence?” We heard very different answers than, “We need more police.” They said, “We need more playgrounds and places for our children to gather.” They said they needed more education about problems with drugs. They said their children needed guidance counselors. That kind of listening was an awakening moment for folks in our group.
It was an awakening moment for me as well. I realized I could not work for social justice without including voter engagement, and really listening, as an important strategy. The next year, I started the Piedmont Peace Project.
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