Notes from May Rural and Small Town Basebuilding Call

SURJ Basebuilding Call Series: Rural and Small Town Organizing for Racial Justice, May 26, 2015 


See the notes below on our SURJ May Basebuilding Call: Strategies for Organizing for Racial Justice in Rural Areas and Small Towns. Click here for a recording of the call.  (Note: Call starts at 20:40 mins.)


1.        Intro to SURJ and Basebuilding: Sam (5 min)

SURJ Basebuilding is about supporting people doing local work to engage white people in racial justice around the country.

Groups around the country doing powerful rural work on racial justice.

Want you to leave this call with resources and connections with one another to do your work to engage white people for racial justice.


2. Framing/SURJ Values for rural organizing: Meta  (5 min)

People in rural areas are used to begin stereotyped, for example in my area, called hillbillies.  Many people do not think anything is going on in rural areas or that there are people of color in rural areas.

SURJ Organizing Values:

Calling and Not Calling Out.  Really important in rural because rural people know one another and you are likely to see in grocery

Taking Risks.  People are more likely to learn through making mistakes

Mutual Interest: History of people crossing racial lines to fight together for labor rights, against the destruction of the mountains.

Accountability through Action.  SURJ holds the importance of accountability to people of color


3. Panel:  Meta Mendes Reyes of national SURJ and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth introduces the panel:

 Joan Hoffman in Henderson, Kentucky               

Town of 30,000 in northwest corner of Kentucky.  We got our start through a book club reading Michele Alexander book and found out about the high levels of incarcerated people, especially Black men.

This has developed into a discussion and action group.  It is black and white.  We want to look at connection between economic and racial challenges.  For our meeting we are studying these issues.  Looking at segregation, at school issues and lack of teachers of color.

Three meetings since early April.  Our success is the act of getting together. We do large group discussion and then small group discussions.

Business, education, and Prison Issues

What we have found important:  Regular meetings, listening to one another, encouraging members to invite others to the conversation.

We have several people on front line in dealing with the issues we are discussing.

One challenge is defining the issues in our town.

We end the meeting with talking about the action we will be taking. (learned this from Carla.  Thank you)

Planning a community event and need to raise funds to get a speaker.

We are learning to adjust when something is not working.  We try to stay on focus and we work for group consensus and developing plans that everyone can participate in.  We need our group to keep growing and we need to get the word out about our work.

Longterm goal is community awareness, with an action plan to make change in Henderson, Kentucky


Rural Organizing Project in Oregon with Jess and Eliot:

Jess:  We have Human Dignity groups throughout the state.  We have 50 groups around the state which are autonomous, but have commitment to human dignity.  Started in response to anti queer (lgbtq) referendum.

We had over 24 groups saying they wanted to explore the issue of police abuse after the non indictment of the killer of Michael Brown.

We encourage the groups to “be bold enough to take action”.  The question we used was “what do you need to stay and feel safe in your community for the next ten years?”  The conversation turned to racial justice.  that’s how we met Eliot.

Eliot, outside Cave Junction, community of 1200 people.  Close to town of 30,000.  Our community garnered attention due to having no funding for public services, not for police, not for libraries etc.  Militias are common, to “protect private property”.  The group we formed wanted to talk about racial justice.  Relationships were really important.  We have a core group of 6-7 who have shared values, and one challenge is how we communicate beyond this core with people who may not share the vocabulary, the same values.

Had a discussion: “Why are there not more Black people in Oregon?” and 90 people showed up.  Looking at the history of segregation (Oregon started as a state based on no Black people allowed).  Too often the story in Oregon is that people think that we do not have to deal with race since there are few people of color.  But then Black Lives Matter happens and the call is put out that we all need to be talking about this.

There was a pro life march happening, and we joined the march with signs against the pipeline, and impact on native people, on pro choice and the connection with Black Lives Matter (all about what is life affirming to us)  We started up conversations and sang songs and other people joined us.  Important in finding a way to have the conversation about why racial justice matters.

Big challenge is around capacity.  We have more ideas than people to carry them out.

Another question is Are We Replicating Exclusive White Spaces?


Kevin Pence from Kentuckians from the Commonwealth

Org has been around since 1081 and started in the eastern Ky Mountains. I have mostly worked in Eastern Kentucky.  Our work on social issues, racial issues has evolved over time.  There are things we have done that have worked and things that have not worked.  right now we are trying to address racial issues and other issues on multiple levels.  The leadership of KFTC has carved out a clear path for this work.  there is the organizational level and on the person l level.  The work is slow, basedin building the one on one relationships, and helping people get to know the organization and the people in it.

Working on being honest about what diversity does exist and learn that there is more diversity than we knew.  Looking at wide range of diversity a talking about diversity to generate conversations.

As organizer, being honest with people about where KFTC is on certain issues.  Not to crow line with someone, but to sure what we are about.  And I am working with people about the issue they care about, often extraction, mining issues.  I say you do not need to agree with everything the org stands for but you need to be willing to have the conversations and keep coming back to continue that.  This opens the door.

We create the space or people to explore the conversations about race, gender etc through meetings, trainings, member to member exchanges. Places where people can explore issues they do not talk about, or can react to what is in the news like Baltimore, Ferguson.  Often not comfortable talking about this even with their friends, but in KFTC can do this.

As a white man in Eastern, Kentucky people feel they can say things to me that they do not even know are offense, and taking the opportunity to talk through this, and whether it was said in hatred, defensiveness, not knowing.

Been working on felon voter restoration.  Kentucky one of few states where felons lose their right to vote permanently.(disproportionately impacts people of color)  We are working to restore felon voting rights.  Our membership has been very open to this idea.  We work to build the relationships between members in Louisville and members in other parts of the state.  Just did a member meet up with 20 folks from Louisville to meet people in Eastern Ky.  There will be a group from Eastern Ky coming to Louisville to do that member exchange as well. (Grows the relationships across rural and urban, Black, white etc)

We look for where the issues overlap, like school issues and issues of wage dumps in urban areas and people in area of mining.


4. Q and A: Sam (40 mins)


      Sam:  Will you share where you are calling from and any successes you've had in engaging white people for racial justice in your community? What organizing and outreach strategies are working for you?

Carolyn in Kansas City, Kansas:  How did you go about starting your group? How did you get people involved?

Jess: In this moment there are so many people questioning what is going on.  You can start with a one night conversation.  We put out flyers in the local diners, coffee shops.  About 6 groups started up this way.  Then look at having learning, movie night etc and of course leading to action so it is not just talking.

Joan:  Also ask the people you have to invite who else they know nd to bring them in.  The Black ministers brought the points to us about the economic impact on poor white and Black.

Meta:  Maybe you do not have the connections but find those who do have ability to bring in others.

Heather near Eugene, Oregon:  Wondered about who to reach out to, and whether there has been experience reaching out to Occupy movement.  And we are very white community and at what point do we reach out to BLM?

Jess:  We have great connections with the Occupy folks.  Also relationships with Black community including leaders in the NAACP.

Eliot:  Another idea for engaging people, or starting up a group: Post the idea of a discussion about Do Black Lives Matter? and see who is interested.

Paloma:  Disagree that it is not race.  Only people of color are oppressed in this way.  How to deal with white people who justify what police do?

Kevin:  Its always hard when someone does not want to listen and is not open to seeing something as racist.  Uphill battle.  If someone is willing to have the conversation it is about how to help someone see the root causes, and how to expand on people’s experiences so they can get a broader view to what is going on. 

Joan:  Our group does not dismiss the racial issues, and sorry if I lead anyone to think that.  I was just sharing that this was a point made by a Black minister that there is impact of poverty.

Meta:  Great to be having differences on this call, and having a space to work through these.  We will have people in different places and need to practice calling in and not calling out.

What are some major challenges you are coming up against? What resources do you need to meet these challenges?

Faith in Oregon:  Want to look at issue that Eliot raised about are we replicating white exclusivity?  People of color have been invited and they do not want to deal with our stuff.  Want space for white people to come and talk and get to the nitty gritty, but this includes saying things offensive to people of color.

Eliot:  How to create events that bring in people of color?

Joan:  Maybe reach out to Black ministers to see what they think?

Kevin:  Churches are good places to start.  Being honest with one another is important.

Jess:  Think we are mixing two things. One is a space for white people to make the mistakes, talk from place they are at about these issues.  And then two, the relationships you build across lines of race, and looking at what accountability looks like as you are doing this work.

Sam:  In SURJ we see it as the responsibility of white people to reach other white people and it is not about putting this work on people of color.  Our role is to explore at our mutual interest as white people doing this work.

SURJ is here to support your local work, to support rural work.  If you have resources to offer or there are resources you need to do your work, contact us at SURJ.

We are going to take a survey:

     Survey Questions: Sam (5 mins)

        -Press 1 if you'd like to be on our national Rural Organizing listserve

        -Press 1 if you want to help us to create a resource list for engaging rural white people for racial justice.

        -Press 1 if you're interested in helping to plan and facilitate future rural organizing calls.

        -Press 1 if you want to join SURJ's Basebuilding Team


6. Closing- Meta (5 mins)

Want to thank you all for the work you are doing to organize white people for racial justice.  You are the people on the front lines doing this work and we deeply appreciate you.

Sam:  Next Basebuilding call is on June 23.  It is about Organizing white people from a place of mutual interest in ending racial injustice.

Thank you all for being with us.