Hi everyone. This is my last blog as Spirit in Action’s North Carolina Community Organizer for the We the People: Working Together program. This fall, I will start at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for my Masters of Social Work. Before I leave I wanted to share with you some things I’ve learned and the experiences that I will carry with me that will help shape my future.
I first met Linda Stout at Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, NC, in the spring of 2014 where I was studying for my undergraduate degree in Social Work. I was taking a Human Behavior in the Social Environment Course and Linda was a guest professor. Under her guidance we prepared for weeks, learning to understand cultural differences, how to approach people respectfully, and engage them in action. This led us to our field work interviewing community members through a listening project that also functioned as a needs assessment for Swannanoa, North Carolina.
I was completely unaware that over the course of a few years I would go from being a student, to a volunteer, to an intern, to a year-long Fellow, and finally to an employee of Spirit in Action.
Over the past few years, the project that I worked on, We the People: Working Together, evolved from a research project to civic education and engagement. We have learned many lessons from the project and those lessons will continue to inform the work of Spirit in Action as it evolves. We will be taking a break in July & August with We the People: Working Together as we build infrastructure for this work and raise the resources needed. We have landed at a point where our organizing has harnessed a small number of incredible community members doing the work on their own, for now. We have mobilized volunteers who will be carrying on the work through the summer. We have listened for a few years, co-created resources, found interests with community people, prioritized the issues most important to them, and created a vision for moving forward.
While Spirit in Action will continue to do trainings with this group, it will also be moving to take lessons we’ve learned to a broader, national audience on how to reach and engage low income and rural people.
I would love to be able to wrap up my time with Spirit in Action in a succinct story. I would love to have one metaphor that ties the whole thing together in a digestible experience. The truth is, however, that what stands out most from my time working with the We the People project is the depth and breadth of stories I get to hear so regularly. Though it’s not easy to summarize, I’ve made a list of some of the lessons I’ve learned along the journey over the past few years. Rather than a list of what you all need to know, this is a list of some of the lessons I will be carrying with me.
Most of my attention over the past several years has been focused on the ways that we speak with each other in this work. When I talk with people about why they do or don’t vote, why they can or can’t feel included in democracy, there’s often this sentiment that it’s something “somebody else” should do. So much of the language we have for voting, “civic engagement,” “participatory democracy,” “gerrymandered districts,” “congressional hearing,” is completely foreign to the people who are represented the least. When we refuse to adjust our language, we are sending the message that we do not want to include people that are not already included. From a language justice perspective, this of course means we need to be translating beyond English and including dialects from all our communities. We cannot forget the importance of local idioms, expressions that make the most sense to people. Once we learn how to talk with each other and develop a shared language, it becomes possible to expand into new territories together.
We need to pay and credit people that we ask for “advice” or “help”
This relies on our current capitalist reality. If we are going to hire consultants and staff, we need to also hire community members when we ask them for advice and insight into our process. When we ask for volunteers, whom many of our organizations truly rely on, it’s a different matter. Sharing time and resources can be a beautiful thing. However, when we’re asking questions like, “where are good neighborhoods to canvass?” and “how can we edit our scripts to connect with people better?” we can’t expect to get that data for free and then turnaround and pay for a consultant to design our fliers. And we need to also credit disenfranchised people for their part of creating our work.
Who are your people?
We often talk in nonprofits about building authentic movements. However, we don’t always develop a deep personal inventory of where we come from. And this feels like a contradiction. Working in rural Appalachia has been educational in a way that I wouldn’t replicate again as an “organizer”. I am not from the South, and as much as it is home to me now, I can feel how many subtle cues I am missing as someone who doesn’t come from the area or the same class background. Rather than allowing this to keep me at a distance, I have gained practice in finding what commonalities I do have in a new place through training and being an active learner with people I’m working with.
Art. We need art.
When we come in to do a training, or host a meeting, a lot of the feedback we get is about the refreshing amount of art and creativity we bring into a space. In order to harness our full selves we need to also work with our creative side. If we stay sitting at desks typing for the rest of our lives, we surely will not generate creative solutions to the issues we are facing.
As for what I will take with me personally… Joy is an important part of the process. I cannot tell you the number of times I have left the office laughing, or been encouraged to step out of a meeting to go soak up some sunshine, or celebrated a holiday with fellow staff. Linda and I have spent many hours in difficult conversations and painful situations, and, we always make time to pump some hope in. We take time to pick up the two dogs who inhabit the office space. We make sure that we remember what we’re working towards and not just working against. I will take with me the indelible hope that the staff from Spirit in Action have shown me, even through their decades of service. I will take with me the integrity, deep pride, and rich knowledge of place that the community members have shown me, even through decades of being ignored and marginalized by the powers that be.
Thank you for staying in touch with our work, and stay tuned! I know I’ll be excited to see what the next few years look like.
With warmth, Lia
Lia Kaz serves as the North Carolina Community Organizer for Spirit in Action’s We the People: Working Together (WtP) project. Through the WtP project she organizes in low-income, rural communities across Buncombe County to empower civic engagement. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work and won the Alton J. Pfaff Award from Warren Wilson College, which recognized her as the graduating student who most exemplifies the triad of Academics, Work, and Service. She currently lives in Asheville with some great roommates, and a perfect dog named Mona.