Blog

May 172017
 

Gerrymandering:  Because, why should voters choose their representatives, when representatives can choose the voters?

Imagine North Carolina as a puzzle. Jagged lines are drawn across the map, spreading across counties like greedy fingers and into neighborhoods like silent snakes. North Carolina, and many states across the country, has these oddly shaped voting districts that end up making impossible puzzles of themselves. In most states, politicians have control over how they draw the maps that separate voters into districts. This essentially means that they have control over who votes for them, they draw maps that make it virtually impossible to lose, and they strengthen or weaken the power of specific groups of people. This process is infamously called Gerrymandering.

The voting districts of North Carolina have always been politically contested, but there is growing people-power working across bipartisan lines to support the drawing of fair electoral maps. We are making progress.

In a recent partnership with Democracy North Carolina, we have joined a statewide coalition to campaign for fair maps in our state. Democracy NC has shared with us the data and in turn we have shared our experiences and connections in the county. Many statewide campaigns have had success doing traditional canvassing in middle class, urban or suburban areas, but North Carolina is a low-income and rural state. So we combined our low-income, rural organizing models with Democracy North Carolina’s research and materials.  We incorporated their data, and they incorporated our language and knowledge of turf.

Four of us got together Saturday, April 29th at the Swannanoa Library. We started with a training about what Gerrymandering is, what it does, and how it hurts democracy. We then asked the group if anyone was from the area, and went over a brief introduction to the area. We talked about the industry that has come and gone, the class and cultural shifts over the years, and described the physical terrain of the area. We explained that we would be walking on roads without streetlights, without sidewalks, and with plenty of dogs running loose. We reviewed the materials that we would be sharing in the community, and made sure they were understandable. We spent extra time on the postcard we were giving to neighbors. The postcards include space for people to write their personal information on a petition to send to legislators urging them to support fair electoral maps (click here to download the postcard for your own use). We then did a role-play of knocking on a door, to familiarize people with the process.

Source – Democracy NC

Two pairs of us went up parallel streets stemming out from the library. Over the course of two hours, we met several dozen community members. Out of everyone we spoke with, only two people declined to sign a postcard. People became very interested when they heard it was a nonpartisan issue, and that there was legislation in the North Carolina Legislature supporting the possibility of fair maps. I was particularly inspired by the few folks who had never heard of the issue before, but became passionate through our materials and conversations, and signed a postcard to their representative.

The more public support we can get behind an issue, the more likelihood we have to change policy. It might sound like a small event on Saturday April 29th, but it enlivens and awakens the public perception and outcry about equal access to representation. If we win fair representation, we are all the more likely to win on issues we care about. Gerrymandering sits uniquely positioned as an issue that is the key to unlocking our ability to hold representatives accountable for their decisions on behalf of their constituents.

We are planning several more canvassing dates around this issue. Stay tuned with us and Democracy North Carolina to learn about canvassing opportunities! This project will impact the 2020 elections immensely. And as we’ve seen in the past, the ability to have equal access for North Carolinians at the ballot box has a huge impact on national elections. We are moving our state and country forward when we fight for fair maps.  To become involved contact us.

Update 05/24/17 – Since posting this blog, the SCOTUS has agreed that North Carolina has gerrymandered districts along racial lines – SCOTUS Blog and Reuters.

Lia Kaz currently 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.

Mar 202017
 

“The first task of whites in these struggles is to be vocal and visible.” -Anne Braden

Growing up as a white woman in the south, the passive racism that I witnessed and participated in was and continues to be wrong. I want to change that practice and one step for me is writing a blog about how I handled a situation poorly and what I will do in the future to hold myself and other white people accountable.

Throughout college I would routinely return to Charlotte from Asheville, where I grew up, to visit my parents. Usually, I would be roped into a reunion of friends from high school around a bonfire or in someone’s parent’s basement. We would share stories about parties, college life, and romantic interests. I always loathed these forced congregations, because it reminded me of the discontent and unhappiness I felt in high school. I would hear myself hold back from talking about my openly queer life in college, or refrain from talking about the “controversial,” degree (Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) I was seeking. As if I reverted back into my closeted self.

On one of these occasions a friend of mine invited someone new to join us. We were all sitting around a bonfire in a friend’s backyard, when this new guest arrived. For a moment all we were able to see as he approached was an outline of a person. As he greeted the group and took a seat I couldn’t place where I had seen him before. Charlotte is a big city but has always felt like a small town when it comes to running into people from your past. As we sat there he talked with our mutual friend and worked to make himself as comfortable as possible in a group of new-ish people. After about fifteen minutes he turns to me and says, “Too good to acknowledge me?”

I look at him confused. “What? “ I say.

“You don’t remember me?” He asks.

“Remember you from where?” I reply. He goes on to reintroduce himself and immediately all of my memories from elementary school came rushing back to me. This person looks so different than he had in fifth grade, but so did I. We begin to catch up and he asks me if I’ve stayed in touch with anyone from Lansdowne, our alma mater. I tell him no but he has. He starts to tell me all the accomplishments of classmates we both had.

“Do you remember Josh?” He asked excitedly.

“Yeah…I think so. How has he been lately?”  I responded.

“He’s started playing football at [insert large university] but he only sits on the bench because all the black guys are faster. You know that’s all they are good for.”

I stared open-mouthed at the blatantly racist and serious young man that sat with me. He went on to spout off more insults and profanity. He talked at me about how all the [insert racial slur against Latinx people [i]] are taking his jobs. Sitting there, I continued to withdraw further into myself focusing completely on how offended and angry I felt. I thought of hundreds of insults to yell at him and I seriously contemplated throwing my chair in the fire. While my feelings are powerful, I could’ve used them as fuel to be brave and begin a conversation with him about racism. Eventually, he left and the night continued as usual.

Looking back on this incident I realized that I never thought about engaging him in a thoughtful conversation. I never thought about pulling out my phone and looking for resources to help me express my feelings of rage and hurt in a way that could be transformative for him and I. Instead, I remained silent.  The reaction of silence when someone spews hate speech communicates complacency. White people find themselves in experiences where they could speak up against racism daily. I hope that by highlighting occasions where I have fallen short in moments of silence will inspire others to do the same in their lives.

If you want to learn about engaging white people in undermining white supremacy then check out your local Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) chapter meeting.

Find a local Showing Up for Racial Justice SURJ Chapter here.

Samantha Singer is the Tzedek Social Justice Fellow at Spirit in Action working as a community organizer with the We the People: Working Together project.  Samantha is originally from Charlotte, NC.  She recently graduated from UNC-Asheville with a degree in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

 

[i] Spirit in Action has chosen not to repeat the specific racial slur that was used in this conversation

Nov 212016
 

It is a powerful time to be doing election work. When we ride out to the communities, there is a merging of fear and excitement. We round the unpaved roads through the Blue Ridge Mountains, rural Appalachia full of reminders that there was once a thriving industry here. We pull up to the mobile home park, or brick duplexes, or cluster of apartments, and the memories play out. I think of the grandmother who brought me in the home, fed me, asked me about my family while registering her sons to vote and holding her grandchildren. I think about the man who warned us to not go to the yellow house, “because he always answers the door with a gun.” I think of the high school student who isn’t a citizen, but took every educational pamphlet we had to share with her friends on the bus the next morning. I wonder what today will be like.

The kids in the neighborhood know we’re not from there, but they’re the first to approach us with smiling faces. Once, there were two young girls playing with a large cardboard tube in the street as we rounded the block. They shouted from across the way asking us what we’re selling and if we already went to their houses. We explain we want to help people vote. That we want to help people make changes in the neighborhood and work together. They perk up and drop their toy to walk up to us. They ask, can they help?

So we walk through the Habitat for Humanity Houses with two small girls, creating a gaggle of four young women between us. The girls practiced saying “we can help you with your voting rights” and still ended up saying “we are selling newspapers.” It kept the smiles on our faces, and door after door opened in the community. People kept the door open when they heard that we are nonpartisan, and were coming back to the same neighborhood for the third year in a row to make sure the community is able to voice its needs. They shared their opinions and filled out our surveys when we presented materials that their neighbors helped us create. They gave us their name and contact information when they heard that we can help them register to vote and get out to vote, but our largest goal is to follow up with them after the election when we continue voicing community concerns year-round.

It helps me to think of those young girls, excitedly joining us to talk with their neighbors. There is something about rural, Southern towns that feels both very connected, and isolated. People are more likely to shout across the street and ask what we’re doing, but much less likely to integrate with folks they don’t know or aren’t from the neighborhood six generations back. And every time we return to the neighborhood, we become a little more recognizable.

As a small nonprofit, we did not kid ourselves that we could knock on a million doors and turn out a record-breaking number of voters. But, North Carolina did break records, and we were a part of that. North Carolina was called the “the key battleground state of 2016.” What would this have meant if the 2013 “monster laws” had stayed in place? One of the most contested states in the country would have been blocked from representing its electorate. Just this summer, federal judges overturned the voter suppression laws, in part because they were cited as disenfranchising African American voters with “surgical precision.” With the voter protections that we won back, there were 3 million votes cast before Election Day during Early Voting, a record-breaking number for our state. We will keep fighting to stay truly representative in our vote, so that power comes directly from the people.

It’s a long journey to reach folks, and as Dr. King showed us, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” At Spirit in Action, we believe in continuing that long road together. We don’t change the way people think and feel by stating facts at the door, by demanding specific actions for change. We facilitate transformative relationships and popular education which can ultimately transform what governmental representative power means in our communities.

Lia KazLia Kaz currently 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 Bachelors 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.

Looking for a way that you can make a difference this season? Give a loved one the gift of hope for a just and equitable future through our seasonal #avoiceforall campaign. Take a look by clicking here to learn more.

Sep 202016
 

It’s really hard to have a positive outlook or hope with all that’s happening in the world today: political chaos, hate, violence, environmental disaster, and a list much too long to write here.  And worse, it seems that people are feeding off all this hatred and chaos and it continues to grow, taking over everything else, like a vine that consumes and strangles a tree’s life.  Sometimes it gets so discouraging, that I, like many others I know, just want to bury my head in the sand like an ostrich.

I could ignore it and pretend it isn’t happening.  I can dream about moving out of the country if things get worse.  Many people are talking about that.

However, that is not what I’m here to do in this lifetime.  I am here to create transformative change in my community, my state, my country and my world, and I hope you are too.

For me to do that, I have to bring vision and hope – both to myself and others.  To do this I begin with dreaming, with visioning about what I want the world to look like.

Eleanor Roosevelt said “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”. 

Fred Pollack, a well-known Jewish Dutch historian who went into hiding during World War II, used that time to study 3000 years of civilizations to understand what made some societies flourish, while others self-destructed.  He found through his research that only those that held a vision of the future of their society were the ones that thrived and succeeded.  Those that didn’t hold a vision turned to violence, war, and eventually self-destruction.

He concluded that a society’s image of itself becomes a roadmap for its future.  He wrote, “Those societies with positive and vital images flourish while those with uninspired images stagnate.”  He added, “We found the positive image of the future at work in every instance of the flowering of culture, and weakened images of the future as a primary factor in the decay of cultures.” [The Image of the Future, Fred Polak, translated and abridged by Elise Boulding, Jossey-Bass, Inc. 1973 (p.800)]

Why have we become a society lacking vision and hope for a much better world?  Here are some quotations that inspire me:

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT”.  – Abraham Lincoln

All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” – John F. Kennedy

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”, and “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.”  – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Ultimately leadership is about the strength of one’s convictions, the ability to endure the punches, and the energy to promote an idea. And I have found that those who do achieve peace never acquiesce to obstacles, especially those constructed of bigotry, intolerance and inflexible tradition.” – Benazir Bhutto – Former Prime Minister of Pakistan

Although all of these people gave their lives for their beliefs and their visions, they still inspire generations after them.

While I am motivated by these amazing, brave visionaries, I realize having a “leader” is NOT enough.  We can’t wait on one person to step up and take leadership and tell us what we need to do.  We all have to “shout from the mountaintops.”  We need to join together, create a collective vision, and work together to bring hope to a community, a state, a nation, the world.

We begin by looking for the seeds of hope around us.  There are lots.  Think of each one as an acorn (I have some on my vision altar), and then imagine it as a seed of hope growing into the largest oak tree you have ever seen.  We need to start planting now, wherever we are.

What is the barrier to visioning and creating a world that is just and beautiful?  For most people, it is lack of time, commitment, or money.  Sometimes, we’re not strategic about how we work for transformation and get caught up in the minutiae without a long-term vision to keep us on the right path.

I want to invite you to do three things.

  1. First, figure out what you would need to be able to commit 2-4 hours to social change a week.  Could it be not scrolling mindlessly through social media sites, or not watching a couple hours of television one night just to escape the burdens and reality of everyday life?  Many of us are devoting most of our time to making change, but I often hear from people they just don’t have time to make a two- hour meeting, or to go out in the community to canvass and educate neighbors, or drive people to the polls.
  2. Share this blog and webinar invitation for a visioning webinar with other friends and allies.  Have conversations with others.
  3. Figure out how you can support other organizations doing this work.  Can you give up that $3 coffee each day? Or $50 on eating out each week? Or just figure out $5 a week that you could squeeze from your budget.

And remember, it is critical for those doing this work all the time, to devote some time to self-care, whether spiritual or singing or writing poetry or spending time in nature.  This gives us the ability to dream and work for social change.  Yet, many think they are too busy to even do this basic piece by caring for ourselves first.

I invite you to join me on a webinar on October 5, 7pm – 8pm EST (4pm – 5pm PST)  to explore this type of visioning and creating hope for yourself and others. [Click Here to Sign UP]  Hope is contagious and we need to create an epidemic of it in this country.  We’ve done it before.  Now more than ever, it’s important to our survival, both at an individual level and a world level.

If you can’t make this webinar, let us know if you are interested in another date, and we will set another time up as well.