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.

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.

Dec 152015
 

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.

Over the last year, I attended two dynamic national conferences: one called “Creating Change,” which included more than 4,000 LGBTQ activists and organizers across the country working on multiple issues that affect disenfranchised people, and another dealing with building power through voter engagement. I was both surprised and gratified to find that the young people, who had gone through Spirit in Action trainings years ago, were now middle-aged leaders or speakers at the conferences.  Many of them are heading up successful national and regional organizations and networks.

I shouldn’t have been surprised because I know that Spirit in Action is an incubator, empowering hundreds of people to work in a more heart-based, sustainable way.  They have picked up the mantle of working in a different way and spread it across the country:  “Changing the way we do change,” by operating from a place of heart and vision.

This is the greatest accomplishment we have made in helping build a truly transformative movement for social change creating new leaders who will continue to carry on our work.

We continue to work with young leaders – many just out of college who want to work for social justice and make a difference in the world. Language like transformative change, visioning and other ways of building collaboratives have taken off.   Now it’s not just us talking about it, but lots of organizations, trainers and foundations.

And, like everyone, we continue to see things get worse and more attention given to the symptoms rather than the deeper social problems causing the issues in the first place.

My organizing in North Carolina has historically centered around issues of poverty, including civic engagement at every step. By building political power and educating our low-income constituency, we made significant, systemic changes both locally and nationally.  Because we organized in this way year round, we were able to register and get out the vote to more than 44,000 people and had more than 90 percent voter turnout!  This is the kind of civic engagement work that Spirit in Action wants to train others to do.  It requires long-term organizing and support in order to be sustainable.

In another area of concentrated poverty, a small “hole in the donut” community surrounded by wealth, not only did it take about 20 years to win all the things they wanted for their community, but they moved beyond their original vision. When our work started here, most community members were not registered to vote.  With concerted and consistent grassroots organizing efforts, we obtained a 98 percent voter turnout.

This community now works with the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill to host a national conference to show other poor communities how they successfully won a complete transformation of their community. Not only did we change policies that affected people both nationally and locally, but we kept people engaged in organizing, holding elected officials accountable and making major changes in their communities.

At Spirit in Action, we continue to focus on development of collaborations, organizations and leaders, particularly with those younger, 20-something leaders.   Out of our networks and trainings have grown large, national organizations; other networks like Standing in Our Power or the Progressive Communicators Network; as well as national, regional and local leaders.  We will be working more in the future offering webinars and remote training.  We are continuing to work with low-income white people to identify what messages reach them and get them to understand and get involved in issues that affect their lives.

None of this can continue to happen without your help and financial support.  Please consider a generous gift as we embark into this important year of building civic engagement projects with low-income people.

Peace, Power and Love

Linda Stout signatureFINAL

 

Sep 292015
 

Last week I wrote about growing up hungry. If you missed Part 1 of this blog, click here.

Yesterday’s local paper carried the headline that 450 local students were homeless and needed food and other items to survive. As I wrote last week, I am haunted by a billboard on our way to the interstate that reads “One in Four Children in North Carolina will go to bed hungry tonight”.

Just last week, I visited my baby sister, Jane, in Southern Georgia who has just been diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. It was also a re-visit to my childhood. She and her family are low-income, and were constantly looking for how to buy food items cheap without regard to quality. They only bought things they called “BOGO.” When I asked what that meant, they laughed at me and said it meant “Buy One, Get One” free. As the five of us ate around the kitchen table in her trailer, which had to be folded out into the kitchen, with only one dining chair and one office chair (we used stools and ottomans to fill in), I was struck by the fact that growing up, we didn’t even have room for a table in our tiny trailer. I realized how easy it is to become too comfortable and to forget how lucky I am today to even own a dining room table!

Another memory my sister and I laughed about as we walked down memory lane, was a time when my family was working in the tomato fields. Jane, toddling behind us at age three would pull off tomatoes one after the other and eat the whole thing like an apple. When the owner of the farm saw her, he yelled at us and said no more of “his” tomatoes could be pulled off the vine and eaten. We had to explain this in detail to a three-year old. After a while, we didn’t see Jane and started looking for her. We found her lying flat on the red clay under a tomato plant, eating the tomato without taking it off the vine.

Today, there are even fewer opportunities – especially in towns and cities with no space, knowledge or ability to grow food– to find access to food. Some people get creative by stealing, dumpster diving, and/or begging to get some money just to get some food to eat.

Obviously this is not a long-term solution, or a safe one. I once had an employee in North Carolina who told me when she was unemployed, her children were crying for food, so she took them into the only local grocery store. She had them pick up their choice of fruit and eat it. Then they moved on and picked up a loaf of bread, plastic wear in the deli, and peanut butter and jelly to make sandwiches. She opened milk and let her children drink all they wanted. They also hit the juice aisle. Then to top it off, they went to the cookie aisle, and had their fill of dessert.

After her children were full, she took all the empty (or partially empty) packages up to the customer service and told them what she had done and why. The manager allowed her to keep the leftovers but told her to never come back into the store. As an African-American and poor woman in our racist community, she was lucky she wasn’t arrested and taken to jail on the spot!

It’s hard to imagine being hungry. It’s been at least 43 years since I was last hungry, but I still carry the fear and worry that I grew up with about not having enough to eat. I hate thinking about those days of being hungry. I certainly over-compensate now! I always carry food with me, even if it’s a day trip and I know there are grocery stores and restaurants around. Forget, a plane ride! Even for a two-hour flight, I make sure I have enough food for at least 24 hours. I know this isn’t rational. I try to not act from this place of fear, but it’s ingrained into my very being.

Food insecurity affects our psyche. It affects our long-term health as adults. It affects how we understand (or not) about helping our children make healthy choices.

While you can buy a whole burger or other foods at a fast food restaurant for $1, when it costs much more to buy food to cook a healthy meal in the grocery store, it’s easy to go to what many people would consider “bad choices.”   I remember riding by Hardee’s (a fast food chain) and wishing my parents could afford to spend 15 cents on a hamburger. I got my first taste of fast food at McDonald’s when I was 19 – a Big Mac Meal (with fries & drink) for $1.50!

“According to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 49 million people in the United States lived in households struggling to find enough food to eat. Nearly 16 million are children, who are far more likely to have limited access to sufficient food than the general population. While 15.9% of Americans lived in food-insecure households, 21.6% of children had uncertain access to food.

Incidence of diabetes and obesity are especially high in the states with high rates of food-insecurity (25 to 41%). “People who live in homes that are food-insecure have twice the rate of type 2 diabetes,” said Fraser. Five states with the highest food-insecurity among children — Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas, and North Carolina — had obesity rates above the national rate of 27.1%”. [USA Today]

I wonder if you can remember ever going hungry. Was it for one day (you hated the liver and your parents refused to give you anything else, or used withholding food as punishment), or was it for hunger that went on for days on end? It might have been like my family, where all you had for weeks at the end of winter were potatoes, as we grew them and buried them under ground to last us through the winter. And of course, biscuits and flour gravy was an added staple.

My stories may make you want to give to “hunger” groups or help out at soup kitchens. This is a wonderful temporary solution and of course, a needed action. But it is far from being the answer. The more soup kitchens, food pantries, and food programs we’ve created – both through government and through individual efforts – the worse the problem has gotten. We have to go beyond these extremely important social services, and address these issues to create the social changes needed to stop this problem in the first place.

As rich people in the United States continue to get richer, working-class and poor people have continued to see a drop in their buying power, especially in the rising cost of food. If you go to a school in a poor community, the food is much less nutritious or healthy than other schools in middle-class communities!

What can YOU do? Get involved! Electing politicians who are not representing the rich, or who truly understand and advocate for poor and working-class people, is a critical first step. Working on changing laws like promoting living wages, protecting laws like food stamps, school food programs, and welfare are also extremely important.

First and foremost we need to start talking about this issue! We need to educate ourselves about how serious this problem is. How did you experience hunger, if ever?

I encourage you to write your comments – about ever being hungry, about having an overabundance of food, about how much food you waste, or about actions we can take to solve these problems in the comment sections below.

Help us at Spirit in Action continue this conversation, continuing our work organizing poor people to address these issues through our local program in the Appalachia, We the People: Working Together.

While the actions listed above will help move us in the right direction, there’s no “quick fix” when it comes to dealing with our broken economic system. Please consider making a long-term gift for our work to build a fair and equitable economy. Please consider becoming a SIA Super Supporter by setting up a monthly gift today!

Setting up a regular gift is easy! Simply select “Recurring monthly” when entering your donation here. Thanks you for your continued support which allows us to plan our work in advance!

Sep 212015
 

A couple weeks ago, I got fooled into eating some alligator at a festival (I thought it was a super-sized chicken finger) and also frog legs (which I thought were chicken wings).  The taste is different, although does resemble some taste of chicken in the mix; but they are certainly not something I would choose to eat.

Interestingly enough, I grew up eating these foods, in addition to turtle, rabbit, squirrel, snake, and occasionally, bear.  I ate these foods because we were very poor and this was what “poor” people ate when they couldn’t afford to buy foods like chicken or beef.

Today these items are sold as a delicacy in some fancy restaurants, or at festivals, and are very expensive.  My stomach still turns at the idea of having had to eat these things, especially bear!  But when we were hungry, and it was one of our only sources of protein, we welcomed it into our hungry bellies.

In the United States, the richest country in the world, one in five children goes to bed every night hungry or malnourished.  It’s a hard fact to swallow.  I am haunted by the billboard I see as I drive out of my community that says one in four children go to bed hungry in North Carolina.

How can a country this rich and privileged allow that to happen? 

There are many wonderful programs out there trying to address the problem:  school lunch programs, food stamps, soup kitchens, food pantries, etc., but it is not enough!

We have to look at the root of the problem.  Why is our government actually not paying attention to this?  Why is there such a push to cut programs like food stamps, school food programs, and welfare while often blaming poor people as being stupid or lazy?  Or, accusing the fact that so many children are hungry (and homeless) as somehow being their parents’ fault and therefore not their responsibility.

Just to set the record straight: my father was not lazy.  He worked seven days a week as a tenant farmer and picked up other odd jobs.  He worked 12 to 16 hour days.  I started working in tobacco and in the fields when I was 10-years old.

Even though we worked all the time, we often did not have enough to eat in my years growing up and being malnourished for months on end. We were going to bed hungry because after dividing the small pot of food into the plates of two adults and three growing children, it was just not enough to satisfy our hunger. We would often depend for days on end on a staple of pinto beans, which we could grow and store.  For a long time after, I couldn’t eat them, although I have grown to like them again.

Today, our movement refers to this phenomenon as “food insecurity”.  I call it hungry or malnourished.  Growing up, I thought hungry looked like the poor starving children advertised on television with large crying eyes and bloated stomachs.  I had no reason to complain. I don’t want to discount the necessity to addressing starvation as an international crisis as well.  But we also need to understand the impact of hunger and malnourishment in children today.

How do we understand hunger?  How do we look at the fact that the majority of states that have the highest rates of hunger, also have the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in children?

I never went out to a restaurant or actually had a steak until I was 17 and was invited by a friend’s family. I was appalled at spending $10 on a meal.   I never had Chinese food, pizza, or other ethnic food served in restaurants, or even things like broccoli and asparagus, as we didn’t grow those things in the hot South.  I was 27 before I tasted any of these foods.  At the age of 44, my wife and I went out to eat, I became hysterical and ran to the car just because she would dare to not order the cheapest entrée, but also ordered an appetizer, a soda, and a dessert.

My most spectacular memory of food though was when I was a teenager and my father had enough money to go to the gas station on Fridays nights and buy 10 cooked hotdogs with buns for $1.  On special occasions, he also bought a Baby Ruth candy bar which 5 cents and had two small bars in the package.  For dessert, my parents would get one bar cut into two pieces.  And us girls would get a bar cut into three pieces.  Ecstasy!

Some harder memories are the fact we ate dirt as small children.  Why? We craved the nutrients in the red clay dirt of rural piedmont North Carolina.  Poor pregnant women especially craved the clay that I now know is rich in calcium, iron, copper and magnesium. These are essential minerals for the human diet but even more critical during pregnancy.

First and foremost we need to start talking about this issue!  We need to educate ourselves about how serious this problem is.  How did you experience hunger, if ever? 

I encourage you to write your comments – about ever being hungry, about having an overabundance of food, about how much food you waste, or about actions we can take to solve these problems in the comment sections below.

Help us at Spirit in Action continue this conversation and continuing our work organizing poor people to address these issues through our local program in the Appalachia, We the People: Working Together.

Next week, I will send out part 2 of this hunger blog as part of a series of blogs about experiencing poverty.  Please resend this blog to your contacts.  Thanks.