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 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.
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