Racial Justice in Rural Communities
6 Case Studies from the RDI Network
Groups around the country are leading powerful racial justice organizing in rural communities. At Rural Democracy Initiative, we’re celebrating this important work by sharing six stories from groups we fund.
There’s no one way to organize for racial justice. Groups use a variety of strategies, focus on different issues, and organize in distinct communities. However, we noticed a few themes from the groups we’re featuring in this article.
- Groups center racial justice, support the leadership of people of color, and foster partnerships with groups working in rural communities of color. Consider that 24% of rural residents are Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
- Anti-racist organizing in white rural communities is a critical component to building successful multiracial coalitions.
- Many groups prioritize commitment to listening to people, building trusting relationships, and establishing grassroots power.
- Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities have rich cultural and intellectual traditions that point to strategic and meaningful solutions.
- Many groups help meet people’s immediate and urgent needs, like housing and health care, as part of a long-term strategy to build power.
- The fight against racism is deeply connected and overlaps with the fight against sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination. Discrimination is intersectional, and people are impacted by a multitude of social justice and human rights issues.
Read below for a window into rural anti-racist organizing and a slice of our network’s dynamic groups and leaders making meaningful change.
Phillip Barker has been farming in North Carolina for over 40 years. Being a small farmer is hard work, but discrimination makes it even harder. Black farmers, as Phillip explained in a recent Newsweek op-ed, are more likely to be denied USDA support and private bank loans. Racism has pushed Black farmers into debt and forced many to give up farming entirely.
Thanks to the work of farmers like Phillip and the HEAL Food Alliance, which Phillip’s organization Operation Spring Plant is a member of, we’re starting to see a policy and narrative shift. This year, Congress, the President, and USDA have acknowledged historical discrimination against Black, Indigenous, and other farmers of color and are creating policies towards equal opportunity for these farmers. But the critical steps towards debt relief for farmers of color are tied up in the courts. While HEAL and their members and allies organize to win this campaign, they are also working on a longer-term strategy because, as Philip writes, “The fight for food justice is so much bigger than just this court case.”
As a multiracial coalition led by people of color, HEAL has supported Black farmers to write several high-profile articles about their experiences. Additionally, graduates of HEAL’s School of Political Leadership (now accepting applications for its fourth cohort) have been working with HEAL Members at Land Stewardship Project, another RDI grantee, and Public Justice to create compelling communications and narrative to support debt relief for farmers of color in Minnesota. HEAL also coordinates legal, policy, and communication strategies that center the people most directly burdened by the lack of debt relief. All of this helps dismantle the racist roots of our food system, an essential step in HEAL’s goal to create food and farm systems that are healthy for our families, accessible and affordable for all communities, and fair to the people who grow, distribute, prepare, and serve our food.
SHARING POWER, BUILDING POWER
“If you can’t share power, you can’t build power.” That’s Natali Fierros-Bock’s approach to building social movements. She is co-director of Rural Arizona Engagement (RAZE), which organizes underserved and underrepresented communities to build political power. Many people, especially Black and Brown people and young people, are skeptical of politicians and cynical about social movements. That’s because they have been treated as a commodity or a statistic. Natali saw progressive leadership invite Black, Brown, and young people to vote and volunteer, but they were shut out of decision-making power. RAZE co-director Pablo Correa notes the patterns of racism where Black and Brown people are expected to serve while white people hold positions of influence. In contrast, RAZE shifts who has power and changes the narrative of who deserves power.
RAZE’s leadership program supports young people to have power. The program gives Black and Brown youth the skills to organize effectively and self-advocate. At RAZE, youth identify the issues they work on, they are their own subject matter experts, and they create solutions. The RAZE program offers valuable job opportunities while also offering an educational curriculum not available at the area’s underfunded public schools. RAZE also gives participants resources, networking, and critical organizing skills like power mapping.
Emilie Lopez is one of eleven 2020 graduates actively involved with RAZE power building. After completing the program, they created and led RAZE’s campaign to support missing and murdered Indigenous women. As a Native American and citizen of the Pima Tribe, Emilie has a personal connection to this issue. They’ve also been a leader in voter registration in their community, Gila River Indian Reservation, as well as LGBTQ advocacy. They’re on track to be a RAZE field director in 2022, an incredible professional and leadership opportunity for an 18-year-old.
Pablo, Natali, Emilie, and the whole RAZE team are sharing power and building power. While RAZE’s work impacts state and federal elections, it’s also putting Black, Brown, LGBTQ, and young people into decision-making roles with the tools and support to represent their community.
USING RESEARCH TO GUIDE STRATEGY
To make the right decisions, the New Rural Project begins with research. Looking at the numbers, it’s clear that people in the southeast part of North Carolina, stretching from the rural counties outside of Charlotte to the counties in the Sandhills, aren’t getting the healthcare access they need. They have some of the lowest COVID vaccination rates in the state. And that’s one of many statistics and data points that show Black, Native, and Hispanic people suffer from health inequity.
There’s a gap between community needs and the solutions offered by local government. Local governments encourage vaccination by advising people to “consult your primary care physician.” But that’s impractical for the many people who don’t have a regular doctor. Furthermore, vaccine clinics were concentrated in urban and suburban areas.
Understanding the problem, the New Rural Project partners with regional medical providers and other community-focused organizations to organize pop-up healthcare events across the region. The events make it easy to get the COVID vaccine from a trusted source in their own neighborhood. But these pop-up events are more than a clinic; they have food and entertainment in addition to vaccines and other services. It’s more community cookout than doctor’s visit.
These events address real needs in the community, and they also build community power. They build relationships, train people in community organizing, and develop new leaders. Maribel Cruz got involved with New Rural Project when a pop-up came to Marshville. She canvassed Hispanic neighborhoods and provided Spanish-English translation. Now, she continues to volunteer with New Rural Project on other projects.
New Rural Project, and activists like Maribel, are successful because they listen to people. New Rural Project organizes deep door-to-door conversations, focus groups, and interviews with their neighbors. From this work, New Rural Project is developing an understanding of what it takes to empower citizens across race to get engaged and elect leaders who understand and deliver for their communities.
A MISSOURI MULTIRACIAL MAJORITY
The Missouri Organizing and Voter Engagement Collaborative (MOVE) uses deep canvassing and research to inform collaborative economic and racial justice messaging. They are building a multiracial statewide governing majority, which requires building alliances across urban and rural communities. But first, they need to create a messaging framework that will unite and motivate diverse constituencies. Their messaging addresses race and racism directly while calling out the wealthy and powerful interests that keep our communities divided. In doing so, they are striving to create solidarity and a sense of common cause.
MOVE launched “Transformative Conversations” in 2019, regranting resources to grassroots member organizations and training their canvassers in a deep canvassing framework that invites a nimble flow of conversation. Over the course of 4,000 meetings with diverse voters, MOVE established a research grounding for Missourians’ priorities and messages to encourage cross-racial solidarity.
“We won’t build statewide power without our rural communities,” says canvasser Aaron Lerma. Living in rural Southeast Missouri, the program was a unique opportunity to reach out to people and listen. Aaron is inspired by the number of people willing to have conversations about race and class, including white working-class people. Although these conversations were challenging at times, Aaron learned from them and established relationships for further discussion in the future. These initial conversations helped identify issues of common ground and are a critical step towards social change.
Healthcare access and affordability resonated with urban and rural Missouri, with the challenges of addiction, illness, and injury intersecting with frustrations at systemic gaps and rising costs. Missourians expressed that they want to come together, and many expressed hope at the idea of a multiracial movement and majority working on shared issues. From the deep canvassing, MOVE created a messaging narrative and then field tested that narrative.
Building on their lessons, MOVE doubled down on their commitment to Transformative Conversations and supported grassroots member organizations in leading another round of 2,800 deep canvassing conversations. This time the conversations worked to move previously contacted voters into deeper engagement and action, such as attending a forum, becoming a member, or committing to a further action. From this additional research, they further refined their messaging for different constituencies, including using an empowerment framework in conversations. And through this iterative process, MOVE continues to refine messaging that inspires shared purpose, empowers people to make a difference, and strengthens multiracial coalitions.
NATIVE VALUES AND AFFORDABLE HOUSING
A Montana resident and member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe of North Dakota worries he will lose his home. Like many mobile home residents, he faces a drastic increase in fees after corporate investors purchased the land. “As an Indian person, it feels like we’re getting removed again,” says the mobile home owner — who has chosen to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
MHAction is working with him and mobile home residents across the country. Despite the stereotypes of who lives in mobile homes, residents have diverse occupations and backgrounds. Successful organizing requires a multiracial movement that also fights for racial, economic, and gender justice because those issues intersect with the needs of mobile home residents.
For Native people, displacement is particularly traumatic. At a recent MHAction event, Yuchi and Anishinaabe Nations leader Bineshi Albert noted that Indigenous people were removed from their original homelands. Then they were further disenfranchised through the shift from collective ownership of land to individual ownership. With individual ownership, both land and people suffer at the hands of a few.
However, Native people’s relationship to the land also offers a housing solution — a solution that benefits everyone. MH Action’s Indigenous Peoples Advocacy Director Wesley Edmo, MSW (Shoshone-Bannock) notes that while all tribes have a different creation story, there is a consistent partnership with the land. Land should be cared for like a family member rather than the current corporate model of displacing people and extracting profit. The Indigenous practice of collective care of the land also serves as a model for new policies. MHAction advocates for legal and financial support that prioritizes the relationship of people to the land and away from practices that treat people and the land as mere commodities. MHAction is pursuing property ownership models and funding mechanisms that give people the power to collectively care for themselves, their community, and the land. A mix of ownership by non-profit organizations, public entities and public housing authorities, and resident-owned cooperatives, combined with tenant protections and safety nets, would enable people to live without fear of eviction while creating sustainable communities.
MULTIRACIAL COALITIONS ACCELERATE A PROGRESSIVE GEORGIA
New Georgia Project (NGP), CASA, and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) are incredibly effective organizations coming together to mobilize rural residents in rural Georgia. NGP has helped more than 500,000 Georgians register to vote and is one of the anchor organizations leading Georgia’s civic transformation. They are building powerful multiracial coalitions while also lifting up Black voices. CASA is one of the nation’s leading immigrant advocacy organizations, and key to their work is building solidarity between Black and Brown immigrant communities and challenging anti-Blackness and colorism. SURJ engages rural, white communities for anti-racist mobilization. The three organizations are taking their collaboration to the next level to build long haul, cross-organizational, multiracial, multi-ethnic rural infrastructure, and an enduring, multiracial coalition. Together, these organizations are leading a new effort to engage 50,000 voters and mobilize 1,000 residents to take action on locally-driven campaigns to take the people’s power back in Georgia.
In rural Georgia, Black and Latino families have been ignored by too much of the mainstream, and the same lack of progressive infrastructure has ceded too many white voters to reactionary, conservative ideology. The NGP, CASA, and SURJ coalition addresses this dangerous situation with a multi-pronged racial justice strategy. The coalition uses different messaging and outreach tactics for different constituencies, addressing the root causes of racial division and white supremacy. Rooted in a commitment to racial justice, the coalition will accelerate progressive change in Georgia by bringing people from different backgrounds, races, and cultures together to fight for their common interest.
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