Grassroots organizing is where it’s at, and I’ve gotten involved with Airlift, which raises funds to support some amazing organizations doing crucial work to turn non-voters into voters in key areas throughout the country. Check out this latest in my “On the Ground” series.
2020 is here, a hugely consequential year for our country and the world. As we welcome the New Year with hope and renewed determination for the work ahead, we also welcome a new organization into the fold that Airlift funds: Down Home North Carolina.
Down Home exemplifies the winning strategy of building political power from the ground up by engaging and expanding the electorate with those who have been most marginalized. Founded in June 2017 by organizers Todd Zimmer and Brigid Flaherty, Down Home’s focus is on building long-term, progressive infrastructure to empower working families in rural and small-town communities across North Carolina. The co-directors both have deep roots in the state, and have witnessed how well-funded, right-wing interests have exploited racial differences and the rural/urban divide, pitting white, black, immigrant, and LGBTQ working families against one another to maintain power. Since 80 out of 100 North Carolina counties are rural, the balance of power won’t shift without investing in the vast people power ready to be unlocked in these long-neglected regions. After learning how to organize for issue advocacy and electoral success, Zimmer and Flaherty returned home to North Carolina to do “the heart work” necessary for making local, state, and national government serve the people’s interests, not the rich and powerful.
One of Down Home’s major undertakings was a Deep Listening Canvass, with trained canvassers holding more than 1,000 conversations across the political, racial, and economic spectrum in rural areas. Through nonjudgmental listening and sharing personal stories, those who commonly distrust one another discovered shared values and interests, coming together to forcefully advocate for Medicaid expansion, fair wages, education, the end of cash bail, and solutions to the opioid crisis.
These issues matter to communities that have been devastated by the grinding poverty brought about by a hollowed-out economy and the defunding of education and social programs under Republican rule. Listening makes a huge difference: “No one’s ever asked me before,” was a common refrain among Deep Canvass participants. Such respectful engagement shifts not only hearts and minds, but participation: People who have never before paid attention to politics are now attending Town Halls and Leadership Trainings, challenging their elected representatives and injustice in the courts, educating their neighbors, working hard for electoral change, even running for—and winning!—office. DHNC-supported candidates won six out of eight local races—and would have won another had a tie-breaking coin toss gone the other way! On a state-wide basis, DHNC has joined Democratic Governor Roy Cooper in support of Medicaid expansion, and continue to fight the Republican-controlled legislators who consistently block healthcare for half a million North Carolinians. Member efforts have been featured in a New York Times op-doc.
Down Home also provides on-the-ground services to those in need. Through distributing clean syringes and Naloxone, the antidote to an opioid overdose, more than 130 lives have been saved. Coordinator Mary Kate Crisp says, “I lived with active addiction for three years, and when I stopped using, I started going out into the community to volunteer. It was a big piece of my recovery, and I was thrilled when I was hired by Down Home this summer.” In addition to distributing life-saving interventions, Crisp and her team work tirelessly to educate, break down stigma, direct people to services, and organize direct advocacy actions.
Another major DHNC campaign is fighting the cash bail system through court-watching, advocacy, and raising money to pay bail for those whose lives will be devastated simply because they cannot pay to stay out of jail while their cases are adjudicated. Such programs are not obviously “political,” but working to improve peoples’ lives is a powerful antidote to disengagement, and brings important electoral shifts that benefit those who have been left behind.
In it for the long haul, Down Home North Carolina has demonstrated astonishing growth and success in a very short time. Their membership has doubled, there are chapters in five counties with plans for another five, and they have knocked on thousands of doors and gotten more than 1,000 low-propensity voters to cast ballots. With engagement comes hope, and a transformation within rural communities ground down by poverty and division from survival mode to enthusiastic participation and leadership. Goals for 2020 include flipping the State House from Red to Blue; protecting Governor Roy Cooper; defeating Senator Thom Tillis, and expanding the vote in rural communities to put North Carolina back into the blue column of the Electoral College.
With your help, all of this is within reach, in this crucial year and over the long-term. As Airlift founder Danny Altman says about Down Home North Carolina, “They have the smarts, the organizing skills, the allies, the data, the plan. All they need is the money.”
Your generosity makes a difference. Please support Down Home North Carolina and all the other great grassroots organizations Airlift funds by donating at https://secure.actblue.com/donate/airlift. Thank you!