I have spent most of my life growing up in the U.S. South. I was raised in North Carolina and growing up here meant receiving perplexed looks, condescending questions and upsetting dismissals from non-Southerners because of the many stereotypes that comes with being from the South. Needless to say, I have learned a lot about how other people perceive this region. While most of these conversations have been between friends, comrades and allies, most of these perspectives — whether well-intentioned or not — are misguided. Oftentimes, it has been heartbreaking to find out what non-Southern organizers think they know about organizing in this region.
Many have told me that organizing in the South isn’t worth it or assume that there actually isn’t any organizing happening in the South at all. And perhaps the one perspective that has been the most infuriating to me is the idea that Southern organizers need to be rescued from the supposedly most backward region in the country.
What I want to speak to is how we start moving towards actually building relationships with each other across political, geographical and cultural lines. This is about remembering the importance of relationship building within movement spaces. While this is not simply about the dichotomy of West Coast versus East Coast or the North versus the South, for me, this is specifically about remembering how to build relationships that uphold, honor and deepen the reality of the work that exists in the South.
We have gotten used to alluding to “coalition building” and “strategic partnerships.” And sometimes, in an effort to not seem too in tune with the non-profit industrial complex, we use the word “solidarity” to distract from the reality that we are not actually putting in work to support the communities we are not a part of but want to speak for.
Let’s make one thing clear: I know how difficult coalition building can be. We can’t expect it to be easy to bring several different communities, groups and organizations representing different theories of change, political analyses and issue agendas to commit to each other.
When we feel that coalition building and strategic partnerships are difficult, we are likely not putting forth enough of an effort to build relationships.
In a culture that obsesses over results and wants immediate outcomes, we have become comfortable with going through the motions. We have become comfortable starting campaigns, political agendas and conversations without actually speaking with each other. And as many Southern communities may feel, too many of those motions throw us under the bus. The “us” I am referring to are large communities and populations of people of color, queer people, immigrants and the myriad of people trying to make it through the day while confronting systemic injustice.
Too many of those motions reflect the overwhelming assumptions that there is no organizing that exists in the South. When other communities feel the need to speak for Southerners, what results is underfunding to this region that supports us in addressing our needs, on our terms. What happens instead is the streamlining of money to major, national organizations that are unchallenged in the decisions they make for us, without consultation, without relationship building and without solidarity.
We cannot assume that knowing each other’s historical and current political, economic or social struggles makes us in solidarity with each other. We cannot make these assumptions when our transformation and our livelihoods depend on us authentically showing up at the table for each other.
Authentic solidarity is about understanding that on a very basic human level, we need to have relationships with each other that remain transparent, honest and compassionate. This means we can celebrate the moments when we can relate to each other. It also means that we shouldn’t take it personally when we can’t. These relationships give us true insight into when we are building with each other and when we are actually building on top of each other. If we aren’t doing the work to get to know each other, we have to stop saying we have each other’s backs.
Authentic solidarity means understanding that we cannot always be leaders for others — that sometimes the best thing we can do is say, “We cannot be the ones to do this for you.” We need to be more willing to recognize that the communities we are not a part of have a right to define how we can show up for them. And until that is defined, we cannot assume the responsibility of framing political directions and desires for others. We cannot lead ourselves to believe that doing that for others will last for the long haul.
And if anything, authentic solidarity is about being real about how everyone cannot fight every battle, but knowing that we are all capable of setting up the scene for it to happen. By setting up the scene, I mean acts of moving resources, capital and people in ways that do not take away the agency, autonomy and self-determination of directly impacted communities. It’s not about doing the bare minimum, it is about doing the most with whatever we conceptualize our roles to be. We need to start building these relationships where we are receiving and listening more than we are projecting our own desires, visions and dreams for communities we aren’t a part of.
I have faith that my frustrations as a Southern-based movement builder could be reconciled if neoliberal non-profits from the Northeast and West Coast actually talked to anyone before they determined for the South what our destiny can be.
I have hope that our collective frustrations can be processed if we remember to commit to each other as much, if not more than, we are committed to results, outcomes and wins that don’t translate to bridges being built to help us all access these wins.
Ultimately, our ability to take initiative and talk openly and honestly with communities we are not a part of about what kind of roles we can play will determine where the movement goes. Movement builders are not saviors; we are not tasked with winning for others, but we are charged with responsibility to win with each other. And wherever the movement may take us, I hope that we go forth with the understanding that when we say we’ve got someone’s back, we actually mean it.
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