#15: If We’re Not Organizing White People, Somebody Else Is
By Erin Heaney, Evelyn Lynn and Sarah Stockholm
After Obama’s election, we saw a rise in the strategic use of racism to keep working class white people from joining multi-racial coalitions for affordable healthcare. A few, mostly Southern, working class white lesbians came together to attempt to address this problem, and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) was born.
We see our work as reliant on and complimentary to Black and POC-led organizing – and our role as organizing meaningful numbers of white people into multi-racial, anti-racist movements fighting for a new world. Since Trump’s election, we’ve expanded our work dramatically in white communities suffering most under racialized capitalism – organizing them into multi-racial, anti-racist populist movements that can build people power strong enough to fundamentally transform this country and its institutions.
In early 2016, as Trump rose in the Republican Primary, we prioritized our resources in communities we knew were most strategic to organize: poor and working class people, the South, rural areas, and disability communities. We shared Linda Burnham’s assessment, as she wrote on Organizing Upgrade in 2016, that our movement needed to put engaging working class white communities at the top of the agenda because “…white rage is lethal to democracy and progress and if we’re not organizing white people around their suffering we can be sure that someone else is.”
We prioritized these communities because the South, in particular Black-led organizing, has led the way for transformation in this country, despite being devastatingly under-resourced for generations. Poor people are suffering tremendously in rural areas, while elected officials from majority white rural areas hold disproportionate power to undermine progressive policies at the state and federal levels. We also focused here because poor, working class, and disabled white people have much to gain from deep structural change.
We launched listening projects with poor people in majority white, rural areas to assess conditions, identify campaigns that spoke to people’s lives and longings, and build a leaderful base skilled and powerful enough to transform power at the local level. We worked to develop popular education tools to help poor white folks understand how anti-Blackness, racism, and an economic system that pits poor people against each other is our largest barrier to putting food on the table and building communities that thrive. On Election Day, a core leader from one of these organizing projects, a low-income single mom of two, won a city council seat in rural Tennessee in a county that Trump won by over 50 points.
We’re also seeing the results pay off on a larger scale. We took our strategy to Georgia – a place the Democratic Party had written off and where Black women organizers had been leading the way. We joined partners on the ground in Georgia to collectively close the 55,000 margin gap that decided the race between Stacey Abhrams and Brian Kemp in 2018. The New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter, Fair Fight, Working Families Party and so many other groups had already laid the foundation to flip Georgia because of their tremendous ongoing work to expand the electorate with more Black voters while keeping real solutions to working people’s problems front and center.
SURJ prioritized low income white voters, who we knew were suffering under this administration and who are infrequent voters. Assuming Biden’s campaign would only contact a small number of likely white Democratic voters – who also skew more middle class and affluent- we knew our ground game needed to focus on the white voters who were least likely to receive a call about the election. After all, if Biden wasn’t talking to them and our partners were primarily focused on communities of color, who else was going to engage the white folks who rarely vote or were still sitting on the fence? We had to reach them before the Trump campaign did.
We mobilized our base from across the country and made over a million dials to white voters in Georgia. We had 25,000 long conversations with voters – calls that were 20 minutes or more and dug right into what was on their minds- the Black-led uprising to police violence, the pandemic & the harsh economic realities working families are facing. We called voters to have real conversations rooted in listening, empathy and an ask that they join us not just on election day, but in a Southern-led justice movement for years to come. Over 3,500 said yes to joining Southern Crossroads, a project of SURJ created and led by Southerners from working class rural communities, in order to stay engaged with organizing on the ground in Georgia. And, 21,000 made a commitment to vote, a significant contribution to the goals we shared with our partners.
We used a movement building approach to every aspect of this campaign and grounded our volunteers in the Black-led, Southern, working class organizing traditions we humbly follow. We provided 3,000+ volunteers with a depth of training that would strengthen their organizing skills whether they joined a phone bank to talk with voters or to recruit our base to join us. After three months of phone banks, our focus on leadership development had turned folks brand new to the movement into coaches, trainers and deeply committed organizers ready to lead campaigns in their communities.
We believe – and we’ve seen here in the South – that poor white folks won’t support ‘moderate’ Democrats whose policies offer us nothing, but we will support progressive Black candidates when they lead with vision. After all, Stacey Abrams won more white voters than Hilary Clinton did and Charles Booker’s Senate campaign built deep inroads in poor white rural communities in Eastern Kentucky.
Biden is going to win Georgia, but only because of our movement’s collective work. In the years ahead, we have the potential to win more victories at the local and national level by continuing to follow the visionary leadership of Black women organizers. And as white working class organizers, we cannot ignore the work of organizing our own into that vision. The stakes are far too high.
Erin Heaney is the National Director of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). Evelyn Lynn is the Director of Southern Crossroads. Sarah Stockholm is SURJ National Organizer.