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“Working People Are the Real Experts on Their Lives”: How a Grassroots Group in North Carolina Is Fighting Trump’s Betrayal

Tapping into the fighting spirit of rural North Carolina.

(Photo: Cyndi Hoelzle / EyeEm / Getty Images)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now nearly a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 104th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you conversations with Brigid Flaherty, Juan Miranda and Kischa Peña of Down Home North Carolina. They discuss how the grassroots organization grew out of the results of the 2016 election, how they organize within their communities, and what fights they are taking on in 2018.

Sarah Jaffe: Give people a sense of what Down Home North Carolina is. When did it get started?

Brigid Flaherty: Down Home North Carolina is a member-led grassroots organization. We believe in building power for working communities in small-town and rural North Carolina. We actually were formed right after the election…. When we were looking at the political makeup of North Carolina and what had happened since 2010 and the far-right takeover of the state, and then moving into 2016 and watching that happen at the federal level, it felt like the best offense that we were going to have was to make sure that we were building strong local leadership in places in North Carolina that weren’t necessarily the places that had a lot of infrastructure. For us, this felt like a long-term project that needed to happen in order to make sure that working people got what they deserved, were able to build their leadership, and flex their muscle so that we could really be making winds that could change people’s lives in the years to come.

We said in November [2016] that we were going to start Down Home and then actually got off the ground in June [2017]…. We just got out on the doors using a listening survey. We went with three broad questions, basically, which were: What are the issues that matter most to you and your family? Who or what is responsible for those issues? What are your solutions?

I think one of the things we really felt we learned from the 2016 election is that a lot of working people don’t feel listened to….

Kischa Peña: It started for me at the end of September. I went to a meeting … and they discussed the things that they were interest[ed in] finding more about Alamance County. For me, I always say that I was sceptical…. There is a lot of racial tension that is kind of swept under the rug or no one really talks about, but we know it is there. So, for me to hear about and see a diverse group of people in a room together talking about building power for working people in Alamance County — Black, white, whoever — that was interesting to me.

When we did the surveys, and talked to people in Alamance County, that was something that I had never done. I had never actually listened to my neighbors…. I didn’t realize that people didn’t feel like they had a voice, or that their opinion mattered, because I am used to being online and seeing everybody giving their opinion on any and everything, but rural town people, a lot of people don’t have access to internet/computers in their home…. For me to hear everyone’s story and feel connected in some kind of way, whether it was something I was feeling personally or just knew of family members who were kind of going through the same thing, it helped me to see that although there is that racial tension, we are connected way more than they want us to believe. For me, that is what this process has opened up for me.

What were some of the things that you were hearing people talk about that they wanted to change? What were the issues that you were struggling with?

Peña: I kind of felt like I wasn’t struggling with anything on the list of the survey. Me getting involved was more helping people around me and finding out, “Well, maybe I do have some issues that I don’t really know about.” Health care is definitely a concern for me — losing my health care — because I am a cancer patient. In the back of my mind, that is a concern, but it is not something I sit around and really become fearful about. But I did find that a lot of people are worried, especially older people. Senior citizens are worried about losing their health care, are worried about losing their Social Security. Minimum wage is an issue here. Affordable housing, decent housing.

Doing canvassing, that opened my eyes to … I live in a very nice apartment complex. It is an old yarn mill that is renovated. So, to walk around Alamance County and to see where people live, see how people live, and to know that there aren’t many options for them right now to live a little bit better. Some people don’t know that they could live better. Health care, decent, affordable housing, and raising the minimum wage were the main concerns for most of the people that we surveyed in Alamance County.

Juan, do you want to tell us about the process of getting the organization going and some of the first things you started to work on as a group?

Juan Miranda: It is definitely very slow and grinding work. It is something that, intentionally, we have been very disciplined about not just dictating what the issues were and what the solutions were, but really just going in and talking to people. As we said, working people are the experts on their lives, right? So, we started the surveys talking to people, as many as we could, identifying the issues and then trying to follow up with them. Obviously, people had different levels of engagement with the survey. Many people were sceptical for very legitimate reasons … it speaks to how deep people’s disengagement and sense of betrayal is, they’re just feeling forgotten and tricked and duped. There have also been people who, as sceptical as they have been … talking to us more, inviting us to their house … surprising how open people invite you into their living rooms and trailers.

Having those conversations, learning more about, “What are the things that drive them? What are the things that really keep them up at night? What are their hopes, aspirations?” Learning about their backgrounds and building some of those relationships and going back to them, it’s basic organizing. You create opportunities for people to get involved….

People have skills. People organize every day in their community, people organize every day in their jobs. It is basically just helping them see the talented organizers they are already and helping channel that. We started doing the listening tour and then helping folks organize their own house meetings or sometimes even bigger meetings. Then, [we] started doing some basic trainings, talking about power. That is a very important thing in how we organize. Power is at the center of it. We are in this to build power and to be able to make some real differences, and we understand that we can only do that if we have an organization that is powerful. By that, we mean lots of members who are actively engaged and building organization and taking action.

Training around racial justice issues is also a key component. We are in a county that is diverse, in a state that is diverse in many ways. We know that racism, obviously, plays a huge role in people’s lives, and we are explicitly an anti-racist organization. Being able to talk about that and talk about class and be able to have some productive discussions with people that normally … have a lot of distrust with each other and people able to start talking about this and the issues that affect their everyday lives, to start talking about how all these things play together. That is the process along the way. We are getting to the point where we have started identifying potential campaigns and taking some more decisive actions and are really excited about 2018.

Flaherty: Again, we really felt that to win, you have to be so strong in your communities; which, again, means leaders from the communities building the organization, running the work, and yet there were moments throughout the summer and the fall that we took to mobilize and get into the streets because we are a “fight back” organization. We are an organization that believes that you need to make demands and you need to be taking on interests that are making your life harder. We were finding those moments over the summer to basically make interventions around health care, in response to Charlottesville and we have been working around the Duke Energy rate hike.

On the health care fight, this was in maybe three to four weeks of just being in existence, so we didn’t yet have Juan or Kischa as part of the organization, but we were still using petitions both online and in the field to talk about the need to make sure that health care was a human right and that our representatives were not voting to take that away. We collected over 500 petitions and had a three-member delegation go to Senator [Thom] Tillis’s office in Raleigh to deliver those petitions.

When Charlottesville happened … we did a vigil in Waynesville, which is where I organize in the mountains in Haywood County. Over 200 people turned out, which was huge for that area and really showed the ways that there are folks that are really saying that hate has no place in rural red counties. We did anti-racist trainings following that for Haywood. In Alamance, there were two panels … that brought together the Black leadership within Alamance, as well as historians and academics and community members where people just had the ability … to talk about what and how racism impacts them, and how they want to see a community that is built toward values of inclusion and dignity and safety and not built on hate….

Then, around the Duke Energy hike … that became very natural that we were going to do a petition on it and action around it. We are actually going to be doing more in the new year. Two years ago, Duke Energy had the coal ash spill. They were at fault for it. The pollution that was caused from the spill was damaging our wildlife, it was killing people. Now, they are at a point where they are trying — they were fined for it and they were trying to put that fine on the backs of working people. Basically, threatening to raise people’s utility bills upwards of $20 a month. Now, our members are working folks, some of them are on fixed incomes, some of them are on three jobs and are at $9 an hour for that and have many kids that families are trying to support. Twenty dollars is going to crush folks’ ability to keep the lights on. People were angry about that. We started a petition … the Duke Energy petition got over 4,500 petition signatures. We have been mobilizing now at the rate hike hearings. The Utility Commission had a hearing in Asheville where we had a member deliver the petitions to them. There will be another hearing in January in Raleigh that folks are going to be mobilizing toward, as well.

All of this is to say that even though we are, again, doing the very necessary groundwork that builds that base that gets us into a stronger place for long-term fighting and power-building, we are also trying to take advantage of moments where we can at least raise our voices and leverage the power that we have built in communities to stop some of the most egregious abuses that corporations are having on working communities in North Carolina. I should also say we also were involved in “raise the minimum wage” rallies at Labor Day. We organized folks in both counties to be in the Labor Day parades where we were, talking about the need for North Carolina to raise the minimum wage since it hasn’t been raised in over 10 years, and working people deserve more.

It was a year. I don’t even know what adjectives to use for it anymore. What are some of the big takeaways that you have from this work in the last year?

Flaherty: We have only been around for six months. One of the things that I am taking away is that I am deeply proud of the members and have really seen the fact that if you take the time to listen, and if you take the time to tell people that they have the ability to lead in their community, to come together and determine what solutions they want to see to improve not just where they live, but the state, folks rise to that. There is a fighting spirit in these counties where people know they deserve better and they want to fight for power to make their lives and their county and their communities better. It is about building that vehicle that folks can own to do that work that I have really seen in action.

As much as I think there is a narrative out there that we are in a moment of despair and that the bigger political forces are out-organizing us, in some ways that is true, but if you actually create the vehicle in places that haven’t had infrastructure before that, folks will come in and they will work and they will use their work break to actually do a call list to get people to come out to a meeting. If you have real folks from communities leading, more people are going to join because it is going to be authentic and people are going to be really motivated, even if they weren’t motivated by other efforts in the past.

I just think that my biggest takeaway is that people are ready to fight and it doesn’t mean it is going to be easy, but I think that there is a willingness in these counties to really be working together and doing the necessary work to make things better.

Peña: As a member, as a resident of Alamance County, I think this is something that I was looking for that I didn’t necessarily know I needed. With the last election, I was fed up. I was like, “I am just going to take a seat. I am going to worry about my house. I am not going to worry about what is going on in the world. I am not going to get so involved in social media. I am not going to rile myself up. I am just going to focus on me….”

Investing that time in our communities has been valuable to me because it helps me to continue to be a compassionate person and to understand that it isn’t just about me and my household, as it is the wellbeing of everybody around me, because we all need to be at a certain level of peace to continue and to help each other grow in the community…. We are giving people the opportunity to speak their piece and they are pushing through whether it is scary, whether it is making them nervous, whether they are fearful. Even myself, I push through to do things and to be accountable to the other members. I want them to see that I am getting involved and that I am taking steps to help the organization grow, and then that helps other people to feel a sense of ownership to what we have going. I am just proud of what we have accomplished in these past four or five months from myself being involved.

Miranda: There is not one big thing. I think for me something that is constantly churning is that there is this tendency for people to be dismissed and for people to be discarded and there is no point in talking to them because their ideas are too backward…. That cannot be further from the truth. There are so many people that may not have all the perfect ideas, but at the same time … in my experience, many better ideas than some of the people who are in a place of leadership at the moment right now. Going around and talking to people that might have some mixed ideas around race, but they want universal health care and they want unions and they want higher minimum wage and we start talking about “Why don’t I have these things?” and then start talking about how maybe racism has something to do with it and seeing people open up, like sparks.

Being able to see people grow and challenge some of those ideas, some of those lies they have been told that they have bought into and really grasp how those lies have been used to pin us down. There is so much hope that gets me because those are the people that we have to organize. First of all, if we don’t organize then someone else will, and they are organizing them. I have met people along the way who I wonder, “If I had met this person a year ago and offered this information or answered their questions or helped to see a different explanation to the fears and anxieties, they might be somewhere else right now.” I think that is something that is always humbling, and at the same time, it is inspiring.

I think for us to be able to resist and even beat back the ongoing attacks against working people, it is going to take us being more humble, and understanding that there are people who maybe haven’t made all the connections because they are being organized otherwise. I think that creating spaces where people can be heard and come together with other people and the contradictions just stand out on their own if you lay them out….

What are you looking forward to working on/fighting for in 2018?

Flaherty: At the end of this process, each county now has the beginnings of the vision for the local and state fights that people are going to take on where they live and then bubbling up to the state. Particularly, I think the issues around fighting for a higher minimum wage and better housing conditions exist within both counties. We are joining the state-wide fight to help raise the minimum wage, because again, it has just been too long and all of our members are just really struggling around how to get more for the work they are doing. That is going to be a big fight for us.

I can say, opioids have been a really big issue that has been impacting particularly the mountain counties and particularly where I organize in Haywood. We have been developing partnerships with folks in the state and are looking at helping to support the state-wide fight for fair chance hiring. There is a cycle here, where addiction is really also connected to lack of opportunities for good employment and opportunities around stable housing. We really want to be a part of the holistic approach to ending the opioid crisis and saving lives. Taking on that state-wide fight to make sure that folks who have had previous conditions are no long barred from employment is a really big issue for us. As well as, locally, looking at things around both meeting direct needs. We are being trained on how to do Naloxone distribution. We are also looking at local legislation that would be around helping to make sure that we have expanded treatment options and making sure, again, that people are not put in jail who actually need mental health support or just health care.

I can also say that we are a part of the Poor People’s Campaign and are going to be actively involved in organizing at the state level around mobilizations and all of the organizing that goes along with the Poor People’s Campaign, as well.

Miranda: In Alamance, with our members, we identified some of the things we want to take on for the first month around this Duke Energy rate increase, for mobilizing folks to the hearing and doing some canvassing and recruiting around that. Just being open to conversations. In Alamance, they recently decided to bring back 287(g), which is the deportation program. It deputizes the Sheriff’s Department to act as immigration officers, which the county had several years back and it was under national headlines. It was under investigation with [the] DOJ…. They are bringing it back, and now with Jeff Sessions and Trump in office, there is even less oversight over what happens. It is really energizing to see folks, immigrants and non-immigrants, taking on this question and really talk about the importance of organizing around something that creates so much fear and devastation in the community, and at the same time, being able to make those broader connections. Obviously, just the fact that attacks on immigrants are not independent from attacks on other communities of color and police brutality and the way that these resources are being used to police immigrant folks.

Flaherty: Part of our work is to be able to rebuild the democracy so that we have governing power, and the agenda at the state level reflects the agenda of working people. We are going to be active in the midterms and making sure that we are growing our civic engagement power. We are going to be doing “get out the vote” work. We are going to be using that as an opportunity to hold candidate forums and really make sure that people who are running in these districts are going to be in favor of the agenda of Down Home members, and if they are not, they should be ready to be held accountable around that. For us, really also flexing that political muscle, using the base that we have built through the listening process, using the base that will be developed in these issue fights and turning that into the electoral moment and using that as a way to really make sure that our democracy is working for us and our interests, and not the super wealthy and corporations. That is going to be a big thing for us for the midterms.

Peña: This next year, I am excited because there are a lot of things that we have to work toward, but I am excited about the unknown more than anything, because we still have the opportunity to grow. We still need new members. We have a lot more people to talk to, to meet, to educate ourselves on. I am excited about the future of learning within this next year. Learning more about my community and the issues that are going on, because I feel like I had been distant for a long time just kind of living here and not paying attention. I am excited about getting involved and growing that power that we are talking about all of the time. This next year is going to be awesome. If these last five or six months is any indication of what 2018 is going to look like, we are about to build that power we have been talking about and make some great changes in Haywood and Alamance County and continue to grow across North Carolina.

How can people keep up with Down Home North Carolina and with all of you?

Flaherty: We have a Facebook page, Down Home North Carolina. We have a lot of our events and you can sign up there to be in the loop around all of the meetings and actions that we are going to be doing. We also have a website, which is You can sign up there, as well. These are really the two places that most people can get plugged in for the future work of Down Home.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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