Editor’s Note: This article was reported by participants in a Movement Journalism Skill Session at the 2017 Southern Movement Assembly. This is part of an ongoing effort to make reporting skills and tools accessible for people to tell their own stories.
On a chilly weekend in late October, at a former plantation still surrounded by miles of cotton fields, three hundred people from thirteen Southern states, Puerto Rico, and beyond gathered to address what they termed “the multiple crises of white supremacy, state violence, and economic inequality.”
It was the seventh Southern Movement Assembly (SMA), a convening that brings together people from communities throughout the U.S. South and the Global South, to strategize and practice shared governance in a continuation of the legacies of the Southern Freedom Movement and Black Radical Tradition.
The former plantation, situated near the small town of Whitakers in Eastern North Carolina, is now called the Franklinton Center at Bricks. It was reclaimed after the Civil War and became one of the first accredited schools for African Americans in the region, training Black leaders for local churches.
The site’s painful but transformative past provides grounding for people still fighting for racial justice and liberation. Nineteenth-century buildings shoulder a gravel path that welcomes 21st century visitors who come from near and far for events ranging from literacy classes to social justice strategy meetings.
On this particular weekend, huge white tents were pitched throughout the grounds. In the main tent, Ruben Solis Garcia, a long-time labor organizer from Texas and founder of a popular education program called University Sin Fronteras, oriented the group with a description of the history and purpose of the SMA process.
“From the movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s when we were building power, to state repression, to the ‘80s when we were doing issue-based organizing, to 1999 and the World Trade Organization, we are always asking: ‘How are we going to govern ourselves in a way that breaks with the system and moves us forward together?’”
Part of the answer came from the U.S. Social Forum in 2007, a gathering of grassroots groups that used local and regional People’s Movement Assemblies to practice participatory democracy at the national level.
“The People’s Movement Assembly is a vehicle to open up people coming together and sitting at an equal level with all voices contributing to strategies that build a new level of power,” Solis explained.
At the SMA, this has translated to “Frontline Assemblies,” where folks discuss how they are working on the ground in communities to address injustices that directly impact their lives.
Kelanii Jones, a youth organizer with Project South in Atlanta (who contributed reporting to this article), participated in the National Student Bill of Rights Frontline Assembly. There, he met students from other cities grappling with problems like those he faces.
“Public schools these days are trying to put us in a position where students will be good employees. We’re trained to be good at going to Walmart, filling up their cash registers, then going to McDonald's and flipping burgers. We aren’t educated to become these great things like doctors, artists, architects, stuff like that…They want us to be low paid workers,” Jones said.
“The reason why I believe that SMA is important is because you get to connect with other groups that are facing the same problems. It reassures you that you're not the only one out there facing this…you can support them and they can support you,” he added.
The Southern Movement Assembly VII, a constellation of social movement organizations and people that seek to govern themselves, took place October 26th through 29th in Whitakers, North Carolina. Photos by Dario Rios, Elizabeth Wright, James Perry, Manzoor Cheema, and Jared Story. Slideshow by Hope Hart for Scalawag.
Other Frontline Assemblies focused on decarceration, agroecology and new economies, popular democracy, decolonizing borders and migration, climate disaster, and workers’ justice.
Participants in the Workers’ Justice Frontline Assembly went from discussion to action, rising at five a.m. the morning after their assembly to leaflet at an engine plant in nearby Rocky Mount. They were supporting a campaign of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE Local 150), which has won higher wages at the plant and is now pushing demands concerning worker safety.After leafleting, the group headed back to the SMA for skill-building sessions, and later met over lunch to discuss organizing.
Angaza Laughinghouse, a member of UE 150 and a civil rights lawyer, said the union develops solutions that boost community care and resourcefulness. For example, union members have organized rides for workers to a free health clinic in Whitakers, thereby reducing reliance on company health insurance, which workers fear losing if they speak out about grievances.
“[We are] building community infrastructure to insulate against attacks by management,” Laughinghouse explained.
“The health clinic also offers legal resources that have supported workers in studying the plant manual, conducting a peer review, and analyzing the safety rules to overturn anti-worker decisions and policies,” he said.
The SMA provides a space for organizers and workers across the South to share local strategies and solutions like these. The Frontline Assemblies bring their discussions to a Full Assembly, and then work to develop collective visions and commitments to build new systems together.
Past SMA’s led to the development of the Southern People’s Initiatives, which articulate a shared vision for a world where instead of extractive economies that exploit people and land, new solidarity economies meet everyone’s needs; where instead of state-sanctioned violence, communities protect and defend one another; and instead of an imbalance of political power, everyone has a say in the decisions that affect their lives.
In 2016, the SMA process distilled these initiatives into a blueprint for action that reflects the social change work already happening in communities across the South.
“It’s important to practice and share what’s going on and how we can replicate it,” said Kendall Bilbrey who works as Project Director for the Appalachian Community Fund and has organized LGBTQ+ youth in Appalachia through the Stay Together Youth Program and ACF’s Out in the South project.
“This helps us think on a bigger scale,” they said.
This year, the ideas brought to the Full Assembly coalesced into plans for communications, coordinated action, and community infrastructure.
Participants then committed to planning solidarity actions across state lines to address policies that are impacting people of color, indigenous communities, workers, and all people directly affected by state violence and oppression.
They expressed a desire to create more Mutual Aid and Liberation Centers, which already exist in Atlanta, Hondo, Texas, and other places, where they serve as a nexus for community resources and organizing. People also wanted to replicate Harm Free Zones, a model for preventing and intervening in harmful situations without the involvement of law enforcement. This model was created by SpiritHouse, a Durham-based group that hosted the SMA.
Members of the assemblies also identified a need for a central communications hub to support communities in the South in telling their own stories.
“I think some type of cooperative media hub for the SMA would be dope,” said Rosie Washington of ReThink New Orleans, an organization that supports youth of color in creating systemic change around education, food and land sovereignty, and transformative justice.
“For me that looks like a hub where all organizations can report, ‘This is what we're doing, this is how it works.’ Some of that could be reflection pieces for people to be able to learn [from what others are doing],” she said.
During the Full Assembly, members of a “synthesis team” were on hand to take notes that will be articulated back to participants as a set of priorities to inform everyone’s work over the next year. People also signed up for work teams that will carry out some of the proposals.
As the Full Assembly drew to a close, the sun started to set over the big tent amid the cotton fields.
The Children’s Assembly presented their work from the weekend with a song, and invited participants to view the art gallery they created in the Franklinton Center’s old auditorium building. Hours later, the gallery was transformed into a dance party as attendees celebrated into the night.
Nikki Brown, a regional director at SpiritHouse, who grew up thirty minutes down the road from the Franklinton Center, reflected on the power of this sacred place to forge connections between so many people of different backgrounds who are facing different, but related, struggles.
“It gives folks a chance to interact and build community together in a space that's not dominated by ‘Oh, we're going to go hang out at this bar, we're going to watch this on TV, or we're going to hang out by this pool at the hotel,’” she said.
“We’re all striving for survival. It’s not a matter of one process or one group that can get there before another. We have to all get there together.”