A veteran who Down Home North Carolina canvassers interviewed in Alamance County. Courtesy of Down Home North Carolina

What would improve life in the rural South? Ask rural Southerners

At core, it’s a simple idea: if you want to know what matters to people, what would make their lives better, just ask them.

Simple enough, and yet still too rarely done. There’s no shortage of organizations claiming to center the voices of marginalized communities without taking the time to build their strategies based on what marginalized people have to say about their own lives.

Down Home North Carolina (DHNC) is charting a different path. Founded in 2017, the organization started with with a six-month listening canvass at Division of Social Services offices, Walmarts, food banks, and four thousand homes in low-income neighborhoods in North Carolina’s rural Alamance and Haywood Counties. Canvassers heard members of a multiracial, rural working class explain their concerns about meeting basic needs, their desire to come overcome divisions, and, above all, their willingness to fight for better conditions. Analyzed in a report titled “No One’s Ever Asked Me Before: Conversations with North Carolina’s Rural Communities,” these findings offer important context for rural organizing in the South.

“We heard pretty clearly in the 2016 election the degree to which the people living in rural parts of the country feel alienated from the mainstream approach to politics,” said Todd Zimmer, DHNC’s co-founder and co-director. “In North Carolina in particular, part of that can be explained by the failures of both parties to connect with the needs and experiences of poor and working rural voters.”

Canvassers heard members of a multiracial, rural working class explain their concerns about meeting basic needs, their desire to come overcome divisions, and, above all, their willingness to fight for better conditions.

To ensure their canvass got at those needs and experiences, DHNC asked three simple questions: (1) What issues concern you or your family on a regular basis?, (2) Who do you feel is responsible for causing these problems?, and (3) What solutions would help solve the problems?

Down Home North Carolina canvassers. Courtesy of Down Home North Carolina

Given the demographics of respondents—66 percent were below the federal poverty line, according to Zimmer—he explained that “it’s probably not surprising that a lot of the problems people named have do with meeting their core, basic needs.” That includes nearly 60 percent concerned with “losing access to healthcare, Medicaid, or Medicare” (an issue that was in the news while the canvass was underway between June and November 2017, Zimmer pointed out). Almost 50 percent worried about “not having a job that pays enough money.” And over 40 percent were concerned with “putting good food on the table” and “keeping a roof over your head.”

“A lesson people should take away,” Zimmer said, “is we need to be meeting people where they’re at, in their experience of poverty and their struggle to obtain fundamental requirements for living a good life.” That’s the thing taking up the most space in people’s lives. As one respondent, Brenda, said in the report, "People just get into a survival mode, trying to make it from one day to the next."

“We need to be meeting people where they’re at, in their experience of poverty and their struggle to obtain fundamental requirements for living a good life.”

But DHNC also found a shared emphasis on “overcoming racism and prejudice” as a solution mentioned by nearly 50 percent of respondents, despite being a less concrete solution than other options. Zimmer did note that, anecdotally, this solution was complicated along racial lines, with some white respondents echoing narratives of reverse racism or highlighting prejudice against rednecks. However, he also emphasized that the solution’s prominence—it was the third most commonly chosen option—shows that working class people of different racial identities have much more in common than not.

"I've changed my perspective on residents of Alamance County, because of the stories that I've heard,” one resident, Kischa Peña, said in the report. “I sat in homes with people that didn't look like me. I sat in homes with people who were older than me, who were younger than me. But we all have very similar issues. I think I'm more shocked to know that we get along way more than the media would like to portray.” Zimmer said that was a common story among volunteer canvassers, despite the “long investment in White Supremacy in this part of the country.”

A Down Home North Carolina canvasser signs up a new member. Courtesy of Down Home North Carolina.

A similar sentiment emerged when respondents were asked who is to blame for their problems. Many chose to write in “some variation on reflexive self- or communal-blame,” according to the report, which was co-written by Zimmer, DHNC co-founder Brigid Flaherty, and DHNC organizers Juan Miranda and Chelsea White. While on the surface that shows “how successful far right narratives have been” at erasing systemic oppression, Zimmer said, it also contains the kernel for collective action. “It was more common for people to apply the responsibility to their broader social category,” Zimmer explained. “Who’s responsible for poverty? All of us. We can hear in that an understanding that it’s a collective problem, and there is the possibility—and maybe even the responsibility—for poor and working people to come together to address the situation.”

“I sat in homes with people that didn't look like me. I sat in homes with people who were older than me, who were younger than me. But we all have very similar issues. I think I'm more shocked to know that we get along way more than the media would like to portray.”

Above all, Zimmer said the lesson DHNC took from the canvass was that people are ready to organize and fight back, and are only in need of a vehicle to do so. That finding was put into practice immediately. DHNC set second and third meetings with many respondents, holding longer organizing conversations with them, and many of those folks joined the organization and began canvassing themselves. Now, many of DHNC’s leaders are members who answered their door during the original canvass, Zimmer said.

A farmer who Down Home North Carolina canvassers interviewed in Alamance County. Courtesy of Down Home North Carolina

However, the report also concluded that “respondents who reported struggling to meet their basic needs were less likely to say that they would join” DHNC. “This underscores the importance of meeting struggling people where they are, in their experience of poverty, if we hope to include the most marginalized and struggling members of the multiracial working class,” the authors concluded.

One respondent, Sam Wilds, summarizes the same idea in the report, saying, "If we can figure out solutions to healthcare, to opioids, to giving people places to live, too [sic] making sure there are jobs, then we could respect one another and love one another more. We are gonna win no matter what as long as we stick together."

Today, DHNC is transitioning into implementing these findings. “The goal for DHNC,” Zimmer explained, “was to build a bottom-up approach to power building and a policy agenda that comes from the real lived experiences and needs of poor and working people in small town rural North Carolina, as expressed by them.” The organization has active chapters Alamance and Haywood, where they canvassed, and is working on the issues raised in the responses, including projects targeting minimum wage raises, challenging government programs that harm immigrant communities, pushing back against utility rate hikes, and more.

"If we can figure out solutions to healthcare, to opioids, to giving people places to live, too [sic] making sure there are jobs, then we could respect one another and love one another more. We are gonna win no matter what as long as we stick together."

But as DHNC expands to new areas, they aren’t making any assumptions. Local conditions lead to important distinctions. For instance, Alamance is more racially diverse than Haywood, so racism is a more immediate factor there. Haywood has higher opioid addiction rates, which determines the kind of healthcare needed. So, DHNC is running a listening canvass in every new county it enters.

“We’re still committed to this,” Zimmer said. “We’ve been able to see on the local level that when poor and working people get involved and organized, they shift the debates quickly. We still think that Down Home’s strategy is the best way for folks to get their needs met and to create a system that responds to their needs and desires.”