In the eight months since I first interviewed Tanya Wallace-Gobern and Isaiah Withers of the National Black Worker Center Project, our world has changed dramatically. Withers and the Black Voices Black Votes Street Team were canvassing and engaging in community meetings to research the needs of Raleigh’s Black residents. Wallace-Gobern was using the data from surveys to fashion a Black Workers Economic Agenda, which would then be marched to City Hall in a mass demonstration. In May, I spoke to Wallace-Gobern and Withers again to find out how they have adapted their work to make it both effective and safe in the middle of a global pandemic.
We also discussed the rise of the white-led ReOpen Movement and the resurgence of racial terrorism against Black people. Wallace-Gobern and Withers shed light on how a Black worker center will support Raleigh’s Black community and spur them to collective action. Our conversation has been edited for length.
Courtney Napier: How is everyone coping with the pandemic and our new reality?
Tanya Wallace-Gobern: COVID-19 has been an adjustment for sure for the organization, it has forced us to examine how we connect with the community when we are not able to meet in person and we are learning how to organize digitally.
Many of the Street Team members were students. How are they doing? How are you staying in contact and keeping a sense of unity and camaraderie during this time?
Isaiah Withers: Six of the Street Heat team members were students from St Augustine university. St. Augustine’s campus is closed and events we planned to hold on campus such as the Census Hub launch were cancelled. Some team members have moved out of state to be closer to family and Dauphine graduated! We had to cancel our canvassing operation and shifted to phone banking. We keep in contact with the members with weekly check-ins via email, text and telephone. We are thankful that everyone is in good health.
When we last spoke, BVBV2020’s work primarily consisted of compiling information regarding the issues most important to Raleigh’s Black residents based on survey responses. What did you learn about Raleigh from the surveys?
Wallace-Gobern: Investment in public transportation and increasing/expanding unemployment insurance are high on the list of priorities for the Black community, and it's not surprising. With the impacts of gentrification pushing Blacks out of the city and into areas where little to no public transportation exists, there’s a heightened concern about how people will get to work and increasing reliance on owning an automobile, which as we know comes with it’s own heavy price tag. Coupled with low wages… well that’s a formula for disaster.
Our survey indicates that for many, public transportation in Raleigh is insufficient and people want investments made that will ensure that they have access to public transportation to get to work, route expansion and increased hours of operation.
Isaiah Withers and the Street Heat team. Photo by Tiffany Debnam.
Also, The Chicago Urban League reported that Blacks have less access to benefits allowing for work from home and sick pay. Adding COVID-19 to the mix has increased layoffs that hit particularly hard in the Black community. When we conducted the survey, increasing/expanding unemployment insurance was important––now it is crucial.
Looking at the data from the surveys, and the current crisis we are facing, how would a Black worker center in Raleigh show up in support of the city’s residence at this time?
Withers: The crucial issues facing Black workers––unemployment, low-wage work, and discriminatory treatment on the job––result from the confluence of a variety of structural forces. These labor market outcomes will not change until Black workers amass sufficient power to transform these structures. A Black Worker center will train and build Raleigh residents capacity to build the people power needed to make change in their communities.
Has COVID-19 had any impact on the goals and priorities of BVBV2020’s work?
Withers: Our analysis has not changed but the way we plan to take action has. Bold leadership from NBWCP is required. We must take advantage of this moment to gain wins we could not have even dreamed of pre-COVID. We have to end this talk of returning to normal with nostalgia. The racism, discrimination and disregard for worker safety, voice, a fair compensation should have never been part of what was seen as normal or business as usual. Post-Covid we have the opportunity to create a safety net and social welfare system that truly works in the ways that we all need and want.
One of the main methods of outreach BVBV2020 used was canvassing. What methods for reaching residents are you using now?
Withers: We are now using different forms of outreach like phone banking, text messaging and yard signs to make sure the people in the community can still get the information no matter what.
Besides the pandemic, there has also been an increase––or increase in awareness––of violence against Black people nationally and locally. We are also seeing a rise in white supremacist terrorism in the form of the ReOpen movement. What are your thoughts on this and how would a Black worker center play a part in supporting the Black community through this?
Withers: It’s interesting to define what others are seeing as an increase of awareness, because the violence is not new. From the whips of slavery, nooses of Jim crow, water hoses of the civil rights movement, no knock warrants and stop and frisk laws, violence is a way of life for many Black people. The only way to not be aware is to remove one's eyes and ears. Because of the centuries of violence against Blacks, some of our society has become numb to these acts. It is the in-your-face, can’t-look-away magic of social media that lifts up the preponderance of violent acts, that has Black, Brown, and white people alarmed.
It's this unity of outrage that frightens racist groups. They recognize that in unity people find courage, and courage leads to empowerment. We all lose when large sections of people are ignored – especially when they are Black people. Black Worker Centers demonstrate the power of base building, and coalition building. They expose the face of systemic racism and have the power to move the populace and the political structures that are reluctant to change.
I’ve noticed that you have been dedicating a lot of time on social media on the importance of participating in the census. Can you expound on why this is so important, how turnout has been so far, and what methods you are using to encourage participation?
Wallace-Gobern: Given the underfunding of the Census Bureau and attempts to add immigration status questions, many predict even more barriers to accurate counts of traditionally undercounted populations.
A recent study by the Urban Institute warns that the 2020 Census could lead to the worst undercount of Black people in 30 years. The Census Bureau's estimate of its own 2010 accuracy, released in 2012, found that slightly more than 2 percent of African-Americans were missed that year, including 6 percent of African American children—a percentage double that of white children. In contrast, the white non-Latino population was over counted by nearly 1 percent.
When entire communities are underrepresented in the census count, they do not receive their rightful political voice or fair share of funding. Census figures are used in a host of formulas that calculate federal funding allocations and political districting that will not be revised for another decade. The Census figures are also critical to research and our own understanding of what is happening in Black communities with regard to the dislocation of Black communities and migration patterns. In other words, the stakes are high to get the counts as accurate as possible. We are partnering with the A. Philip Randolph Institute, NC Counts, Blueprint and other organizations to make sure people take the census. The Black community must step up and take the census now.
What is the first action on the agenda for BVBV2020 and the NBWCP as soon as the “coast is clear?”
Wallace-Gobern: We will continue to build power through organizing in order to provide a collective voice for Black workers. The New York Times revealed that the GOP plans to employ 50,000 people at the polls to intimidate Democratic voters across critical swing states. Since 2010 in North Carolina, forces have consistently pushed legislation to restrict access to the ballot. NBWCP will partner with working class communities and communities of color to build sufficient collective power in order to deal with racial and economic inequality today and minimize the creation of new racial and economic hierarchies in the future.
Now that we have a better idea about the politicians running for office in 2020 (specifically the Democratic presidential candidate), does that have any impact on how you will be engaging in and around the election?
Wallace-Gobern: No, it doesn’t impact our work. NBWCP is a non-partisan organization and the reality is, it doesn’t matter what party is in office. Unfortunately, politicians often overlook black voters; Democrats take our votes for granted and Republicans only make superficial attempts at appealing to Black voters. To be truly responsive to the needs of the Black communities, elected officials must commit to combating racial and discrimination issues in the workplace that are systemically entrenched in public policy.