Saturday, April 10, 2010

Communities Organizing in Charlotte, Then and Now

Si Kahn watches the panel discussion
photo by Jude Nagurney Camwell

There was a gathering of Charlotte's community organizers on Friday evening at the Levine Museum of the New South. The panel speaking at the program "Communities Organizing in Charlotte, Then and Now" centered their spirit of sharing upon the life lessons of legendary singer/songwriter/organizer Si Kahn, who lives in Charlotte and has recently released his book "Creative Community Organizing - A Guide for Rabble-Rousers, Activists, and Quiet Lovers of Justice." Donna Red Wing, who is taking over for Kahn after 30 years as Grassroots Leadership's Executive Director, started the program by stressing that grassroots community organizing campaigns were different than Astro-turf organizing campaigns that are formally planned by an organization and often funded without transparency - and designed to mask their origins to create the impression of being spontaneous, popular "grassroots" behavior.

The program was opened by David Crowe and Kali Ferguson, each taking turns reciting four selected narrations from Si Kahn's new book, set to music composed especially for the occasion by Crowe. Moderator Tom Hanchett told about his organizing days in Chicago - the place where President Obama was also a community organizer.


US Rep Mel Watt was the first panelist to speak, saying that he hadn't been in Charlotte, but instead at Chapel Hill, during some of the years considered to be crucial to the Civil Rights movement. However, his introduction to organizing for justice came earlier - in his high school years when he was a student bus-driver during the early days of desegregation busing after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. He told the story of how he, with the support of other student bus drivers, confronted, demanded, and successfully convinced a high school principal to get them new buses instead of what he called the "hand-me-down" buses in which they'd been responsible for driving fellow students to school. This, he said, was preparation for managing his first successful political campaign in 1974 for Harvey Gantt/City Council (when he'd had no prior experience in politics whatsoever). He spoke about a heartbreaking Harvey Gantt-for-Mayor primary campaign in 1979 vs. Eddie Knox that taught him important lessons about organizing, having lost by a mere 95 votes. Rep. Watt called this particular campaign one of his most exciting in which to have been involved because of the impact he saw it had had on the African-American community, telling the story of one elderly woman he'd encountered on the way to the polls saying proudly that she was on her way to vote for "her Harvey." Watt saw the power of unity - even in the face of disappointing defeat. He credited Si Kahn's advice to see justice as a process; never knowing if you're actually winning or losing; never losing faith that, whatever small part you're playing, you're making a difference and you're making progress.

l-to-r: moderator Tom Hanchett, Rep. Mel Watt, Lyndall Hare, Alfreda Barringer, Myra Clark, LaWana Mayfield
photo by Jude Nagurney Camwell


Lyndall Hare, consultant with Charlotteans for a Free Southern Africa, an anti-apartheid group who organized protests against loans by local business to the South African government, preparing speakers and protests. She recalled a woman with whom she'd organized in Johannesburg telling her that the key to successful community organizing is to have regular meetings. She'd said, "When you have three people in the same room, you're organizing."


For Alfreda Barringer, a Kellogg National Leadership Fellow, a journey to community organizing began with the simple act of becoming involved with her daughter's Girl Scout cookie campaign. Having her heart and mind opened for her family's sake, she became increasingly concerned when she saw her children being bused to three different Junior high schools. Wanting to understand why, she attended her first Homeowner Association meeting asking, What can we do?" - and receiving the reply "What can YOU do?" From that time, she led others to care about the effects of white flight and disinvestment from her Sugar Creek neighborhood which had depleted the quality of public life and economic force of the area. From her community's organizing came tangible and positive results - the MLK Jr. High School, the Sugar Creek library, and assistance for low-income families to relocate from flood plain areas. Crime and safety issues are still a challenge, but Barringer stressed the necessity of active and sustained leadership and the motivation for community organizing which, for her, was simply wanting a better neighborhood.


Myra Clark spoke about her work as the Executive Director with the Center for Community Tranistions, a not for profit with a mission of strengthening the community by helping people with criminal records find a healthier and more productive way of living. Their work provides employment and transitions services, supports alternatives to incarceration, and restores and strengthens family bonds. With about 97% of those incarcerated returning to the community, most are released with little or no resources of any kind. Research has shown that finding and retaining employment are major factors in preventing a return to prison. [Real-life stories of the success of the program can be seen here] Myra Clark spoke about success she'd seen with the coordinating efforts of different community groups, citing an example of how eyes of the County Commissioners were opened to advocacy issues through MORN - a coalition of agencies and organizations that are working to address the needs of former prisoners re-entering society and the workplace. It is in this spirit of abundance and cooperation that success and real change can be found. When people come together, the need for unnecessary competition and duplicated efforts are left behind.


LaWana Mayfield [Mecklenburg Justice Project Coordinator] and Ruben Campillo [Advocacy Coordinator for the Latin American Coalition] spoke together about their joint efforts to build a Black-Brown coalition in Mecklenburg County. They cited the rapidly changing demographics in North Carolina (and in the South). The benefit of a coalition of this kind is coming to better know and understand your neighbors and the community concerns you share. Bridging division for the sake of finding commonality brings more efficient progress and justice. The coalition's appeal surrounds the expansion of social horizons, making room and opportunity for real and meaningful change. Mr. Campillo said that there was great power in the telling of each person's own story, inspiring others and increasing self-understanding as well as community understanding. Connections, when enhanced by such stories, can be a powerful force in change-making. Both Campillo and Ms. Mayfield spoke at length about a campaign to end Immigration and Nationality Act Section 287(g), a section of Immigration law that causes undue injustice not only to the undocumented in this country, but to their spouses and their children. The law deputizes local and state police to enforce immigration law after entering into a Memorandum of Agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. [I thought of the 2007 film titled "The Visitor" which isn’t specifically about 287(g), although its plot would lend much empathy and understanding about the effects of 287(g).] Last Friday, the DHS Office of Inspector General issued a damning critique of the federal 287(g) program. Congressman Watt added that he was committed to decreasing the vulnerability of families by doing away with 287(g).



Charlotte Then

Charlotte Now
photo by Jude Nagurney Camwell

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