Interconnectedness strengthens both individuals and groups. Conversely, when people are divided they often vent their frustration at those who share their plight. In the South, poor blacks and poor whites have traditionally distrusted and demeaned each other, and both groups have stayed poor and disempowered.
Linda Stout founded the Piedmont Peace Project in 1984, determined to do what popular wisdom said couldn’t be done: work with poor people of both races in the same organization. George Friday joined the staff as an organizer and fundraiser in 1990.
Piedmont Peace Project now has a multi-racial staff of six – all of whom come from low-income backgrounds – 500 regular members, and as many as 3,000 volunteers. The Piedmont Peace Project can be reached at 406 Jackson Park Road, Kannapolis NC 28083, 704/938-5090.
Sarah: What made you decide to work with both blacks and whites, rather than organizing one group or the other?
Linda: We started from the very beginning with the idea of building multi-racially because we felt we couldn’t win unless we built a broad, connected group of people to work on these issues. And it’s made a huge difference, both in breaking down stereotypes that we’ve grown up with about each other, and in making us more effective.
George: And what’s been gained is that folks who 10 or 15 years ago would discount change as a movement that included them now see that they can have power and really effect change. So we now have numbers of people who are participating in creating policy at a local level, and a state and national level.
As these people gain momentum, they take on bigger risks and bigger campaigns and work harder. And they not only include themselves in the picture, they also include their children and grandchildren.
Linda: We’ve been taught to hate each other; we’ve been taught to think this and that about each other, and as long as we believe that, someone else has the power, not us. As soon as people come into the organization, we start talking about not only race, but also issues of classism and sexism and homophobia. That’s often hard and scary, but you know I think a lot of people are surprised at how few people have dropped out because of that.
Sarah: It sounds as though dealing with these issues would complicate your organizing effort.
George: Often people ask, "Isn’t it really hard to do your work and have to deal with so many issues that feel really hard or personal?"
It does affect the ways we do our work, because it means that our organizing efforts take longer. For example, it took four months for folks in Midway to feel OK about going down and demanding garbage service [see sidebar on page 37]. It took that long, not just because someone had to get up the gumption to do it, but because they had to face years of hearing that they’re not good enough, not smart enough, or that they don’t deserve better treatment.
When we do organizing in our communities, we have to face those demons to get to the power that we need. So all our work has to have incorporated looking at these hard emotional issues, and talking about them, and giving each other support.
Linda: I often talk to people in the community about my own experience of feeling like I’m not smart and feeling ashamed because I grew up poor. Talking about that gives people permission to then begin to identify that for themselves.
George: You’re taught as a low-income person or a person of color that you can get respect or you can accomplish something if you just change: if you dress more white or sound more white and more middle class.
For many people, turning themselves inside out to appear in a way that’s not true to their nature and true to their soul feels horrible.
Sarah: What’s it like for the two of you personally to work with these issues?
Linda: It’s given me a way of getting in touch with who I am and my own power and strength. I’ve been able to deal in a positive way with a lot of my own anger at having grown up in poverty and in difficult circumstances.
Plus, I have this whole group of people who totally know what it feels like and what I’m struggling with, and I do think we are more connected than a lot of regular staffs. I think we see each other very much as a family that extends to the membership.
Those connections are especially valuable because as a white person, taking these kinds of stands in our kind of community often means you’re ostracized from your own family, or you can’t go to your church. So this group has given me a real family.
George: I just wanted to add how different it is for whites who are involved than it is for blacks, because as a black person, if I stand up for any kind of change, that’s always seen as good. From when I was a little girl, and I did political type stuff in grammar school, to growing up, I always got kudos from my family or my church community or even from some of the people in my school for trying to make change happen.
You were never seen as a trouble-maker until you linked up with white folks – then you have more of a chance of having an impact, more of a chance of having power, so that’s when the pressure comes on.
My work with Piedmont Peace Project has felt good on a personal level because I have permission to really be who I am, and all the skills that I bring and all the knowledge that I have is welcome. Basically, who I bring here is valued.
And the strong message that people get when they see us act in the community is that this woman is who she’s always been, and she’s consistently speaking in her own voice from her own culture and community.
Sarah: So far, we’ve been talking about the work you do with low-income people. But you also work with peace and environmental groups that are not rooted in low-income communities. Why is that?
George: Even though it’s really empowering to work with other low-income people, it’s really clear that we can’t win unless we also work with middle-class people. Because of history, because of resources, sometimes because of technical expertise, we know that we can’t make the core changes we want to make on our own.
Linda: And we feel the same way about the issues – that you can’t win on issues by just working on them locally, and you can’t win just by working on one nationally. It’s all connected, and you’ve got to work on all of them together.
I think it’s easier for low-income people to get those connections because they’re constantly affected. They’ve thought about the reasons why so many people don’t have housing or health care when there are clearly major resources in this country.
George: Also, doing work that’s more global helps folks to see that what happens in this country is not isolated. Because of the way that poor people are powerless and separated, they often feel that the problems they face are just theirs.
We talk to Bolivian workers and to women who work in maquiladoras in Mexico, and we talk about the people in detention in South Africa – because of all that, people know that what’s going on in the South is also global.
We’ll often talk about being the Third World in America and about being connected with poor people in other parts of the world; our treatment and oppression are very similar. And that helps people here, because they don’t feel isolated any more.
Linda: Why don’t you give the example of Mona and the Mexicans.
George: Oh yeah! A year or so ago, the Procter-Silex plant near here was shutting down, putting 800 workers – mostly women – on the street. One of the stories that was going around was that Mexican workers were taking these people’s jobs, and there was a lot of anger about that.
One woman, Mona, said she was so angry that when she saw a Mexican person on the street, she wanted to run him down with her truck, because "they’re taking our jobs."
We talked to people about the reality: people working in a maquiladora get 5 dollars a day, and they have no health and safety benefits.
After working with the project, that same woman, Mona, said, "These people are just like us; they’re trying to feed their kids just like I’m trying to feed my kids. And what we have to do is join together as working people so companies stop treating us like this."
And that’s part of what happens when you make those global connections.