Poverty has always been part of Debbie Smith’s life. She started working in low-wage jobs at the age of 11, Smith told a crowd in Raleigh, North Carolina earlier this year. At one point, she had to take five buses to make it to college classes, even as she cleaned houses to make money.
Later, Smith developed severe asthma, perhaps through the chemicals she used in her cleaning job, she wonders, or perhaps for other environmental reasons. After years of hospital visits, she developed an MRSA infection in 2004 and hasn’t been able to walk for more than a few steps at a time since then. Smith, who was speaking at an event to kick off the Poor People’s Campaign, wanted to tell the crowd about the difficulties she and many others face in making a sustainable living.
“Until recently I felt very ashamed of myself for being poor,” Smith said. “But I am learning it hasn’t been my fault. Our government, financial system and people in corporations and those with wealth and power make the rules and we are trapped by them.” It’s time to band together to fight the evils that keep this exploitative system afloat, Smith said, which is why she’s happy to join the Poor People’s Campaign, as well as a new movement building working-class power in her home state.
Smith is a member of Down Home North Carolina, a grassroots organizing project working in the state’s rural communities. The group was founded by Brigid Flaherty and Todd Zimmer after the 2016 election. But, as Flaherty told an audience at the National Press Club last month, she already knew she wanted to return to organize in her home state in 2015, when Dylann Roof murdered nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.
After Bree Newsome took down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse in the wake of the massacre, Flaherty recalled seeing a North Carolina newspaper headline that read “White Genocide is Coming.” There weren’t any organizations to counter those headlines, Flaherty understood, or the countless racist media narratives that covered local front pages during the election campaign that followed. It was time to build a movement to challenge stories like these that stepped on communities of color in service of protecting wealthy, white people, Flaherty told the audience.
Flaherty, alongside fellow Down Home members Smith and Kischa Peña, was speaking at The Promise of a Progressive Populist Movement, organized by People’s Action. The event was the kickoff to an initiative devoted to building multiracial, progressive power in areas often written off by the mainstream American left. Down Home is rapidly becoming a success story in what grassroots organizing can look like in those regions.
Peña said she was initially skeptical of building a multiracial, poor and working-class organizing project in 2017, especially as the mother of a 14-year-old Black son in Alamance County. The county is diverse, Peña said, but has a long history of racial divisiveness, especially due to the white supremacist power structures that have long exploited its poor and working-class residents for the benefit of the wealthy. Now, after eight months of organizing with Down Home, Peña says she has never been more hopeful.
This promise of a united coalition makes Down Home North Carolina’s work with the Poor People’s Campaign so natural. The group shares a home state with Rev. William Barber II, one of the campaign’s leaders and one of the organizers of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays protests. Like the Poor People’s Campaign, Down Home is also dedicated to being explicitly multiracial in its organizing. The group has protested against ICE partnerships with local law enforcement and hosted discussions about race in the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year.
That’s part of the reason for Peña’s hope: knowing that frank conversations can shed light on shared struggles. Those conversations are the backbone of Down Home’s work. When Flaherty founded the organization, she knew she had to begin with a listening tour. Rural red state residents had been written off by the left, Flaherty said, and the group knocked on 4,000 doors so that Down Home could best respond to the needs of Carolinians whose issues had long been ignored.
“No one ever asked me to deny a living wage,” Flaherty said of the listening tour. “No one ever asked me to give tax breaks to billionaires and multinational corporations. No one ever asked me to transfer wealth off of the backs of working people or allow big money to influence our election.”
Down Home North Carolina compiled the research from their tour into a report released earlier this year. Titled “No One’s Ever Asked Me That Before,” their research highlighted the lack of investment and engagement with rural communities. The report also found that respondents were most interested in solutions that would help them meet their basic needs and that would address the exploitative systems that had trapped North Carolina’s working class for years.
And that’s how Flaherty ended her speech at the Press Club — with a well-aimed expletive launched at the people making money off North Carolina’s working class, a battle cry to demand power for low-income people. “We don’t need a PhD to run for school board. We don’t need a PhD to run for city council or Congress,” Flaherty said. “What we need are good hearts, to roll up our sleeves, so that we can transform this country. We can overcome all the inequity with all that we have when hundreds and thousands of us demand change and stand up to that [expletive] billionaire class.”