Four stories of organizing

Would you like to hear about the time I got yelled at by the person in a judge’s chair presiding over a meeting at a courthouse in the small eastern North Carolina town of Snow Hill?

The setting was a chilly Tuesday evening in February a little over 6 years ago. The events of this evening were months in the making. I was the eastern NC organizer with the 501(c)(3) nonpartisan nonprofit Democracy North Carolina, and our mission of civic engagement and clean elections had landed us in partnership with a number of environmental organizations and in opposition to a proposed rate hike by the predominant energy company in the area. Environmental organizations are always the best to partner with, because they know better than most other cause-based organizations about how big, secretive money pollutes our elections.

A number of rate hike hearings were happening across the state, but this one was mine. Over the preceding two years, I had beefed up our Greenville volunteer chapter from a group that met quarterly to a more robust team that met every month. Through a series of workshops and community organizing efforts, I had also launched monthly meeting chapters in both New Bern and Rocky Mount. But we knew turning out our supporters wouldn’t be enough. And we knew if our volunteers — or advocates, as we call them — weren’t prepared, they wouldn’t be able to do what they needed to do.

Towards that end, we partnered with NC Warn to organize trainings that would get our advocates prepared. I brought in our advocates, my contacts with the local Sierra Club chapters and local clean river associations, and my contacts with the local NAACP chapters, including the Pitt NAACP (of which I was a member at the time). The Sierra Club members knew just how untrustworthy big energy companies can be, and the NAACP members knew exactly who would bear the brunt of these rate hikes if they went through at the proposed levels. Environmental racism was hardly a new concept in the area, especially after local fights over how waste from a proposed chicken-processing plant would be handled, with one area getting the jobs and another area getting the waste. (And these days those same people are dealing with issues around the Atlantic Coast Pipeline).

So after months of meetings, discussions, trainings, and workshops, the big night had finally arrived. I had quite the walk to get to the courthouse. All the parking nearby was full. A few hundred people packed that courthouse. Being someone from a small town myself, I had to imagine that was a rare sight in Snow Hill. It looked like all our work was going to pay off.

Three people testified in favor of the rate hikes. About 20 people spoke against it. One by one people got up, said their name, their address, and what they thought of the rate hike. But I knew almost all the faces in that room and knew we should have had a lot more people speaking against it. I had underestimated the intimidating feeling people were getting in a courtroom, with someone sitting in a judge’s seat, giving stern instructions. Everyone was there against the rate hike, and there was no way the panel or the press was going to know that.

I had to speak last. As a traveling organizer covering a 30-county area, I lived farthest away and thus was put at the end of the order. I got up and said my bit. Thinking on the fly while I was in the hot seat, I asked all those in the courtroom opposed to the rate hike to please stand. The person in the judge’s seat barked back “NO DEMONSTRATIONS!” No one stood. I was the last speaker, and was asking myself is this the impression the hearing is going to end on?

But then David, who lived there in Snow Hill and was a regular attendee of our Democracy Greenville chapter, snapped back “Stand up!” And the whole room did. We had it in that moment. We made all the local news and the community consensus was clear. We had won. There were still other rate hike hearings to come in other parts of the state, where other local communities would have to come together just as we had, but everyone left that room emboldened to continue the fight and take on larger challenges ahead knowing they could make a difference.

The night ended with one of the highly paid lawyers for the energy company coming up to me saying “I heard you give your address up there as being on Cobblestone Court. You live in Foxcroft Apartments.” So there I was 100 miles from home, at night, with a long drive ahead of me, in a rural courthouse that was almost emptied out, and having just delivered a major public relations blow to a powerful energy company, and their lawyer was basically telling me “I know where you live.”

It turns out he used to live there too. And that’s the story of the time I got yelled at by someone in the judge’s seat at a courthouse in a small town in eastern North Carolina.

Here’s the story of the one conservative legislator who heard me out on a Latinx issues lobby day.

I’ve done many of these citizen lobby days over the years. By that point I had done lobby days with Democracy North Carolina on voting rights and clean elections, the NAACP on racial justice, Equality NC on LGBTQ issues, and this time was with the NC Congress of Latino Organizations to talk about policies around in-state college tuition for young people who grew up here even if they weren’t born here, and driver licenses.

If you’ve never done a citizen lobby day, they’re all pretty much cut form the same mold. Usually an advocacy nonprofit or a group of nonprofits come together to put on a day of events and invite all of their supporters. While you can do all the phone banks, e-mails, post cards, and letters to the editor you want from home, nothing else quite has the impact of going around the legislative buildings talking to legislators in person as their constituents.

The nonprofit will organize a place for people to come together early in the morning. Ideally a space for a lot of people, because that’s the only way lobbying works when you don’t have big money on your side. There will be a few guest speakers, some handouts, and instructions about how things work that day. You’ll pair up with other people from your region and go around to the different offices of the various representatives and senators who represent you. At the end you’ll come back to that starting space for a late lunch, to debrief, and say your farewells.

I thought I had seen it all. My last lobby day was with Equality North Carolina to talk about nondiscrimination issues in the workplace. As someone who worked in the eastern part of the state at the time, I went around with my friends from Rocky Mount PFLAG. In one of the offices we stopped by, the legislator was out at a committee meeting, but their legislative aide was kind enough to tell us we were all going to hell, and that the deceased gay son of a mother in the room was probably already there. Unbeknownst to me, one of the folks in our group started recording that conversation on their phone, and it showed up in a newspaper the next day!

So I was surprised that I could still be surprised when the Latinx lobby day came around. Normally you are free to roam the halls of the buildings and meet with legislators who are around. It’s an empowering thing to just walk into a legislator’s office and tell them what you think. And for the nonprofits who have their act together, they’ll have coordinated several meetings for you, so it’s not entirely guess work about who will be there and who won’t.

But with the Latinx group for the first time ever we had to sign in individually, and not just once, but twice. And we were told we had to be escorted by a uniformed guard. That had never happened before in all my years of activism, and here the legislative staff were just treating it as if it was normal. But the intimidation tactics were clear, because they knew we had undocumented residents of North Carolina in our group just trying to be heard.

This time I went around with the group covering the Triad. I was still living in the Triangle, but since we were in the state capital already, there were no shortage of people from the area. So I thought it best, as someone who grew up in Mt. Airy, to go around with the folks from that part of the state.

We had several positive discussions with senators who already agreed with us. And several very brief conversations with senators who didn’t want to give us the time of day. It was getting towards the end of our lobby day and was about time for us to report back for lunch and to debrief, and it was looking like we weren’t going to really reach a lot of people who weren’t already on our side.

My group only had one legislator left to visit who represented my old home town, and she definitely wasn’t going to be on our side. It was certainly going to be another in and out, agree to disagree kind of moment. Despite my hesitance to lead as an introvert, several folks in our group had asked me to take point on starting these conversations after they had seen that I had experience with lobby days and knew how to work the room to make sure everyone was heard and the right talking points were hit.

So as I shook hands with our final legislator of the day to introduce myself, and had barely gotten my name out of my mouth she cut me off mid-sentence and said, “you’re a twin aren’t you?”

Now, how the heck did she know that? I know sometimes legislators sued to try to see our e-mails at Democracy North Carolina to see if we were truly nonpartisan (and we were so that was never a threat), but I didn’t think any of them had gotten through. So how did she know that about me? But it turns out, back in her lawyer days around Mt. Airy, she had met my mother before years ago, and she knew about the Goad twins. And that personal connection was just the thing to get us nearly half an hour with a conservative legislator. It was by far our longest meeting of the day. And in a day that started with uniformed guard escorts, we at least ended feeling heard.

The marriage discrimination Amendment One story told through three visits to the steps of the Pitt County Courthouse.

Although I would ultimately go on to work with Democracy North Carolina for 5 years, back in the fall of 2011 I had just started with them as a community organizer with more aspirations than knowledge of how to get things done. I did however pick up a few tricks after shadowing Linda Sutton as the Triad area organizer, even if I had managed to knock over a table, spill someone else’s drink, and slice open my hand on the bottom of the table during her Democracy Winston-Salem meeting.

The next week I was getting on the road for my first official speaking gig as an organizer and I was excited. I was driving out to Greenville on a rainy afternoon and the clouds were getting darker. The state legislature was trying to pass a measure to put Amendment One on the ballot for people to vote on next year. And people wanted to gather to speak out against it downtown at the Pitt County Courthouse on 3rd Street.

Everyone who was going to speak took the stage to stand together and stand respectfully behind each speaker as they took their turn. And anyone who has been to a rally knows there’s no such thing as a short-winded activist speaker. We were going to be in the rain for a while.

I managed to slice my hand open on my umbrella when it jammed. And I was standing there in the cold rain, clenching my fist to not bleed on everything, and thinking this new line of work I had gotten myself into had a lot more bloodletting than I expected.

When it finally came to my turn, I stepped up, and spoke out, and did alright for my first time I thought.

I was able to connect it back to our democracy issues as an abuse of the ballot box to have the majority deciding on a minority’s rights, but I also spoke from a personal place of how this hateful amendment would affect people like me. That was a very vulnerable space to be speaking from. At a time when being gay was still frowned upon by many, and in place where I was already coming in as an outsider, I had just outed myself quite publicly.

Fast forward several months and we were in the heat of the campaign against Amendment One. The collaboration opportunities with Equality North Carolina and All of Us North Carolina (a project of Southerners on New Ground) had taken me all across the state. But it was time to go back to Greenville. This time for a press conference on the steps of the very same Pitt County Courthouse where it had all started.

By that time I was much more comfortable with public speaking, and waving my rainbow flag wherever I went. And the weather was mercifully sunny and pleasant. The press conference went well and it felt like we were making progress, but afterwards Thomas, one of the ECU students I had been working with, warned me it might not be safe for me to walk back to my car alone just a few blocks away. I was shocked. Shocked that my rainbow flag would get me in so much trouble and I told him so. And he said no, laughed, and told me I ought to know better than to wear a Wolfpack shirt in Pirate country.

At last May 8th 2012 had come. It was the day of the vote. After a long day and a little sunburn from poll tending in the unincorporated area of Bahama in northern Durham County, I knew I needed to be with the same people I had started this journey with. I hopped in the car and drove out to a bar in Greenville where people were watching the returns. As soon as I saw the rainbow flag hanging up, I knew I was in the right place. We would face what was next together.

We lost. The amendment passed. And folks wanted to express their frustrations. We marched out to the steps of the Pitt County Courthouse for one last protest.

One man riding by on his bike stopped and asked what all the fuss was about. I told him we were unhappy with the passage of Amendment One. He said he wished he could have voted against it, but he had been to jail in the past.

I think of all the public speaking, homeless shelter lunch & learns, trainings, and literature distribution of our “you’ve been locked up, don’t be locked out” handouts I have done over the years to try to get people to know that North Carolina isn’t one of those states where you lose your right to vote forever. I asked him about his situation, and it turned out he could register and start voting again. I talked him through the process.

We may have lost that night, but we registered and mobilized more LGBTQ and allied voters than I had ever seen before including that one guy on his bike outside the courthouse. And I was proud of that.

A march to the polls.

The passage of the voter ID law in November of last year isn’t the first time our state has tried voter ID or other voter suppression tactics. And at the polling site closest to East Carolina University during a past election, the folks working there were using the new voter restrictions to turn away student voters when they didn’t have to.

The ECU students I worked with were are a good lot. Together we helped pass pro-voting resolutions through the city council. We got lucky with fighting one anti-student voting bill. Bills get numbered in the order they are created, and this one happened to land as Senate Bill 666. It had terrible branding from the start and was ultimately doomed to be defeated.

But at the time of the election we kept getting calls about students being turned away from the polls when we knew they shouldn’t. So we banded together. Our Democracy Greenville advocates, the ECU College Democrats, the ECU College Republicans, the lone ECU College Green member, the ECU Libertarians (they had two groups because they couldn’t get along with each other well enough to have just one unified group), the college branch of the NAACP, and the LGBTQ students came together.

We did a march to the polls. But we needed something to push us over the edge. I got on the horn with Ginger, a reporter from the local newspaper I had worked with before, and she agreed to have the paper cover the march. When we showed up in force, and with the news watching, all of a sudden the poll workers called the Pitt County Board of Elections Director, and figured out all these students, including several who had been turned away once before, could vote after all.

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Comments

Thanks so much for this, Jake

One of the biggest (and sadly well-believed) memes put out by GOP operatives is that advocates showing up to oppose this or that are plants, just bodies hired for show. Personal anecdotes like these from those on the front lines are critical in dispelling that, and we need more of it.

Maybe you could cross-post on the UNC SOG page? Worth a shot...