Over the past 30 years, low income and working class whites have increasingly moved away from progressive forces and become a core constituency of the conservative right. Progressives have failed to effectively identify common ground and successfully engage in open communication about social issues that unite us rather than divide us. They have often communicated in academic or unfathomable terms that are easily misunderstood by low income people and not conducive to open dialogue.
We The People: Working Together is an exciting organizing and research project that aims to engage working-class and low income whites with effective and easily accessible dialogue that re-opens communication lines and fosters their support of initiatives that embody more equitable policies.
Having personally grown up in abject poverty in rural North Carolina in the 1960’s and 70’s, I experienced the onslaught of consumerism being depicted as “the American Way.” Success and happiness in life was equated with having more than your neighbors. This consumerist school of thought not only implied that that being poor was bad but also relayed the oppressive message that poor people were unintelligent, lazy, and unmotivated, especially if you spoke with a heavy southern drawl.
Poor people, including myself, were taught to be ashamed of our circumstances. Kids made fun of me on the school bus because of my hand- me- down clothes, not having money for school lunches, and my inability to participate in any outside field trips because my parents couldn’t afford the nominal trip fee. My dream of becoming a school teacher was shattered by my 4th grade teacher who told me that “Farmworker kids don’t go to college.” I believed her and began internalizing this message of oppression.
Despite these shaming tactics, I managed to graduate from high school with high honors (the first in my family) and won a full scholarship to college. Much to my dismay, I had to drop out of college after one year because my father was unable to borrow the additional $500 needed for housing. “We didn’t have enough equity.” I was devastated and returned to work in the hosiery mills of rural North Carolina.
It took me a long time to find my voice and to find the power within myself to believe I had something to offer. Once I found my voice, I realized that I could help others like me find their voices too. And that together, our unified voices could facilitate real and lasting change to collectively create the best solutions to our problems.
I began my 40 year career of effective community organizing in the civil rights movement just by listening, and by listening, empowering people to take action on the things affecting their lives. This is what We the People: Working Together is about: listening to a constituency whose voices are often unheard and dismissed and then working together to craft solutions to build power for change.This project, which builds off years of success at the local level, aims to tap into the collective wisdom of the community and to educate low income folks to take action in their own self-interest through organizing, civic engagement, and voting. Our long term goal is to take this organizing research project to different parts of the country – urban and rural – and to develop a series of educational and training materials for low income community people, for activists and organizers, and for university and college social work programs interested in learning and interacting with local communities.