Commentary: Rural Organizers Understand Sweat Equity

Johnson City, Tenn., June 12 - Black Lives Matter protest. (Photo: Misty Blue Scott)
Johnson City, Tenn., June 12 - Black Lives Matter protest. (Photo: Misty Blue Scott)

People across the nation seem surprised that Black Lives Matter demonstrations and protests are happening in rural areas and I just can’t seem to figure out why. 

I live in Northeast Tennessee, surrounded by rural areas consumed by poverty, good ole boy clubs, and a medical monopoly. Trust me when I say people are organizing. 

In my hometown of Johnson City, there have been demonstrations, marches, caravans, forums, and group prayer events almost every evening since May 25th. The New Generation Freedom Fighters was founded by local Black Lives Matter organizers and the organization has raised almost $20,000 for bail funds. They have set up regular meetings with Johnson City’s leadership and have an invitation from Washington County Commissioner Jodi Jones to speak with county leadership. 

Jonesborough Alderman Terry Countermine said at a Board of Mayor and Alderman meeting, “This is a chance for the town of Jonesborough and the police department to really step up and be even more of an example.” Countermine goes on to say, “I really think that it’s an issue that, now more than ever, needs addressing and that too many of us, including me, have felt that it wasn’t a big problem, but it is a big problem.” 

These steps are all the result of rural organizers in Washington County. Nashville might be making national news, but hundreds of demonstrators and grassroots organizers in Northeast Tennessee are making a difference in their communities. 

I’d argue it’s a little easier to be an organizer in more urban areas. There are employment opportunities in grassroots organizing, politics, and issue advocacy fields. Organizers in those urban areas will be financially compensated with benefits such as health care, sick days, and vacation days for their efforts.

Rural areas are different. Grassroots organizers here are mostly volunteers, donating their own time, resources, and finances to effect change. Where I live, there isn’t one paid organizer. The closest place that pays organizers is the Highlander Center which is 70 miles away from me.

People across the nation seem surprised that Black Lives Matter demonstrations and protests are happening in rural areas. Trust me: People are organizing.

The Highlander Center is where Civil Rights leaders went to train and get organized—a part of the southern heritage that makes me proud. 

Paid organizing positions would be nice, but that just isn’t a reality for most rural areas. Instead, these are volunteers who do this work outside of their jobs—and I don’t just mean 9-5 jobs. I also don’t just mean the one job they work. These are volunteers who while struggling to pay their rent, make their own small businesses succeed, balance school and homework, and pay their medical bills are writing op-eds, holding signs and marching on sidewalks, meeting with city leaders, meeting over Zoom to launch organizations and fundraising efforts, waiting in the lobby of police stations to bail out peaceful protesters, and are the peaceful protesters sitting in holding cells waiting to be bailed out. 

Rural organizers understand the meaning of sweat equity. 

My hometown is bright red; in 2016 roughly 68 percent of Washington County’s voters voted for Donald Trump. Yet on January 21, 2017, downtown Jonesborough was inundated by 1,500 people at the first Tri-Cities Women’s March. Tennessee’s oldest town was filled with messages of love, acceptance, and pledges of activism.

Trae Crowder, also known as the Liberal Redneck, released a video on May 14th outlining the importance of not writing off or bullshitting rural Americans. He told a story about organizing a town hall in Clay County focused on universal basic income a few years ago. In the most rural county in Tennessee, interested people packed the courthouse.

Organizers in rural areas are volunteering where the stakes are higher; where nooses are hung on black home owners’ properties; where a student in a gorilla mask and a noose openly taunted Black Lives Matter organizers on the campus of ETSU in 2018; where conservative-owned businesses target organizers and other supportive businesses; where Klan rallies continue to be held; and where only one person out of the collective elected leadership of the Johnson City, Jonesborough, and Washington County government is black—that’s one out of 26 total elected city, town, and county officials. 

Gloria Jean Watkins, pen name Bell Hooks, an Appalachian author and activist said, “I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else’s whim or to someone else’s ignorance.” Those words are the drumbeat for rural organizers. Those words are the drumbeat for the New Generation Freedom Fighters. Those words are why rural organizers volunteer their time and do what they do.

This is why I’m not surprised Black Lives Matter demonstrations are happening and driving change in rural areas.