Episode 1: Introduction
In the first episode of To See Each Other, our host, George Goehl, Director of People’s Action, shares more about growing up in Medora, Indiana, and the economic devastation that’s left his hometown and so many others feeling left behind. By resisting the urge to write these communities off as Trump country, organizers are building people power, listening to their neighbors, and building community.
Because when we see each other, we change the world together.
At age 21, George Goehl walked into a soup kitchen to eat. Over time, he became an employee – first washing dishes and eventually helping run the place. Three years later, he was struck by seeing the same people in line as when he first arrived. He began to organize.
Today, George is the director of People’s Action, a multiracial poor and working class people’s organization. He leads one of the largest race-conscious rural progressive organizing efforts in the United States.
Following the financial crisis, George and National People’s Action mobilized more people into the streets than any other organization to demand accountability, help win Financial Reform, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and secure mortgage relief.
The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN, MSNBC and others have covered George’s organizing work.
This is To See Each Other where we explore how people are reshaping small town America. And why writing it off as Trump country hurts us all. I’m George Goehl and today we’re going to talk about why this show, and why right now.
I grew up in southern Indiana. First in Medora, a town of 900 folks. By most standards, Medora was isolated country, a good 40-mile drive to rolling hills just to get to a town of 20,000. We live next to the area lumberjack, Otis and his wife Flossie, and across the road from the county dump. It may not sound like much, but to me and my brother, Spencer, it was perfect.
The last 30 years have been hard on Medora. The Medora brick factory, founded back in 1904, steadily employed a work force around 50 people. The plant shut down in 1992. Around then, a plastics plant, that employed hundreds, moved overseas.
When we were still young, our family moved to Nashville. Nashville, Indiana, that is. We lived just off Greasy Creek Road where we’d spend summer days catching crawdads or hunting beer cans along the side of the road.
At this point in my life, I have no memory of having been around any Black people. I do remember when two Black kids moved into the school district, a brother and sister, both high school age. As if it were yesterday, I can picture the two walking together amidst a sea of whiteness and into the school. I was around 10 and didn’t know a lot, but I knew coming to this community was going to be hard. That night I asked my dad a question about race. And he said, son, when I went into the air force, I learned a few things. And one was this, there are White guys that are assholes and Black guys that are assholes. While maybe not the deepest lesson about race, I got to think it was a step above what a lot of kids living on Greasy Creek were taught that night.
And sometime around then my parents split up, and soon my mom, Spence, and I moved 25 miles east into an apartment in Bloomington, a college town. It didn’t take long to learn that I talked funny. People in Bloomington didn’t say, “warsh your clothes.” They said, “wash your clothes.” I said “crick,” and they said, “creek.” I felt like an outsider from jump.
Our new school sat across from Tulip Tree Apartments. It was a high rise housing complex designed for international students. And I went to school with their children. And guess what? People made fun of how they talked too. I wasn’t the only kid that felt like an outsider in this new town. A month removed from Greasy Creek and suddenly my best friends are from all across the globe. And they changed how I saw the world.
The story of small towns like Medora must sound familiar. Local factories and businesses shut down. As the jobs leave, so to the people. Those jobs, and the meaning they provided, replaced by meth labs and opioid addiction. It was the narrative trotted out when Donald Trump ascended to the presidency. He seemed to have a lock on all these small towns and the media became intensely interested in rural America.
Suddenly, stories of rural communities and their support for Trump were front page news. The Wall Street Journal called rural America “the new inner city,” whatever in the hell that means. But the question on the minds of many back in 2016: Who were these white folks at Trump rallies wearing “Make America Great Again” hats? The easy answer: Rural white racists. A more complicated one: No one really knew.
While parts of the narrative may be valid, the full truth is more complicated. Painting all of rural America as white, racist, and backward, it’s both inaccurate and unhelpful.
Here’s one truth. Rural America is much more diverse than people realize with much of the rural south being majority Black. Latinx folks are the fastest growing segment of the rural population. And half of the nation’s Native Americans live in rural communities.
And another truth is this. Though the media doesn’t give it much ink, there is beautiful and courageous work happening in rural communities to bridge across race and politics. There is a move towards justice in so many rural communities and small towns. And a final truth, the partisan impulse to give up on damn near half the country is not the answer. Doing so makes solving the most pressing problems even harder, if not impossible. Whether it’s defeating white supremacy, pushing back climate change or saving our democracy, we’ll need to do this together.
And that’s what we’re doing here, complicating the narrative of small town America because when we see each other, we can change the world. I’m a community organizer. What the hell is community organizing?
Community organizing is the craft of bringing people together to have more power as a collective than we do as individuals. And we then use that new-found power to create the change our communities most want and need. I come to organizing through my roots in Indiana, struggling with addiction, eating and eventually working in a soup kitchen, and then finally moving to Chicago. And Chicago’s where I saw that the struggles of rural Indiana were reflected in urban communities, and the ways those struggles were different. And it’s ultimately where I truly understood there is so much more that binds us than separates us.
I’m also the director of People’s Action. People’s Action is a network of local community groups from across the country. We organize everyday people to build power and create a more generative and just society. We are multi-racial. We are urban, suburban, and rural. And in 2017, in the wake of Donald Trump becoming president, People’s Action helped build one of the largest race-conscious organizing programs in rural America. We intentionally focused on majority-White, rural communities. Why? Because the 2016 election was a stark reminder of what happens if we are not present.
We cannot expect people to be with us if we are not them.
We’re organizing in these communities because people are hurting. And we believe it’s essential to winning, and how we do it matters. We’re not trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. We’re not trying to win by dragging our principals to the middle. We are listening and building relationships and making space for the waking, both for the rural people making new meaning of their struggles, and for you, the listener, who may not yet know a nuanced picture of what’s actually happening in small town America.
So over the next five episodes we’re going to travel to small towns in Michigan, Iowa, New Jersey, North Carolina and my home state of Indiana to find out what’s happening in the community, and to get to know that people and the work they’re doing to move our country forward.
Listen, if you come to this series skeptical about rural White folks, I get it. And I have an ask of you. Please, suspend your judgment for a minute. Come with me to hear from folks who’ve gone back to organize their home community, to hear from people who are awaking, to hear from people who are fighting for the land, for clean water, to end white supremacy.
This is our chance to see each other. Let’s get started.