Episode 5: Fighting White Nationalism - North Carolina
In Alamance County, at the intersection of Plantation and Corporation boulevards, Down Home North Carolina has been building a multi-racial grassroots movement against white supremacy. George talks to Brigid Flaherty, co-founder of Down Home North Carolina; Sugelema Lynch, a Latina mother; Pat Rogers, a young white engineer; and Dreama Caldwell, who’s running to serve as an Alamance County’s first Black woman Commissioner.
For all of them, meeting the left-behind where they are is key to transforming the landscape. And it’s creating a new common identity that Alamance County can be proud of.
Brigid Flaherty is the co-founder of Down Home North Carolina. She was the Organizing Director of ALIGN, where she led winning policy campaigns at the city level that strengthened standards for 4,000 commercial sanitation workers as well as improving public health for three overburdened low-income and people of color districts; drove labor-community coalition mobilizations around Fight for 15 and various Wall Street actions. Prior to ALIGN, she worked for seven years at the Pushback Network (PBN) where she eventually served as Executive Director. At Pushback, she worked with the Board to drive strategic planning and fundraising for a national network of eight states that were building power with people of color and low-income community organizations through state-based integrated civic engagement programs.
Dreama is a native of Alamance County, NC. She spent 25 years in education until changing to work in hospitality. She is one of the Democratic Candidates seeking 3 available seats as an Alamance County Commissioner. She wants to ensure that Alamance County government is fair, equitable and inclusive to all county residents and works to fully fund schools for all children. She seeks to make sure children have equal access to resources and facilities and engage in social justice reform. She would be the first Black woman elected to the board.
Pat is an engineer with experience in the defense and manufacturing industries. He volunteers with Down Home North Carolina.
The daughter of undocumented immigrants, Sugelema is an educator in the Alamance-Burlington School System as well as a Digital Media Producer. She is the first point of contact for anyone who wants to get involved with Down Home’s Alamance County chapter.
This is To See Each Other, where we explore how people are reshaping small town America, and why writing it off is Trump country hurts us all. I’m George Goehl, and today we’re headed to North Carolina. We learn how a place once called Klansville, USA is now home to a multiracial alliance of people fighting against white supremacy and for a more just future.
There’s some common things that come to mind when you mention North Carolina.
While, as a Hoosier, I hate to admit it, North Carolina is home to some of the best college basketball in the country. Tourist as well as locals flock to the outer banks to the east and the equally stunning Blue Ridge Mountains on the Western side of the state, the research triangle home to Duke, University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State draw in billions of investment every year. Charlotte is the finance capital of the South. North Carolina is also home to the North Carolina Piedmont, which runs through the central part of the state.
Alamance County is part of the Piedmont. It’s a region that helped birth the new South, as industrialization transformed what had long been an agrarian economy. In the 1800s, textile manufacturing took hold in North Carolina. It became an epicenter for the industry, as people move from farms to newly bustling towns in search of an hourly wage in the mills. As recently as 1970 North Carolina was home to the largest textile manufacturer in the world. But in the 1980s, textiles began moving overseas. As textile mills and small farms evaporated, so did a sense of identity and pride. Jobs in the county are so hard to find, and so low paying that locals started calling their home last chance Alamance. half the working population has to leave the county to get to work. One big question. What is there to be proud of now?
White nationalists would have you believe that the answer is whiteness. It’s a strategy as old as the South and as old as Alamance County itself. In 1870, Ku Klux Klan members lynched prominent local Black leader Wyatt Outlaw on the Alamance County courthouse lawn. This touched off a watershed struggle that inaugurated the era of Jim Crow and Klan terror in North Carolina.
The ghost of the Klan has stalked Alamance County since. In the 1960s, the North Carolina Klan had more than 10,000 members, and it was known as Klansville, USA. As Donald Trump ascended in the 2016 Republican primary, racist organizations in Alamance attempted to recreate history, aggressively asserting that white is the only race that belongs.
Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, known locally as ACTBAC, is a neo-Confederate group that emerged in 2015 to preserve Confederate monuments. Meanwhile an influx of Latinx immigrants to the county also created a target. Alamance is now about 70% white, 18% black and 13% Latinx. The shift has made it easy for long time Alamance residents and elected officials to blame their struggles on recently arrived immigrants.
Meanwhile, white supremacist groups are recruiting members by preying on people’s pain. I will never forget seeing a flyer from this region about addiction. It read, “You aren’t the only one at the end of your rope. We care about you. Please call this number.” The organization at the end of the flyer, the loyal white knights of the KKK.
But Alamance is also home to a groundswell of neighbors writing a different story. Down Home North Carolina, a community group that is an affiliate of People’s Action, is redefining who belongs in Alamance County. Theirs a fight for better jobs, better healthcare and clean energy. It’s important to note that it’s a multiracial fight that belongs to everyone. At its core, Down Home is built as a direct alternative to white supremacist groups in the region.
I can remember exactly where I was driving through Chicago when Bridgid Flaherty, an organizer I’d admired for years called. It was the first time we had talked in a long while. It was days after Trump was elected and she had decided to move to North Carolina to be with her mom and help build a new organization in small towns in the state. I was like, “Hell yes, let’s do this.”
I can think of few organizations in the country that from jump were so clear on the need to directly combat white nationalism by doing race conscious organizing in small town America, and that to defeat white supremacy, you had to beat white supremacists at organizing white folks. I knew what they were up against, but today they have built a multiracial coalition of fighters and this from their office in a rundown strip mall at the corner of Plantation and Corporation Streets with a Confederate souvenir shop next door.
Many people had intense reactions to Trump’s election, but very few people decided to move to small town, North Carolina or small town anywhere and start organizing in places where Trump won solidly and there’s very little progressive infrastructure. What is it about you and your story that led to you making that choice?
The analysis that I’ve brought to bear over the last decade of organizing is that I just really feel like we’ve as a movement become more polarized around who we’re organizing and where we’re organizing. There are actually a ton of beautiful people in places that are just getting written off. It’s almost commonplace now to say that, because I think people have really started to understand that kind of oversight.
To me, it was just like, I’ve been in rural North Carolina when my mother moved there decades ago. I know her neighbors, I know folks that are actually living in these places that are really great people, that if there was a vehicle to be able to harness the imagination of these folks and really let it be run by them, that we would have different outcomes. So I think there was just a real understanding of the potential that is actually there in these places. Particularly for me in rural North Carolina, that just felt I needed to go and actually be putting my heart and soul into something that was expanding the progressive infrastructure and really like being able to create positive change with people that I felt like could actually do some really good work.
One thing we’ve talked about in the last three years is actually not being shy around the fact that whether it’s rural or red state, we actually need a strategy to engage struggling white people. I think we believe there’s a way to do work that is race conscious from jump. So kind of love to hear your thinking on both not being shy about the fact that we’re going to organize some white people, and then also the way to do it.
I just start with my own history and my own family. I was actually born in a small town in New Jersey to a working class, white family. We started moving around very early, but wherever I moved in the country, I would still go back for summers and holidays to my family in Jersey. This idea that working class white people are either fully racist or totally progressive, and that they’re on either side, and you can’t move people is just not true. The fact that race is something that isn’t talked about, all of this is just not true to my experience. There’s very complex conversations about race, and a lot of room for transformation.
What I learned in my own family is that it’s just the ability to have open conversations, put it on the table, have a level of just deep listening that gets you to understand where people are coming from and then just hanging in and having multiple times of engaging on that conversation, and just not flinching that I feel like sort of has informed how Down Home has looked at race. We’ve been very clear that racism is a structural problem that has been sort of in the soil of this country and the air that we breathe for centuries. That it’s always been a tool for a few wealthy white people to really run the show. So the more that we can be exposing that and then really meeting people where they are helping to get people to sort of see their interest in being together with each other across race, to go against those in power. That’s really what the name of the game is for us.
You guys felt it was important when you were launching Down Home North Carolina to actually go to areas where there was visible white nationalist organizing taking place, right? I mean, you guys really taught me that as part of the strategy of that being a specific kind of lens for making decisions around where to bring people together. Why was that?
To me, we will never have the type of change that we all deserve: that deeper social economic, racial change, that complete transformation that actually we need to go through as a society, if white supremacy and racism has continued to exist. We have to eradicate that. Groups who are white nationalists and white supremacists in places that don’t have progressive infrastructure, in some of those places, they are able to really dominate the actual organizing that happens there.
So for us, it’s particularly as so much of what we were seeing in the country, sort of this just unabashed white supremacy that was coming from the highest in the land, the sort of just the laying open from the federal level. We just knew that now’s the time that we had to really go head to head. We had to be able to try to fight and win against these forces in order to really build the movement that we need that again can challenge what we were seeing as just sort of this absolute unapologetic white supremacy that was coming from Trump and the federal. So we really had to go head on.
Going toe to toe with white supremacy can mean a lot of things. Some organizing happens within the landscape that exists, but some of it requires transforming that landscape entirely, turns out there are a lot of ways to out organize the white nationalists. One of them is putting a groundbreaking black woman into local office.
We don’t need to accept a landscape created by someone else. Instead, we can create a government that reflects us, our communities and our needs. In Alamance County, this grassroots transformation is happening in the campaign of Dreama Caldwell. Dreama is the perfect expression of a movement politics that’s taking root across the country. She was born and raised in Alamance County and won her primary for a seat on the County Commissioners Board. Now she’s campaigning to win in the general election. She’s an example of someone coming out of the community, who the community believes will co-govern with them after the election. She shared her story with us.
Alamance County is known as No Chance Alamance, is kind of what we jokingly called it growing up. Because everybody who grow up here, their plan is to get out of here. We can’t talk about Alamance County and not talk about white supremacy and the hold on the area. It’s something that, I mean, we’re still in contention over Confederate statue, much less moving beyond that. We’re still talking about a statute. So I think that if that gives anybody any context about what kind of our area is about, I mean, there are two things, two counties, two cities, the tale of two cities within this county. I think whether you stay on the east side or whether you stay on the west side, the county can be very different for you.
I was 13 years old before I went around to the other side of tracks. You’re talking about just a couple miles down the road. I was 13 years old before I went to Holly Hill mall. An aunt took me, and I remember being excited because I had this conversation like I was going to town, and I was only going a few miles down the road. It was that much of a different world for me, getting to go to the mall as a child. So you just learn very early, and it’s not a physical, you can’t go here. You can’t go here. You’re not welcome here. It’s just the kind of unspoken rule of where he can go and where you can go.
You may go and not that people were fused service, but you’ll get terrible service. So it’s not a flat out refusal of anything. It’s just, you may only get seated in the back near the kitchen. So you began to navigate that way. I joke now that at 40, now that I’m doing a little bit of community activism and organizing, I’m going places that I’ve never been. I’m 43 years old. There’s places in this county that I’ve never seen, or that I was too scared to go. Like physically we knew you didn’t go as a person of color.
In Alamance County, it’s weird. You learn where you can go. You learn what not to say. You just learn the ways of the way that things are. So you kind of embrace your community, you embrace your people, and you just kind of stay in your box. So I’m just now taking all those layers out and getting out of that box.
I’m running on equitable schools and facilities for all children, no matter where they are in our area code, whether they’re in the areas that are the highest income producing or they’re at the lowest in our county. I’m also running off of the fact that government should be a reflection of the citizens that they serve. When I found out that no black woman has been on the County Commissioner Board, it’s kind of like what I wanted to do, because I think we deserve being included on how our money is going to be spent in our county, how things are going to get done, our tax code. I think all those things.
Primary’s the goal for this campaign. Of course, I want to win. Winning is what I want to do, but it’s not my ultimate goal. My ultimate goal is to reengage my community and in the process of canvassing and knocking on doors, I found out there’s a huge disengagement. I think that they’ve never felt like they’ve had a candidate that represents their voice. So I had to spent a lot of time knocking on doors of people telling me, “I don’t do politics. I don’t do this politics stuff.” I met a man almost 60 who has never voted. So I had to put myself out there as a candidate, but then also I had to do a lot of voter education. I had to do a lot of saying, “Okay, this is why we need to get back there. We do have a voice.”
I have to first wake up my base because they’re so used to, this is how it’s always been. I mean, I just told you I was 13 before I went to the other side of the county. So think about, I remember in high school, I was a buddy to somebody, and I took them to the mall in Greensboro. They flipped out because it was like, they went on this huge ship to Greensboro, and it’s 30 minutes away. There can be a better world. We could do so much more. We could create something different. But if you don’t know anything else, you don’t know anything else.
The people that are my base, lot of times you hear these are the voiceless people. I like to say, they’re not voiceless. They’re just unheard, and they’re ignored. I think that these voices have been crying out for years, but I want them to understand, and I need them to understand their voice is powerful, and that if it’s many of us versus somebody with many of dollars, that’s just as powerful, and that to a politician, having a bunch of people that can influence a vote is important. As my campaign now, I use second chance Alamance, because it doesn’t have to be no chance Alamance. It can be a second chance where it can be a great place for all of us.
I remember a conversation I had with a Down Home member who said, “We’re all those things that people think about us in terms of our history and our racism, and we’re more than that.” There is more to this story. Dreama is part of that story, both its history and its future, and so are the people who are writing that story with her, a multiracial coalition of folks who are building deep friendships through organizing. People who have nothing in common on the surface, except their belief that maybe things can be different come together.
Pat Rogers and Sugelema Lynch are one of these friendships. Pat, as he says, is a privileged white guy from Maine who found himself in Alamance for a job after college. Sugelema’s the daughter of undocumented migrant workers who grew up picking fruit from Washington to California, and is now an educator in Alamance. In a place with a history like Alamance County, it can be tough to imagine an unlikelier friendship than that between a young white man and a Latinx mom. People who got to be friends while campaigning for a Black woman who grew up in the segregated South, but that’s what organizing can do.
I love your story of how you grew up. Pat, can tell me more about that?
I was born in upstate New York and then grew up in Southern Maine. My parents have worked in hospitals for most of their lives, and my dad is a surgeon. So it was growing up pretty comfortably. I expected to graduate high school and then get into a college and then go through college and then find my own sort of professional career. I don’t think there was ever a time where I ever felt like I don’t have a little bit of training wheels on, and that security in shelter, that security in food, that security in financial wellness. It just gave me so much flexibility in what I felt like I was able to try.
I appreciate listening to your story because we grew up so differently. My parents were undocumented immigrants and picked strawberries, oranges, produce. My brother and I were born in California and after my brother was born, they ended up migrating up towards Washington state. In Washington state, I just remember moving around a lot. It was a very seasonal kind of work. They would pick pears or sometimes it was asparagus or sometimes it was tomatoes. Sometimes it was plums, cherries, apples. My dad probably had a middle school education, maybe, and my mom was illiterate. She couldn’t read or write, and I think we lived just in survival mode for the majority of my life. It’s growing up totally opposite from you, Pat. I think about you, and I think about people that grew up like you, Pat, and I think, “Gosh, man, what would have that been like?”
I drive around Alamance, making sure I have my ID on me because what if I didn’t have my ID? They could put me in the detention center and detain me, or I could just get pulled over. I’ve been pulled over like a couple of times just for doing nothing, really, just driving through town. So there’s just a little bit amount of fear. My dad was pulled over a lot growing up, and it’s just something that has just stuck with me. So I can relate to a lot of people in the community that deal with the same stuff. I guess maybe it’s like, I want to live vicariously through you. This guy can just get away with anything, and this is great. It feels like you can do things that maybe I couldn’t do, especially in Alamance County.
It just reminds me of why we are a part of Down Home, why we’re here trying to make Alamance County a better place to create more equity. I think about how much fun we had canvassing for Dreama’s campaign, especially because when we were just knocking on doors and the eagerness of people to talk. I mean, granted that one very powerful lady wouldn’t answer the door because there was a Hispanic woman and a white guy knocking on the door. They didn’t answer the door at first until we went around the back. But once she started talking to us, she was really intrigued. She was like, “Oh, county commissioners, can I go to these meetings?” I felt like it’s this huge amount of responsibility. We need to tell people that you can go to these commissioner meetings. You can listen in and see what’s happening on a local level in your community. That yes, you have a voice.
My hope for Alamance County is that every person here feels like they are contributing in a part of life here. Everyone feels empowered to participate. I want that to mean more than just voting. I want this to be a county where people don’t feel like things are happening to them, but things are happening that they’re a part of. Because I think when you have a community where you have people feeling like things are happening to them, that they can’t change, that’s when the worst things can happen. This is a place where a lot of the people who live here feel like politics and feel like history are things that are just happening to them and they can’t be a part of it. So my hope for Alamance is that everyone here feels like they’re the ones doing history instead of people that history is happening to.
I love that. I would add that along the same lines of what you just said, Pat, my hope would be for people to not be afraid to demand what they deserve. They have a voice. That would be my hope is for more people to realize they can make a change. They in every way, shape or form should feel comfortable and empowered to share their thoughts and their opinions and demand change.
Down Home is a reminder that if we create the arena for people to build together, to be in relationship, to base their understanding of each other on real lived experiences, not racial stereotypes, something special happens. Alamance County is like much of the country in its demographics: majority white, a significant black population, a growing Latino population, all of whom are suffering economically. In places like this, you can deal with race or not. But we know this much: white supremacists always do race. If we don’t do race, they get to dictate how people think about it.
So what’s our strategy? We think it requires race conscious organizing. Race conscious organizing means this: being clear on the way racism creates winners and losers, how it plays out in relationships and in policy and power. It requires understanding that racism creates division that is actually a bad thing for most people, including the white people who make up much of small town America.
There are lots of ways we can see each other. It can be listening and sharing on the front porch. It can be by going to battle together to win justice. We see through lines: being curious about one another, building through action, and creating spaces of vulnerability. Spaces where people share what they’re experiencing and how they’re making meaning of the world.
If you’re looking for more about all of this head to peoplesaction.org/podcast, to learn more about Down Home North Carolina, and how we are building a multiracial coalition fight for more justice and more joy across America. Thanks so much for listening.
To See Each Other is produced by People’s Action and The Mash-Up Americans. It is executive produced by Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer. Our senior producer is Sara Pellegrini. Our development producer is Melissa Lo and our production manager is Shelby Sandlin. To See Each Other is sound designed by Pedro Rafael Rosado. Original music by The Tang Brothers.