In November of 2015, I got the opportunity to co-lead a training in Prestonsburg, Kentucky called “We Are Kentuckians: Tools for Building Racial Justice in the Mountains” with local organizers in Kentuckians for the CommonWealth and Showing Up for Racial Justice members.
When I got back to Oakland, I wanted to write to you all about what I learned from KFTC about building a base of people with a liberatory sense of self-determination while steeped in a conservative political landscape. I wanted to write to you all about the brilliant KFTC and SURJ organizers I met in Louisville, Lexington, and Prestonsburg and the many ways they are coordinating between chapters across urban and rural landscapes. I wanted to write to you all about the ways this training opportunity brought to life one of my dearest political commitments to work with other poor and working class white people on racial justice, and how this became possible because of Catalyst’s commitment to movement-building for the long haul. I wanted to tell you how my heart and soul was filled on this trip in a way I have never before experienced. I wanted to tell you all these things and more. And then suddenly, my grandfather passed. And my life paused.
“I wish my family could be here,” I whispered to myself while standing in front of the room in Prestonsburg. The participants – students, parents, teachers, community organizers – were in small groups discussing what would be possible if the masses at the bottom of economic pyramid had more power than the few at the top. As they discussed the role racism has played throughout history in dividing working people, my chest ached from wanting so badly for my family to be part of these kinds of conversations.
That ache, in part, comes from how far away that possibility actually is. My family, and particularly my grandfather, have been proactive members of Right-Wing base building since before I was born. Racist tropes aimed at creating fissures between working and non-‘working’ white people and people of color work, at least in my experience. And standing in front of that room in Prestonsburg, I felt the other side of the ache in my chest: I felt immense dignity, the kind that comes when we refuse to collude with the systems of white supremacy. There is dignity when we unveil the ways those same systems are created to exploit people of color and create a disposable class of people.
I feel proud of all the participants that came to this day-long workshop on a Saturday in the smokey hills of Eastern Kentucky. It wasn’t just about building tools for racial justice. At least to me, it also felt like a risk – a risk to look racism head on in how this country was built and a risk to exist in a kind of dignity that doesn’t come at the cost of another’s. That’s what I want for my family. I wish my Papa knew that kind of dignity.
I want to share with you a poem that doesn’t have a name. I dedicate this poem to my Papa, to poor and working class white people daring to uproot racism in our daily lives and visions for the world, to everyone finding creative ways to meet the needs of their community inside and outside a system hell bent on dampening aliveness. And I dedicate this poem to multi-racial movements full of abundant dignity, collaboration, and liberatory visions of what ought to be.
the intimate work of a machine
is to know its hum, cycles, and reach
the intimate work of moving bodies
that move the land
re-making bodies that build empire
poor, to working-class white people
what do we do with hands that know these cogs
the oil that keeps parts moving in time
soaking in our clothes, skin, soil, soul
the small gains of staying in
yet we are still pulling levers and punching in
and looking up
looking up at what we never should become
the intimate work of a machine
is to know its hum, cycles, and faults
the intimate work of moving hearts
using gifts, between differences, across place
might, yes, always halt the work of empire
working, to poor white people
there is a place for you in making a real living
poor, to the working bodies that run machines
life, to the many hearts that wish to be free
With grief and love,
on behalf of Catalyst Project