Organizing: A love story
The Changemaker Authors Cohort, a partnership with the Unicorn Authors Club, is a new, yearlong intensive coaching program supporting full-time movement activists and social justice practitioners to complete books that create deep, durable narrative change, restructuring the way people feel, think, and respond to the world. This interview series features participants in the inaugural cohort.
Beth Howard is the Appalachia Organizing Director for Showing Up for Racial Justice where she is directing transformational basebuilding campaigns in her beloved home state. She is from a working class family in rural Eastern Kentucky and has more than 16 years of experience in grassroots community organizing and leadership development. She is committed to organizing her people in Appalachia to build a multiracial working class people’s movement. She’s also the writer and the creator of the narrative campaign Rednecks for Black Lives. She lives in Lexington, KY, with her husband Andrew and their defiant cat, Tadpole.
Narrative Initiative: Tell us who you are and what you do.
Beth Howard: I’m Beth Howard and I’ve been a community organizer for about 16 years. I work for Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), the largest national organization bringing rural working class white people in Appalachia into the fight for racial and economic justice from a place of shared stake. All the things we want and need for our community – like health care, housing, jobs, a living wage – we will have when we stand in solidarity with Black and Brown people. I direct our work in rural Appalachia. I am from a small rural community in Eastern Kentucky, and I grew up on a small family tobacco farm. My dad worked in coal mining, and my mother worked in a grocery store for decades and later was the factory worker. We also worked on the farm. I always share what they did for work because that defined my entire life. I am a working class person from a working class family, in a working class community in Eastern Kentucky. You know, I experienced a lot of joy growing up, but had a lot of difficult times because we were bearing the brunt of an economic system where a handful of people get rich and the rest of us suffer. So, that has informed my life. For generations – or for centuries – in this country, those at the top have used race to try to divide us. At SURJ, it’s our work to pull people away from the the far right and into solidarity with other working class people – white, Black and Brown.
Narrative Initiative: How did you get into community organizing?
Beth Howard: I got into community organizing right out of graduate school. I went to Eastern Kentucky University, and I actually majored in and got my master’s in creative writing. I went to school on a Pell Grant for low-income families, and I borrowed money for my degree. My maternal grandparents graduated seventh grade, and [on my paternal side], my grandmother was a teacher. My grandfather was a veteran. He worked at Morehead State University as a maintenance person and drove a school bus. My grandmother would always say, When you go to college. Anytime she would buy us a toy – my brother is eight years older than me – she would make us also read her a book, or do math flashcards or whatever it was, and then we could play with the toy. So, she was a teacher at school and a teacher at home, and I think that was a huge influence in my life.
Like many people who have difficult childhoods, reading was very comforting. It was very comforting to get lost in stories and characters that were different than the place I was living, and so I’d always wanted to grow up to write stories. So, that’s what I did as soon as I got out of high school. During college, I started to get more politicized around feminism on campus through Women’s Studies, or now gender studies. It was the first time I was able to take a lot of my personal experiences that were very painful, and understand [them] as part of a system of patriarchy and then capitalism and white supremacy. I was very angry and I thought things didn’t have to be this way. This was also during the Iraq War. I started to get politicized around anti-war protests and understand US imperialism. This was just the beginning of an awakening for me. By the time I graduated from grad school, my student loans were going to start coming in. I was teaching as an adjunct professor composition, writing composition and I thought, Poetry is not going to pay the bills. I’d also gotten in this mindset of “I’m going to do something to make the world a better place.” We shouldn’t have to live this way and we should all have the things we need. We should all feel safe and have joyful lives. So, what can I do to contribute towards that?
I always say that organizing was one of my first loves. It’s almost like a romantic comedy. This was back when I didn’t have a smartphone and I had to check my email on desktop computers at the library, or wherever it was, you know, my roommate’s computer. I was on a Women’s Studies listserv and there was an orientation on campus for community organizing. I had no idea what community organizing was, [but] it had buzzwords in it– equality, fairness, community – that were things that sounded interesting to me. They had us thinking about the fact the world is unfair and unjust to many, many people. They had us think about what power is, what organizing is. And I just felt so lit up.
[I thought] my poetry and writing would really be intertwined with my community work. But that never happened because organizing took so much time and energy and brain space. After I was out of an academic setting where I was around other writers who were actively working, a regular writing schedule fell away for me. And so, a few years ago, I decided I wanted to pick my writing back up because that it had meant so much to me. And I finally felt like I had something to say.
Narrative Initiative: Historically, poets have always had a revolutionary role. The assumption that your political work could feed your poetry and vice versa is a good one. Tell me about your project for the Changemaker Authors cohort, and what it is you’re writing about?
Beth Howard: I am writing a political memoir, creative nonfiction about my life and how I became a revolutionary. It’s a story about leadership and the transformation of a self-described hillbilly redneck radical from Eastern Kentucky. [It’s about] my journey to understand my shared stake in fighting for racial and economic justice and bringing working class white people in Appalachia in the South into that fight. And it’s also a story about childhood trauma and healing.
Narrative Initiative: We all are inundated with narratives about the working class and the “backward” South and the “backward” people in Appalachia. Your work is pushing against that.
Beth Howard: Absolutely. And so, you know, I was talking about organizing being a love story. I was like, Oh, I got the right email at just the right time. And, you know, I consider this book to be a book of love stories and love notes, too. One of those is to my people in Appalachia and to our region. The title of the memoir is Rednecks for Black Lives, and the climax of the story is an essay – a narrative intervention I put out as part of surge during the uprisings in 2020 – that was a call to action for working class white people, hillbillies, rednecks, you know. People who would be seen as being the problem and being the main perpetrators of racism. People who have been labeled as ignorant, stupid, toothless. All of these jokes about being poor, you know, have been somehow weaponized against a group of people – as it usually is against many groups of people. And we’re kind of blamed for everything that’s wrong in the country, too. [But] many of us are choosing the right side and have for generations, like during the Battle of Blair mountain in West Virginia, which [involved] a multiracial racial group of thousands of miners who unionized together and cross racial lines to do it. [I wanted] to visibilize those of our ancestors who have done that and are doing it. But [the essay] was also a call to action for people who are sitting on the sidelines, or people who were falling into a lot of hurtful narratives – false stories about police murders of Black people. It really broke my heart. So I wrote that essay.
At SURJ, we thought, We’ve got to say something. We’ve got to make a choice point for people. It kind of also harkens back to “Which Side Are You On?” which was written by Florence Reese, who was a union activist in Harlan County, Kentucky. She wrote this song on a kitchen calendar that she had after some of the hired [guns] from the coal companies came and threatened her and her family. And so, I wanted to also invoke that for working class white people in the South and in Appalachia to say, “We got to choose a side and let’s be on the side of justice, like our ancestors.”
What’s so important about this being a love letter to poor white people and working class white people – people who get called hillbillies, rednecks, white trash, trailer trash and some of us who have reclaimed that for ourselves – is that we are beautiful people who are worthy of a good life. And, you know, the term “redneck” has been distorted from one of its original meanings. In the Blair Mountain War, miners wore bandanas around their necks to indicate they were union and that they were in multiracial solidarity. Now, redneck has become synonymous with the Confederacy. Or with racism. Our history has been hidden from us and distorted. So it’s about a reclamation of our history and calling us into our best selves – lifting up our culture, our music, our food, our friendliness, our commitment to family and community. It is kind of a love letter to my people, but [it’s] also for people who have stereotyped us or seen us in a certain way so they might really see us for who we really are.
Narrative Initiative: Who were some people that influenced or impacted you on this journey?
Beth Howard: You know, my dad was very influential. From a young age, I had this view of the world. [There were] those who had a lot, and then there were rest of us. We needed to come together to protect ourselves and each other, and fight for a government that takes care of its people. I went through an intensive leadership program for white anti-racist organizers. The program had us research our family history and our family’s timeline generationally in the larger context of slavery, patriarchy, and colonialism. When I was doing my research, I saw generations and generations of my family who had died early at the hands of capitalism, you know, brutal deaths. That was so heartbreaking to me – how hard we had to work just to survive and, then, often not surviving.
I was able to put my own story in these larger [contexts] where, for centuries, poor white people were used as pawns, so rich white people could colonize and enslave people. I saw repeatedly the ways they kept us divided from Black and Brown people. So, you know, they would give poor white people just a bit more safety and security. You can see that in a union, in a workplace where they’ll start to give the the white workers a management position to separate [them] from the Black and Brown workers. Too many times working class and poor white people were pulled away to side with white people who did not have our interests at heart, instead of Black and Brown working class people. So, I’m going to do everything that I can to pull as many of my people into multiracial working class solidarity and away from the right.
Jerome Scott, who is in his 70s, is a mentor. He was one of leaders of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit. During that time, he also led a successful wildcat strike that shut down Chrysler for over a week. Jerome was serving in an advisory position on work that I was doing in the South at the time. We didn’t have too much of a personal relationship at this point, but he did an interview with me and talked about the history in the South and multiracial struggle. Through that interview, he offered to mentor me. I’ve always been a person who, if someone offers you something, you take it and so I thought, Here’s this revolutionary with so much wisdom and experience who grew up in Detroit generations before me. . We have so many shared experiences.
So, I was talking to Jerome on his porch about organizing and he said, “You know, one of the things that we don’t talk about enough is that the working class struggle is rooted in love. It’s rooted in the love of the working class. It’s rooted in the love of each other, of knowing that we deserve, not just to survive, but to truly have joy, to have creativity in our lives, to have love and relationships.” One of the things I’ve also been taught is, There’s nothing too good for the working class. We deserve it all.
This book is a love letter to help working class white people in the South see our beauty and our dignity and to call us into our best selves. To call us into doing what our ancestors did to reclaim our history. And to fight for the future that we deserve.