Bridging the Class Divide and Other Lessons for Grassroots Organizing: Breaking Down the Chapters

Chapter 1: Growing Up Poor

  • Both raised in North Carolina, Linda Stout’s parents grew up poor. Linda’s father, Herschal Joseph Stout, was a Quaker, in which Linda and her younger sisters were raised that way as they attended Friends Meeting every Sunday.
  • Linda’s first experience of using collective power was through a Meeting, as she and other children protested against the elders in regards to keeping their teacher.
  • In 1959, Linda and her family were in a devastating car accident in which her mother and younger sister, Renae, had to be hospitalized for an extended period of time. Her mother, who ultimately lost one of her legs, received inadequate health care during her hospital visit. Furthermore, they did not receive any legal compensation for the accident because they did not have enough money for legal advice. Linda states that if her parents were no poor, her family would have received better medical care and received the appropriate compensation for the accident.
  • Linda did well in school up until 4th grade, where she began to experience classism. As a result, Linda began to have low self-esteem due to the things people would say about her family being poor. The self-fulfilling prophecy came into fruition when she was ridiculed by her 4th grade teacher because she did not know how to do a division problem that had not been explained prior to her attempt.
  • Linda’s family moved to another town in 8th grade, and Linda still held onto her dream of going to college and becoming a teacher. Linda regained some of her confidence back by observing an outgoing and enthusiastic classmate. However, Linda faced another instance of lack of opportunity when she was misadvised by her guidance counselor as to what courses are appropriate for college entrance. She essentially had to fight for the information in order to learn how to get there.
  • Through her perseverance, Linda was granted a scholarship to Lenoir Rhyne College in Hickory, North Carolina where she began to pursue a major in mathematics. This is when she began to face sexism in the classroom as most of her math classes consisted of men and her presence and efforts were largely ignored. Linda had a change of heart and decided to try some communication courses. Her experience in one class caused her to lose confidence in her ability to publicly speak or write as she received poor marks on assignments due to her working-class English.
  • Although Linda did well enough to maintain her scholarship, she faced another burden during her second year of college as housing costs increased. Linda’s father was not able to afford this increase of $500, so Linda felt that she was left with no choice but to leave school, sell her things, and as a result, obtained a job at hosiery mill in Hickory. Ironically enough, someone from the college had contacted Linda to inquire as to why she had no come back to school. At first they did not offer her any compensation, but after this phone call, they seemed willing to work with her.
  • Linda’s experiences as a child and a young adult with sexism, classism, racism and homophobia set the groundwork for Linda’s desire to fight for justice as she grew older.

Chapter 2: Becoming an Activist

  • At the age of 23, Linda moved to Charleston, South Carolina 1977. Her first job was with an insurance and rental company that owned a lot of property in Charleston. Linda was instructed by her supervisor to practice racism by misinforming African American people about renting availability. Linda soon quit after a few other experiences that were overtly racist. Thereafter, Linda obtained a position at a law office that focused on civil rights.
  • Linda and her sister, Jane, had moved to a neighborhood outside a military base that was deemed “unsafe” because it was an African American community. Many people that Linda associated herself with were shocked that Linda and her sister rode the bus in their community as it was something white people did not do. Linda explains that it actually turned out to be a positive and safe experience contrary to belief.
  • Throughout her first few years of living in Charleston, Linda faced sexual discrimination in every aspect of her life, from housing to attitudes amongst people she worked and socialized with. This led her to become interested in the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the women’s movement. She then discovered a women’s group in Charleston who were organizing for the ERA and abortion rights, and although she joined, Linda felt stupid throughout her membership with the group.
  • After realizing she needed to join a group in which she could relate to its members, such as other low-income women, she became interested in the peace movement and helped start a Friends Meeting in Charleston in 1980. This group was tailored to meet the needs men of young men entering the military as Linda sought out training through a national program on how to start a military draft counseling service.
  • Through her experiences at the Friends Meeting and coming to the realization that by analyzing how poor people are affected by national military spending, Linda began to figure out how she wanted to make social change happen. After much observation, Linda publicized in the local paper that she was starting a peace group. However, as college-educated and professional men began to join this group, they assumed the leadership role while Linda was left to plan and schedule meetings/events. Linda shares several moments where she felt it was implied she should not assume more responsibility up until she was left to present at a Black Ministerial Alliance meeting, in which she received a standing ovation.
  • As a means to organize the Charleston peace group that she started, Linda was recommended by people in the community to speak to a woman named Septima Clark. Septima was an important figure in the civil rights movement and a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King. She was affiliated with the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Through Clark’s advice, Linda began to face her own attitudes of racism as she tried to build the bridges between African Americans and white people in Charleston.
  • After organizing a March on Washington to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, as well as a housing demonstration in Columbia, South Carolina, Linda worked tirelessly to raise money so she could work as a full-time organizer. Once the peace group in Charleston realized Linda would leave the city if she could not find work pursuing her dream, she was offered a position. However, things took a turn for the worse when Linda’s father became very sick. Linda left behind what she had started and moved back to North Carolina.

Chapter 3: PPP: Creating Our Own Model for Social Change

  • After returning to North Carolina, Linda wanted to start a local peace and justice group. Her first initiative consisted of utilizing the American Friends Service Committee for funding and reaching out to local ministers to help her organize a peace conference as a means to connect with a diverse group of people. It was called the “Southern Piedmont Interfaith Peacemakers”. Through the help of ministers that came on board, she conducted Sunday school classes, presentations for adult education programs and spoke to women’s church. As she began to meet more people in the community, Linda was able to identify people who were interested in peace and economic justice. This enabled Linda to conduct house meetings where she would ask church members to go into their homes, show a movie, talk about budget cuts for social programs and how that money was redirected for military purposes, and lastly, assist people in writing letters to their representatives.
  • While laying the foundation for the Piedmont Peace Project, Linda was working as a paid organizer for Carolina Community Project, in which she focused on a voter registration project. This opportunity enabled her to connect with the African American community.
  • Linda’s work was recognized by peace activists in the Boston area through a national peace organization in 1984. They sought Linda out because they wanted people in North Carolina, particularly the eighth congressional district, to lobby on peace issues. From there, Linda was encouraged by her supporters in Boston to make her organizing group official by applying for foundation funding. From there, Linda coined her group the Piedmont Peace Project. Since the group was small starting out, PPP did not have a formal board of directors, as they left Carolina Community Project to sponsor their organization.
  • During its first two years, PPP focused on building a linkage between low-income white and African American communities. They executed this bondage by going door to door and talking to people to determine the issues they were concerned about. As time went on, PPP was also able to gain membership from middle-class people. PPP was able to have influence over middle-class people as they connected peace and the military budget to the community.
  • PPP first recognized its impact on public policy through a congressman named Bill Hefner, who had a very poor voting record when it came to peace and social justice issues. Through innovative lobbying techniques, Hefner significantly changed his voting patterns as his voting record increased to 83 percent on peace issues and 98 percent on social justice issues. (p. 55)
  • While it was very empowering that PPP was making an impact on public policy, the organization began to experience opposition from people who had previously been supportive but reneged their membership due to outside pressures and from people who were entirely against PPP’s causes. As people began to break into meetings and threaten people, meeting places became increasingly difficult to obtain. The worst instance occurred in 1987, in which it caused a handful of middle-class members to leave the organization. Due to the severity of the violence, PPP began to wane out of the public eye by organizing strictly through word-of-mouth tactics and only focusing on low-income and working-class communities. Although these experiences decreased the size of PPP at the time, Linda notes that it allowed the low-income members to recognize their potential through leadership trainings.
  • In 1988, PPP demonstrated their influence and power at the SANE/Freeze Conference as a means to lobby their platform of cutting military spending and redirecting that money for human needs. As a result, SANE/Freeze decided to make PPP’s stance their main focus of work. Due to PPP’s success at this conference, they planned a large community event with a guest speaker from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As this event was being advertised, the Klu Klux Klan was planning to retaliate with a demonstration. PPP utilized every avenue possible to ensure security at this event, as their tireless efforts convinced the Justice Department to send federal marshals. Evidently, PPP’s April 14th, 1989 celebration was a huge success as the Klan members did not interfere with the outcome.
  • Once PPP regained its spotlight, the first major organizing campaign revolved around the Midway community in Aberdeen, North Carolina. Midway was an extremely poor African American community surrounding Aberdeen, in which people could not receive city water, trash pickup, sewage systems, emergency medical care and adequate housing. PPP campaigned to the town of Aberdeen to annex Midway and provide a community development block grant in order to provide the necessary services that people in Midway were entitled to. Three years later, PPP achieved a huge portion of their goal as Midway received a block grant to clean up the town.
  • While organizing for Midway, PPP was also approached by workers from a small home appliance plant called the Proctor-Silex Hamilton-Beach Corporation to protect their rights as workers since Proctor-Silex was relocating its plant to Mexico. Although PPP knew they would not be able to prevent the plant from closing, they organized to receive retraining funds for all the workers. PPP’s efforts granted the workers $500,000, but this win lasted momentarily as these funds were redirected to the state of North Carolina as it was placed in a private industries council. After this failure, PPP realized that local victories would only be temporary unless PPP worked to influence change at the federal level. The same also applies to oppression when an organization does not work to confront all types.
  • PPP’s focus changed significantly with the dawn of the Gulf War in the early 1990s. As PPP gained a media consultant due to winning a national award for grassroots peace work, members of the organization were recognized in the public eye on a national level through newspapers and radio/TV stations.

Chapter 4: Building Our Own Model

  • Due to her involvement in the national peace movement, a field organizer asked Linda to present a speech at a fundraising event in Boston. Linda agreed, even though she was reluctant. Although Linda received a lot of pressure from the field organizer about the duration of her speech and the language she used, Linda was able to overcome her immense nervousness. As a result, Linda was personally applauded by a famous economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, who used to work under John F. Kennedy.
  • PPP began to recognize how their model of community organizing for low-income people differed from those taught at national trainings when PPP staff and leaders began to attend sessions. Through these experiences, Linda notes that PPP formed its own model based on the following principles:  combining local and national issues, lobbying and educating people on local issues first before reaching the national level, adding a peace agenda as a factor of local organizing, making a commitment to organize against all forms of oppression, and setting their own agenda.
  • Since PPP’s model went against the grain, many criticisms followed such as having a focus on local issues, not caring about other people’s needs due to imposing an agenda, the decision to be able to set their own agenda, asking people to accept mission and principles before becoming a member, and challenging their board of directors to take a stance against homophobia. As Linda states that it is important to stand against all types of oppression, the board of directors eventually endorsed a stance against homophobia to be included in PPP’s mission statement.
  • In order to encourage growth amongst staff to take on new leadership roles, PPP enacted a literacy program to meet the needs of staff in Cabarrus County, North Carolina as PPP recognized their reluctance was due to a lack of confidence of their reading and writing abilities. Outside organizers criticized this tactic as PPP provided books within the program that were agenda specific (low-income communities). In regards to hiring, PPP was also criticized for hiring a diverse staff from low-income communities as a means to represent the demographics of voters accurately.
  • Although PPP was building an effective leadership model in its approach to organizing, the membership faced many issues internally that revolved around harassment, racism and sexism. PPP began to deal with a lack of communication and trust among its members by utilizing a staff retreat based on team-building in 1991 and from thereon, made it a point to include a team-building training at their annual board retreat.

Chapter 5: Why Aren’t We Winning?

  • The most serious problem that progressive movements face is dealing with oppression. With that in mind, Linda goes on to define PPP’s definition of oppression, which is “prejudice plus power” (p. 86). Since oppression is displayed in the institutions of society, we are products of the world we live in therefore, progressive moments are vulnerable. However, internalized oppression seems to have the most damaging effect when it comes to achieving goals in a progressive movement. Institutionalized oppression provides messages that allow us to have low self-esteem and can cause us to blame others who are oppressed.
  • The experience that allowed Linda to understand her own internalized oppression was through a trip to Nicaragua in 1986. The purpose of Linda’s trip was to meet with leaders and community organizers who played an active role in the revolution of poor people taking over government and working for economic and social justice. Linda was astonished to see that the poor people were proud of who they are, as celebrations ensued in Managua to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the revolution. Linda recognized their power and independence by observing this celebration, which allowed her to examine her own feelings of shame of growing up poor. From thereon, Linda began to view poverty as a social problem rather than a personal problem.
  • Linda illustrates this lesson through a story about a former Klu Klux Klan member named C.P. Ellis. His story explains how his low-self esteem due to classism led him to join the KKK, the first instance where he felt accepted by others. After being a Klans member for ten years, Ellis began to recognize whose interests are truly served through race and class oppression, and as a result, he disaffiliated himself.
  • Through Linda’s experiences, PPP started to incorporate discussions and reflections of oppression at staff meetings and retreats in order to solve the problems occurring with their membership. Making the connection between politics and personal struggles allow staff and members to strengthen their focus.
  • PPP filed a lawsuit in 1990 against Cabarrus County and the state of North Carolina as they prevented PPP from registering people to vote on county and state property. In order to combat any discrepancies/opposition that might arise from this lawsuit, PPP held a press conference detailing what happened. Evidently, the media published their own story about the lawsuit, which included a statement from the North Carolina state attorney accusing PPP of lying. As PPP members and staff began to feel badly about themselves due to the content written in these articles, PPP retaliated by exposing the letter via press release from the Employment Security Commission. Furthermore, they stated how they newspapers had the accurate information but chose not to disclose it. These efforts influenced a newspaper in Kannapolis to publish the true story.
  • Another key lesson that PPP had to learn internally was the importance of being aware of how all types of oppression are intertwined, and the potential for the oppressed to become a part of the oppressor group. Linda explains this lesson through her discussion of experiencing white privilege as well as experiencing classism because of the way she speaks. Many of the negative experiences that characterize the beginnings of PPP were utilized in a positive manner as PPP makes it a point to confront oppression and internalized oppression before taking on a new project to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

Chapter 6: Principles for a New Organizing Model

  • Through many trials and tribulations during the early years of PPP, Linda outlines seven principles that are characteristics of a successful/inclusive grassroots movement:
    • Principle 1: Focus on social change
    • Principle 2: Work across race and class lines
    • Principle 3: Include indigenous organizers and leaders
    • Principle 4: Encourage diversity with ongoing outreach and training
    • Principle 5: Focus on the connections between local and national issues
    • Principle 6: Develop and maintain personal empowerment while working for organizational power
    • Principle 7: Be flexible and ready to create new models to adapt to needs and leadership styles of participants

Chapter 7: Invisible Walls

  • Linda delves into the question, “why haven’t we yet learned to build more effective multiracial, multiclass organizations in the United States?” (p. 117). In order to answer this question, Linda identifies various barriers that prevent progressive social movements from achieving their goals. In her experience, Linda notes that organizations have the most difficulty overcoming classism. The “invisible walls” are as follows:
    • The wall of language: Linda identifies this wall as the biggest barrier to forming an inclusive movement, and it is crucial for organizations to overcome this barrier in order to ensure success. Language as it relates to classism is the hardest aspect to overcome. Linda found ways to translate community organizing language for working-class and low-income people. (verbally and written materials)
    • The wall of assumptions of knowledge: This occurs when people assume that other people have the same information or knowledge about a topic or issue that they do. This is assumption is communicated in two ways; unintentionally and astonishment. People make assumptions about your experiences and lifestyle.
    • The wall of simple logistics:  This involves how and where meetings are held, the nature of elections for leadership positions, budget development, identifying decision-makers, and how to keep track of member participation. Linda suggests considering the following factors in order to break down this barrier: choosing the right location to hold a meeting, physical accessibility of meeting location, transportation, provide adequate child care for members and staff who have families, time of meetings, and membership fees.
    • The wall of meeting format and organizational structure: A structure of a meeting and an organization will large affect inclusion. Areas where problems can arise are the following: how decisions are made, the nature of discussions, voting and electing leadership positions, communication in meetings, accomplishing goals, and recruitment.

Chapter 8:  Redefining Leadership

  • Linda was told from the get go of her social activist career that she was not the appropriate spokesperson for peace and community issues. Being a low-income woman who spoke about her feelings and experiences, she was not viewed as a traditional leader by middle-class people. Nonetheless, the way Linda related to people in the community allowed others to see her as a leader. When she began PPP, she made a commitment to the organization that PPP would work to make everyone feel like a leader. Through this commitment, PPP has created an inclusive model of shared leadership.
  • In order for progressive social movements to counteract oppression in the United States, the view of leadership needs to be redefined and can be achieved by following certain principles: build an organization of diverse leaders while making it possible for anyone to become a leader, support and train people who are interested in taking on a leadership role so they can recognize their own potential, and lastly, shared decision making is essential for achieving shared leadership.
  • PPP achieves these principles by conducting the following:
    • Within training workshops, people first examine what people are in power along with the skills they possess as leaders. After identifying leaders, the training workshop determines which skills the group shares in common with these leaders. From thereon, the group analyzes why these particular people have power. After the first step is completed, the group then redefines how leadership skills can be taught, as PPP firmly believes leaders can be made.
    • PPP also makes it a point to promote members to new leadership positions when it comes to community organizing.
    • PPP encourages leaders to train new leaders as it is important to recognize new leaders through observation and reaction.
    • Most importantly, always acknowledge and praise leaders for their accomplishments so they feel a sense of appreciation.
    • Potential issues for abiding by these principles:
      • Providing enough support for people to become leaders. The degree of support can vary from person to person.
      • Taking on issues of caused by different types of oppression (sexism, classism, racism etc.)

Chapter 9: Getting Smart about Organizing

  • Linda states that it is common for progressive social movements to avoid using standard business practices when it comes to organizing as they fear it will compromise their values. However, PPP has been able to adapt its needs while utilizing these practices. If an organization is unable to adapt or holds prejudices against these standards, it can prevent them from achieving their goals. The prejudices are as follows:
    • The media: progressive movements tend to steer clear of the media as they believe the various outlets will portray movements negatively. Linda recommends that organizations determine its targets for a media campaign, along with determining the focus of the campaign that will produce positive results. Fundraising and redefining how the media views the people you represent are also key strategies to overcoming this prejudice.
    • Strategic planning: Many organizations are reluctant to follow the strategic planning practices of businesses. PPP overcomes this prejudice by creating a long-term vision of their goals (i.e. five-year plans). Plans are also implemented to reduce “burn-out” amongst staff members. Strategic plans allow organizations to be more flexible and effective.
    • Needs of the staff: It is important for an organization to properly address the needs of their staff in order to ensure that it runs smoothly. PPP works to maintain a fair balance between work and personal lives. They ensure that staff members receive fair pay along with benefits.
    • Fund-raising, budgets, and marketing: Many organizations base their budget on how much they can raise. PPP determines how much it will cost the organization to achieve their strategic plan before implementing it, which allows PPP to raise funds more effectively. They key factors to fundraising include looking at your mission and figuring out how to raise money for your cause, by examining your audience and tailoring your messages as means to reach understanding.
    • Communicating with foundations: Linda notes that this can be one of the biggest challenges for progressive movements. Linda recommends being honest with the foundation you are trying to receive funding from in regards to being honest with how much your work will cost. Therefore, it is important to educate foundations as much as possible in regards to everything needed to achieve an organization’s goals.

Chapter 10: What Happens When We Begin to Win?

  • When progressive movements begin to achieve their goals, that is when they will begin to experience opposition from groups of people or individuals who believe in maintaining the status quo. As mentioned in earlier chapters, when PPP faced opposition unexpectedly, members felt paralyzed. However when PPP began to plan for opposition before starting a campaign, they were able to react in a positive manner and feel prepared to do so.
  • Linda recommends the following steps for dealing with opposition:
    • Assume it will happen.
    • Know how the backlash will manifest itself.
    • Every action or campaign must have a response to opposition prepared ahead of time.
      • Determine the possible ways backlash will present itself
  • Most importantly, create a community of support.
  • Always remember that if an organization is not getting opposition, then they must not be doing enough!

Conclusion: Building Unity for Real Democracy

  • Linda was appointed as a Public Policy Fellow at Radcliffe College. Due to her appointment, she left North Carolina for a year to move to Concord, Massachusetts. Along with fulfilling her duties as a fellow, Linda wrote this book. However, Linda was nervous about integrating into the academic community as she did not have a college degree, and in turn, cause her to feel bad about herself.
  • Due to feelings of inferiority, Linda struggled to begin writing her book at first. Linda’s self-esteem drastically changed after conducting a presentation at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College in regards to the work she has done at PPP. As the audiences’ response to her presentation was uplifting, Linda began to shed away her previous insecurities learned how to communicate her ideas and visions on paper.
  • Being integrated into a middle-class and academic community allowed Linda to realize that every person is capable of confronting barriers and working towards social change. In order to build community, organizations must acknowledge and respect individual struggles as well as organizing politically.
  • Linda believes that working for change in competing and separated groups, while having no real plan for achieving long term goals, progressive movements will not be effective in the long run. Rather, a unity group is needed to face the crises our world is experiencing today. This unity group must be highly inclusive while representing fundamental human needs and rights, justice and equality.
  • Linda ends with eight ideas that represent a successful unity plan:
    • “A look at the history of revolutionary movements within this country and others, to figure out what worked well in the past and what we need to do differently in context of current times.” (p.188-189)
    • A strategic marketing plan.
    • A political vision.
    • Training of new organizers.
    • A political leadership institute.
    • Resource development.
    • Do not wait for reforms to happen before moving forward with a unity plan.
    • Peaceful ways to deal with opposition.
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