7 Lessons I learned from the Rust Belt and Appalachia

by Stephen Smith | March 6, 2018 7:00 am

I  am a community organizer in West Virginia.

At the end of 2017,  I traveled for a week with friends and colleagues through Appalachia and the Rust Belt, seeking lessons to bring back to struggling communities in our home state. This is a revolutionary moment in America. Never has there been a more important time to hear the voices of the next generation of leaders, folks who are trying to create a new nation, one community at a time – through social movements, politics, economic development, and other means. These conversations grew into a new weekly podcast I am launching this week called 1863, which was the year that West Virginia entered the Union as a state.

Here are seven lessons we learned along the way – from organizers, advocates, entrepreneurs, and working families.

  1. “Pain is purpose.”  Less than 48 hours into our trip, my colleague Shanequa Smith summarized our first few interviews: “pain is purpose… and we have a lot of purpose.”  We talked to founders of a black liberation organization named BYP 100, forged the night George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013 of killing Trayvon Martin.  We heard about a career in organizing built on the unjust middle school expulsion of a young mother’s daughter.  Too often, we think pain is what holds us back.  But our pain – and the fact we have survived it – is also what fuels us.
  2. “All my heroes are people who other people wanted dead.” These were the words of one non-profit director, reflecting on his own lack of courage.  He added: “I have to ask myself.  When was the last time I did something that could have brought me ridicule, or pain?  If the answer is not today, then I am doing something wrong.” Later in the trip, we grabbed dinner with rising leaders in Cleveland from across the education, organizing, and philanthropic communities.  “Who are the heroes you look up to from the generation above you?”  There was a pause, before: “That’s a strong word. I don’t think there are any.” We need more heroes.  We need to be those heroes.
  3. “That’s like the opposite of capitalism.” There’s a Black-led, multiracial community center tucked away in Akron, Ohio called the WOMB.  It is true to it’s name: a safe, warm, nourishing place where humans grow.  Through art, through organizing, through shared knowledge and food.  Its volunteers and staff told us about what made it unique – they did not charge for most events, they were staffed mostly by volunteers who would stick around after their shifts.  One leader said it took 3 years before he really understood what the place was, and he was grateful that he’d been allowed to take his time.  No one rushed him. An hour up the road, we found ourselves meeting with the CEO of one of the nation’s largest worker-owned cooperatives voiced this sentiment.  “We would pay half as much for twice as much land if we re-located in the suburbs,” he said.  But the costs – to the environment, to the neighborhood, travel time, etc. – would far outweigh the so-called savings.  It used to be obvious in our region that businesses were supposed to be about more than profit, and that what we did outside the formal economy (faith, school, family) was more important than what we did inside.  We learned there is still room for individual businesses to go beyond that bottom line, and that part of our job as organizers is to create the political and economic environment where those businesses are rewarded, not punished.
  4. Hope is “one more second, one more minute that you are alive.” A community leader from rural Ohio walked us through the lifetime of indignities she faced in the public eye.  Deaths too soon, children tossed aside by the school system, names she had been called.  She remembers when her neighbors wouldn’t even sit next to her at a community meeting.  Far more losses than wins.  “What still gives you hope,” we asked.  She took a deep breath.  “One more second, one more minute that you are alive.  That’s what gives me hope.  We can’t control whether we win, but we can choose to keep fighting.”
  5. Grandma is a verb. Definition: to instill warmth, food, and loving nosy-ness into any situation.  We learned this use of the word from a team of organizers, moms, and education advocates in Pittsburgh.  “The reason people come to our meetings is because they feel like home.  There’s always good food, a spread.  There’s always someone to look after your kids.  And once you walk through that door, somebody is coming up to you to chat you up.  We grandma everything we do.”  We hear a lot about what’s wrong with Appalachia and the Rust Belt.  We aren’t as educated or as rich as you.  But we know how to grandma better than you.
  6. Power only reacts to power. “If someone is doing something that’s hurting my kids, the kids in my neighborhood, I want to kill them.  I don’t care if they’re the mayor or a different kind of bully.  Now, I’m not going to kill anybody, so I’ve got to find another way.”  These are the words of a community advocate who recently unseated the local school board president in a contentious election.  She was describing an earlier campaign, where she helped paint giant signs with the governor’s phone number and attach them to state-owned properties that had been neglected.  “You have to shame them, if they refuse to come to the table.  And, you have to bring the people out….  They called us thugs…  They called me a chihuahua because I’m a little brown woman who wouldn’t shut up.”  But the strategy worked.  By refusing to relent, this group ultimately won every demand.  8 years later they have a better relationship than ever with the governor and mayor.  “Because they know what we can do.
  7. Impossible things happen all the time. In this work, sometimes our imagination gets broken.  This trip reminded us that we need to dream bigger, because impossible things happen all the time.  You can beat an incumbent school board president in an election, even if you are a single mom with no college degree running for the first time.  Your non-profit can buy, re-build, and manage 130 properties – and fend off gentrification.  You can get the Republican governor and Democratic mayor to agree on school reform that ultimately increases graduation rates by 19.7 percent.  You can open up a thriving Afro-centric community center in rural America.  You can link arms with low-income moms and force your school board to change the rules so pre-school kids aren’t getting expelled.  You can start a thriving worker-owned cooperative in the most ravished neighborhood in your city.

It’s possible.

For more about my trip through Appalachia and the Rust Belt, please listen to my new weekly podcast, 1863, which features conversations with Appalachians and people in the Rust Belt working hard to bring hope and change to their communities. 


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