Bottoms up – starting a conversation for change in the rural South

“I’ve always believed that change doesn’t come from the top down; it comes from the bottom up.”

-President Barack Obama, September, 2009

It’s been Obama’s mantra since the beginning of his administration, and even before, when he first ran for president in 2008. Search for “top down bottom up,” and you will be overwhelmed by the number hits. Change comes from the bottom up. Politics comes from the bottom up. Economic growth comes from the bottom up. Innovation comes from the bottom up.

It’s a little bit ironic, then, that when the red states in the Old South take a bottom-up approach that appears to gain some traction in getting us out of the socio-political wilderness, the national party – seeing the potential for dollars and power – sweeps in to scoop us up, as if to say, “Thanks for all you’ve done. We’re professionals. We’ll take it from here.”

Jeana Brown, Dawn Collins, Haley Shank, Sharon Hill
Participants deliver their message at a conference for Team Rural in Brunswick, Georgia, March 21, 2015. Clockwise from top left: Jeana Brown, Dawn Collins, Haley Shank, Sharon Hill

That is exactly what happened in the 2014 midterms, according to a small group of rural progressives gathered in the coastal town of Brunswick, Georgia, Saturday, to lament about last year’s elections and the overall attitude state and national party officials have toward the folks who have a lot of passion about the direction of our communities but not enough money to be heard.

The sense of abandonment was palpable. “This shit’s got to stop,” railed an impassioned Jeana Brown, the Democratic activist from Georgia who organized the one-day event under her Team Rural banner. “We’re the ones [out here] doing this.”

“The messaging is pitiful with the Democratic Party,” complained Dawn Collins, a political consultant and former Democratic chair from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She described the passion of the party for the rural voter as milquetoast, at best. “They’re so afraid of upsetting the conservative base, so fearful that they won’t get [the votes of] a few conservatives,” she said, that they spent very few resources “preaching to the base and rallying up the base.”

The party’s message was “neither hot nor cold,” she said, quoting a verse in Revelations. Rather, she said it was “lukewarm,” as the passage goes, and so, she warned, we “will spew you out.”

It’s the kind of message that resonated with the mostly rural crowd. “What can we do,” a frustrated attendee asked, “to come back from this staggering stupidity?”

“We have to keep it real,” Haley Shank, a self-described Jewish Democrat from a small, southwest Georgia town, and a former candidate for the state legislature answered. “We cannot be holding on to [candidates who] are bringing down our hard work” just because of their lust for power. “Your candidates,” she advised, “if they’re not reaching out to you in between election seasons, then they’re not doing their job, and they’re not going to do it for you in [government].”

Collins agreed, and had a message for the state and national parties, and elected officials. “What we have to do different is operate in integrity,” she said. “Don’t sell your people out.”

Brown insisted that grassroots, rural movements can only succeed through action. “One of the first things we learned in the [2008] Obama campaign was strategy. If you get a roomful of people, get them to do an action.”

Getting involved and staying involved is “politics at its best,” agreed Sharon Hill, a political consultant from just outside Atlanta. She was advocating for growing the local Women’s Political Caucus. “We hold them accountable. That’s what we haven’t done.”

One way we can do that is to work together to fix things. “We have to reach across the aisle,” Shank said. “I think putting ourselves in that bright blue box can be kind of limiting at times, when a lot of our issues are not Democrat or Republican.

“Banning fracking in the United States is not a Democratic or Republican issue. Ending these pipelines and getting rid of eminent domain, this is not Democrat or Republican. In fact, Democrats will find that a lot of times, Libertarians line up with them on these things.”

The inaction and apathy isn’t just a problem for Democrats either, Shank told the group. It’s an issue for Republicans, too. After all, monied interest have also co-opted some of their grassroots groups. That puts the burden on all Americans who work to improve the future of our country. “We’re all kind of failing,” she added, near the end of the day. “We’re all kind of failing to meet each other where we are.”

As Hill noted, “This is a ‘we’ thing. When we join together, we get it done.”


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