It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
Three years ago, I drove 592 miles in order to walk 56.
I was taking a break from monitoring every push notification coming to my phone for a Kickstarter campaign: the campaign to start Scalawag. I traveled to spend five days walking under the National Park Service's guidance from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
Exactly 50 years later to the day, we retraced the march that was the public climax of the campaign for voting rights. The history buff in me was thrilled. I was new to the South, and I wanted to see the landscape where so many people organized and marched for their freedom. We walked the streets of Selma and down the road where some were killed for that freedom.
But what I saw was how their victory had narrowed. The city of Selma was distressed and a far cry from the photos and footage from the 1960s. One local told me and some of our Park Service group that the city was punished in order to retaliate against the Blacks who built political power there. Lowndes County, through which the civil rights activists had marched, and where the first Black Panther Party was founded to represent poor Black voters, Lowndes County, where we slept during our march in 2015, Lowndes County today is a place without the basic right of access to sewage disposal, where poor folks are fined and arrested because they cannot afford adequate septic systems.
I went to Alabama that first time thinking I knew more than just the broad strokes about the Civil War and the civil rights movement. I left realizing that I just barely understood the first thing about how those in power effectively slowed or even halted progress in so many parts of the South and the United States, including my hometown of New York City.
But even more importantly, I met the other young folks who joined me in the Park Service program, the Park Rangers who spoke about this march as the most important project they had ever worked on, and the activists who spoke to us. And in all of them I saw underground reservoirs ready to feed a river of justice.
I came back to North Carolina, to the Scalawag Kickstarter's final, incredible burst, and I wondered how those energies were related. I wanted, with whatever talents I could muster for Scalawag, to empower others to tell their stories of where that backlash came from—and of those powerful reservoirs.
Now, Scalawag's three years of successes animate me. And while I might not have been born Southern, I've grown from Durham, from North Carolina, and from Scalawag. I say y'all (and somehow the Scalawag team doesn't mock me); I don't think twice about how to make grits; and I've learned from the tradition of freedom fighters in the South.
Learning about this Southern tradition has changed me. Driving Scalawag to engage in its present has given me purpose. Scalawag's stories of Southern resilience, resistance, and re-imagination turn in my mind. Families learning how to care for each other through mental illness. Teachers following their coal-miner parents and neighbors as they fight for fair treatment and wages. Folks in Lowndes County organizing against 21st century plantation power. Southerners rallying for a South that welcomes refugees and Muslim immigrants at airports and in our communities.
It's not just our stories that have changed me. The Scalawag team has given my values of inclusivity and justice, interdependence and self-determination, a distinctly Southern accent. And from each of you on this team, I've learned how to be a better coworker and a fuller, kinder, and more humble and moral person—lessons I've learned especially through, and thanks to, my failures—and from our triumphs too.
From my co-founders Jesse and Sarah, I've learned how to combine vision and work; and with them, thanks to the Scalawag team, I've grown to relinquish personal vision to create a shared direction and project. From Alysia, Cierra, and Lizzy, I've learned to trust myself to speak directly and to be heard for what I mean. Matt has taught me how to teach from humility. Chika, you mapped Scalawag out into paper and into processes from each little detail to our big design. Anna and Emily have shown me that to trust someone is to trust that their growth will change you too. You, Lovey, Bonnie, and Audrey, have forced me to think about my voice as a part of Scalawag's—not just a tool of the behind-the-scenes action. Ellis matched my enthusiasm for the small details, convincing me that my love for data and operations can connect me to the world, not just to the work. Katie, thank you for forcing me to pull those details together and reconcile them, to see each one together—while holding work and friendship. Zack and Harold have made me think about which numbers matter and shown me how to listen to the voices that they represent. Rachel, you make me listen deeply, exhale some of my city-kid self, breath in the mountains and their stories, and then exhale more of the city kid. Danielle and Lewis, you've shown me how to make my work the work of supporting your leadership and visions for Scalawag. You Brittany have shown me how to drive towards that vision in each imperfect moment—while you've strived to hold me and Scalawag to account for pushing toward that vision. Maybe most importantly, Mike Jones and several others of y'all gave me the confidence that who I am is not just what I do—it's also how I cook grits. And from Mike Ellis, our new executive director, I've learned how to listen, trust, and accept what I've done and left undone.
You reading Scalawag now, you've taught me that this project, that has felt so important to me and to the team, matters beyond our personal drives. The meaning of Scalawag is what you make of it, what you take from Scalawag and realize in the world. I want to join you in that work.
I imagine now the hills of Lowndes County: You, the Scalawag team, Scalawag writers, my friends, activists, musicians, parents, children, clergy, dancers, and so many others are walking Route 80 together. We're joined not just by those I literally marched with in 2015, but by Southerners I've read about and admired, and many whose names I'll never know. At the top of the worst hills, we enjoy feasts our ancestors have prepared for us—collards and mac 'n cheese, tacos and Laotian curry—and lots of sweet tea. We sit and enjoy each other's company as we rest our legs. We know that away from the road are many who oppose our march, and we know that there's a long way to go even after we get to Montgomery.
Scalawag editor Danielle Purifoy once reported that over 65 percent of Lowndes County's land is absentee-owned—that the people shaping its future are doing so from afar. But we are anything but absent; we are present, if only in each other's imagination, following and feeding and marching together because the road is long, and hilly, and the absentee adversaries are strong and won't be absentee forever. We are on our way.