This story was originally published in Scalawag's Winter 2020 issue. For an update on Black Voices Black Votes 2020, check out this follow-up Q&A.
"Are you bleeding? Do you need to go to the ER?" Whatever Denzel Henry, Dalphine Ndashina, and I were talking about suddenly trailed off as we turned toward Isaiah. We expected the worst.
Isaiah listened to the voice on the other end of the phone and nodded. "OK, man. Do what you need to do. We'll see you tomorrow."
He hung up and threw his head back as laughter spilled out. "Javon got bit by a dog! A Chihuahua took a chunk out of his pants!" Our nervous chuckles became full-blown bellows when Isaiah recounted the story.
As I took in the sight of these young Black people sharing a jovial moment while fighting for their future—a moment of childlikeness while engaged in such mature work—I was transported to the student-led protests of the sixties. Kids who sang loudly while being loaded into the back of paddywagons. Young college students cuddling up to their latest crush on a Freedom Riders bus as they wound through the country to register poor Black voters. This is what it means to be a young Black activist in Trump's America.
Community organizer Isaiah Withers and the Street Heat Team were canvassing Raleigh, North Carolina, on a sunny September afternoon as a part of Black Voices Black Votes (or BVBV2020), a civic engagement program created by the National Black Workers Center Project (NBWCP).
"I could either become filled with fear or filled with boldness to fight for liberation."
NBWCP was founded in 2012 to marshal a national network of Black worker centers, local hubs to support, educate, and organize laborers to improve their working and living conditions and build a political voice in their communities. There are now eight Black worker centers and NBWCP affiliates, including three centers in the South representing Mississippi, New Orleans, and North Carolina. The first Black worker center, Black Workers for Justice, was founded in Rocky Mount in 1981 by Raleigh's Ajamu Dillahunt in response to two Black women going on strike at a local K-Mart in protest of unsafe working conditions and low wages.
At just 24 years old, Withers radiates a passion for justice and a deep love for Black people. Raised in Reidsville, where the KKK has an active presence, he grew up in the miasma of white supremacy.
"I could either become filled with fear or filled with boldness to fight for liberation." He decided to join the youth chapter of the North Carolina NAACP, and ended up becoming president. During his term, he was shepherded by Rev. William Barber, then-president of the North Carolina state chapter.
Once he graduated high school, Withers started clubs on HBCU campuses that educated young adults about revolutionary movements and how to lift up their neighbors through service. But it took leaving his small hometown and moving to Durham to work as a landscaper to understand first-hand the struggles Black workers face. When he heard about a job opportunity with the NBWCP, Withers went to St. Augustine's University in Raleigh to interview for the position and was told that it wouldn't be available for another three weeks. Intent on landing his dream job, he drove to the office every day to make sure he was not overlooked.
Members of the Street Heat team gathered at the Community Safety Club building in downtown Raleigh. Foreground: Laron Tharpe and Isaiah Withers. Background: Joel Ulysses, Liane Moyo, and Monique Boyd.
"Ms. Tanya and Ms. Carolyn have become some of the greatest mentors in the movement that I have ever had," Withers said, referencing Tanya Wallace-Gobern, executive director of the NBWCP, and the organization's chief of staff, Carolyn Smith. "I was raised by my mom, so I believe in the power and truth of Black women. I am forever grateful that they gave me this opportunity."
Like her mentee, Wallace-Gobern's experiences with brazen bigotry propelled her into the world of activism. "I was a freshman at Loyola University in Chicago the first time I saw the n-word written on a wall," Wallace-Gobern told me over the phone a few days after I shadowed the Street Heat Team. "Then, a white friend and I were commiserating about how expensive tuition is. She turned to me and said, 'At least you have that special grant for African-American students!'" Wallace-Gobern excitedly headed to the student services office of her university to accept this special money she had just learned about, only to find out it was a racist rumor.
Soon after these incidents, Wallace-Gobern participated in the AFL-CIO's Organizing Institute, which showed her the undeniable connection between the rights of Black people, women, and workers. After college, she moved South and worked with unions in the textile and biomedical industries, where she held various leadership positions. In response to observing the low number of Black people in leadership roles within unions, Wallace-Gobern created the AFL-CIO's Historical Black College Recruitment program.
"Many Black people in Raleigh are jaded because they have observed that Black votes matter, but Black voters do not matter."
With all the encouragement she received in college from AFL-CIO leadership and the foot soldiers she worked alongside in various unions, Wallace-Gobern grew a passion for finding and mentoring the next generation of workers' rights activists.
"The old guard believed in having to wait your turn. Wait until you are asked," she said. "But young people don't want to wait, and it's time for the older ones to step aside and create space as a way to secure the life of the movement. We have to give [young people] the opportunity to fall in love with the potential, leadership, growth, and transformation that happens when doing this work." This intergenerational vision, shaped by nearly thirty years of labor organization experience, made her the perfect candidate to become the NBWCP's first executive director in 2016.
Members of the Street Heat team gathered at the Community Safety Club building in downtown Raleigh for a "huddle" before canvassing.
Just two years into her tenure, NBWCP launched Black Voices Black Votes 2020. To pay homage to the beginning of the Black worker center movement, Wallace-Gobern chose Raleigh to pilot the initiative. North Carolina has the sixth highest population of Black people in the United States, but the number of Black voters is much lower. "Many Black people in Raleigh are jaded because they have observed that Black votes matter, but Black voters do not matter," she said.
Wallace-Gobern saw an opportunity through the Black worker center model to unite, empower, and organize a group of people who have been too-long silenced—and the BVBV2020 initiative was the first step. Along with surveying Black residents, BVBV2020 also partners with influential institutions and businesses, like beauty salons, barbershops, and churches. They also collaborate with other local organizations, like Raleigh PACT, a human rights coalition, and the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute, which supports civil rights and labor organizing, to put on joint events and build a strong activist infrastructure in the city.
"The end goal is like a three-legged stool: voter registration, voter turnout, and holding elected officials accountable," Wallace-Gobern explained. Though many of Raleigh's political organizations deal with the first two issues, it is the last leg—holding elected officials' feet to the fire—that sets BVBV2020 apart.
Using data collected from surveys and focus groups, Wallace-Gobern and the NBWCP team plan to create a Black Workers Economic Agenda. It will be released through local and national media and then marched directly to the N.C. General Assembly by community leaders, right when all 170 seats are up for grabs in the 2020 election.
Isaiah Withers talking to people in Raleigh about the Black Voices Black Votes 2020 initiative.
The ultimate plan for the NBWCP is to open a permanent Black worker center in Raleigh. The goal is to challenge the narrative about Black residents in the city's political and economic discourse. The Black worker center would be where leaders trained through BVBV2020 could partner with the community in holding elected officials accountable to their campaign promises. "There is no interest [by Raleigh's Black residents] in outside organizations pimping them for their votes," said Wallace-Gobern, "We are here to build something lasting."
As we caught our breath from laughing at Devon's unfortunate run-in with the Chihuahua, I got some time to speak with Dalphine Ndashina. She is a St. Augustine's first-year student studying public health.
"Justice is my thing," she said, reflecting on her involvement with community advocacy since high school. Her first foray into organizing was an event she created with the YWCA to bring more sidewalks and crossways to Southeast Raleigh.
"There were a lot of Republican legislators there. So, to help them connect, I researched where they lived and what their hobbies were prior to the event. For one senator, I found out through Facebook that his wife likes to run in the mornings, but their neighborhood lacks proper sidewalks for part of her route." Ndashina mentioned this to the senator at the meeting, and he was thoroughly impressed.
She learned about BVBV2020 through a political science counselor and submitted her application for the Street Heat Team. "She will be the future mayor of Raleigh," Withers said as we walked a daunting hill in the Brentwood neighborhood. "Mark my words."
"Many of us know more about what is happening in Congress than what is going in our city council … even though what happens in our local politics is what affects our lives the most."
Hasan Crockett, an associate professor and program coordinator of the political science department at St. Augustine's University, has worked closely with the BVBV2020 team from the beginning. "We have had seven students participate as canvassers, and they have enjoyed it immensely," he said. "Canvassing has given them a chance to get to know Raleigh's Black community and what the people really care about. They reported an eagerness by the community to tell their story and share how they feel. When going into the beauty shops and barbershops, people were excited to be asked about what matters to them. I've experienced this, too. There were very lively conversations during our recent focus group. Between the national survey, canvassing, and focus groups in Raleigh, we have already gotten several thousand responses."
When asked why Raleigh needs BVBV2020 and a Black worker center, Crockett braids together issues of race, class, and the significance of representation. "BVBV2020 and the Black worker center model is all about giving the African-American community, especially Black working-class people, more political power in the city."
"We, the Black community, only have one councilman in City Hall while having nearly thirty percent of Raleigh's population. We are marginalized. Many of us know more about what is happening in Congress than what is going in our city council, county board, or General Assembly, even though what happens in our local politics is what affects our lives the most. It takes organizing and organizations who have the resources to break through and address the public sector. Black worker centers are equipped to address the specific needs of Black workers, and by extension, the entire Black community. It's similar to the Chamber of Commerce representing the local business community. The Black community, and all marginalized people groups, should have entities like this."
"I love speaking to the elders of the community. … I love to hear their wisdom."
The BVBV2020 survey is primarily about workers' rights and economic issues, but it is also a powerful tool to empower Black Raleighites to tell their story. "One reason we have expanded our timeline is because folks are wanting involved conversations around their concerns," Wallace-Gobern said. "In order to show someone that their vote matters, we must show them that their voice matters. This is why we never cut anyone off when they are sharing their story."
Isaiah Withers talking to people in Raleigh about the Black Voices Black Votes 2020 initiative.
While canvassing, 24-year-old Denzel Henry surveyed a woman in her 60s. After about 10 minutes, I decided to eavesdrop on their conversation. The woman shared how much the world has changed since she was a young person, how she wishes that kids Henry's age respected themselves and authority more. But then she admitted that, at a time when a Black boy can get shot by a police officer for playing in the park, there isn't much to respect. As she talked, jumping from one memory to another, Henry listened intently without the slightest hint of fatigue, even though it was approaching his third straight hour canvassing.
"I love speaking to the elders of the community," Henry had shared earlier. "I love to hear their wisdom. I may not remember every detail of their story when I walk away, but it always feels good when they share their stories with me." Henry is a product of elders in his community believing in him, even when he was at his worst. "I was on a bad path at a young age, but God sent people to help me find my way." This included getting a job at the YMCA and joining Young Life. He also worked at the Wake County Sheriff's Office for a few years and hopes to join the force one day.
The entire Street Heat Team shared similar stories of how being part of BVBV2020 has been a life-changing experience. When I shadowed the group, the only other newcomer was a middle-aged man named Wes Williams, who had been surveyed by the team the day before. "When I was met by the Street Team, I was suitably impressed," Williams shared. "Anybody who wants to speak for those who can't speak for themselves, in my book, translates as someone who has passion and a servant's mentality in them. I was raised in the ghetto, and I know how hard it is to get your voice heard. For these young people to sacrifice and dedicate their lives to that, I just want to support them in any way that I can."
Near the end of my conversation with Wallace-Gobern, my one-year-old let out a cry that carried through the phone. "Every mother knows what it is like watching your child struggle, especially when learning to walk," she said. "We have to accept the reality that young leaders will stumble and fall, no matter how painful. It's a rite of passage. Elders want to protect the young from the hardships they've experienced, but they have to make mistakes and face trials to learn."
Wallace-Gobern leads by this philosophy, which is why she has attracted such vibrant, capable, dedicated young leaders around her. They may occasionally show up late to meetings or have unfortunate run-ins with angry pets, but she and Withers, and the entire team at NBWCP, are there to help them back up when they fall.
"We can't treat the election process like Santa Claus."
Wallace-Gobern, like Crockett, sees BVBV2020, the Black Worker's Economic Agenda, and the future Raleigh black worker center as the best way to restore civic engagement in the Black community at every level. "We can't treat the election process like Santa Claus," Wallace-Gobern says. "We have to own the whole process as a community, and we are training people to do that. This will help people believe again. Black residents of Raleigh are ready, eager, and hungry for action. We are building a cadre of leaders that will be able to hold their elected officials duty-bound to the people's agenda."
Youthfulness is crucial to the survival of any movement. But it is also important to have the wisdom and experience of the elder generation guiding this vigorous energy in a way that produces lasting results. Tanya Wallace-Gobern has brought this intergenerational philosophy into the service of labor activism through the BVBV2020 campaign. Isaiah Withers, Dalphine Ndashina, and Denzel Henry represent the future of the NBWCP and the future of Raleigh itself. With support of elders like Wallace-Gobern, Dr. Crockett, and Wes Williams, and the validation of Raleigh's Black community, they will continue the legacy of the first Black Worker Center in 1981, and of all the young people who have ever fought for liberation, one door at a time.