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As winter storms rocked Texas and others across the South last week, Southern organizers waited for no one to do what they do best: stepping up to make it happen. Volunteers signed up to phonebank for wellness checks, and mutual aid networks continue to expand their capacity to intervene where policy has failed.
The government failures may continue to pile up while Southern communities are left to resolve multiple crises on their own, but people are building collective power across the South—people committed to making sure our communities not only survive, but thrive.
Mutual aid—along with regional action and local policy change—is just one of the tactics central to the People's First 100 Days, a regional organizing campaign to grow Southern movement power. It's the first step in a year-long action plan developed when members of the Southern Movement Assembly (SMA) gathered in 2019, knowing that regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election, our communities would still need to fight for equity and justice.
Launched in 2012, the SMA is a collective of organizations and individuals committed to shaping a multiracial, multi-issue alliance to uplift frontline communities. More than 100 organizations from across the region, including the Global South, have participated in SMA intensives. Anchor organizations based across the region—including Project South, National Council of Elders, SpiritHouse, Southern Rural Black Women's Initiative, Black Workers for Justice, and Crescent City Media Group—are connecting their wide range of local efforts to make lasting regional change.
See also: Five Peachy Takeaways—Georgia's grassroots organizing lessons will be valuable in the South for a long time coming
Modeled after the first 100 days of the new presidential administration, the People's First 100 Days launched at the start of the new year, with input from hundreds of Southern freedom fighters.
Beyond response in moments of crisis, the resilience of historically affected communities has led to some of the most decisive victories in history. Organizing to thrive and providing opportunities for communities to lead for themselves—instead of waiting for piecemeal policy approaches—is critical for our advancement.
Providing both a space for collective visioning and action, Southern people-power is more than an electoral strategy. This coalition is tackling real-world issues like climate change, immigration, housing, and jobs—and their momentum is not deterred by the barriers to access and opportunity built into the political system.
Hundreds gathered on January 9 for the first mass meeting of the People's First 100 days. Participants from Little Rock, Durham, Nashville, Birmingham, and Jackson, to rural communities in South Carolina, West Virginia, and Kentucky gather virtually to set a mutual agenda. Nina Morgan from the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution and Nia Wilson from SpiritHouse were among session presenters.
Driving home the message that 'WE GONNA BE ALRIGHT', speakers framed the current movement moment and ongoing intersecting crises of white supremacy, COVID-19 pandemic, and economic strife as opportunities for organizing.
The meeting came just three days after the white supremacist attack on the Capitol. Southern movement elders challenged the group to consider three questions:
- What is the historical context of this moment and what is the meaning for our movements?
- What are the opportunities opened by the insurrection on January 6th?
- What are collective healing practices we can offer each other for holding rage and grief—and for creating safety and strength for the long haul?
Reflecting on these questions together, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic the capitol riots exposed the many lies that sit at the heart of this country. Leaders challenged us to not simply channel our rage and grief into action, but to take the moment to breathe and heal. Safety and healing are critical to our existence in a hostile terrain.
This week marks the halfway point through the People's First 100 Days, and neither major political party has shown the will and determination to put people first. This isn't the resistance of champagne liberals. Driving people-powered action while nurturing and growing our ranks will force our issues to be at the forefront.
Here are the main takeaways from the Southern Movement Assembly's plan for The People's First 100 Days:
1. To make history, we have to understand our history
"We are on this call because we are a part of a diverse Southern-rooted multiracial, multicultural, multi-gendered, multi-abled, multi-generational movement," reflected Nia Wilson with Spirit House in North Carolina. "We are committed to using the truths that we know to create the world we deserve."
Our rage is real and valid, especially in the battle for narrative control over whiteness and white supremacy.
Wilson pointed to the need for intentional healing in order to stand fully in our power. "We must build collective intercommunal power that is rooted in the wisdom of our ancestors and our elders."
The innovation and collective reimagining of how to show up in moments of sustained trauma and crisis has elevated the work that is being done across the board. It has opened opportunities to address simultaneously long standing issues and fortify our institutions.
2. Nobody's free until all of us are free
"Now's the time for us to dig in deep," proclaimed Shafeah M'Balia with Black Workers for Justice. "We have to build and strengthen our local organizations, communities, networks, neighborhoods, [and] coalitions. Our strength starts from there."
M'Balia emphasized the necessity of building more opportunities for collective organizing and planning. Building around the commonalities we share helps in group self-determination. Defining priorities and objectives on our own terms leads to demands that actually meet the needs and conditions of our communities—not just goals that sound good on paper.
See also: How a Black and Latinx coalition turned utilities back on in LaGrange
This is the value of having an effort like the People's First 100 Days, and a space like the Southern Movement Assembly, where people can convene and co-vision. Reflecting on the regional formations represented on the call, Emery Wright highlighted the importance of political education.
"We need to really be using this moment like we have today to do deep political education with each other to share analysis and perspective," Wright said. "Since the beginning of Project South, we have been focused on the U.S. South, focused also in our neighborhood in South Atlanta, but [we're] also international in both our perspective and in our work."
Coupled with the narrative power to build stronger movements, Wright encouraged everyone to have a global perspective.
3. We have the right—and responsibility—to build our own futures
There are no saviors. No masked avenger will swoop in and make everything better.
But with the collective planning of Southern Movement Assembly member organizations and allies, we move beyond simply talking about our visions and learning how to heal from our traumas to actually taking action.
The People's First 100 Days builds on the experience and passion of movement assembly members. It is the first step to growing movement power, and developing self-determined governance and cooperative infrastructure to support our shared vision for the future.
This campaign provides space to center the needs and desires of people who are deciding for themselves what is enough and what they deserve. Each action moves us one step closer to liberation.
Stephanie Guilloud, who co-leads Project South, said that while we may be halfway through the People's First 100 Days, there are still plenty of opportunities to engage and commit to growing collective power across the region.
"The insurrection at the capitol and the state's alignment with white violence revealed more of what we already know to be true. It is time for our communities to build our own solutions," Guilloud said. "It's time to build mutual aid projects rooted in local communities but coordinated with one another for greater strength. It's time to sharpen our policy campaigns to divest from harm and invest in community control of resources."
Participants from over 50 groups, representing 13 states, are meeting weekly to work on these issues and more.
Join in the SMA #HearThePeople action the weekend of April 10, and commit to joining local policy fights for community control of resources, and connecting or initiating mutual-aid projects and centers. Guilloud encourages those interested to become an SMA member and join a work team.
This work takes all of us. But we gonna be alright.