Chris Crass interviews Kate Shapiro about SONG, a Pro-Black, Pro-Working Class, Pro- Feminist, and Pro-Immigrant organization in the South.
Author note: This post is part of a series of interviews with white racial justice organizers and leaders from around the country, to draw out examples of what white activists are doing and can do, along with insights and lessons born from years of experience. While white people need to be mindful of how white privilege operates, we must also be powerful for collective liberation, knowing that the time for us to rise against structural racism is now. Read more in this series here.
For over two decades Southerners On New Ground (SONG) has been building up a multiracial base of member-leaders who are experimenting with focused campaigns to win reforms within a larger liberatory vision to shift culture and transform systems of oppression to systems of liberation. SONG is beautifully and powerfully Pro-Black, Pro-Working Class, Pro- Feminist, and Pro-Immigrant and they are on the move in these Black Lives Matter times around the South.
From the beginning SONG has been experimenting with ways of bringing more and more white LGBTQ people into liberation movements with racial justice at the center, and they have a strategy of recruiting and developing white membership that can both support people of color leadership in the organization and in people of color communities, while also bringing leadership in white communities.
With the national outrage of Black churches burning while the assassinated women and men of the Charleston massacre still being buried, and the national outcry against the Confederate flag growing, attention is on the South. While many in the North and the West look down on the South as the place where “racism really exists”, it is critical that we remember that the flag of the slave society was and is the stars and stripes, that the entire political economy of the U.S. is built off of the stolen labor and systematic violence and evil of slavery, and that institutional racism is engrained from sea to shining sea.
Furthermore, the South has a long history of leading many of the most dynamic, effective multiracial racial justice struggles in the country, from the days of slavery to today, which includes a long tradition of white anti-racist freedom fighters from leading abolitionist orators Angelina and Sarah Grimké of South Carolina to Civil Rights organizers Virginia Durr and Robert Graetz of Alabama, and Anne and Carl Braden of Kentucky, to the white anti-racist leaders Pam McMichael, Suzanne Pharr and Mab Segrest of SONG in it’s 1992 founding through today with leaders such as Caitlin Breedlove and Kate Shapiro.
We turn now to this interview with Kate Shapiro about the experiences, insights and lessons from SONGs work to help inspire, equip and support other white people around the country hungry for courageous action against white supremacy in these Black Lives Matter movement times and beyond. Let’s get free.
Chris Crass: How are you working to move white people into racial justice movement in this time? What’s working? And what are you learning from what works?
Kate Shapiro: I am thrilled to have the opportunity to share some of our reflections from SONG’s work over the last 22 years.
Southerners on New Ground (SONG) was founded after the 1992 LGBTQ Creating Change conference. Three Black lesbians and three white lesbians – Pat Hussain, Joan Garner, Mandy Carter, along with Suzanne Pharr, Pam McMichael, and Mab Segrest – all organizers who had been working in the South, were seeing the widening divide between white LGBTQ people and LGBTQ people of color and the issues that were being talked about and prioritized. They realized that there was a real need in the region, and throughout the movement nationally to broaden and connect struggles for racial, economic, and gender justice that combatted the Right Wing strategy of dividing us (as LGBTQ people) from each other along the fault lines of race, class and culture. So, they started SONG and we have been working to answer the question of how to advance a multi-racial, racial justice agenda over the entire lifespan of our organization.
SONG is currently putting our two decades of base-building, deep relationship building, political analysis, and campaign support efforts to work through the initiation of SONG-led Free From Fear campaigns. Free From Fear campaigns are local anti-criminalization campaigns anchored by SONG that address some of the key bleeding points in our community (LGBTQ and gender non-conforming, Black, Immigrant). We are advancing policy reforms by strengthening community police review boards, introducing anti-profiling ordinances, and pushing municipal court reforms around fines and fee structures while also maintaining our culture change work. Our campaign work is connected across the South and is targeted at local municipalities, rather than statewide fights.
SONG is made up of multi-racial crews of members and staff in our Free From Fear sites; currently those sites are Atlanta, Durham, and Richmond, and more sites are emerging. These crews lead the hard and powerful work to vision, research and launch the campaigns, as well as identify the different roles leaders can play in regards to identity and race. We welcome our white members into this process who want to learn campaign work, take risks, trust Black and Immigrant and feminist leadership, be creative, be humble, be consistent, and really grow and do some work in the streets.
One of the things that this moment asks of us white people is to cash in our cultural and political capital that has been granted to us as white people through racism and to use it in the service of the work, of the collective. The goal is to move beyond a conversation about white privilege that can be really inhibiting. So this means a lot of different things depending on the campaign and site (and this is something we are actively developing in real time). For some, it looks like positioning ourselves [white people] inside progressive white organizations or our white churches, cashing in on some of our academic, political and professional networks, using someone in our family’s lawyer or political connections to bail our Black leaders out of jail.
At SONG rather than allyship, we think about building kinship. That is a completely different orientation for us, and one that I have found to be much more potent. We need each other. We can’t be whole by ourselves. Let’s struggle and work to win. One of SONG’s core beliefs is that there is no liberation, not even survival, in isolation. Our liberation depends on us coming together across lines of difference.
We know that now more than ever what this time calls for are deeply supported, trained up, and visionary LGBTQ people of color organizers. This is the primary focus of SONG’s work. What is our role in making that happen? Part of that work is getting out the way and getting up with our own white kin to take on white supremacy. And another part is inviting white LGBTQ people to join an organization that is advancing a strategy that centers Black liberation and racial justice.
CC: How do you think about effectiveness and how do you measure it? Can you share an experience that helps you think about effective work in white communities for racial justice?
KS: We think about effectiveness in working with white leaders and in white communities in terms of leadership qualities we work to cultivate with our members. Our organizing approach is to combat our racist training and upbringing through our organizing campaigns and cultural work. Whether you are a white SONG member doing a LGBTQ film screening in Fayetteville, AR, or tweeting at Ann Coulter, or introducing a citywide anti-profiling ordinance in your town, these are some of the expectations we have for each other in our work:
- Tenacity and sturdiness
- Not over thinking and analyzing
- Expecting discomfort
- Willingness to try new things and struggle
- A desire to confront systemic power head on
- Imagination and creativity
- Ability /willingness to learn to build across class, race, gender
- An understanding that trust is built and earned through time and work
Some other elements of leadership or effectiveness include:
- Full skill and resource transfer from white people to our Black and immigrant comrades (to combat hoarding and power over)
- Strong consistent flanking of our Black and immigrant comrades which looks like everything from being co-conspirators, playing key roles in demonstrations and actions (training on direct action, media/communications, security, being police liaison while POC comrades execute the action)
- Playing strategic roles within our coordinated campaign or culture change objectives with POC leadership.
When I say role of white people I just want to be clear that SONG’s context is particular, because we are primarily thinking about and throwing down with white LGBTQ people from or living in the South.
CC: What are the goals and strategies (as emergent, planned, messy, and sophisticated, basic as it is) you’re operating from?
KS: We have learned so, so much from the brilliance, courage and vision of and from the leadership and work of Black Lives Matter and the Not1More Deportation Campaign. When I say we, I mean the leadership of the organization, both staff and members. Direct action is playing such a critical role in these movement times. In large part that is because they are not just random individual actions, but they function as a way to forward campaign goals or unite under a common vision.
We know there is no substitute for those who are directly experiencing oppression to be on the front lines of civil disobedience. There is no substitution for undocumented people chaining themselves to the Southeast Regional office of ICE or having an all-Black shut down in the highway shutdown in Atlanta. White people have a role in supporting and advancing these goals. These lessons and approach are woven into all of our work.
In addition to what I spoke of above with our Free From Fear campaign work, we are building a regional strategy that compliments Free From Fear called Top 5 Enemies of the Queer South. What we are in the process of developing is how to take on key Right Wing institutions that benefit from the suffering of our people and contribute to the caging of our communities. This is going to be a place where our whole base, not just our white members, can take on one of these targets: from conversion therapy centers to right wing religious institutions. I personally feel really excited about going IN on some of these institutions with our white comrades.
Similarly, we have white members in six different towns now organizing right wing radio call-ins (White Silence In The South Still Equals Death: Right Wing Radio Call-In Toolkit available here) as a political intervention after the Emanuel AME Massacre in Charleston. After the massacre, we saw the media erroneously spin the attack as a gun control debate and the assailant as a “lone wolf.” So we are challenging ourselves and other white people to engage these pundits in a conversation, not to persuade them to join the Homosexual Revolution, but to challenge their hegemony and the power they have over the airways.
This work is about building our collective muscle to fight and share a different story, vision and understanding, especially with the other white people who may be listening to these shows. I also share this because it’s an example of what we mean by experimentation – Will we get on the radio? How will the pundits’ react when we do? This intervention allows us to step into the rink and to try to figure out how to directly access some of our cultural war opponents, who are creating and reinforcing so much hatred and consequentially violence. Some of our members in Atlanta got on the radio the other day and were so pumped after listening to right wing radio for 5 days and stressing all the way out.
CC: What challenges are you facing? How are you trying to overcome them? What are you learning from these experiences?
KS: This past year, myself and Caitlin Breedlove, as white people working in leadership in SONG, wrote a tool called “There is Honor in The Work: SONG on the Role of White People in The Movement at This Time”. In the tool, we lay out a kind of laundry list of challenges we think we need to confront in order to build a stronger multiracial movement. Lots of the challenges we face are about leadership characteristics and conduct. We see conduct, how we are/act/show up, to be a real barrier to building authentic relationships and work across class, race, and gender. People of color are already demonstrating a LOT of generosity to be even messing with some of us white people. We didn’t build the tool for ourselves or others to get stuck in the individual/interpersonal dynamics as so many of us have been taught to do, but instead to say that we can’t take on institutional racism while working alongside people of color if we don’t know how to act. It’s just going to flop.
SONG is an organization that is not neutral about race, leadership, and conduct. We are Pro-Black, Pro-Working Class, Pro- Feminist, and Pro-Immigrant and that freaks people out. We are loud, scrappy, boisterous, raunchy, hard-working, deeply devoted, blunt and direct. The people we’re looking for are the ones that come back and who aren’t afraid to overcome their personal challenges in the name of the work.
One of the challenges with some of our white family is hesitancy. We see white people get in their brains and drop out or pull back because they want to be useful but they’re not getting a certain level of hand holding. To that end, SONG has a six-page leadership agreement document that all of our member-leaders and sites SIGN onto that is all about conduct. It gives us a way to rebuild our covenant with each other and build in accountability as we grow the organization.
While the majority of US cities with the highest segregation are not in the South we know that segregation and deliberate separation of white communities from black communities because of fear and loathing of Black people is very, very, real here as well. So one of the things I have encouraged our different members to do, to get out of their heads and develop their practice, especially those who haven’t ever been in real relationship with Black communities or people, is to volunteer at a local Black-led organization. Sweep the floors, stuff envelopes, do whatever needs to be done, set up for meetings etc. If you have resources commit or donate them, without controlling the work or telling people how they should be doing their work.
Commit for a year and demonstrate your commitment to local Black leadership through simple and humble acts. I remember when I first moved back to Atlanta in 2006 and I just showed up over and over at the Hunger Coalition (statewide, very very grassroots, Black led, anti-hunger and anti-poverty organization) to do what needed to be done. They were conceivably wary and welcoming of this chipper young white girl and slowly through action that trust was built. Now they are deep political family and one of our closely local partners.
Another challenge is, in the campaign sites we get shade from other white people that our work is reformist rather than radical saying things like, “…but the police will still exist even if you change their right to profile and harass people…”) We often get this from people who became political through academia and are used to a certain type of critique. This has been a challenge especially as some of our member-leaders are new to organizing work and unrelenting critique early on is pretty bad for morale. So it’s been important to go back to what it means to honor, trust and align with the leadership of people of color, especially Black women in our case with the Free From Fear work, and how to maintain steadfastness and build trust even when you’re getting shade from your friends. We know we need liberatory vision in our organizing work that imagines a different world, and we need campaigns that address the day-to-day violence that our people experience, as SONG organizer Mary Hooks says, when “the boot is on our neck.” As white people we have a duty and responsibility to move with this urgency and not get stuck in a lifelong processing session about theory.
For a lot of our rural and smaller town white membership, SONG spaces, especially regional gatherings, are when they are around the most LGBTQ people they will be around all year, and very often the most LGBTQ people of color they will be around all year. This brings up a lot for folks! Oftentimes two dynamics play out: white people deciding to only build with other white people because they are scared of people of color and/or white people who turn their back on other white people because they only want to ‘align’ themselves with people of color. The other way we address this is setting up “accountability-buddies” amongst and between white people who are moving work together as a way to build relationships and instill a formalized sense of co-development.
CC: How are you developing your own leadership and the leadership of people around you to step up in these profound, painful and powerful Black Lives Matter movement time?
KS: On a personal and organizational level, we draw great strength, inspiration, and power from Black Lives Matter. How do we align around Black Lives Matter? This is a question for all sections of our base: white, Black, Immigrant, rural LGBTQ Southerners, all of us. Each part of our base has it’s own answers, so as an organization our response has to be multi-pronged and strategic to support and follow the work, direction, and action of our Black leadership.
My comrade Mary Hooks represents SONG on the National Planning Committee for Black Lives Matter. SONG is working to build a Black Lives Matter Cohort of our folks who are throwing down in our Free From Fear Campaigns. This cohort will support and train up a crew of Black LGBTQ leaders in SONG and the region who are networked together, know how to run campaigns from beginning to end, and are uplinked into this fantastic, visionary, disciplined national Black Lives Matter crew.
Black Lives Matter gives white people the opportunity to align ourselves in action with Black communities. It gives us the opportunity to act out some of the things I was talking about above – getting out of the way, making key interventions with other white people, and levering our skills and knowledge to support Black leadership. For example, we have a crew of member-leaders in Charleston, South Carolina who led a civil disobedience the month after Walter Scott was murdered and led a profoundly beautiful March for Black Lives on the Saturday after the AME Massacre. They aimed to create a space for both public grief, rage, and uplift and they achieved that on all counts. Two days after, our white crew led an action in downtown Charleston that explicitly spoke to our responsibility to confront racism and to contest the white led ‘all lives matter’ narrative that had taken root in Charleston.
Jillian Brandl, a white SONG member-leader in Charleston, said part of the role of white folks in this time is to handle our emotions in a way that does not overshadow and silence the experience of people of color. Our role is to uplift and amplify people of color leadership despite our discomfort or our fear.
Another important question we must ask and answer is: “What is the role of white people in anticipating and intervening on backlash to Black-led organizing?” Five Southern Black churches have been burned in the two weeks following the AME Massacre. How do we respond to that? Jennicet Eva Gutiérrez, the wildly courageous undocumented transwoman leader who interrupted Obama’s speech last week to demand an end to trans detention, was shouted down by white gay and lesbian people in the room. How do we respond to that? These are our problems as white people to not just grapple with but to intervene on.
The question of our lifetime is which side are you on? What I know now more than ever is that it matters so much more what we DO, not what we say or think. Black Lives Matter reminds me of this every day. Let’s be brave, courageous, and loving and do the damn thing.
Kate Shapiro is the membership director of Southerners on New Ground, the largest grassroots multi-racial LGBTQ organization in the South. She has devoted the majority of her days to community organizing for the last 10 years; her people are a fascinating combination of scrappy New York Jews and WASPY West Virginia timber barons, oh and defiant, loving, raucous, liberation minded LGBTQ people. She wants to thank SONG member leaders Jade Brooks, Jillian Brandl and Micah Blaise for feedback and thoughts for this interview.