Chris Crass interviews Meta Mendel-Reyes of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
Author note: This is the second in 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. My goal is to help equip white people to be courageous, humble, visionary, accountable, loving, and effective as we, as white people, work to save white communities from the death culture of white supremacy and unite our people with the deeply life affirming, liberatory power of the Black Lives Matter movement. 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 the first in this series here.
In this time of Black Lives Matter movement, white anti-racists around the country are looking for ways to move more and more white people into effective action against racism and for structural equality. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth have a long history history of bringing together working class communities of color and white working class communities, across ruling class divisions of racism, around a shared vision of a better world, and campaigns that forge relationships and long term alliances to build grassroots working class power statewide, in rural and urban communities.
Founded in 1981, they currently have close to 9000 members, and they work on environmental issues, voter re-enfranchisement of people convicted of felonies, and tax reform for economic justice. They have also been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement across the state of Kentucky moving white people into racial justice consciousness and action.
This interview is with longtime organizer, and steering committee member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Meta Mendel-Reyes.
CC: 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?
MMR: Although I am on the National Leadership team of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). I would like to focus here on my role as a leader in Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), a statewide, multi-issue, social justice organization in Kentucky. Our state is not an obvious site for anti-racism work, except in so far as we have a lot of white people. The percentage of African Americans as part of the total population is about 8 %, which itself is much higher other People of Color POC) – although the number of Latinos is growing. When you consider that these folks are not dispersed equally across the state, but concentrated around Louisville, Lexington, and Covington, there are whole swaths of the state, especially Eastern Kentucky, that are almost entirely white. So the challenge for KFTC is to bring these different regions together, around a vision of racial justice that is in the interest of all Kentuckians.
KFTC is remarkably grassroots and organized into county chapters. Each chapter elects a representative to the Steering Committee (SC) – I’m the representative for Madison County. The SC makes decisions for the organization, such as the decision to affiliate with SURJ. What’s distinctive about our approach to white anti-racism is the fact that it includes all our regions, not just the more urban ones. In contrast to the many scenes of police brutality that we have witnessed on a national level, Eastern Kentucky is rural, poor, and working class. As part of Appalachia, Eastern Kentuckians have been stereotyped as racist, ignorant, incestuous caricatures – distortions that have served the purpose of the exploitative industries. The area’s rich history of resistance to these industries, particularly coal, is forgotten or ignored.
So, how do you build a white, anti-racist movement in such an unlikely place?
At this moment of red-hot activism, spurred by the revelations of blatant murders by the police, one response to the question may be simply – why bother? Why shouldn’t the white anti-racism struggle focus on the places where white supremacy is most visible, the urban neighborhoods where black lives matter least? I think that there are reasons for paying attention to the rural heartland, and that it is more than a bastion of white racism. In fact, the rural white anti-racist movement has something to teach its urban counterpart about struggling for racial justice at the heart of what, Kentuckian, bell hooks calls imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.
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?
MMR: I think effectiveness depends a lot on context; what looks like progress in rural Kentucky may look like stasis, or even movement backward, elsewhere. In Eastern Kentucky, relationship building is key to effectiveness, even if the result is not a conviction of a police officer for racially motivated murder or a Federal investigation of police practices. By relationship, I mean both deeper understanding across difference and the ability to take action together.
An experience that has moved the work forward in both senses is KFTC’s campaign for the Restoration of Voting Rights. Many states limit the ability of former felons to vote. The extent of the limitation varies from state to state. On one end of the spectrum is the right to vote while still in prison; at the opposite end is restriction of the vote until the penal process has been completed (being released from probation). Kentucky is the state that makes it most difficult for former felons to reclaim the right to vote. In Kentucky, there is no automatic right to vote upon completion of your sentence and probation. Instead, you must apply to the Governor for what is essentially a pardon; there are no time limits so the Governor can sit on a request for as long as he wants or never grant the right to vote back. Those still waiting include a former naval officer who says that he can die for his country but can not exercise the basic right of citizenship.
KFTC first became aware of the issue in African American neighborhoods of Louisville. However, we quickly found that the problem affected white Kentuckians too. As a result, an unlikely alliance was formed including urban African Americans and rural, white Eastern Kentuckians. Former felons and other KFTC members marched up the steps of the Capitol, rallying together and lobbying their representatives together. Both participated in events called “Singing for Democracy”; gospel voices from both religious traditions rang out over big city and small town. Yet restoration of voting rights is still a dream. For the last ten years, the bill to restore voting rights has passed in one House of the legislature, but has been stalled by a powerful Committee Chair in the State Senate.
If you measure effectiveness solely in terms of the passage of a law, then the campaign for the Restoration of Voting Rights was a failure. But if you look at the new relationships that were built, and the actions taken together, then the campaign was effective in moving the anti-racism movement forward.
CC: What are the goals and strategies (as emergent, planned, messy, and sophisticated, basic as it is) you’re operating from?
MMR: The main goal is also a strategy: mutual interest. We feel strongly that we’re not here to “help the downtrodden,” which is condescending and reproduces relations of dependency. Instead, KFTC is about empowering people to move beyond the status of victims to a place where they are in charge of their own liberation. This is the opposite of dependency because the individual and the organization are on the same footing, working together for their mutual liberation. As the Aboriginal saying has it, “If you’ve come to help me, no thank you, but if your liberation is bound up with mine, then come, let us work together.”
In terms of race, this means that both white people and POC have a stake in a world beyond racism. The price that POC pay under the current system is obvious. The criminal “justice” system hinges on the school-to-prison pipeline; in fact, you could argue that the police murders just speedup the process, with so many young Black men killed before they even receive the facade of criminal justice.
But there are also costs that white people pay for participating in a system of white supremacy. Some of these are hard to quantify, such as the loss of true friendships across racial lines. But others can be counted in dollars and cents. By keeping Black and white apart, the power structure effectively prevents them from coming together to win issues they have in common. Most Black and white people in Kentucky are working class, and could be uniting for fair wages, a fair tax code, and a healthy environment. Instead they blame each other, to the satisfaction of the capitalist forces that have a real stake in maintaining white supremacy.
One strategy that KFTC has used to bring people together in a common struggle is tax reform. In Kentucky’s arcane tax structure, the lowest bracket pays a higher percentage of their income than does the wealthiest, along with other abuses. This cuts across lines of race, and KFTC has been successful in bringing Blacks and whites together to fight for economic justice. As with many things in Kentucky, success has to be qualified; due to the intransigence of the State Legislature, it is very hard to pass reform legislation. Yet once again, relationships have been strengthened, in readiness for the next stage of the struggle.
CC: What challenges are you facing? How are you trying to overcome them? What are you learning from these experiences?
MMR: My effectiveness is limited because I am an outsider; although I have lived in here for 15 years, I will never be considered a Kentuckian. How can I work effectively with people whose stories are very different from mine – and is it right to even try? Regardless of doubts, I continue to do the slow work of relationship building, always bearing in mind that these are not my mountains, not my family stories of resistance. A key factor here is the value of mutual interest, my conviction that ending white supremacy is in the interest of all Kentuckians – white or Black, urban or rural, new or native.
A related challenge is the devastating power of white supremacy to warp Appalachian Kentuckians’ recognition of their own interest in racial justice. As suggested above, the extractive industries and their governmental toadies have been very successful in using race as a wedge to divide and conquer those who could otherwise use their unified power for change. As a result, many rural whites stare at their televisions, identifying not with the victims of police brutality, but with the owners of damaged property or with the police themselves. Buried beneath these manipulative tactics is the history of struggle against industries and agencies that could help people recognize “which side [they are] on.” Reclaiming that history is an important step toward reclaiming their stolen identities, as people in struggle.
On the personal side, I struggle with hopelessness, and self-doubt. It helps to recognize that these are forms of indulgence, to the extent that they provide excuses for sitting on the sideline. Yes, victory can seem impossible, and I may make mistakes, but that is when it is most important to pick myself up and reenter the struggle. At these moments, the history of resistance mentioned above can be a powerful impetus for moving forward. In fact, this may be the Eastern Kentuckian gift to the white anti-racist movement: another story of a people who refused to give in to force.
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?
MMR: In terms of personal leadership, I try to surround myself with leaders. Both KFTC and SURJ are rich with experienced leaders who are wise, kind, and passionate. I have learned so much from the example of these folks as fighters but also as relationship builders. A small example is the way in which the SURJ Leadership Team checks in with each other at the beginning of every meeting, regardless of the length of the agenda. Both KFTC and SURJ take as long as possible to come to a difficult decision; in KFTC, we do take votes, but only rarely, and when we do, we make sure that all points of view have been heard.
The best leadership, I believe, goes hand in hand with alliance building; we get stronger as we reach out to others. Not that long ago, KFTC’s Steering Committee met with leaders of the Climate Justice Alliance, in a small town in Eastern Kentucky. The groups had a lot in common, such as their work to end unjust environmental degradation that falls most heavily on the least powerful, and the search for a just transition that would move the Appalachian and the Southwestern economies beyond coal. But there was one difference, and finally one of our members named it: “Everybody on your side of the table is a person of color and everyone on our side is white!” That broke the ice, and for the rest of the weekend, Native Americans from Arizona and coal miners from Eastern Kentucky came together in a much deeper way than any of us would have thought possible. Through this kind of leadership, KFTC does what it does best: bring people to take action together, across differences of race, state and nation.
KFTC leaders have also taught me a great deal about developing leaders. I am particularly excited about the role of young people in KFTC, in SURJ, and in the Black Lives Matter movement. One thing that gives me hope is that, as in other rural areas, these young leaders in Eastern Kentucky have joined in the work to organize white people for racial justice. More and more, I see myself as an “Elder,” available to pass on what I know, but not to claim that the way we did it is the only way to build a movement. Black Lives Matter is doing a great job of leading the struggle; I am proud to be a part of this movement that has reached all the way to Eastern Kentucky.
Meta Mendel-Reyes is a member of the Leadership Team of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and the Steering Committee of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC). After years as an organizer with the United Farm Workers and other unions, she now teaches Peace and Social Justice Studies at Berea College in Kentucky.
Also read the first interview in this series, Together We Will Find the Way: An interview with DrewChristopher Joy of the Southern Maine Workers’ Center