In her cramped bungalow on the outskirts of Sylva, a small town in North Carolina’s Jackson County, Carrie McBane is speaking with two strangers, Brigid Flaherty and Sharon “Lois” Cullins, about her lack of health care, her low wages, and the growing opioid epidemic in the surrounding community.
Flaherty heads a progressive policy organization called Down Home North Carolina, which she co-founded shortly after the 2016 elections. Cullins, a recovering addict, is one of DHNC’s paid canvassers. In prison, Cullins turned her life around and began working as a peer counselor for other addicts. Since then, she has made it her mission to work on community organizing. A 55-year-old African American, Cullins comes off as fearless; since she began working with Flaherty’s group in late 2017, she has often canvassed in this rural, deeply conservative, and mostly white region of the Tar Heel State.
Both Flaherty and Cullins are especially interested in reaching out to people whose political opinions are usually ignored. When they find someone willing to talk, one of them takes out her iPad and makes note of the answers. These go into a growing database of conversations that the canvassers have been conducting across the mountainous western region of North Carolina, to find out which issues will be important in building a progressive coalition across this battleground state.
McBane, who is originally from Nicaragua and was adopted by a couple from Florida in the 1980s, works at a local Dollar Tree store. Although still young, she has Type 2 diabetes, which was recently diagnosed after she suffered a cascading series of health crises. “I stopped eating,” McBane tells the two organizers. “I developed really bad dry mouth. Had a crack on my tongue. It hurt so bad. I dropped 20 pounds in a month. It scared me.” Like so many working-class people in a state where GOP legislators have resolutely blocked the expansion of access to health-care services, McBane has to pay out of pocket when she needs to see a doctor. The local clinic, which caters to the area’s uninsured, charges her a discounted rate of $60, but each visit to a specialist racks up hundreds of dollars in bills, and each visit to the ER thousands. In paying her medical bills, McBane has burned through a small inheritance left by her parents.
As she sits in a purple rocker, her large, well-groomed Norwegian elkhound waddling around the small living room, McBane describes a general state of chronic economic insecurity. “No one has health care around here,” she says. “No one I know—and I know people with full-time jobs. Everything’s out of pocket.” Even though she has a job, her income is so low that she qualifies for food stamps; and yet, she points out, the Trump administration is trying to make it harder for people to get such assistance. “The government asks a lot of us without any idea of the consequences to people,” she says. “And they don’t care.”
At times, McBane breaks down in tears. When she does, Cullins or Flaherty gets up and hugs her.
The women’s meeting with McBane was part of a broader DHNC effort in the area. In early June, the organization settled into Jackson County for an intensive canvass aimed at reaching several hundred people and drawing in dozens of new members. Each day, Flaherty led a training session in the City Lights Café, on a road just up the hill from Sylva’s Main Street. She thrives in the humidity, she says, getting a rush after escaping the air-conditioned cafe for the sweaty conditions outdoors; it makes her feel like she’s at home.
All of the participants in the training session, ranging in age from their early 20s to their late 50s, are wearing blue Down Home North Carolina T-shirts, emblazoned with a red cardinal and a silhouette of people with raised fists. The cafe, which doubles as a bookstore, might seem like an improbable presence in this conservative Appalachian town, with the local paper mill and its belching smokestacks not far from Main Street. The servers all wear purple-patterned tie-dyed shirts, and the cafe’s motto, imprinted on a large tie-dyed sheet in the back, is Love Your Community. The food here is largely organic, and the beers it serves are microbrews. The bathrooms are labeled “unisex,” a rebellious jab against the state’s notorious 2016 anti-transgender bathroom law (which was partially repealed last year). In any number of ways, the meeting spot seems more Berkeley than Blue Ridge.
Flaherty, 37, her arms heavily tattooed with images of paintings by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and other women, uses City Lights as a staging ground, from which she sends canvassers out to trailer parks, apartment complexes, poor riverfront communities, and isolated mountain cabins.
Sometimes they end up talking to residents about pocketbook issues like health care, other times about racial strife. To the west of Main Street, at the top of a hill reached by a long flight of stone stairs, is the old courthouse (now the town’s public library). In front of it sits a large monument to “our heroes of the confederacy,” erected during the wave of “Lost Cause” nostalgia that spread throughout the South in the early 20th century.
In recent years, as the dispute over Confederate monuments has heated up, progressives in town have organized vigils and protests at the former courthouse. They have been countered by neo-Confederate and white-supremacy groups like Identity Evropa, who have been carrying out their own recruiting efforts in these isolated Appalachian hollows. So far, none of the confrontations have turned violent, though Flaherty does recall the hair rising on the back of her neck when one white supremacist passed her during a vigil, leaned in close to her ear, and whispered in a menacing drawl, “You be safe now.”
For Flaherty, who grew up working class and divided her time between her divorced parents before settling with her mom in North Carolina, this is familiar terrain, albeit one she left behind temporarily to get a graduate degree at New York University. After that, she worked as organizing director at the Alliance for a Greater New York on labor and environmental-justice issues, got married, and traveled around the country attending activist conferences and events.
In 2011, Flaherty met a younger organizer from North Carolina, Todd Zimmer, at that time fresh out of Washington University and with a passion for organizing similar to hers. Sharing Tar Heel State stories, the two became fast friends. Five years later, on the day after the 2016 presidential election, a distraught Flaherty—after crying for hours in a New York City park—decided that she needed to return to North Carolina and fight for progressive goals in a state that had gone for Barack Obama in 2008, only to veer right again in the subsequent two presidential elections. Changing the outlook of voters in a handful of key counties in a battleground state would, she reasoned, be as important a political project as any she could imagine.
Within weeks, Flaherty and Zimmer had decided to co-found a grassroots organization in their home state. She packed her bags, said goodbye to her husband and their home in Brooklyn—they would navigate a long-distance marriage—and headed back to the Tar Heel State. She thought North Carolina, like Virginia, ought to be fertile ground for Southern progressives. The state, though, had been hijacked by a hard-right legislature that had subsequently embraced an aggressive form of gerrymandering and voter suppression and a volatile mix of bait-and-switch issues, like the 2016 bathroom bill, designed to drive a conservative base to the polls.
Flaherty and Zimmer began looking at economic, political, and demographic data for the 100 counties in the state, roughly 80 of which are largely rural. Initially, they were seeking a handful of rural counties where relatively decent-paying blue-collar and farming jobs had been replaced by low-wage service-sector work. In such counties, the politics leaned conservative, but they were competitive enough to be worth a door-to-door organizing effort—and the “alt-right” presence in those areas made the need for a grassroots counternarrative particularly vital. Within a few months, Flaherty and Zimmer had zeroed in on two counties: Alamance, in the central region, and Haywood, a couple hundred miles to the west. About a year later, they added Jackson County—original home of the Cherokee Nation, which, in a particularly cruel jab, was named after the Cherokees’ chief tormentor, Andrew Jackson.
With some seed money from People’s Action in Chicago, which has been nurturing grassroots efforts around the country for the past decade, the pair started organizing in Alamance and Haywood. They set to work, knocking on doors with a short survey in hand, asking people about the issues that concerned them most. In a self-sustaining system, they steadily recruited volunteers as they canvassed. Soon they had hundreds of members, who pay a small, sliding-scale fee to join the organization and engage in canvassing, protests, lobbying efforts, and so on. Flaherty temporarily moved with her pet dog and cats into a house in the mountains outside of Sylva and hired a young local organizer named Chelsea White to help her.
White, who grew up poor in the area and decided to stay after college to do community work, had a particularly good bead on the issues that would resonate. “The biggest industries here are service, retail, fast food,” she says. Most of her college friends left the county as soon as they got their degrees. But White was stubborn; she wanted to address the economic challenges of the community in which she’d grown up, “for those for whom leaving isn’t an option.” Now she spends much of her time driving around the county in her tiny sky-blue Fiat 500, six days a week, arranging meetings and encouraging her neighbors to shed their political reticence.
DHNC’s canvassers focus on a number of issues, among them affordable housing and health care—altogether fitting, since, like much of the rest of the country, most low-income jobs in North Carolina don’t come with insurance. The opioid epidemic is a major issue here; a number of DHNC’s volunteers have struggled with substance abuse, and several have been incarcerated, so they understand the crisis firsthand. They can talk easily to residents of poor trailer parks and small riverfront communities where everyone knows someone whose life has been destroyed—or is being destroyed—by drugs. Sometimes the volunteers distribute the overdose antidote Naloxone as well as fentanyl-testing strips, which allow heroin addicts to make sure their supply hasn’t been laced with the often-fatal synthetic opioid. Even in this conservative region, residents look favorably on such efforts.
DHNC also attacks low wages. By the spring of 2018, they had won a sizable local victory, convincing the town of Waynesville’s board of aldermen to raise the hourly wage of city employees to at least $12.39, plus benefits. North Carolina has veered far to the right on labor issues, so this was a huge win, securing considerable publicity for DHNC.
The group also focuses on racial strife, a crucial issue in a state where the Ku Klux Klan maintains an active background presence. From the get-go, DHNC campaigned for racial justice with Tausha Forney of the Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center in Waynesville. (The center is housed in what was once the town’s elementary school for black children.) There was a particular importance to this alliance: The region, with a relatively small African-American population, had a cross burning as recently as 2009, when a biracial high-school girl was targeted by the Klan. A quarter-century earlier, when Forney was a child and her family had just moved into a new home in a mainly white part of town, one of their neighbors started a petition to try to force them to leave.
“These things have been going on in this community for a long time,” Forney says now. “It’s getting better, but it still happens.” In Alamance, DHNC began working to publicize the plight of 12 locals—nine of them black, all of them poor—who had registered to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles while on parole or probation. None of them knew that doing so was illegal, and no one at the DMV told them it was when they registered. The 12 originally faced felony voter-fraud charges, which could have landed them in jail for up to two years. Most took plea deals, reducing the penalty, but the original charges were a clear attempt, local activists argue, to intimidate low-income and African-American voters into staying away from the polls.
Increasingly, the DHNC volunteers coordinate with other groups to try to limit the damage to the community by the Trump administration’s stepped-up Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids. In Alamance, the controversial local sheriff, Terry Johnson, had been sued for racial discrimination by the Justice Department during the Obama administration (his officers were caught talking about going hunting for Latinos) and was forced to leave ICE’s 287(g) program, which effectively deputizes local sheriffs to work as immigration agents. Under Trump, Johnson was invited back into the program, and a number of ICE raids have been launched in the county, with people being picked up on their way to work, in grocery stores, even outside their homes.
Zimmer’s team has donated meeting space to Siembra NC, a local advocacy group for immigrants, and has partnered with Siembra in community meetings and rallies. Siembra also runs neighborhood watches to look out for ICE agents. “Our strategy has been, ‘Let’s take it to a person’s door and tell them how to protect their rights,’” says Laura Garduño García, who runs Siembra. Zimmer says it’s “a big task,” since “folks are receiving the other message [against immigrants] very regularly.” But, he adds, in recent months they’ve had some success bringing out at least a few local white workers to support their Latino counterparts in protests against the deportation machine.
Over the months, the DHNC’s canvassers have eased into a rhythm, learning how to get the proverbial foot in the door even when residents say they aren’t interested in talking. Sometimes a deeply conservative, Trump-supporting resident will wind up finding common ground with them on issues like low wages or dead-end jobs. Such was the case with retired carpenter Jim Lyle, 69, a great-grandfather of 14, whom Chelsea White and another young canvasser spoke with in his trailer park one afternoon. When people like Lyle realize the canvassers dislike the “moneyed interests” as much as they do, they will sometimes even agree to show up at the next DHNC meeting. “The whole concept is letting them imagine what they could change with power,” Flaherty explains to the canvassers early one afternoon, before sending them out to the back roads of Jackson County.
This is old-school organizing, winning people over one heart and one mind at a time. It’s similar to how union organizers worked with small, isolated communities a century ago, and how civil-rights workers registered people to vote in the Deep South. It’s as far removed from the activities of money-drenched political-action committees and TV and social-media campaigns as is possible to imagine. And it could reshape politics not only in North Carolina, but also farther afield, offering something of a template for organizers nationwide.
Over the next few years, Flaherty and Zimmer plan to expand into about 10 counties. Their hope is that, by presenting a genuinely progressive agenda to the alienated, impoverished local people who have veered rightward in recent years—and who were fertile ground for Trump’s race-baiting rhetoric in 2016—they will be able to peel off enough voters to push through a more progressive policy agenda.
Back in Carrie McBane’s house, she, Flaherty, and Cullins continue talking about the consequences of not having health insurance. “You’re going to take away somebody’s place to live, the roof over their head, if they have medical bills? It’s outrageous!” McBane says.
The two canvassers convince her to join the organization and help them mobilize other locals to fight for social justice in the Blue Ridge region. By this point, they are pushing at an open door: McBane is ecstatic that the people from DHNC think she’s worth listening to. She is beyond fed up, she says, with a situation in which “people make decisions for me, without seeking my opinion.”
“Do you believe there is power in numbers?” Cullins asks as she finishes keying her information into the iPad.
“I do,” McBane replies immediately, with passion in her voice. “I believe there is power in one.”