Here’s How the South Organizes

So we’ve established that Southern progressives exist. Now I’d like to introduce you to our work. Below, I’ve listed a series of progressive campaigns that, in my less than humble opinion, deserve greater national attention. They range from anti-racist collectives to environmental non-profits. You’ll notice that this list is fairly specific to the Appalachian region. I write what I know. Additionally, I believe that the Appalachian region faces a set of very specific challenges that aren’t customarily met by broader Southern coalitions. Please suggest additions in the comment section!

American Center for Outreach

Based in Tennessee, the American Center for Outreach (ACO) formed in response to the state government’s 2011 attempt to prohibit Muslims from public prayer and mosque attendance, under the guise of anti-shari’ah legislation. ACO, organized and run by young Muslim women, rallies Tennessee’s Muslim community against Islamophobic hate crime and anti-shari’ah legislation and conducts outreach campaigns designed to educate non-Muslims about the challenges faced by Muslim Americans.

Anti-Racism Commission

Affiliated with the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee, this commission specifically addresses structural inequalities in its own parishes, with the intent of creating a religious community that truly reflects Christian unity.

Appalachian Community Fund

Formed in 1987 to launch anti-racist work in the Appalachians, ACF addresses structural inequalities in the region. Anti-racist work in the Appalachians is complicated by the region’s economic deprivation; for a resident of an impoverished coal mining community, the concept of ‘white privilege’ seems absurd. ACF funds outreach campaigns tailored for Appalachian audiences in order to educate local residents about white privilege and systematic racism in the South.

Campaign for Southern Equality

Based in Asheville, North Carolina (affectionately known as the San Francisco of the South), the Campaign of Southern Equality organizes on behalf of the Southern LGBT community. The Campaign intends to raise local visibility for LGBT Southerners, and organizes against anti-LGBT legislation. It also produces the LGBT Rights Toolkit, which is tailored to meet the particular needs of queer Southerners.

Equality Virginia

This non-profit organizes specifically on behalf of LGBT equality in Virginia. Though it’s based in northern Virginia, Equality Virginia addresses state legislation that would negatively affect all queer Virginians.

Hands Off Appalachia!

HOA organizes against strip mining and mountain removal. They are non-violent, and launched a divestment campaign targeted at UBS, a Swiss company that finances the majority of mountain removal mining efforts in the region.

Highlander Research and Education Center

Located in Tennessee, the Highlander Center is a participatory research center that provides training and networking opportunities for local residents engaged in social justice work. Former participants include Pete Seeger and Martin Luther King, Jr–perhaps you’ve heard of them. The Center supports racial and economic justice campaigns and even hosts the Children’s Justice Camp that prepares children ages 6-12 to actively engage social democracy.

Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival

A grassroots non-profit based in the West Virginia coalfields, RAMPS partners with Appalachian residents to organize against mountain top removal. They encourage non-violent direct action and fundraise to facilitate Appalachian participation in direct action trainings. RAMPS supported a direct action in my own hometown–the headquarters of Alpha Natural Resources.

SisterSong

SisterSong, a collective founded by women of color, supports Southern RJ Activists, a coalition of pro-choice Southern women engaged in grassroots campaigns to protect abortion and contraceptive access in the American South.

SPARK 

Formerly known as Georgians for Choice, SPARK organizes Southern reproductive justice activists to protect abortion and contraceptive access in the South. SPARK also actively partners with GLTBQ rights campaigns in the South, and like SisterSong, was founded by Southern women of color on behalf of all Southern women.

Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards

This organization is particularly active in my region of Virginia. They successfully organized against the Ison Rock Ridge Surface mine, which would have been located near the already vulnerable communities of Big Stone Gap and Appalachia.

Tennessee Equality Project

The Tennessee Equality Project organizes for LGBT equality, and supports the introduction of marriage equality in the state of Tennessee. It has county specific commissions, but none in the Appalachians.

West Virginia Free

One of Appalachia’s few reproductive justice collectives, WV Free is based in Charleston, West Virginia. It supports West Virginia’s only abortion clinic and provides educational programming on contraception and abortion. WV Free operates within a social justice framework, alert to the needs of West Virginia’s low income, rural communities.

And, introducing the baby….Pro-Choice BristolI recently launched Pro-Choice Bristol in collaboration with several friends. We are concerned by local hostility to abortion rights. Right now, we’ve organized to provide clinic escorts for the Bristol Regional Women’s Center. This clinic is the only abortion clinic in the area. Women travel from as far away as Kentucky to use its services. For residents of our surrounding mountain communities, the Bristol Regional Women’s Center is the only option for women seeking safe and legal abortion services. The clinic recently became the target of anti-choice picketers affiliated with a local extremist church.

Eventually, I’d like to see Pro-Choice Bristol expand. The Appalachian region is in desperate need of an abortion fund and access to affordable contraception. If you feel like you offer us practical support and advice, please leave a comment or contact me via Twitter. The South organizes, but we can’t organize alone. We need national support. A more progressive South means a more progressive America.

Yes, the South Organizes

Yesterday, Senator Wendy Davis stood for Texas women. She stood for thirteen hours, without rest, in opposition to the latest Republican assault on abortion rights. The feat is intrinsically remarkable–it demands incredible endurance, and Davis is the first woman in Texas history to filibuster a Senate bill. She didn’t stand alone, either: Texans packed the gallery. And when it became obvious that the GOP intended to twist parliamentary rules to force a vote, Texans revolted, disrupting the vote until the midnight deadline passed.  The 200, 000 individuals fixated on the Texas Tribune’s livestream witnessed a stunning display of dynamic progressive activism.

And yet: if you hadn’t found the livestream, it’s likely you had no idea that any of this occurred. Last night, Davis’ filibuster passed without comment from each of the major news networks. There were no analysts, no pundits. Mainstream media greeted this peculiarly American scene with a yawn. And, startlingly, so did many feminists. A shocking number of East Coast feminists let this pass without remark. Nothing from Jill Filipovic or from Feministe. Nothing from Anne Marie Slaughter. Really nothing at all from the lands to the north, except perhaps for the prevailing shock that such strident progressivism could come from the South.

The South is a complicated place. I should know. I grew up in Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, and recently returned after a seven year exodus that took me from my mountains to Ohio’s cornfields to London’s rainsoaked streets and back again. It’s been as difficult as you might expect, this adjustment, and my relationship to the South is strained. I love it. I hate it. I think I can endure it and then I think I dream of relocation. If I’m going to be truly honest with myself, there are days when I believe that I do not belong here, and that the reason I don’t belong here is because I think I am too good to be here.

I don’t like myself on those days. I’d like to say those days are born from frustration at unemployment and poor finances, but there’s an element of adolescent angst too. It is not easy to be different here. This is still a deeply religious place and it’s important to understand that the popularity of these beliefs are derived from centuries of poverty. What else is there but God? I know this. But when you are a progressive in the Appalachians, you often feel intensely alone, alienated by a community reliant upon the consistency of tradition.

So I’m a Marxist, and a feminist, and I live in this town and I organize. Today, mere hours after Wendy Davis finally took a seat, my friends and I met up at the local women’s clinic to begin volunteering as clinic escorts. Members of a local church have decided that the clinic is a perfect opportunity to ‘proclaim the Word of God’ loudly from the sidewalk . For context, this isn’t an ordinary church. People from Away moved here specifically to start this church, and they didn’t necessarily do so with the interests of locals in mind. This is an extremist group, founded by Calvinist theologian RC Sproul Jr. They are Quiverfull, they homeschool, and the men are unquestionably Christian Patriarchs.

The man leading today’s picket identified himself as a minister and at first, spoke exclusively to my male friend. He did not acknowledge my presence; in fact, he kept his entire body completely turned away. When I spoke, and then kept speaking, he finally turned toward me and proceeded to talk over me. I did not get to finish a sentence. I got told, instead, to go to talk to a woman protester. When my friend told him I had a master’s degree, this minister of the Lord burst out laughing. His preteen daughter stood there and watched this unfold in total silence. Over the course of several hours, I never once heard her speak. Her father proceeded to abuse and harass women for hours, backed up by other members of his church–and by driver after driver, honking  in support his sidewalk evangelism. That’s what I expected to see. That reflects my experiences with Southern Christianity. But at the end of the day, a clinic nurse thanked us for our help, and told us that despite appearances, they’ve received call after call from community members grateful for the clinic’s services.

It can be lonely to be an Appalachian progressive. But things are changing. My friends and I are optimistic that we’ll be able to recruit more clinic volunteers and demonstrate to the world that our town appreciates the women’s clinic. And so I wasn’t surprised, really, to see that packed Texas rotunda. I felt relief. I felt pride. I felt hope. And I felt confidence, too, that Southern progressives can build on this momentum to deliver real political change to our communities. The campaigns we organize will look different from campaigns in NYC, or anywhere else, for that matter, but they are underway, they are increasingly intersectional and I can promise you one thing: the only progressives surprised by last night’s display of Texan feminism are progressives who don’t understand Southern communities, and haven’t bothered to familiarize themselves with Southern activism.

This Appalachian Marxist would argue this is, at its heart, a deeply classist narrative. No need to learn about Southern activism if Southerners are uneducated racists. For all my irritation with my hometown and its conservativism, I know that change is on the way. We need solidarity, and not surprise, from our progressive peers.

Feel free to like and share the Pro-Choice Bristol Facebook page

Exodus International and the Millennial Marketing Blitz

Alan Chambers’ apology and the closure of Exodus International have been hailed as the harbingers of a new, more conciliatory era for American Christianity. As always, the truth is somewhat more complex. The timing and cultural context of Chambers’ apology raise questions about the sincerity of his motivations. In this post, I’m going to deconstruct this cultural context and explain why I, and so many others, suspect that Chambers acts out of political pragmatism rather than genuine conviction.

1. The Prodigal Generation

Americans Evangelicals are aware they’re losing their grip on the latest generation to come of age in the church. As a prodigal, I am not particularly surprised that the first generation raised to adulthood by America’s Moral Majority is now the least religious generation in American history. Older Evangelicals, however, are simultaneously stymied and horrified by this demographic trend. The children trained from childhood to excel in apologetics and debate, the generation raised with the specific goal of reclaiming America for Jesus, now leave the organized Christian in droves. And worst of all: many of them list the church’s anti-gay beliefs as a specific reason for their departure.

This is my story, too. I left the church at the age of 21. Exhausted by the church’s homophobia, sexism and over-politicization, I came to the conclusion that Christians showed no evidence that they’d really experienced the transformational redemption they preached from the pulpits. I didn’t realize then that I’d just joined the ranks of what author David Kinnaman calls the ‘prodigal’ generation: Millennials who abandon the church entirely in early adulthood. We represent a significant challenge to the American church. If we fail to return to the fold, the church shrinks and its political influence subsides.

So how to woo the prodigal? From a marketing perspective, the answer is fairly obvious. A generation alienated by the church’s strident homophobia requires a friendlier Christianity. Perhaps Alan Chambers read Blue Like Jazz, so popular among struggling Millennial Christians, and drew inspiration from author Donald Miller’s ‘confession booth,’ in which Christians confessed the sins of the church to Reed College’s heathen campus. Perhaps he thought that this is what Millennials want: a confession booth on a national scale. There’s certainly precedent for it; the popular Emergent figure, Shane Claiborne, issued a similar public apology for the behavior of the church.  Perhaps this is conservative Christianity’s attempt at a confession booth. And I find it easier to believe that it is a marketing tactic, and not a real apology, because Chambers’ apology is not accompanied by a substantive ideological shift. Which brings me to my next point.

2. Narrative Control

Make no mistake, Alan Chambers and the staff of Exodus International have not actually changed their beliefs on sexual orientation. Even in his ‘apology,’ Chambers states that he cannot apologize for his beliefs on marriage and sexuality. Chambers remains anti-gay.   His apology, and his decision to rebrand and reform Exodus International, represent a narrative shift, not an ideological shift. Had Chambers truly intended to work for the liberation of the queer community, he would have relinquished his position of cultural power. He would have acknowledged the validity of queer identities, and simultaneously, he would have stepped back from the conversation so that it could be driven by those most affected by its outcome. Chambers did not do this. His very public apology coincided with Exodus International’s national conference, and he will lead the ministry forming from its ashes.

Chambers’ public apology therefore keeps queer Americans in a precarious position. If they question his motivations or refuse outright to accept his apology, they appear ungracious, and their own motivations are questioned. It’s a subtle form of gaslighting. ‘Progressive’ Christians have flooded Chambers with praise since his apology became public; his decision is, according to many, a gesture of reconciliation. Those of us who have found ourselves the target of progressive Christian ire for questioning their true commitment to social justice are, in turn, familiar with the consequences of rejecting these superficial gestures of reconciliation. We are negative. We are uninterested in healing. We are bad for ‘community.’ And we are shunned. Our attempts to influence the prevailing narrative about our own identities are met with resistance.

3. Unrevolutionary Reconciliation

If Chambers, and the Christians who have rushed to support him for his apology, are truly interested in reconciliation, it is time for them to acknowledge that the damage they’ve caused to queer Americans isn’t simply due to reparative therapy, or even the tone of their rhetoric. These are symptoms only. The disease? Their core beliefs about sexuality. As long as Chambers and his supporters believe that it’s a sin to be queer, true reconciliation is impossible. You may as well expect black Americans to reconcile with whites who believe, sincerely, that they are the superior race. As long as Chambers retains his belief that heterosexuality is superior to queer orientations, he denies the equal personhood of queer Americans.

I am not straight. Not entirely, anyway. Thanks to organizations like Exodus International, I struggle with impressive cognitive dissonance about my own sexuality. The further I drift from the church, the more I find that I can accept my occasional attraction to the same sex, but even at the age of 25 it is a battle for me. It’s hard to state, simply, that I’m attracted to men and to certain types of women, too. My instinct is to interrogate myself about the legitimacy of my attractions. And I’m not ready to forgive Alan Chambers and the staff of Exodus International for the psychological damage they’ve inflicted on me and on so many others. I’m not prepared to pretend that he’s no longer a homophobe just because he’s apologized for the way he’s expressed that homophobia. I don’t think I ought to accept anything less than the public acknowledgement that my sexual identity is completely valid. Because really, what sort of change is it when Alan Chambers apologizes for trying to fix something that he still believes needs to be fixed? It’s not really reconciliation as long as it’s reconciliation on Chambers’ terms.

So call me ungracious, and question my commitment to reconciliation. But this queer prodigal remains unconvinced that Alan Chambers wants anything but my church membership, and by extension, the survival of his brand of Christian.