(Fall ’15) Grant Williams, G

Grant Williams (G, Urban Studies and Planning)

Grant is working with rural cooperative members across the state of Mississippi regarding the obstacles and exclusions they face in their communities, particularly around issues of economic opportunities, decision-making, and community energy.  Grant and his team provide tools and workshops to educate the community about the cooperative structure and values.  The community and organization work together to develop a strategy for overcoming barriers of exclusion and creating local democratic processes for change.

Blog Post #2

“I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
― Ta-Nehisi CoatesBetween the World and Me

On June 17th, 2015 a white supremacist gunman murdered nine African-Americans in their place of worship in Charleston, South Carolina.  The national response questioned the flying of the Confederate battle flag and even Wal-Mart banned sales of the battle flag.  Alabama and South Carolina have since taken measures to remove the flag and the nation has celebrated some imagined milestone towards eliminating racism in America.  And so we allow ourselves to be distracted by conversations of symbolic progress while police, policy, and vigilantes continue the destruction of Black lives in America.

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was founded in 1816 in the slave trade capital of the nation.  For 199 years it has provided a safe haven as a black space in the midst of a society transitioning from selling black bodies to excluding black people from restaurants, waiting rooms, and bathrooms to the continued resistance of integrated housing and schools. Spaces like Emanuel AME foster community building and empowerment through fellowship between worshippers who share the experience of oppression in America.  They are places of refuge and safety in the midst of a city that has normalized the exclusion of black residents from the economic and civic opportunities enjoyed by its privileged residents.  On June 17th, the safety of Emanuel AME was shattered by the undercurrents of hatred that have never respected the boundaries it created to keep its citizens separate and unequal.

One week after the Charleston massacre, I joined Derrick Johnson, Mississippi State President of the NAACP at a local branch meeting in Meridian, Mississippi.  Similar to Emanuel AME, the NAACP in Mississippi has long served as one of the only spaces for African-Americans to speak freely about the injustices faced in their communities.   Even this space was often not safe.  Known NAACP members were consistently targeted in the 1950’s and 60’s—fired from jobs, beaten, and killed by white Mississippians fearing changes to their ‘way of life’ in southern comfort.  As a white male similar in age to Dylann Roof [and the only white male at this NAACP meeting], my mind flashed to images of Charleston’s tragedy as I entered the room and caught surprised glances or suspicious stares. I realize that much of this interpreted suspicion was only in my head.  But after all, this is Mississippi.

Within 10 days of the Charleston massacre, 8 southern black churches had been burned.  Fourteen days and 23 miles from that Meridian NAACP meeting, Jonathan Sanders was strangled to death by a white police officer while riding his horse.  On the day that we held a prayer vigil and called for the Mississippi State flag to be taken down, a TV advertisement exclaimed that Confederate battle flags were “going fast! As the last supplier in town, get yours while supplies last!”

Photo 1: Jackson residents attend a prayer vigil and call to remove the Mississippi state flag

Since I arrived in Jackson—a predominantly African-American city—I have been more aware than ever of my skin.  Everyday I consciously question what it means for me to be in an organization of people fighting for their humanity against a ruthless power structure that looks like me.  When I hold community meetings in the Delta in rural black churches, I wonder how I can possibly call upon people to question and challenge their local leadership that looks like me. On the weekends, I find myself on a barstool listening to the sounds of a beautiful culture that has preserved 20 generations of Africans forced to work for the profits of men that look like me. In a conscious effort to prove that, “I’m not like them,” I find myself distancing myself (‘other’-ing) white Mississippians and the racist pundits that educate our society from local and national media outlets.

I’ve realized that this is just as problematic as Northerners pointing fingers at “the South” in order to not deal with the consequences of their own racism (Dear Boston readers, see the recent Color of Wealth report).  It is just as problematic as Bernie Sanders supporters booing #BlackLivesMatter activists in Seattle while declaring themselves in solidarity with the movement from the comfort of their blogspots. If this last year of police brutality, racist killings, and mass protests have taught me anything, it is that white folks cannot excuse ourselves from our personal role within a system of racism and oppression that kills black and brown people and preserves our own privileges and comfort.

I waited a long time to put this post together because I somehow thought that I would have a profound moment of revelation to explain my role in working in a black space and what it means. I haven’t. Being white in a black space, in the end, is a lot like being white in America.  It is to live without fear for your life in a country that instills fear in all marginalized communities that have been welcomed/coerced/forced into the streets of America. The difference is your degree of comfort in living with that fact. The difference is whether you are working towards a society in which Black and Brown lives matter as much as White lives. The difference is your ability to ignore the American history that has created the stark reality of racism and inequality of modern America.  The difference is how often your heart calls into question the decisions you make.

Reflections before Working in Mississippi

In the early 1900s, W.E.B. Du Bois proclaimed that, “As the south goes, so goes the nation.” In this statement, he was speaking to both the ugly and the beautiful complexities of American society. On the one hand, he was illuminating the link between regional and national trends of racial tensions, unjust policies, and economic opportunities. On the other hand, this statement also encompasses the spirit of resistance against injustice that has often rose in this region and rippled out to the rest of the nation. These words continue to speak true as news comes of the stunning tragedy in Charleston and nationally in this moment of rising social consciousness to the issues of mass incarceration, police brutality, and widespread resistance to the loss of black lives.

Mississippi, perhaps more than any other state, exemplifies today’s civil rights battles with the highest rate of incarceration and highest poverty rate, among other worst rankings of obesity and educational achievement. Despite these cold statistics, Mississippi also has a long rooted history of social struggle and was a hot-bed for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The people of Mississippi continue that legacy today with a strong belief in a bright future for their communities.

I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from Mississippi’s leaders in civil rights through my summer internship with One Voice Mississippi. I will be supporting One Voice’s work on issues of environmental justice, economic opportunity and building local democracy by focusing on energy and economic development in rural Mississippi. In the New Deal Era of the 1930’s, there was a nation-wide push to electrify rural America, which at that time consisted of 50% of the total population. Electric infrastructure, such as power lines, were very expensive to develop over long distances and, thus, private power companies were unwilling to take the lead in this effort. This gave way to the establishment of almost 1,000 rural electric cooperatives for the ¬¬electrification of the nation.

Yet electricity and membership remained exclusive for many years due to the system of sharecropping and tenant farming upheld by former plantation owners. Once the majority of homes became electrified, the jobs and decision-making positions in the cooperative had already been established by previous white land-owners and, in many places, continues to define the control of these cooperatives.

Today, several of these cooperatives are sitting on millions of dollars of membership revenues that could be utilized for local economic development or for reimbursement to the members. Unfortunately, due to the exclusivity of the cooperative board decision-making, there is little oversight or opportunity for these members to get involved. Our project will work with rural cooperative members to develop understanding of the cooperative and how they can begin to play a stronger role in the organizations to ensure that their money is used for community revitalization. The goal is that, down the road, these cooperatives will be a place for community-building, inclusive democratic processes, and a source of wealth regeneration for the community.

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