I learned from my dear friend Tufara that whenever you come into a space, introductions should include who your people are. Where are you from? Who are you accountable to? So I come from central Arkansas; I grew up in a river town of about 3,000 when I was growing up but now it’s about 4,500. We live across the river and the county from a larger town, one of the largest in the state, Russellville, which is about 26,000. My community is a hybrid of rural and somewhat urban. For the first time in anyone’s memory, you can barely cross between these two towns due to record flooding. It was really hard to leave. Watching my town gear up for the flood, however, has slightly altered what I wanted to say to y’all today which isn’t going to be a formal talk but rather, I hope, a call to action…or probably for most of you, a call to sustained action.
I usually spend a lot of time writing these talks out, but the flood left me with little time and I’m more scattered than usual. Or rather, probably, I’m being more honest about my scatteredness.
So who am I accountable to? I’m accountable to my hometown; to the McElroy House where I work with other organizers; I’m accountable to rural church folks and farmers; I’m accountable to black organizers in Little Rock; I am accountable to immigrant communities in our small town; I am accountable to white people who want a way forward in terms of loving our neighbors as ourselves but are learning—as we all are—as we go. I am accountable to my children and their friends…the next generation who have to find a way in the mess we made. And I am accountable to my ancestors, including those who upheld white supremacy as tenant farmers. How am I accountable to them? I can write a new story. But first I have to know theirs. I’m accountable to yarrow; to gardens; to turtles and coyotes; and the creek behind my house.
As I am talking, I want you all to be asking yourselves: Who are you accountable to?
It was the home of Lloyd and Golda McElroy, my grandparents. There were originally from the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks but moved to the low lying river bottoms to become tenant farmers. Those bottoms are underwater right now. It was a really hard existence there. Malaria was really bad and lots of people didn’t make it. My grandparents eventually moved to a town where my grandfather went to work for Janet Davis Kitchens, which would later become Tyson.
The idea of how to use this space came from Michael Morrow, creator and director of the West Kentucky African American Heritage Center in Russellville, KY. Michael took dilapidated buildings and turned them into community centers, teaching the community’s history and standing up to white supremacy by researching history which made clear the town’s slave-owning past. I learned from Michael to see resources where others saw deficits. So these days the McElroy House is, as one of our main organizers Cary said, “A beginning and a process.”
This is messy work. The logistics of small-town life are like big spider webs. Sometimes it’s beautiful and everything is magically interconnected. And then sometimes you’re just trying to walk along doing your thing in the dark and the next thing you know you walked into a huge web and it’s stuck to you and it’s scary and icky and you scream. You run but it’s stuck to your skin, etc.
Resourcefulness is key in these times. We need to get good at resource mapping. What are the resources in your community, especially the things that might not look like resources on the surface? My friend Sam always talks about how one of the coolest parts of a rural community is that the tire shop is also where you rent movies and pay your water bill and there’s a lady there in the back who can do alterations on clothing. In short, we’re resourceful. We already know how to do this. We just need to extend and articulate HOW and WHY we do it. And we need to grow this skill. It is magic and we must teach others how to do it, too.
We must move at the speed of caregiving. We need to think in terms of birthing, death, etc. The McElroy House has taken YEARS…literally almost a decade to get here. Babies have been born, people have cared for aging family members; everyone who is on our board is a caregiver of some kind. If we ever, ever, ever think caring for a baby or a person who needs us is a distraction from our work then what IS our work exactly? I made a nonverbal litmus test a while back about who I’ll work with. If you balk at kids being around, I know we’re probably not on the same page. The only way we’re gonna move on issues of justice or climate is if we LOOK KIDS IN THE EYES. This is not an abstraction; there is no room for cutting people down. What will the kids expect of us?
We must build up our tolerance to discomfort. We can not exist in communities where everyone agrees on everything. This is especially true in rural communities. But here is an unpopular opinion on the left that my recent days spent watching a flood try to swallow my town has left me feeling very moved to say: We have to even find ways to work with people with whom we disagree majorly. This isn’t easy, so find tools to help you do it.
Find your core of spirituality. For me, this means gardening, prayer/meditation, and sparring. I like to pray and also punch people in the face. But you have to take some real time figuring out what YOU need to do so you can show up without needing to enter into a room in full agreement with everyone. So you can show up and act EVEN when there are folks who you feel are deeply problematic. You need to do this so you can show up ready to work. I’m not asking people to let go of their values. I’m asking you to live them out more deeply. No one is disposable? Prove it.
We need to get to the basics. Ask folks, can you honor your neighbor’s humanity and their right to exist? Cool! We’ll start there. And start now. Don’t wait until a disaster or another thing happens. Find a way to talk about the hard stuff while also not throwing people out. I know in my region if you throw someone away there is literally a white supremacist organizer waiting to befriend them and give their life meaning.
Let’s circle back to the spider web. The messiness of rural and small-town life is essential if we want to create a more just world. We all know what it’s like to be related to everyone or having dated them or knowing all their family stories. Living with this complication is what we do in small towns. For example, back where I come from we all know or are related to someone who got arrested in a white supremacist drug ring. We may feel shame or want to hide. People in more urban areas feel like they can run from this. But guess what?! That’s American history. Rural small-town white people are used to being told that we uphold unjust systems and, most certainly, some of our families chose to perpetuate that. But we are not our families. We can and must make different decisions and we do it with these stories fueling us on to something better. We can build something different.
I believe ancestors and spirituality are key to sustaining ourselves. This has been said a lot lately, but do we really know how to do that? How do we really practice it? You know, I usually measure my words carefully. But I’m gonna be real with y’all. It’s May in Arkansas so there are turtles everywhere. In watching those waters rise I honestly feel called to tell y’all something today. WE NEED EACH OTHER. And we have to think about this NOW. RIGHT NOW. Build networks of resources and see this as sacred work. We need to create spaces where we honor the sacredness in each other because that is how we will survive. We need to think HYPER LOCAL. A flood can cut you off from everything. Rural already knows how to do this, right? We need to share what we know. And we need to move beyond just smarts and logistics. We need to share the deepest stuff. We have to dig into our pasts rather than run from them and move forward with clarity. I truly believe this is sacred work.
And I believe this is not just sacred work when there is a disaster but months and years afterward. It’ll be easy to let the division creep back in. Sometimes the division is necessary to name. It’ll be easy to want to go back to the general flow and think in binary terms–as if our only two options are screaming at our neighbors or just keeping our heads down and pretending everything is ok.
No, our third way is building, building, building. Building alternatives. Building up the strength to work through the hard stuff without silos. This is very hard. And….we can do it.