Organizers Kathi Johnson, Amelia Black Kirk, Mark Boykin, Beth Howard, and Elliot Frederick speaking at an event. (Photo by Jared Hamilton)
When community organizers started knocking on doors in Boyd County, they were ready to listen to what people had to say about the biggest issues in their lives. What surprised the canvassers was how ready residents were to talk.
“It was just house after house after house of people talking to me for 20 or 30 minutes,” said Beth Howard of organizing efforts in the northeastern Kentucky county of 48,000 residents.
“It was just very clear from the beginning that they wanted to talk about what was going on in their lives.”
About two-thirds of residences in Boyd County are owner-occupied. But most of the people Howard and others talked to were renters. Since housing issues were at the top of their list of concerns, the Appalachian People’s Union, the organization that grew out of the door-to-door canvassing, will start with working on those issues. The hope is to add more issues later.
Howard said the working-class residents she and others talked to weren’t used to being asked for their opinions.
“People don’t ask them what they think about anything and they have a lot to say,” she said. “They felt like nobody cared.”
Boyd County lies at the confluence of the Big Sandy and Ohio rivers, which form the borders with West Virginia and Ohio, respectively. Part of a metropolitan area with Huntington, West Virginia, the county lies in an industrial and fossil-fuel production corridor surrounded by largely rural and small-town development. Ashland, population 22,000, is Boyd County’s largest city, and a quarter of the county’s population is rural, according to the Census definition.
Howard said bringing people together is the first step to creating change.
“It felt like something different,” she said of the initial conversations with residents. “This was something deeper where people really had a yearning to change their material day-to-day lives and to build something where there is belonging.”
Howard decided to focus on organizing in Eastern Kentucky because she grew up about an hour away in Morehead. She said there is potential to make good changes in Appalachia, and she wanted to focus on rural areas and small towns.
“There are just so many opportunities that I saw in Appalachia and in my home state,” she said.
Howard said the area’s long history of working-class resistance and organizing made it a place where a group like Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), Appalachian People’s Union’s parent organization, could build a large coalition. SURJ is a national organization that focuses on organizing around economic and racial justice.
Celina Culver, Eastern Kentucky field organizer for SURJ, said residents in Boyd County talked about their experience with housing as renters.
“We’ve knocked on over 1,000 doors to talk to mostly tenants about their experiences,” Culver said. “Folks talked about times when they hadn’t had heat in their apartments for three winters and their landlord hadn’t fixed it yet. People were talking about pest and rodent infestations and landlords not being held accountable to fix it. They talked about the way that takes a mental and physical and emotional toll on people.”
In many cases, she said, residents felt they were powerless to do anything about the issues they faced for fear of angering their landlord. With a dwindling supply of affordable housing, the fear of having no place to live left them caught in untenable situations.
“No matter where you come from, no matter what you look like, people need to have a place to call home in order to live the healthy and safe lives we deserve,” Culver said. “It’s really dehumanizing when you have to live in a place where you don’t feel safe.”
In July the Appalachian People’s Union held a rally for housing rights in Ashland. More than 70 people showed up, Culver said.
The group called on attendees to join them in working on housing issues. Attendees donned red bandanas, reminiscent of the red bandanas worn by the “Redneck Army” during the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed labor rebellion in U.S. history, which occurred in Blair, West Virginia, just two hours to the southeast of Ashland, in 1921.
“We asked everybody to put them on to show that we’re in solidarity with each other,” she said. “So, we had a really powerful moment at the end of all of us putting on our red bandanas together and committing to the organization and this work.”
From here, Howard said, the group will work on getting a “Tenants Bill of Rights” passed through the local council to give renters some protections when it comes to housing issues.
In the future, she said, the group can come together over other issues.
“When people can come together around a material need, then I believe that’s when the other transformations can happen,” Howard said. “We believe by coming in around material issues, which a lot of people are more than happy to talk about, then we can kind of get to these issues that have been more polarized largely.”
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