As I’ve been researching the concept of rural mutual aid, I was glad to discover my friend Todd Zimmer is involved.
Todd was one of the trainers from the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) who came to Des Moines in the summer of 2013. RAN activists traveled to 25 cities in the US, to train local people how to design nonviolent direct actions, and use this training to train others in our local communities. Nearly 400 Action Leads were trained, who then trained around 4,000 people in their local communities to be prepared for nonviolent direct actions to occur simultaneously across the country if it looked like the Keystone pipeline permit was going to be approved. President Obama’s decision to not approve the pipeline construction in the US meant we didn’t execute our direct actions.
I kept in touch with Todd, related to more RAN activities, such as delivering petitions to Morgan Stanley offices, asking them to stop funding coal mining projects.
I have been learning about Rural Organizing and Resilience (ROAR) https://ruralorganizing.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/roar-whowearezine.pdf
In the process, I was glad to discover Todd was involved in ROAR. When I contacted him to learn more, he said, “Down Home NC is my outfit these days, but we do work with ROAR. We distributed $55k in $50 Mutual Aid payments this year.”
I wasn’t sure what Mutual Aid payments meant, so Todd providing the following information:
The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic upended Down Home’s model, our plans for the year, and the political context in which we operated. It also has entailed significant hardships for our members and the working-class communities we serve. I am proud to report that Down Home was able to quickly adapt, pivot our programming, provide support for our communities, and is poised to grow stronger through the forced acquisition of skills and experience with digital and distributed organizing models.
Historically, We are Down Home has prided itself on our in-person approach to organizing, as is evident from our emphasis on door knocking campaigns, face-to-face conversations, and in-person meetings based in county-based chapters. With the outbreak of COVID-19, we made the difficult decision to halt all in-person meetings, events, and door knocks for the remainder of the year. We didn’t take this decision lightly, but believe it was the best way we could protect the health of our members and their communities, given that working people often have no health insurance, can’t afford to get sick, and that rural areas are generally older and sicker than urban areas.
This decision necessitated a rapid conversion of our core organizing models to meet the needs of socially distanced and digital meetings. We worked to rapidly transition our standing in-person meetings to zoom calls, and embarked on a major training intervention with our core organizing staff to help them make the leap to using digital organizing tools. There was a significant learning curve for our staff, but despite challenges, we have been able to maintain the attendance, membership, and power of our local chapters. All chapters have continued to meet, convene working groups, and organizing socially distant events. In the meantime, our organizers have made strides toward digital competence, and we have introduced a number of new tools and data protocols to our organizing practices.
One immediate challenge of our decision to forego in-person events was that it effectively cancelled our planned door-knocking canvasses in Cabarrus and Madison counties, where we were just months away from formally launching active chapters. Simultaneously, we were aware of the extreme hardship that was impacting members across our network. As people lost jobs and income, our members and communities were facing food scarcity, foregoing necessary medications, and risked missing rent and bill payments.
In response, We are Down Home launched an emergency Mutual Aid Fund that ultimately raised more than $55,000. Our organizers went to work applying a deep canvass script to low-income lists that we were able to pull from VAN. In each conversation, we would ask people how they were doing, offer support from our mutual aid fund, and then invite people to sign on to a petition to expand Medicaid. We were then able to follow up with organizing leads for 1:1s and recruitment. We are Down Home organizers ultimately exhausted our Mutual Aid Fund in this way, distributing more than 600 individual payments of $50 each, and a few larger donations to local bail funds and mutual aid efforts. In Madison and Cabarrus, this effort was successful in replacing our lost door-knocking effort, and both chapters were able to formally launch in June, growing Down Home’s network to include 5 total county-based chapters.
Wow. That is impressive. I’ll be sharing this with my mutual aid friends here in Iowa. If you have ideas of what rural mutual aid might look like here, let me know by leaving a comment below, thanks.