"I met so many southern people who care deeply about social justice, who care deeply about the legacy of abolitionists in the south."
Ryan Persaud | December 11, 2017
In this era of progressive social movements — and the contrast between them and Trump’s presidency — organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign have been gaining more attention in the mainstream. However, there are also smaller grass-roots organizations working on similar issues that have existed since long before the President took office.
One of those grass-roots organizations that’s particularly active locally is Southerners on New Ground (SONG), an LGBTQ-focused organization dedicated to bringing positive change for marginalized people in the south. Since 1993, the group has been organizing on issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality; working with people of color, documented and undocumented immigrants, people with disabilities, and working class people to enact social change. The organization has done work in southern states such as North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia.
Here in Richmond, SONG has helped organize several recent events related to the transgender community, including the Transgender Day of Resilience and Remembrance, and the Trans Inspiration Project, which took place on December 2. Micky Jordan is a SONG organizer serving as the organizing fellow for the area, in addition to being SONG’s Communications Associate. According to Jordan, SONG exists to help LGBTQ people of all backgrounds, especially those who have been left out of mainstream conversations.
“The reason that SONG exists is to try and reach the liberation of all of our people, and not just white queer people,” Jordan said. “To do that, you need to look at the ways in which oppression affects folks of color, immigrant folks, or disabled folks, to make sure we’re addressing everyone’s needs, and not just the needs of white rich people.”
One example of SONG’s organizing work is the Black Mama’s Bailout Day that took place in May. For that campaign, the group organized to fund the bailout of black women in the south, freeing as many women as they could from jail and reuniting them with their families. The organization successfully bailed out 64 black women across the country on that day, including 25 from Atlanta, GA, 14 from Durham, NC, and six from Washington, DC.
A similar bailout event occurred in August, called the Black August Bailout Action, which coincided with Black August, a yearly event dedicated the lives of black activists who have died while incarcerated.
SONG has been working to address the needs of those that have been bailed out by helping them attend court dates, assisting with their paperwork, and checking up on them on a regular basis, Jordan said. “We also have a social worker working with us to make sure we are addressing the needs of all the people that we bailed out,” Jordan said. “So it’s not just that we bailed them out and abandoned them.”
Paulina Helm-Hernandez is the special projects director at SONG, and currently does organizing work in Atlanta, GA. In October, she gave a lecture at the University of Richmond, where she spoke on the topic of intersectionality in social movements. Helm-Hernandez also talked about the legacy of the south, such as the difference between the legacy of white supremacy compared to the legacy of progressive movements in the south.
“The alt-right is pushing a particular conversation about southern legacy,” Helm-Hernandez said. “I’ve been organizing in the south for 20 years. I met so many southern people who care deeply about social justice, who care deeply about the legacy of abolitionists in the south.”
Helm-Hernandez notes that it can be hard to find out what’s happening the south, due to the area being somewhat isolated. This, Helm-Hernandez says, contributes to the myth that the south is an area solely composed of white bigotry and hatred. “It’s so hard to figure out what happening to people in Louisiana or sometimes in Florida,” Helm-Hernandez said. “I had no idea how much the Vietnamese community was in Louisiana until I went there. Nobody had told me that. And there are people in North Carolina who didn’t know that.”
In terms of organizing with working class white people, Helm-Hernandez challenges the idea that the Trump administration represents the white working class, as Trump and similar upper-class people do not understand the struggle that comes with being a working class citizen in the south. “You mean to tell me that this wealthy northern white person who knows nothing about the south, nothing about working class sacrifice, is going to be the one to have answers for working class white people? I don’t think so,” Helm-Hernandez said. “I think people have a different answer to offer.”
In Richmond, SONG has been working to organize on the topic of police accountability, examining the policies that go into police violence and arrests, as well as addressing how police interact with people of color and those in the LGBTQ community. This focus is following the success of their bailout campaigns, in addition to a new campaign created by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and Richmond officials called Respect Richmond, which seeks to address gang and gun violence.
Local SONG organizers are concerned by the level of emphasis being placed on law enforcement and incarceration in this campaign. According to Jordan, the threat of gang and gun violence introduced in the Respect Richmond campaign is used as a guise to target black people and those in disenfranchised areas. “They’re talking about black kids,” Jordan said. “That’s all they’re probably talking about, to be honest.”
SONG has been trying to figure out ways to organize in response to this new program. “We have this idea to talk to different people working in areas around housing, schools, homelessness, policing, and respond to a prompt around how can people in power could be better addressing your [the people’s] needs,” Jordan said.
Helm-Hernandez said that despite some of the more harmful aspects of the south, as well as people’s negative perceptions of the area, SONG fights for liberation in the south because they love the area and the people living in it.
“We’re not fighting for the south because we hate it, we’re fighting for the south because we love it,” Helm-Hernandez said. “The south has an incredible amount of generosity that I don’t feel anywhere else. The reason I stay in the south isn’t because it’s depressing and it’s sad, but because the incredible political generosity of this region is part of the contradiction that we’re fighting against all the time.”
Images via Southerners On New Ground/Facebook