I grew up in poverty, the daughter of a tenant farmer. I thought people were privileged if they lived in a house, had running water or even an outhouse. My family of five lived in a ten-by-forty foot trailer.
I knew that there were farm owners who lived in large houses, but they worked almost as hard as we did. They had cows and all the food they wanted, while, as the family of a tenant farmer, we were only allowed to eat pig meat and to have a very small garden. It wasn’t until I started school that I began to become aware of differences.
I was in the third grade when my best friend, Lou Jean, told me she couldn’t come spend the night at my house because her dad said we were “white trash.” I didn’t understand. I spent months making sure that all the trash anywhere around our trailer was picked up, so no one would call us that.
In the fourth grade, my teacher, Ms. Bortner, dashed my hopes of becoming a teacher when she told me, “Forget about going to college. Your kind can’t go. You will never be smart enough.” I wasn’t sure what “my kind” was. Up until then, I had been a straight A student who was moved ahead in every grade. I was in her fourth grade class at the age of a third grader. She made me go back to regular third grade “where I belonged.” Throughout the rest of elementary school, I gave up on thinking that I could excel.
I graduated with honors from high school and got a full scholarship to college, but I was filled with the messages of classism. I was only able to attend college for a short time before I had to drop out for financial reasons. I continued to believe well into my adult life that I was not smart enough or good enough, and that, somehow, it was our fault that we were poor. Very soon into my work as a hosiery millworker, I found myself following the footsteps of previous generations of my Quaker family into becoming someone who spoke out for justice. That got me into a lot of trouble very quickly. It didn’t take long for me to find my path as a full time social justice organizer.
Becoming involved in work for justice was the first time I began to learn about class and internalized oppression. I had so much shame about growing up poor and never getting to finish college that I hid these things from my friends and other organizers in the work for justice. A huge turning point for me was when I went to Nicaragua for the sixth anniversary of the people-led revolution that freed them from a terrible dictatorship. There, I saw poor people, including many who lived in the same conditions that I had grown up in, being proud of who they were and taking leadership. They understood that it was a system that was broken – not themselves – that led to their poverty. I returned back home with the determination to come out of the closet as a poor person.
As I began to talk to other people about this, I found many allies. We began to work with other poor people who felt the same way. Eventually, we built alliances with people from middle and upper class backgrounds, and began the hard journey of understanding our hurts, anger, disappointments and privilege in order to create true community.
Because we were able to do this, I have a wonderful vision of a world where people can live in harmony, with equality and justice as a core value. In order to make this vision a reality, I work with a variety of cross-class, cross-race, multi-age groups to develop a deep vision of a community that benefits everyone. We create together to construct a pathway toward that vision.
Storytelling has become an important key to being able to do this. As we tell our stories to each other, often the walls of mistrust begin to crumble. I remember many times when folks from my community sat with donors who had traveled from Boston to our small mill town, sharing our life stories with each other. For many of us, it was an incredibly vulnerable and painful place to be. This was true whether we were talking about the intense racism and classism some of us had grown up with and faced daily, or for others of us, the shame of growing up with the knowledge that our families were rich because they owned slaves or had been abusive to workers. For some, it was the first step to realizing their privilege. The truth telling was the first step to creating real community.
From storytelling, we moved to visioning a world we wanted to share together – a world of justice and equality, full of joy and deep relationships. All over the country, at every age, in every culture and ethnicity, people long for the same things: community where all people are cared for and encouraged to be their whole selves; community that is sustainable and green, where we can be creative and joyful.
Of course, it’s easy for us to believe, as a young boy who was a survivor of Katrina, said, “This is all just pretend.” A vision without a plan to get there is just that – a vision, a dream. We have to take those visions we create together and make a plan to make it a reality. Unlike what some leaders and books tell us, just visioning is not enough. Together, we have to create the path to get there. We have to work at it and expect setbacks. We have to live as if we have created it already.
In my next book, Collective Visioning, I have many stories of how people have accomplished this in their communities in many places across this country. For example, in a small community in North Carolina, low income residents envisioned being annexed into the larger wealthy city that surrounded them, so that they could receive city benefits like block grants, trash pickup, police protection, and water and sewer systems. It took them over twenty-five years, but now their vision has come true. Not only are all the houses (eighty percent of which were below living standards) being fixed up, they are building twenty-two new Habitat for Humanity houses. This did not happen just from visioning, but also from years of hard work, commitment, and determination. It came from having a strong, trusting community that did not allow outsiders to divide them. Having a vision allowed them to weather the setbacks and attacks to keep moving forward in the face of what seemed impossible.
I believe that with vision and determination we can change this world in our lifetimes into a world that reflects our values of justice and equality.
Linda Stout, director of Spirit in Action, has been a grassroots organizer and activist for three decades. A thirteenth-generation Quaker born to a tenant-farming family, Linda founded a successful grassroots organization in 1984, in a conservative region of North Carolina. The Piedmont Peace Project worked successfully to forge extraordinary alliances across race and class lines and won major public policy changes. Linda’s awards include a Public Policy Fellowship from Harvard University, Honorary Doctorate for Allegheny College, and the Freedom Fighter Award of the Equal Rights Congress. Her story was featured in Stud Terkel’s book, “Hope Dies Last,” and she is the author of Bridging the Class Divide and Other Lessons for Grassroots Organizing, published by Beacon Press. Her new book, Collective Visioning: How Groups Can Work Together to Create a Just and Sustainable World will be available from Berrett-Koehler Publishers in May 2011.