Grassroots Power, Women and Transformation: An Interview with George Friday

Stephanie Luce

GEORGE FRIDAY IS an organizer with the Independent Progressive Politics Network (IPPN)—a national network of organizations working to build alternatives to the two-party system. An African-American woman who grew up in the South, George is currently based in Rockwell, North Carolina, and focuses her work in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. She was interviewed by Stephanie Luce from the ATC editorial board.

To learn more about the IPPN, please call 973-338-5398 or send email to or check the web at: George Friday can be reached at P.O. Box 1041, Bloomfield, NJ 07003 or P.O. Box 942, Kannapolis, NC 28082.

Against the Current: How would you describe your work with IPPN?

George Friday: I identified IPPN as an organization I wanted to work for in terms of its potential for movement building. I have a desire to see effective political power shifts, and I asked: How can this happen? What will it take to gain real political power for people of color, low-income people, people really excluded from the political system in all ways, and in very deliberate ways?

IPPN was an organization that could do that—not the only one, but one of those that was really working for this change in political power.

About two or three years ago I started working with IPPN, mostly around fundraising. But from the beginning, my idea was to think about the ways in which to deepen the work, and to work on movement-building strategies for the IPPN to help people build political power on the regional level.

For example, one of the important issues coming up is the Year 2000 Census, which will affect the drawing of congressional district lines. In 1988 and 1989, the Census was set up and carried out in such a way as to really hurt the South when redistricting was done following the 1990 Census.

I want to look at ways to work with people in the region to get them involved in this process and to think about alternative systems of political power. If people have found their political voice and sense that they can make a difference, then they can participate in the discussions around redistricting, and even in a larger discussion—for example, about how they don’t support this electoral structure that we have but want proportional representation, or third parties.

ATC: How do you do this?

GF: The main thing is education. We are building relationships with people, sharing new information, and sharing it in a context that is relevant to them, in such a way that they can make use of it in their own work, for their own goals.

We don’t want to come into an area with our goals and impose them on people, but to work with their goals. If their issue is housing, my job is to get them to see how it relates to third parties, or the current two party system.

We start with discussions about building political power, and what it takes to do that. We help them to see that it doesn’t necessarily have to be about being in the back pocket of the Democrats or taking abuse from the Republicans.

I will work with a community organization, talk with their board and staff, and have educational events around third parties or proportional representation, or even just about economic justice. Then we discuss: How does this information affect what you are working on?

We set goals, and talk about what it would take for them to start getting twelve members of their group to start attending school board meetings every week, and then maybe even about goals to get someone from their group to run for office next election cycle.

ATC: What is the response you get from these educational events? Is there a lot of support for third parties and proportional representation?

GF: People are receptive. Some are very excited, but skeptical. They have never thought about alternatives to the two-party system—there are no third parties in the South (although there is a racist third party here in North Carolina)—and they haven’t had access to information about alternatives.

It’s completely new to many people that there are places with many parties, so they get very excited at first, thinking “Oh, so there is something different from what we have?” But then they think, “There is no way that the big corporations will let that happen”—because people know that corporations control the two parties.

Then we talk about how it might happen, and how it has happened, especially at the local level. We talk about where people have actually won elections locally, and people get excited again. So it goes back and forth.

We are still in the beginning educational stages with most of these groups. But the biggest hesitation that people have is hoping, and giving a lot of energy to something new. People are willing to try new things, but they definitely are hesitant about hoping once again.

Even when Clinton was first elected, there were a lot of people who thought that might create the space for some real change towards economic justice, and then what do we get—NAFTA.

After people hoped and even expected that there was an opportunity for change, it’s hard to keep putting yourself and your hope into something new. But nothing else is working, so people are still willing to try new things.

ATC: You mentioned a racist third party in North Carolina. What do you think are the major challenges to organizing in the South?

GF: I grew up here, and I know lots of low-income white people—most of them have at least one relative who is connected to the Klan. The Klan is there, racism is there—it’s a reality.

But at the one-on-one level, white people can get it—they can see why race-baiting is a tool of corporate America and others to keep people in poverty, and to keep poor people down. They’re able to see that race-baiting doesn’t benefit them, that their lives aren’t any better, they don’t have more money, they aren’t better able to feed their kids just because they hate Black folks.

I think that there are actually more opportunities than barriers to organizing in the south. There hasn’t been a strong labor movement here, or third parties, or large social movements that have failed; and because those things haven’t been tried yet, I think there is a greater opportunity for organizing now.

ATC: Have you been working with labor groups in your work? Do you see a change in the labor movement in the South?

GF: So far, our work has focused on community groups. We haven’t been targeting labor groups yet—but it seems that there is less fear of the word “union” here now. People are seeing the need for unions, and seeing how jobs that came here are now leaving across the board, and they realize the benefits a union could provide.

ATC: Can you tell me a little about your own personal background, and how you came to want to work for the IPPN?

GF: I’ve always been in some kind of social or political change kind of work, starting at the age of twelve with getting a teacher fired for being very racist in the public school. My goal is to look at what I can contribute to building a collective process for change.

I always ask myself, what is needed, and what might I give to what is needed? I worked in Washington for a while for SANE/FREEZE, which became Peace Action, then for the Piedmont Peace Project in North Carolina, and decided I wanted to do movement-building and helping people to build power on the local level.

I learned long ago that people of color could only get power through economics or politics, and you don’t have to know too much about our economy to know that people of color do not have much money, so the power would have to come through politics. It took me a long time to realize that that political power would not be through the two-party system, but that is where I am at now.

ATC: You also do other work, dealing with race and gender trainings. Could you describe that?

GF: The training I do with groups is usually around developing a long-term strategy to build their organization and integrate with their community. The training is designed to look at oppression and privilege, helping people to acknowledge difference on lots of levels–race, gender, ethnicity, etc.–and to see how difference, when it is connected to oppression, can separate people from reaching their power.

For example, you may have grown up poor, but you can still achieve your ability to speak about issues of economic justice. We work on how to acknowledge differences and how to live with your oppression in a healthy way, in a way that doesn’t hold on to the hate.

I also look at how other people benefit from living in a culture of oppression in their work for economic and social justice. The goal is not to focus on guilt or blame, but on being conscious of and using your power.

Most of the work I do is with women. The members of community groups are mostly women. Women seem to seek out the kind of transformative trainings I do. I think women seek change in a different way than men do.

Women are about transformation—that’s who we are. Men seem to reach for change in a different way—I don’t know what that is, and I can’t speak for men, but I think it’s different.

I challenge people to take a comprehensive view of their whole world, and not everyone can do that.

For women, they are forced to do it: Imagine if you are a mother, making supper, stirring peas, rocking a baby on your hip, giving directions to someone on the phone, watching the weather on the t.v. all at once. Men might fall apart if they had to do that. But it’s just how women have to be; and it can be done—it may not always be, but it can be—with ease, with no special training needed.

There is no acknowledgment of how remarkable a skill it is to be able to do so much at once. But women do it all the time, and so they are used to thinking about the world in that way. So I think women are the ones who are going to make these kinds of changes.

ATC 85, March-April 2000