|Southern Echo strategic approach
When Southern Echo was formed in 1989 African American and low wealth white families remained effectively excluded from participation in policy formation and implementation at all levels of government, notwithstanding that many African American had been elected to public office. There was internalized fear of the white establishment, great distrust of the political process, and a clear distress that the political organizations African American families had built in the 1970s had deteriorated to such an extent that families did not see them as a vehicle through which to effect transformative changes in the Mississippi culture. Worst of all, families felt that many African American officials they had worked so hard to put in office often treated them with the same disrespect that white officials had, with a similar lack of accountability.
In response to this circumstance Southern Echo designed a training, technical and legal assistance strategy to build the capacity of African American families to utilize community organizing tools and skills to form a network of new, accountable grassroots community organizations, on an inter-generational model.
The primary goal was to empower the community. Only when the African-American, Latino and other communities of color are empowered and able to make the system accountable, can our communities begin to fight racism effectively.
Southern Echo works through its training, technical and legal assistance programs to provide the information which community people need to develop the skills to become effective community organizers, enable people in their respective communities to assume leadership roles, and work together for the empowerment of the African-American community.
Truthtelling is central to the empowerment process. In the training sessions and in the community, it is essential that community people develop the willingness and skills to overcome their fear and tell it like it is. Until people are willing to confront the real problems which their communities face, including who the gatekeepers are that hold back the community, it will be impossible to build a solid foundation within the community to fight for change.
At the same time, every community person has to deal with the fear which that person carries within as the result of generations of subjugation to the terror imposed on African-Americans. Learning to overcome that fear is an essential part of the Southern Echo training process.
Normally, at least one-third to one-half of the participants at each of the residential training schools are young people ranging from 6th grade middle school to college age. They work together with the adults in every phase of the training activities, which affords both the adults and younger people an opportunity to learn to work side-by-side, respect each other, and demonstrate that an inter-generational model can be effective.
Southern Echo establishes its programmatic goals each year. No matter where you travel in the state, African-American communities identify substantially the same issues. For example:
In some of these counties community people satirically refer to their county as the “Free State of (name of county)”, because they regard their county as isolated and unprotected by the rights, privileges and immunities of citizenship guaranteed in the United States and Mississippi Constitutions. In many communities the reality is that their rights are whatever local officials say they are.
As part of this phenomenon, many African-Americans across the state insist that conditions are “the worst” in their county, beyond what anyone else has to experience. People are often surprised to find that in other counties people like themselves have the same analysis about their respective counties, and identify the same goals, obstacles, and frustrations.
Unfortunately, one component of this attitude can be a degree of exasperation on the part of activists and public officials. The exasperation can pour over into hopelessness and disbelief in the ability of the community to overcome the obstacles to creating meaningful change in their communities. This can result in a cynicism about the possibility of change, and a fear of taking responsibility for reaching out to the broad base of the community to involve them in the fight to empower the community.
Another attitude that emerges in these discussions is the notion that the factions in the black community will not set aside their differences in order to struggle together for the common good of the community. This view explains away, in advance, all failures to win battles and focuses the blame on the black community for the long-standing oppressive conditions which burden the community.
This concept also takes the so-called community “leaders” off the hook for their failure to be effective, and blames grassroots people for the inability or unwillingness of the “leaders” to engage in effective community organizing to empower the community.
What Southern Echo has learned is that the underlying needs in each community are basically the same. Longtime activists and community leaders know how to mobilize the African-American community around a specific, defined crisis. But activists and leaders often acknowledge their frustration that they do not know how to engage in the kind of long-term community organizing which enables the community to change the basic power relationships within the African-American community and between the African-American and white communities.
In response, Southern Echo has made the development of a cadre of skilled community organizers a primary goal of its training and technical assistance programs. Central to the development and training process is the creation of a clear vision of the problems facing the community, the changes which are needed to rectify these problems, and effective strategies for building strong organizations to fight for change.
Fundamental to this process is training on how to broaden the base of people involved in the work in order to build networks within each community and in order to involve the whole community, especially the young people. When the organizational base in each community is sufficiently strong, the networks built across community lines to bring everyone together will be very powerful.
When the community organizations are strong they can build bridges across the traditional barriers of race, class, gender, political affiliation and geography to fight effectively for fair and just public policies that address the needs of all segments of society.