SURJ Ohio’s Transformative Organizing

This year in Georgia, we all saw what is possible when we follow the lead of visionary Black-led organizing and move critical margins of white voters to support racial and economic justice. We know these momentous wins didn’t happen overnight — decades and generations of Black-led organizing built the base that made this change possible.

Across the state of Ohio, Black-led organizations are using a similar strategy, and SURJ Ohio is moving thousands of white people to take action across the state, realize their mutual interest in racial and economic justice, invest in poor and working class communities, and work in solidarity with communities of color.

There’s a lot at stake in Ohio. The Right has gone hard organizing in rural parts of the state by targeting white voters. That has resulted in disastrous outcomes for communities of color and working class communities. Ohio has gone from being a swing state to being a state that gave Trump an even larger majority in 2020 than in 2016. While Obama won the state by a 3% margin in 2012, Trump won the state by 8.1% in 2020. Today the governorship and both houses of the state legislature are controlled by Republicans. This has meant everything from limiting the Governor’s powers to handle COVID-19 effectively to blocking emergency gun control measures at the state level. Political power held by the Right in Ohio has allowed the war on drugs to intensify, deaths from overdose to skyrocket, and state and police violence to go unchecked, especially against Black communities. From 2013 to 2019, 37% of police killings in Ohio were committed against black residents, despite black people making up just 12% of the population. In alliance with Black-led organizing, SURJ Ohio is moving a statewide strategy with poor white communities where the intersections of criminalization, incarceration, and the need for harm reduction have been the starting points for growing white support for anti-racist organizing and systemic change.

Across Ohio, from rural counties and small Appalachian towns to the cities of Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Dayton,SURJ Ohio is building a statewide organization that is centering poor and working class leadership in support of and in taking action for Black-led struggles for justice in the state.

  • Most powerful oversight board in the country. SURJ Ohio is working alongside Black communities to pass the Citizens for a Safer Cleveland ballot initiative to establish what would be the most powerful police community oversight board in the country. After years of inaction following the police murder of Tamir Rice and the federal consent decree against the Cleveland Division of Police, family members and communities are taking back control of their safety. SURJ Ohio members across Cuyahoga County are organizing phone and text banks, door knocking in strategic neighborhoods, and canvassing in key “hot spots” to collect the approximately 10,000 signatures needed for the initiative to appear in front of voters during the next election.
  • SURJ Ohio members have created a cutting-edge statewide Use of Force Monitoring Project & Database cataloging incidents of police force across Ohio. Grown from a small leadership team with the SURJ NE Ohio chapter 5 years ago, the project now covers over 50 police stations across the state. Not only is this database providing vital information to existing community campaigns to monitor police, but it’s also a tremendous organizing tool for building the power for systemic change. SURJ Ohio is bringing in new members daily who are being trained in researching targets and connecting with local campaigns — work that deepens their commitment and political education.
  • Nelsonville Voices Listening Project, in rural Appalachian Ohio. Led by a SURJ organizer who is a long-time community member, Nelsonville Voices is building a neighbor-to-neighbor listening project in this 5,000-person town. Launching with a team of 8 working class residents, Nelsonville Voices is using an anti-racist approach to identify issues of concern, develop leadership skills and advance campaigns to change local and state policy, policing and government. This work will be multiplied in communities throughout rural Ohio as SURJ chapters across the state learn and train with Nelsonville residents and adapt what they learn to their home communities and chapters.  

Moving Ohio out of Republican control and into support for racial and economic justice will require long haul work to move critical margins of white voters to take action and vote progressive. We understand that those margins will be built in hundreds of communities like Nelsonville, which voted for both Obama and Trump twice (with a margin of just 17 votes in 2020!).

We saw what can happen in Georgia when thousands of white people were ignited by a vision of economic and racial justice.

Erin Heaney, SURJ National Director

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