Image is the logo for the Rowan County Listening Project: the words "Rowan County" are written in blue while the words "Listening Project" are in Orange, over an outline of Rowan County.

Breaking the Right in Kentucky

Last week, we shared how SURJ’s organizing in Kentucky will connect tens of thousands of voters next year. Exciting and transformational candidates like Senate candidate Charles Booker and Congressional candidate Attica Scott are possible because of years of organizing in Black and Brown communities, and they will only win if white voters side with multiracial solidarity instead of white supremacist fear-mongering.

And we know that much deeper and long-haul organizing in majority-white communities is required if we are to truly break the power of the Right. This is exactly what we are doing in Rowan County, KY.

Nowhere in America can a full-time minimum wage worker afford a 2 bedroom rental — a new study proves this grim reality that millions have known for months. Morehead, Kentucky, the county seat in Rowan County where SURJ’s Southern Crossroads organizers are working, is no exception. Rent hovers at $700 or more, while $7.25/hr minimum wage workers take home about $928 per month. Affordable options like trailer parks, which are a key part of lower cost housing in Rowan County, are being obliterated by mega-corporations, out-of-town developers or cutthroat landlords.

There are more than 60 registered trailer parks in Rowan County, making it one of the most concentrated clusters per capita statewide — every park where organizers have canvassed this year has been recently sold. Wall Street and hedge funds are bragging about extracting huge profits from working people across the nation who are desperate for safe housing and who are undefended by law, policy or representation in democratic governance.

Squeezed in this impossible equation, working families in Rowan County, KY, are turning to each other to rediscover their dignity and reclaim their power. Door knock by door knock, the Rowan County Listening Project is growing a base of resident-leaders who are asking each other hard questions about why they’re struggling to make ends meet, who’s to blame, and how they can fight back. One thing is clear: they can’t do this alone.

Rural residents across the South suffer under “Good Old Boys” clubs and local elite rule, while majority-white legislative districts and elected leaders hold disproportionate power to undermine or nullify the will of voters of color, often in cities. Rowan County is 96% white, yet Trump won there with only 59.6% of the vote in 2020. 

Change is possible and within reach for Rowan County, and thousands of counties like it, but it will take organizers on the ground with deep ties to the community to skill up leaders, ignite movements for change, and shift the balance of power in favor of economic and racial justice.

After just 10 months, Rowan County Listening Project is proving the transformational power of breaking isolation and engaging in deliberate community-building.

Neighbors are connecting with neighbors with hour-long conversations at the doors that cover all aspects of working life in Morehead, like the constant struggle to find affordable housing and making ends meet. Surfacing what people really need and how to win it together breaks through old patterns of partisan loyalties, and RCLP members are already starting to see themselves as part of a movement for change.

Doing this work with SURJ’s anti-racist approach helps white communities resist the fear-based, right wing messaging that urges us to blame people of color for the difficulties we face.

RCLP members have begun surveying 400 Rowan County residents to identify what most needs to change, and will release their findings publicly next year. Soon, members will host a Block Party and Free Yard Sale to bring more folks into the efforts to call, visit, and connect with any Rowan County resident who wants to channel their despair into action. It is only this kind of deliberate community-building and organizing that can unleash the power we possess and prove to millions of working people across the country that hope lies in joining together to take action.

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