SURJ is fighting like hell for Kentucky year-round. The Kentucky People’s Union (KPU), a base building project of SURJ, was founded less than two years ago in Ashland, a small majority-white, working class city in the eastern part of the state. Since then, KPU has grown into a powerful political home and organizing force, bringing in dozens of new members to fight for housing rights and mobilize for racial and LGBTQ justice.
The extractive legacy of the coal industry and ensuing economic disinvestment looms large in Ashland. As an unorganized, majority working class area, we identified the area as a potentially opportune place to launch an organizing project. When some of our Kentucky organizers traveled to Ashland to knock doors to test our hunch, they were met with immediate enthusiasm. KPU sprung up almost instantly and now is home to over 80 active members with over 1,000 people expressing interest in the work.
Just this past year, the KKK dropped flyers in town, and KPU members came together with two other progressive groups in the city to publicly condemn the Klan’s presence. We knock doors in the same neighborhood where the Klan dropped flyers, bringing people in through solidarity and community care, not hate and racism. Far right forces target communities like Ashland because they know white people are suffering and they hope to use that suffering to build their ranks. But, KPU offers people true solidarity, coming together across race, gender, age, and ability to win a better life for everyone.
2023 was a year of growth for KPU. We spent the first four months researching issues, bringing in new members, developing leaders, and building community. After deep listening with people in the community, KPU members voted to take on housing campaigns to protect the rights of renters in Ashland: fighting for a public registry of landlords and the adoption of URLTA.
Since the vote, we’ve knocked on over 1,000 doors of local tenants to talk to them about their experiences. One tenant shared about living without heat for three winters. Others talked about ongoing pest and rodent infestations. We heard about the mental, physical, and emotional toll of living in unsafe housing under landlords who are unwilling to fix properties or take care of issues. Renters have joined up with KPU and are advocating at commissioner meetings, being trained in organizing skills, and growing our base.
In August, 30 of our members showed up at the city commissioner’s meeting with their housing research and demands for the commissioners, sporting red bandanas in the legacy of the multiracial miner’s uprising at Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. The event earned local news coverage and helped us gain more than 600 signatures on our Kentucky People’s Union Tenants Bill of Rights.
Time and time again, we heard stories of renters in the city who both experience struggle and hope. They know Ashland can do better for its people. This is why we are continuing to hold potlucks, feed our neighborhood, build power, and fight like hell for Kentucky – all at the same time.
Fighting like hell for Kentucky is a part of fighting like hell for all of us in 2024. Can you help us win?