Scene Report —
Muncie Resists: Unsexy Activism in Rural Indiana
by G (GPat) Patterson
When I moved to Muncie, Indiana, in the summer of 2016, I wasn't seeking out an opportunity to become a community organizer. After five years working as both an adjunct and a non-tenure-track instructor, I had finally landed a tenure track position. As a working-class, gender-nonconforming, multi-ethnic queer/trans person with white-skin privilege, working at a Koch-funded university with Pence-appointed trustees, I intended to do my work, join community efforts where I could, and keep a low profile. Then the election happened.
In late December, as forecasts of Trump's White nationalist appointees continued to roll in, I did what many private citizens across the country began to do: I searched for a local resistance group in Muncie. Though the city hosts not one but two institutions of higher education, and though it has historically had a Democrat at its helm, Muncie is not a "blue" stronghold in an otherwise conservative state. It'd be more accurate, I think, to describe Muncie as a "purple" city in the very gerrymandered voting district of IN-6. Having been trained in voting rights activism in "purple" North Carolina during the 2007 democratic primary and 2008 general election, I expected to find the activist networks I'd come to associate with political battleground areas. Finding none, I created an invite-only Facebook group called Muncie Resists.
Even as I initiated the group, I was all too aware that I was an outsider to the area who had never led a community organizing group. My hope was that as Muncie Resists swelled to over 350+ members, an established community leader would emerge to tell us all what to do. As I learned later, those established community leaders were already busy working on their own (incredibly important) fronts. So when folks began to ask when Muncie Resists would hold its first meeting, I realized that maybe we were the organizers we had been waiting for. After hosting a few small-group planning meetings, I scheduled our first large-group meeting for mid-January of 2017.
As I set up tables and chairs for that meeting, I remember worrying, with my friend, colleague, and co-facilitator, Angela Jackson-Brown, that people would be demoralized if we couldn't fill the thirty or so seats. As it turns out, we had to scramble to find more chairs. Over fifty people, who had learned of the group online and through word-of-mouth, showed up to our first public meeting that night. It was then that I realized I'd been making some very unfounded assumptions about the level of political engagement in my community. While there were, no doubt, a number of university faculty in attendance, over half of the community members who showed up (and who continue to show up) were non-academic community members–both from Muncie and far-flung neighboring rural towns across Indiana's 6th district.
Some of Muncie Resists' efforts, thus far, have included organizing community phone-banking initiatives, holding a streaming townhall on the Affordable Care Act, mobilizing a multi-tiered campaign to support the city's besieged public schools, and working with community and university stakeholders to reinstate an accessible polling locations for students who live on campus (see facebook.com/muncieresists/). While Muncie Resists has evolved to include a cohort of new leaders, my experience spearheading this organization has provided me with an opportunity re/learn important lessons about what it takes to mobilize community members for political action. Below, I synthesize a Top 10 list of what I learned by applying these lessons to community organizing in East Central Indiana.
- The archetype of the bullhorn-toting, charismatic community organizer is a myth. Most of organizing is about showing up and doing behind the scenes work–like making copies, setting up chairs, answering emails, and arranging for a meeting space. Community organizing is about bringing people with various talents together to solve a problem (Hunter 14-17). It's not a one-person job. Ever.
- The importance of holding regular meetings, at the same time and place, cannot be overstated. When choosing a space, make sure it is not only wheelchair accessible but also accessible for those with children and for those navigating public transit (Page et al, np).
- While community organizing has gone high-tech, what makes it sustainable is surprisingly old-school. For example, while social media initially played a part in gathering us together, it is sign-in sheets and email newsletters that ensure our action items don't get buried in Facebook's corporate algorithms.
- A successful community meeting is a lot like a successful lesson plan. Begin and end on time. Assign groups based on interests. When developing action items, be as specific as possible about the problem at hand, what you want them to do, and why it matters. Finally, develop methods for recognizing, encouraging, and holding members accountable for the tasks they agree to take on.
- What oftentimes keeps people showing up, week after week isn't the work; it's the people. In a dehumanizing political climate, it's important to nurture one another—through food, play, and opportunities to socialize (Page et al, np).
- While it's certainly important to center marginalized voices in leadership roles, it's also just as important to support marginalized leaders and make sure they're not taking on an unsustainable amount of work.
- Sustainability is contingent upon flexibility. Group leadership will change, and the size of the group will wax and wane. For that reason, it's important to develop a structure that will work no matter how big or small the group gets (Bond and Exley 26).
- Don't reinvent the wheel. Where your goals overlap, align yourselves with already-existing local parties and nonprofits. What these groups sometimes lack in people power and technological savvy, they more than make up for in institutional memory and local political savvy.
- While top-down models like Indivisible and MoveOn.org encourage their members to contact members of congress, there are three reasons why it's important to focus on local issues, too. First, local, administrative policies and practices have the most immediate effect on our lives (Spade 93). Second, we have the most agency to effect change at the local level. Third, if we successfully disrupt local political ecologies, we're much more likely to upset the balance of power at the national level. While fear and uncertainty surrounding the Trump administration helped fill seats during that first meeting, conversations and actions surrounding local issues have kept the group engaged through smaller-scale wins.
- People will tell you that you won't win. And, in a red state, it'll seem like you can't win. But you can. When we want to change something, we often think of addressing those at the apex of power, who often happen to be the most unmovable. What we forget is that there are a lot of key stakeholders at the bottom, and if we successfully target those decision-makers, the whole structure comes tumbling down (Hunter 31-33).
Coda/Confession: During my work with Muncie Resists, I've never once mentioned my profession or university affiliation. While part of this silence had to do with my institution's post-election reminder discouraging employees from using state resources for political purposes (as if the reminder itself weren't a political act), my silence was primarily rooted in a visceral disinterest in "public intellectual" narratives. As a marginalized person and first-generation educator, I tend to agree with Mathieu's critique of academic culture vultures, who engage in community work (and capitalize off of marginalized people's pain) for the simple convenience of aligning one's research and service. On the other hand, I heartily disagree with those who claim that their scholarship (alone) is their activism. As scholars of rhetoric and writing, we have access to valuable skillsets and resources, and for that reason alone, we should enter the fight.
Bond, Becky, and Zack Exley. Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016.
Hunter, Daniel. Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow: An Organizing Guide. Hyrax Publishing, 2015.
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology. Duke University Press, 2016.
Mathieu, Paula. Tactics of Hope: The Public Turn in Composition. Heinemann Press, 2005.
Padilla, Angel, et al. Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda. Indivisible, 9 March 2017, indivisibleguide.com. Accessed 29 June 2017.
Page, Cara, Suzanne Pharr, Paulina Helm-Hernandez, and Caitlin Breedlove. "Alchemy: The Elements of Creating Collective Space." Southerners on New Ground, southernersonnewground.org/resources/organizingtools. Accessed 29. June 2017.
Spade, Dean. "What's Wrong with Trans Rights?" Transfeminist Perspectives in and Beyond Gender Studies, edited by Anne Enke, Temple University Press, 2012, 184-194.