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Telling someone they can use their voice to make a difference can be a powerful and life-changing thing to hear. Or it can be just words, ringing hollow. So much depends on the messenger.

North Carolina League of Conservation Voters Foundation has been in the state for a long time. But only in the last few years have they really applied their focus to eastern North Carolina. Eastern NC has been long marginalized, even as the residents of this mostly rural area have suffered the most from environmental neglect. 

There are chemicals in the water, coal ash ponds containing the land and massive hog and chicken farms that create stenches that can be smelled from five miles away (5 miles!!!). 

These rural communities of color living in the area struggle, and for too long, they saw no path available to them to build a better future. Telling a working parent who holds down two jobs — yet some months still has to decide between paying the electric bill and buying groceries — that voting is important is simply ridiculous. Or it’s unbelievably empowering. It just depends on who is carrying the message.

In 2016, NCLCVF began a voter engagement program for communities of color in eastern NC. In 2018, they established CivicEast, a program designed to serve this large and diverse community exclusively. 

CivicEast never asks people to come to them. They meet the people where they are. Their meetings take the form of town halls, roundtables, cookouts, community meeting and speaking tanks, where people come together to express how they see their neighborhoods by painting their words onto canvas. 🎨👏❤️

These are communities that have suffered from environmental injustice for as long as anyone there could remember. They knew things were wrong, but they never felt they had the means to make a change. They live in neighborhoods without banks or markets with fresh food. The taxes and rent are high and the wages are low. They are taken advantage of by their employers. They don’t know who they can trust.

Which is why NCLCVF doesn’t send out organizers who can try and learn about the community in order to make a difference. Instead they empower people from within the community to demonstrate that when they come together, the people cannot be ignored. 

In the past few years, two members of their team did the impossible. They both ran for office… and won! One member of their team ran for Town Council in Delco, NC and, despite being new to politics and representing a community that rarely votes much less runs, he tied at the ballot and ultimately won the seat from a coin flip.

Down the road in Robersonville, NC one of their team members took on a 30-year incumbent mayor who was — quite literally — unbeatable. Well, he’s unbeatable no more! Not only did she win, but in doing so she became the first woman and the first African American to ever hold that office!

NC League of Conservation Voters Foundation has used Relational Organizing to help the communities of color of rural eastern NC make their own change in the world. They have helped them organize so that together they could make decisions about their own future.

And the beauty of it all: their growth is exponential!

It’s a chain reaction. Because even the smallest victory shows the community that victory is possible. Which means the work is worth doing. And when a community decides they are ready to come together and determine their own fate… well there’s not much that can stop them.

Learn more about NC League of Conservation Voters Foundation and the great work they are doing at https://nclcvf.org/.