By Rachel Fraade

June 25, 2015

A hospitality house just blocks away from the first-year enclave of East Campus. The hallowed halls of the North Carolina legislature, filled with the voices of Raging Grannies denouncing (in song!) the draconian policies of Governor McCrory. An entire church filled with raised hands in response to the question, “How many of you know of someone whose health has been harmed by coal ash or fracking?” These are the sights of my first two weeks in Durham, physically close and yet a world apart from the stacks of Perkins and the soar of the chapel.

This summer, I am conducting fieldwork on the intersections of faith and grassroots activism in North Carolina. My interest lies especially in the Forward Together Moral Movement, a fusion coalition perhaps most famous for its “Moral Monday” protests in front of the capital. The movement addresses issues such as voting rights, women’s health, environmental justice, education reform, and equal protection under the law. This union of issues strengthens each individual cause, building upon an acknowledgement that all injustices are linked. It is not uncommon to hear a movement leader declare that, “We all do better when we all do better.” Rather than squabbling over limited funding and media attention, a phenomenon all too common in our nonprofit-saturated society, organizations and individuals have learned how to share resources to everyone’s benefit.

Protestors gathering on May 13 to support people being arrested at the NC General Assembly building in Raleigh. attribution: North Carolina NAACP

Protestors gathering on May 13 to support people being arrested at the NC General Assembly building in Raleigh. attribution: North Carolina NAACP

Now, why this specific movement? First of all, it is the largest of its kind in the United States. It is taking place in my own backyard, in a city and a state that I have sometimes been guilty of foregoing in favor of the “Duke bubble.” And lastly, it is not only a fusion coalition of causes but of faiths and traditions. At my first Moral Movement Event, February’s Historic Thousands on Jones Street rally, I was struck by the presence of clergy members alongside community organizers in the spotlight. This is how my personal faith manifests itself – not as much in ritual or prayer as in communal values and action – but I had never seen a clergy member take such a public stand before. I was already intrigued by the ability of faith to galvanize social action, but the Moral Movement allowed me to see how it can occur on a larger scale to create concrete change.

Just two days after beginning my research, I found myself at a gathering in the town of Walnut Cove, almost 90 miles northwest of Durham. The event was held in a local church and co-hosted by the North Carolina NAACP and Appalachian Voices, an environmental justice organization focused on protecting Appalachia and reducing coal’s impact on the region. Walnut Cove has long been plagued by a leaking coal ash pond, courtesy of Duke Energy, and is now fighting against test drilling and fracking within their community. A few weeks ago, Walnut Cove commissioners granted the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources permission to test the Dan River basin for possible shale-gas resources. The land they were granted access to was in a predominantly black community called Walnut Tree.

This is how destructive environmental policies often work: the testing and drilling is concentrated in poor communities, often communities of color, while the financial benefits go straight into the pockets of corporations. The communities whose land is signed away without their consent then suffer serious illnesses, including cancer, from the chemicals and carcinogens released into the air. Environmental injustice is often enacted in racist and classist ways, targeting communities that large corporations feel cannot or will not fight back. Much of the Moral Movement’s strength comes from an acknowledgement of the ways that different forms of injustice intersect, and from a refusal to lie down and accept these injustices.

In a speech rife with Biblical references, the Reverend Doctor William J. Barber II spoke powerfully about our responsibility to be stewards of the earth. As president of the North Carolina NAACP, which heads the Moral Movement, he declared that anyone who harms the residents of Walnut Cove or Walnut Tree is dealing with the formidable North Carolina NAACP. At the end of the meeting, he revealed a possible environmental injustice lawsuit and invited Stokes County residents to sign up as parties to the lawsuit. As I watched from the back of the church, over 100 people lined up on both sides of the church to put their names down as parties. It was a powerful declaration that they would fight back, and that the NAACP would stand with them every step of the way.

I’ve only just begun to learn about the Moral Movement, and there’s a great deal beyond the surface that I’ve scratched. While I’ve conducted a number of interviews, much of my time has been spent finding and connecting with activists across the state. In the coming weeks, I will have the opportunity to engage with scores of activists from small towns and big cities, passionate about a host of issues, all with perspectives of their own. I’m looking forward to a deepened understanding of the movement, stemming from conversations with both lay activists and movement leaders – what are its shortcomings? Its successes? Which groups, if any, are excluded from this fusion coalition? What drives those who are involved?

I can’t wait to learn more from the incredible folks driving this movement – every time I speak to one of them, I am reminded why it is that grassroots interfaith organizing is so essential to a vision of justice both locally and globally. I’ve been honored by the generosity and openness with which activists have made time to speak with me – and while I was initially surprised, it makes perfect sense. Though I lift them up in my mind as figures of stature and importance, their utmost concern is for the community. As organizers and people of faith, they truly believe in making time for all who need them. All I can hope in return is that my research can do each and every one of them justice.