“I spent years as a volunteer, going to meeting after meeting, asking for a bare minimum for a thing that I never should have had to ask for,” Ashley Daniels says with exasperation. “Like, ‘Hey, county commissioners, can you, please, not pollute us?’ It’s absurd to think about the things we have to ask for and still get denied, when we should have never had to ask in the first place. This is with the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County, the Department of Environmental Quality — it’s just constant.”
As Daniels was commiserating during a meeting last May with a core group of local activists in town — all who have faced similar situations — discussions turned to redistributing political power and ensuring marginalized voices were heard in the political process. By October the Carolina Federation launched a new chapter, New Hanover for All (NHFA), for which Daniels is now the southeastern regional organizer. That one conversation between eight core members since has grown into a 40-member nonprofit to date.
NHFA is concentrated on enlisting, developing and investing in local leaders across all genders, races, classes and political affiliations. Mainly, however, they want to recruit lower-income, working-class and middle-class neighborhoods of black and brown folks and immigrants to invigorate balance in our political system. “We want to work with the people who usually don’t have priority in government decision and policies,” Daniels clarifies. “Those are the communities we begin with.” The end goal of NHFA is to shift power, give hope and inspire a vested interest in local government that really benefits all people over a select few.
“What we are trying to do is not just possible in some far-off place,” Daniels clarifies. “It’s possible here in Wilmington — and we know because it’s been done here. Right after slavery, black and white people came together in the Fusionist Party and made it livable for everyone to prosper. They did so in impossible times, with far fewer resources, amidst great odds. If our people can do that then, with their example and with our modern-day resources in these times, we can do it today.”
Daniels is referring to life before the Wilmington Massacre of 1898. In 1898 there was a thriving Black business culture in Wilmington, as Black Americans made up 55% of the population. The government was equally represented between both races — until November 8, 1898 when the Secret Nine led a mob of white vigilantes to murder numerous Black Americans and ran out others from town to overtake the government. It’s the only successful coup d’état in American history. Aside from the brutalization of lost life, the post-Reconstruction era that followed segregated Wilmington and instituted, once again, the disenfranchisement of Black Americans, affirming white supremacy’s stronghold in our Southern town, its institutions and political makeup. Had the massacre not happened, our city may look far different today.
Daniels and NHFA members aren’t ones to sit back and just imagine; they’re action-oriented. Moreover, they’re ready for the long game of tackling systemic racism and organizing structural change by building a grassroots movement that repairs trust within its citizens, empowers them to act and eradicates hopelessness evident into today’s political climate. The group’s bedrock of beliefs are formed around three tenets: Corporate power is the problem, democracy is the solution, and solidarity is the key.
“We are not here for a movement or one election,” Daniels states clearly. “We are here to stay, so in order to do that, it’s not going to be how far can one person run on her own or how many rooms she can get in to make change. We’re not going to be powerful unless all the people, our people, feel informed, knowledgeable and empowered themselves. So that’s how we envision power for our folks: bringing people aboard and investing in their leadership and skills.”
Where does that start? Quite simply, like anything, with small steps. Members of NHFA may be asked to at first attend a meeting. Then they may be invited to lead one before going on to facilitate one on their own, which could in turn lead to overseeing a committee. “It’s a gradual transition into more and more leadership opportunities,” Daniels says, “one that shows someone, ‘I’m competent to govern myself.’”
Daniels knows the process works because she’s seen it firsthand for more than a decade. She experienced it when she spoke at her first county commission meeting as a volunteer for the Sierra Club 10 years ago. She was one of the 52% of citizens against the proposed Titan Cement plant, slated to go on the northeast Cape Fear River. She had never attended a county commission meeting, much less spoke at one.
“I distinctly remember feeling nervous and my face was flush,” Daniels says. Though she was raised in the AME Zion church and was indoctrinated to speak out and for truth, honing her passion for environmental justice felt different. “There’s a way that tension feels activating when it’s for a good cause,” she explains. “It’s cathartic. When there is something that needs to be said, when there’s a weight that we are holding that isn’t right and unjust, it occupies so much of our time, space and energy, and when we take the ounce of courage to shoot the arrow or release that weight, we feel life. Our life comes back. I think there’s a way that a part of me wasn’t being utilized that I stepped into [at that meeting years ago].”
GROWTH OF AN ACTIVIST
Daniels’ growth as an environmental activist began in her hometown of Leland, where her family settled generations ago. The natural world was her playground; she would frolic in the woods, go fishing with her dad, and play with the family’s many animals—dogs, cats, chickens, goats. “My family and the land around me was the thing that nurtured and helped me,” she says. Yet, she also was exposed at a young age to the toxicity that chemical plants reeked on communities. Her grandpa worked at International Paper, as did her dad—the latter of whom also worked for Wright Chemical Corp. and Elementis Global.
“That’s what was available to make $25 an hour to feed your family,” Daniels says, “so that’s what a lot of folks did. Even though Dad had a dangerous job that was toxic, he was always teaching us about corporate America, showing how they’re putting people in [unhealthy] conditions, even when they know it’s not safe. . . . There was a rule in our house that, when my dad came home, I wasn’t allowed to touch his clothes and wash them. It was an understanding not expressed: If they’re too toxic for me to touch for 5 seconds, they’re too toxic for him to be in 12 hours a day for years on end.”
In 2018 Daniels found herself yet again speaking out against industrial pollution. A fumigation facility was proposed for Columbus County that would see 140 tons of methyl bromide released annually. Most residents, including her family in Delco—where the company, Malec Brothers Transport, was proposing the facility be built—had not heard about it. Daniels stepped in to spread the word.
“They didn’t know about this because there only was a quick hearing, and Delco is unincorporated, so they don’t have a town council,” she explains. “Columbus County is large and Delco is way at the bottom; it takes 40 minutes to get to a city council or county commission meeting — that is, if you have a car. And the Department of Environmental Quality only put a posting on their website and maybe something small in a local newspaper, if you get the newspaper, and always in the back section.”
She went to her childhood church to speak to the congregation and inform them of the plans. She encouraged them to speak at the public hearing and handed out fact sheets. Then she went to the local middle school, where the plant was slated to be built within a mile and made a live video about concerns that could arise for the community. “I’d say 350 people showed up mad because they hadn’t been given direct notice about the situation happening,” Daniels says.
At the meeting was an organizer from the NC Equality Justice Network, who was set to retire and approached Daniels about fulfilling the position. Daniels was working at Elderhaus as a certified nurse assistant at the time but had realized her calling as an advocate was too strong to pass. So she began the fight for rural families affected by CAFOs, Gen X and other elements of industrial pollution, especially affecting poor black and brown communities. From NCEJN executive director Naeema Muhammed, Daniels learned how to lead with resolute calm and through love.
“The way Naeema always moved and the way our leadership was handled wasn’t to censor people who were impacted, but listen to them and not pretend like you have the answer for them, despite the science and data,” she says, “and just doing that from a place of great love and selflessness.”
CRAFTING A NEW WORLDVIEW
Daniels reflects on leading from love as she moves forward with NHFA. The first step is making a distinction that false choices — i.e. being Democrat or Republican — are not the only ways to govern. Though members of the chapter are affiliated politically across the spectrum, many are registered unaffiliated and feel the modern political spectrum doesn’t really fit their ideals. Carolina Federation goes beyond two common worldviews they describe as “Confederate” (i.e. people who believe they deserve to prosper, while others need to wait their turn, and who often vilify lesser classes as troublemakers or lazy) and “moderate” (i.e. people that likely align as established Democrats who believe in diversity and investing in business, yet don’t really name white supremacy as a fundamental problem).
“The Carolina Federation worldview is more radical,” Daniels explains. “It addresses white supremacy and corporate power as a problem. These things have been infiltrated into every part of our society and political system. This worldview maintains there is enough for everybody, and no one has to wait in line. If we dismantle the power corporations have over our government, we dismantle white supremacy, and people can actually take back power.”
She points to Durham for All, another Carolina Federation affiliate, already making waves. In their short existence of five years, they have been able to elect their own candidate to a school board; put a young black woman, Jillian Johnson, on city council (who now is Mayor Pro Tempore); get a sheriff elected who no longer will work with ICE; get a district attorney who reprioritizes marijuana convictions; and pass a $90 million housing bond to help with affordable housing.
“When a vote came up for the Durham Police Department to receive extra funding, Jillian Johnson was able to work with folks in the community who turned up to the city council meeting, speaking out how they would police themselves, give strategic steps they had figured out, and asked council to deny the funding,” Daniels explains. “Council denied it.”
Daniels sees the affiliate’s success as a ray of hope for New Hanover County. After holding two weekends of what they call “DNA Training” in December and January, core members established a set of values to clarify their purpose, recognize the hurdles they would be up against, and establish how to respect one another and conduct themselves. “We have to build a container strong enough that, when we need to come up against very difficult conversations and tensions, we have processes to address conflict without throwing away people,” Daniels says.
They also voted on a campaign to put their efforts toward first and landed on securing a living wage for all New Hanover County school employees. “There was traction around getting $15 an hour for bus drivers at the time,” Daniels says. “We wanted to add to that cafeteria workers, janitors and teachers’ assistants, so we divided ourselves into action teams to get to work.”
Then COVID-19 hit. People stopped going to school board meetings and eventually schools closed. The focus shifted immediately away from one single campaign and more toward members utilizing resources to help in various ways outside of NHFA.
BOOTS ON THE GROUND
“A lot of our people have created their own nonprofits and have volunteered for other nonprofits,” Daniels says, “[so] in this moment of pause from COVID-19, our members were asking, ‘But what about kids who need food now?’ and ‘What about masks?’ or ‘What about people who can’t make rent?’”
One member, Rebecca Trammel, launched an operation to help deliver meals to kids during the two-week period after the COVID shutdown began that were pick-up only from local schools. She also began a mask initiative, making sure they were available for free to people in need throughout the community. Another member, Sarah Daniels, utilized digital communication tools that NHFA normally uses in an election cycle to text people to support initiatives and candidates and instead put them to use toward public service. She wanted to figure out what the community needed exactly during the pandemic crisis.
“Sarah is with Cape Fear Food Council, so she knew there were hungry people hidden and not being served,” Daniels explains. “So she mobilized volunteers, and we created a script to reach out to 30,000 people in the county (NHFA got the voter file from New Hanover County Board of Elections). It basically said something like, ‘We know it’s a hard time. Are you having a problem putting food on the table?’ People who answered ‘yes’ would get a response with resources on where to get food; we even offered to fill out forms for them.”
Another NHFA member, LaShonda Wallace, oversees Seeds of Healing. The nonprofit’s main focus is HIV advocacy for African Americans. “She reached out and made sure people knew all COVID precautions and that the county was providing free testing.”
Currently, New Hanover for All has switched focus to the 14,000 residents that could potentially be evicted once the federal eviction moratorium from the CARES Act ends on July 24. Small claims court cases are doubling because of the number of cases needing to be heard beginning July 1, according to NHCFA member Steve Lee. The deputy clerks have informed they have around 10 cases an hour to oversee, despite the fact landlords who own properties with federally backed mortgages aren’t allowed to begin evictions or charge penalties until the 30-day notice is given to tenants after the July 24 deadline. This information is being shared digitally via a text campaign to affected New Hanover County tenants, thanks to NHFA.
“That’s gold to someone who doesn’t know otherwise,” Daniels says. “And there are landlords in NC filing evictions right now, even though they’re receiving federal funding and know they’re not supposed to.”
So far NHFA’s eviction campaign has seen a 20% response rate. “We will keep trying to position ourselves to be a resource for people,” Daniels promises.
Right now members meet via Zoom to plan the rest of 2020 — though community needs seem to be changing rapidly in the pandemic. Still, NHFA is keeping pace and going through a vetting process for new members to help them, as they need busy hands to meet their evolving goals. Dues are only $25 a month for someone who identifies as wealthy, $15 a month for working class and $15 a year for low income. Half the money goes to the state chapter and the other half to the local chapter.
“We aren’t checking for party affiliation,” Daniels clarifies, “but we are checking for values, so if this person is fighting alongside me, we know we have a shared vision. My shared vision includes them in it, and it includes them in it free. So if they’re not free, then I need to do all I can and, more importantly, should desire to help them be free—whether it’s a trans person, a gay person, or an undocumented person. It is our duty, our obligation, to make sure our people don’t feel oppression or discrimination. So it’s something we have started with as a principle in NHFA, and it’s one we keep revisiting and returning to, but that’s the culture we want to make. If we envision a world where everyone lives and thrives, we are gonna have to keep wrestling our convictions to always be expansive enough to take care of everybody.”
Though NHFA began canvassing door-to-door in February, they’re re-evaluating how that looks digitally ahead of the November elections. It will include endorsing candidates and pursuing heavy voter registration drives via text tools. They’re also aiming for 30,000 digital conversations across three chapters of Carolina Federation for folks to get out the vote.
“A lot of decisions happen by one vote,” Daniels reminds. “Sometimes it just takes one candidate to make one vote to see change. I don’t wanna say it’s that simple but sometimes it’s that possible. New Hanover for All is looking for that very slow, local power building and then on to power on the state level. . . .I know it seems like a huge undertaking — and it will be hard work. When you see power, you see a massive impenetrable thing that makes decisions. But when you break it down — this company owns this, this governing board owns this, this committee needs this — the parts are penetrable, the parts are electable. Before my first county commission meeting, I didn’t see a reason to go to the meetings because power itself was too large. I was so far removed from how it worked — something outside of what I thought I had control over. Some of the disenfranchised have been so far removed from being empowered, they have become disillusioned. But when people are encouraged, they can be in a position of leadership, and at NHFA your leadership will be respected and invested in and we will support you. That is a transition we are trying to make people realize.”