Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Garrett Bucks is the founder of The Barnraisers Project, a social-justice organization seeking to build networks of white people organizing for racial justice within their own communities. The premise of the project is that injustice isn’t just happening “elsewhere.” Launched in the fall of 2020, Barnraisers aims to “seed and support a network of white anti-racist organizers across the country.”
Enjoy our conversation about virtue signaling, the downfalls of traditional do-goodery, and Garrett’s heroes in rural organizing, below.
Olivia Weeks, the Daily Yonder: What is the Barnraisers Project and how did you come to found it?
Garrett Bucks: The Barnraisers Project coaches and trains average white folks (people who’ve never thought of themselves as activists or organizers) to organize their white friends, neighbors and colleagues to move from denial and defensiveness towards active work for justice and the common good. We’ve trained hundreds of folks across the country—from teachers working to get their districts to stop putting all the White kids in gifted classes and the Black kids in special education classes to churches that have a desire to match their actions in their community to the “love your neighbors” ethic they’ve been preaching, but have been afraid of rocking parishioners’ boats.
I started Barnraisers because, for decades, civil rights leaders have called on white people to organize against racism and white supremacy in our own communities and, with a few key exceptions… we just straight-up never answered that call. Instead we’ve fallen into a pattern of silence or dumb social media rock fights. And that’s not just a pattern I witnessed in other folks—that was my story! I spent a good decade doing nonprofit work in other people’s communities—Black and Brown neighborhoods in big cities to tiny reservation towns on the Navajo Nation. While I hope some of that work was useful, when I’m honest a whole lot of it was far more about me trying to prove that I wasn’t like “those other white people” than taking responsibility for my own community. And in my case, that was a hard pill to swallow because if you asked me at that time what shaped me and my values, I would 100% have said that it was the communities—in particular rural communities like Jefferson County, Montana where I grew up. So when I realized that I had spent most of my life trying to distinguish myself from the places that raised me rather than recommitting to them it was a real wake-up call.
DY: Can you describe the mechanisms by which your project is attempting to be anti-missionary and anti-savior?
GB: I really appreciate that question, and just want to acknowledge that when you’re engaged in general white person do-goodery, it takes a lot of intentionality to resist the gravitational pull towards saviorism. Barnraisers’ central belief, though, is that we’re not doing this work “for” any other community, particularly not in a paternalistic way. Activists and visionaries, especially Black, Brown, Asian and Indigenous folks (as well as working class folks of all racial backgrounds) have already dreamed up all the great ideas we’ll ever need for a better, more interconnected world. Our job, as a racial group that has historically been propped up on top of society, is two-fold: to make sure we’re not in the way of that progress, and to be able to better understand how the current set-up is hurting everybody, including us.
Obviously, I’m not the first person to argue that white folks should organize for the common good not out of guilt, but because nobody (save for a few super wealthy folks) is benefiting from our current system. Both Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land make that case really powerfully. Too few folks are making that connection to organizing, though. Nobody’s really talking to white people in suburbs about how an integrated, well-funded school system would be so much better for all kids (including theirs) than our current balkanized, Lord of the Flies situation. Nobody’s providing rural white people with venues to see/hear and articulate the ways that immigration has made their communities stronger. This isn’t to say that white people should never be encouraged to care about other people regardless of how it impacts their lives, but that we have to really take on this endemic myth (in both liberal and conservative circles) that the “problems to be solved” are in “other people’s neighborhoods” and not ours.
DY: Do you have examples of successful movement-building in conservative, rural spaces? How does the strategy differ there from the work you do, say, where you live in Milwaukee?
GB: Sure! There are some really wonderful larger, more established efforts that I’ll give some shine to in a second, but I want to first highlight some nascent organizers with whom I’ve had the opportunity to work and who are just starting to get their efforts off the ground. I admire these folks because they’re asking a new set of questions about what their communities are capable of. For example, I think about Jenny, a principal in rural North Carolina, who is starting dialogues with white people in her county about why they send their kids to private schools and their community’s long legacy of “segregation academies.” I think about Patti who lives in a small town in Western Iowa and who, one by one, is bringing parishioners back to a formerly all-white church who had left when new families from Mexico started filling the pews. I think about a group of teachers in Western Massachusetts who, in the face of this summer’s “anti-critical race theory” controversies, are building support in their district for a truly honest, inclusive curriculum. And then there are folks in a number of communities—places like Eastern South Dakota or the Palouse Valley of Idaho and Washington, who’ve realized that their first step isn’t to yell at their neighbors, it’s to build networks of local care. (These are places where folks aren’t likely to use the term “mutual aid” but that’s exactly the idea.)
As you noted, I work with a lot of folks in rural areas, but I also work with a lot of folks in suburbs, in huge cities, literally all over the map. And the most fascinating thing is how little the organizing approach changes. There actually isn’t a huge difference, psychologically, between a well-off white progressive in the Boston metropolitan area who is fighting against new affordable housing in their neighborhood and a working class white person in Wyoming who keeps yelling that “Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group.” They’re both folks who have heard, implicitly, a message that the future is going to require something different from them, and because they can’t metastasize that new information healthily, they throw up a tantrum. Organizing in both cases is about building a set of relationships deep enough for that person to unlock a different, more welcoming version of themselves.
DY: You’ve written in a recent newsletter about your view that “White American liberal politics is more about class-and-educational signaling than it is about the actual act of making our society more livable and just.” What are the telltale signs of signaling? What does the shift from signaling to action actually look like?
GB: Well, the biggest sign that what you’re doing “politically” is just in-group signaling is if the primary beneficiary is your own ego and/or reputation. Throughout history, rural and/or conservative communities have been really convenient sin-eaters for white progressives to show how much “better” they are than the “bad white people.” All we have ever had to do, even before social media, was to decry the backwards, hateful hicks. It’s literally my biggest pet peeve. At best, it’s all just sound and fury. At worst, it gives bad faith actors (like politicians or media personalities) the chance to say to folks in rural communities “see, they’re just laughing at you again! Vote for me or watch my network to protect you from the condescending elites!”
By contrast, the kind of politics that I’m interested in involves believing that every community is capable of positive change and being on the look-out for folks in those communities who are either doing that work or would like to do that work, and supporting them.
Here’s a great recent example, not from a rural community but from a place that’s often derided as being a backwards, white conservative place. Waukesha County, Wisconsin recently made the news because its school board voted to decline funds from the Federal Government to provide free lunch to all its students. The story went viral, in part because a few school-board members threw out some particularly vile, boneheaded quotes about kids getting “addicted” to free food. And most of that virality, at least online, was folks just yelling at what a terrible place Waukesha County must be and how these school board members deserved some kind of righteous punishment. That’s a textbook example of doing something that feels political but is actually just showing off how virtuous you are in contrast to some terrible foil.
Now, the piece of the story that most folks missed—and that very much did NOT go viral—is that the only reason this story made national press is because of the savvy media strategy of the parent advocacy group that was fighting to repeal the board’s decision. These were parents, in a very conservative county, waging a public relations campaign to get their community on board for what we often assume is an impossible sell in places like that: a universal government program. And the best piece of the whole story is that they won! The board reversed its decision! In an ideal world, it’s that piece of the story—what those activists did, what support they need for their next effort, how to replicate it in other communities—that we should be shouting from the roof tops! Sign me up for that vision of political action. The easy dunks on white people in “those places” though? Completely and totally unhelpful.
DY: Can you name drop some rural advocacy projects doing the work who need folks out there organizing their neighbors?
GB: Absolutely. While what I’m doing is very new and very small, I get to stand on the shoulders of absolute giants who are doing great work across the country. Here are a few of my favorites.
Reclaim Idaho are my absolute heroes. For folks who don’t know their story, they’re a rag-tag trio that traveled across the state in a green RV, knocking on doors that they were told would be shut to anything with a “liberal” bent to it, to get a referendum for Medicaid expansion on the ballot. Not only did they succeed, the referendum did as well—and by a wildly out-sized margin. They scared the state legislature so much that lawmakers tried to pass a law banning that kind of referendum. Fortunately, it was blocked in court. Now Reclaim Idaho’s statewide network of volunteers is out there again—this time fighting for a referendum to increase the state’s criminally low K-12 education funding.
I’ve also been really impressed by two new initiatives that have been launched by Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ). The more established of the two is Southern Crossroads, which is doing really beautiful tenants organizing in Bedford County, Tennessee. That “listening project” model of building deep ties with neighbors before identifying a collective action project is now being replicated by SURJ Ohio, specifically in the Appalachian town of Nelsonville.
Finally, I need to shout out that, across the country (as we saw during the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests) some of the most inspiring rural organizing is being led by teens and youth. One organization that I think is doing a particularly great job of leadership development and organizing in small towns and red-state cities alike is Forward Montana.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.