In February of this year, The Forge published a piece by Katey Lauer of West Virginia Can’t Wait that made the case for institution building. Her piece argues that organizers need the resources and opportunity to experiment with different models and strategies and to focus on the long haul rather than the rapid response mobilization that funders all too often demand. To discuss her piece, and its implications for West Virginia and our movements overall, Forge contributor Mat Hanson sat down with Katey Lauer, co-chair of West Virginia Can’t Wait; Nicole McCormick, a founding member of the West Virginia United caucus and rank-and-file leader in the successful teacher’s strike; Dr. Shanequa Smith of Restorative Actions and the Black Voters Impact Initiative; and Joe Solomon, the co-founder and co-director of Solutions Oriented Addiction Response (SOAR), a volunteer-based organization that advocates for harm-reduction strategies to the opioid crisis. This roundtable has been edited and condensed.  


The media too often focuses on Senator Joe Manchin, and sometimes funders are looking for quick fixes for how we move this or that elected, when in fact, the work that we need to do to build power often flies under the radar. Tell us about the work that you all do and the types of alternatives you are  building in West Virginia?

Katey Lauer: At WV Can’t Wait, we're out to build a people's government in the Mountain State. To us, that means two things. First, we're building what I think people a century ago might have called a political machine. We're out to build infrastructure that can support first-time and working-class candidates to run for office and demystify some of the deep complications of what it means to put your name on the ballot and how to get elected, especially against the odds. And second,we’re supporting folks that are stepping up to fill the gaps where government is failing. That includes folks running backpack campaigns, recovery houses, reentry programs, all on a shoe-string budget.

The people that are in positions of authority in our state are just so clearly bought off by corporate interests. We can’t win the kind of things we want to win by asking them to do the right thing. That is why we have to build our own political infrastructure.

Shanequa Smith: Well, when it comes to being politically active in our communities, we cannot just wait for election cycles, especially because we know our system is not built for the people. When we want people to get politically active, we have to really and realistically come to communities, start with people where they are. 

When we ask why people are not voting, we shouldn't ask that question. We need to instead meet people, build relationships, help people where they are, not try to help people, but teach people how to help themselves. Because the true power is with the people. 

Nicole McCormic: That’s why we have to build upon what we already have. The caucus within the teacher’s union has grown immensely over the past several years and by connecting those educators, by being in those local union meetings of the different associations and things like that, we're working along with that structure and outside of it to try to make positive change.

The whole purpose of the caucus is to promote the common good, to make sure that we really recognize and practice that an injury to one is an injury to all and that we're not treating unionism as an insurance company, that we're treating it as a vehicle to make significant community and societal change. Our schools are the hearts of the community. Our goal is to make sure that we have folks in every single county and that those folks can be involved not only in their union, but their community, their schools, and in other civic groups, whether it be their church or 4-H or whatever it is to make sure that we are doing that, that we're practicing solidarity unionism, that we're trying to fight for what our people really need.

Joe Solomon: One example of this is how we are responding to the opioid crisis. We organize here in Charleston, West Virginia, which is the country's overdose capital.They go hand in hand. And one of the things that we realized in Charleston was that no one is coming to save us. In fact, the opposite happened over the past few years.

In 2018, our then mayor led a successful attack on our health department's harm reduction program, on our acclaimed syringe service program. And those attacks have renewed and repeated over the years, so that now the nation's overdose and HIV capital doesn't have any needs-based harm reduction programs.

What SOAR is focused on is a mixture of mutual aid and power building. And so we're trying to fill that crater. And the ways that we engage in mutual aid is that we send out a team every week to shower our city with Narcan [a medication to treat narcotic overdose]. And we have other events where folks can get HIV testing and connect with down to earth healthcare practitioners and resources. We have that weekly outreach in play, but we know that's not enough. We need to build real power among people that are closest to the pain, namely people at risk of overdose and people who have really poor housing or are homeless.


Tell us about the transformative change you are trying to bring about. What does it look like in three-to-five years? What does it look like beyond that?

Solomon: We are the nation's overdose capital and since people are overdosing from painkillers like fentanyl, that means that we are also the nation's pain capital. And so if we're going to address the pain of our city, not just reduce the pain, but address the pain, then that means we also need to be fighting for a living wage and paid sick leave and a community bail fund and running people for prosecutors and magistrate judges and investing in our youth the way that Dr. Shanequa Smith has highlighted and already leads the way on. 

I think that if we truly build a harm reduction movement, if we truly build a movement that gets at the pain of the overdose crisis, then we're building a movement of collective liberation for all of Appalachia and beyond.

Lauer: This might not be a surprise to hear me say, but I think that in the US, things are going to get worse from here. I think that the conditions that we're operating in — the state of our democracy and climate change and the makeup of our state houses — I think that things are going to get worse before they get better. If we needed one more reason to not be in rapid response mode, this is it. We have not yet cultivated the power that we need to win on some of the most urgent issues we're facing and so instead of mobilizing from a place of urgency — and losing — let's go build it.

Let's go figure out what we need, what shape we need to be in in 30 years and have a much longer view, versus treating everything like an emergency. It’s a posture we’ve inherited from the speed of capitalism, which is to try to just get us onto the next thing and be producing all the time.

I think in three-to-five years what success could look like for us at WV Can’t Wait is that we have elected 50 new first-time candidates into office. I think it means that we've trained up 10 burgeoning organizers that are going to be the future leadership for our state for the next 20 years. But I also think, just as much and maybe more so than those particular numbers, I think us getting practice at doing institution building and coalition building is actually the thing that's going to serve us the most over the long run.


How do we shift our thinking in how we approach social change so we move away from a scarcity mentality and one that always expects short-term results? 

Lauer: When I think about my own development as an organizer, part of why I can do anything I can do today is because a bunch of people were very patient with me for a long time and I had the resources and support to do a bunch of useless stuff and mess around for a while and then try something that failed and try another thing that failed and another thing that failed and then tried something that worked. I got to be in this posture of always learning. That spaciousness taught me that we can learn from our own work and get better at it and we learn from each other's work and get better at it. And that iterative process is part of what helps us get to the world we want.

In order to accomplish that for ourselves and our groups, we actually have to do this counterintuitive thing of slowing down and moving with more intention so that the stuff that we're doing actually adds up.


Tell us more about the value of slowing things down versus the rapid response that funders often demand?

Katey Because Manchin is on other people's minds outside of West Virginia, right now organizing here is like organizing in a swing state. Millions and millions and millions of dollars showed up to run a one-off newspaper ad or to try to mobilize 50 people to get them on a bus or do a pop up photo action. And the result of that is that nothing is different in West Virginia. If anything, people are more tired. If anything, it has actually extracted energy and talent. Even just having to say no over and over again takes energy. We had to say no to going to Manchin actions 50 times in the last year; it takes away from real planning and organizing.

That hustle is counter to the thing that's actually going to help us build in the long run. And just to be clear, I don't mean that there aren't moments of urgency. There are moments where we need to mobilize. But for the most part the daily work, like making sure someone brought food to the meeting — because that'll actually mean people come back next time — that sort of thing is the thing that is more deserving of attention. 

Our focus needs to be on building real power so the campaigns we engage in are actually proportionate to the power we have or could have.

Smith: Individuals are just a compilation of their experiences and when it comes to funders, many of them are disconnected and have no idea of why they actually hold the requirements they have. Many of them have a requirement or certain expectations that were passed down through generations and because we have these dynamics of power, those that the funders give these resources to do not have the power to say, "Hey, this is not working" or give their true reason of what needs to be done. So truthfully, one of the things that need to be done is funders need to be taught because a lot of them have good intentions but wrong approaches.

The work we are doing with people is gardening work. We talk about systematic structures of oppression that take away people's rights, but we don't talk about the internal effects that these things do to individuals. That's why there needs to be a spiritual place, there needs to be some healing.

McCormic: It’s important to talk about the corrosive effects of extractive organizing. We live in a resource colony. Everything is extracted. Our children flee the state. They're extracted — their talents, their gifts, our natural resources — and then the only thing left is poverty and devastation. 

Right now, the legislative session is awful, and we can't really focus on that because we don't really have the power to change anything. I think it's okay to acknowledge that, and I think it's okay, like Katey said, to acknowledge that it's probably going to get worse before it gets better. 

We have to keep in mind that no matter who is in power, they will never go as far as we want them to. It's wonderful to elect candidates that are more friendly, but they're probably never going to go as far as we want them to. You have to be able to organize your people to continually push them to where you need them to be.

Solomon: I think there's something about the hyper-local level where you can both propel real wins and grow real power. And with Katey's support and Dr. Shanequa Smith's support, I recently won the primary for city council at large here in Charleston and so did a whole bunch of other candidates, and we're going to run even more in the general. And I don't think we're under any illusion that that group of candidates, even if we all win in November, can usher in a progressive revolution for the nation's overdose capital. And yet I think that process is both building real power and helping to douse some of the fires that our city has started and maintains.

Once a year, all the advocates rush to the fire that is the state capital, and they leave this open playing field in our city halls and our town halls around the state. It's open season for hurting people or helping people. And I think if we mobilize people that are close to the pain to focus on some of those town and city halls, I think we can do a mixture of building the kind of power that can then move to the state and federal and global level and actually develop real policies and programs that lift our people up, build momentum and keep the show going.


What final thoughts would you like to share with our readers?

McCormic: West Virginia is my home and nobody's coming to save me. Nobody's coming to save any of us. And if I'm going to be here, I'm going to fight to be here. And I feel like that if there was any word that defines the people of West Virginia, it's defiant. They are defiant. I appreciate that in our history that they're willing to stand up to the coal barons and the federal government. That means so much to me. It means so much to me to know that the people that have walked this land before me were willing to lay down their lives for what they believed in, and what they believed in was making sure that their people could live and not just barely survive.

Solomon: I believe that if more of the up and coming generation, the millennials and Gen Z change makers, wanted to come to the places that were closest to the pain, they could actually make some of the biggest differences. The places that are closest to the pain that have the toughest odds have the best kindle for setting off the rest of the country. It's not a coincidence that Nicole and so many of her colleagues set out the teacher strike that didn't just electrify West Virginia but launched a red shirted shock wave through the rest of the country. It's not a coincidence that the mine wars that started here electrified a labor movement coast to coast. It's not a coincidence that Charleston, West Virginia, sets the floor for how we respond to the overdose crisis. Unfortunately, we work in the basement of that floor right now, but we can raise it.

We can do that for racial justice. We can do that for water. We can do that for the overdose crisis. We can do that for labor. We can do it for everything through building these political machines in the soil that has the most rocks. And so I'm committed to building here for the generations ahead. And if there are folks reading The Forge who want to get those one way Greyhound tickets like I did 10 years ago, for what it's worth, I think all of us here would warmly welcome them.


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