Days before Foreword South’s launch in April, I remember typing “On January 8th, 2017, three friends sat down over dinner to answer a pressing question,” for the first Foreword South e-mail campaign, a nervously assembled collection of e-mail addresses of loved ones we trusted enough to share our project with.
The question: Who is telling the stories of changemakers in the American South?
The answer, six months later, is what we hoped it would be: We are.
The past six months have been a whirlwind for Megan, Dillon, and me. Our mutual awe at where we started, where we are, and where we have the potential to go is an ongoing dialogue, so the Foreword South group text is a motley assortment of affirmations, delegated tasks, heart-eye emojis, and incredulity at our fortune. As we work to shape Foreword South for the next six months and beyond, we thought it’d be necessary to reflect on how our own understandings of ourselves and of the South meld together to form what we’ve created with this platform.
The three of us were all born in the South. I was raised in a developing suburb east of Atlanta, Georgia, while Megan and Dillon were both brought up in southern Alabama, in a town called Daphne. Imagine, all of us were beginning to write our own separate stories at this age; as we deciphered our own identities, we were each shaping a personal understanding of the American South and our place in the region.
During childhood, Megan’s mother always brought her around when she was doing helping work. “I was always surrounded by people who were not like me… Growing up in a middle class white family, it’s very easy to be surrounded only by middle class white people. My mom made sure to never segregate me that way.” Dillon recalls a sense of uncertainty about where his passions would lead growing up, but he carried an unwavering interest in people and understanding their hopes, their needs, and their fears. It was only as he got older that he understood the role that ultimately he had always played in life: he is an organizer. My childhood featured reading, reading, and more reading. That childhood love for stories has never left.
That childhood love for stories has never left.
When I was younger, I deeply resented adults telling me that I had so much to learn. But it’s true – our future roles in community work were initiated by our curiosity in youth, and further molded by our activism and advocacy in college. The three of us attended Auburn University at the same time, a place that developed our sense of urgency around current events and their impacts on citizens just trying to do their best. In a forest, it’s hard to see past the trees, and there were too many moments at Auburn where I couldn’t understand why I was on that campus. But I met Megan and Dillon there, who not only eased the loneliness I had from being targeted because of my race, but linked arms with me and challenged the race, sexuality, and gender-based marginalization of students on campus. The experiences we shared on Auburn’s campus were our first opportunities to work together as a team, and lead me to believe having productive, critical conversations about issues dear to my heart was possible in the South.
Because the world is funny that way, Dillon and I both ended up in Montgomery after graduation in 2015. By the sort of beautiful, cosmic design that you don’t question if you know what’s good for you, Megan joined us here a year later. The self-construction necessary to build Foreword South only continued as we came into our professional selves. Community-intensive work is challenging in this city – the resources are scarce and political players often manage to further disenfranchise the communities they claim to serve. Sometimes, we position ourselves in the trenches with others working toward a common goal, and sometimes, we find ourselves alone with a daunting task. Megan explains:
“If no one else is doing it, that means you have to. That’s the nature of doing work here. It becomes a sense of responsibility. Regardless of whether it’s making a logo for a project or starting an entirely new service program to serve a population with an unmet need, Montgomery breeds that kind of go-getter attitude and obligation when you’re here.” Why did that lead her to work toward creating Foreword South?
“Because Foreword South didn’t exist. Once we conceptualized the idea, there was no option but to do Foreword South.”
As you get older, you realize you have been collecting pieces of a puzzle with no idea how to assemble them. The organizer in Dillon saw a way to make those pieces make sense.
“I think organizing is really about building relationships and connecting to people in an authentic way and that involves most of the time doing more listening than talking, so I do hear a lot of stories. I focus my efforts at least on building things to help people based on what I hear from them, what I learn from them that they need. I suppose on some level that it's inspired me to do this work with Foreword South.”
“...Foreword South didn’t exist. Once we conceptualized the idea, there was no option but to do Foreword South.”
The more we do this work, the more we realize that the puzzle pieces will find each other if we honor the vulnerability in others who share their stories by being vulnerable with them . The ideas of listening to others and connecting disparate stories are ones we practice every day in our full-time work, and translated well to a project focused solely on telling other people’s stories. Megan is passionate about the impact that human connection can have on a polarized world driven by “facts,” real or fake.
“You can’t argue with someone’s story. It automatically makes you be empathetic. Hearing how someone got from point A to point B is compelling…. I don’t think we tell stories enough.”
At Foreword South, each of us contributes to the team by writing Forewords on Southern activists, discussing operational aspects of the group, and keeping day-to-day tasks on track. But, as we’ve learned, there are so many other gears in the machine to having a fully functioning digital platform, and our strengths balance each other perfectly. Megan, with her background in communications and public policy -- sees vision. While we might get stuck in the smaller details, Megan’s guidance helps to shape answers to the big questions, like what our brand is, who we can align with to move our work forward, or what message our work communicates to the world. Dillon, who seems to telepathically receive every breaking news story the moment it happens, single-handedly manages our social media sites. “Social media has evolved to be this really powerful tool for particularly delivering news to people. I felt like when this was coming together and we were talking about what [Foreword South] would look like, it was just too important that our audience not just gain insight to the lives of those people who are featured in our Forewords, but also to understand the context of the work that folks like Mia Raven or Taylor Anderson or James Weddle are doing.” I contribute a mind of someone who gets tangled in the small details: like potential edits to article drafts, or how to format each Foreword South article, photo, and pull-quote on a page so it looks just right. If you e-mail our account or receive a surprise interview request, you’re likely talking to me.
In nearly every Foreword South interview, we ask our interviewee, “What does being Southern mean to you?” Being southern, in our own imagining, is a multifaceted experience. For me, being Southern is a source of pride. As a child of immigrants, my parents could have chosen to go anywhere in the US, but they settled in small-town Georgia. In the slow, green, Southern summers, I recall never feeling rushed and always having time to reflect. Because of that, being Southern for me is about being deliberate -- in our nuanced slang, our novelties and rich culture, and our compassionate interactions with others. For Megan, being Southern is being soft. “Of course the south is strong, that's why we created Foreword South. People live in heart-wrenching conditions because of multitude of reasons that we've all seen and still continue to push forward. That is beautiful. That is Southern. But, I think being Southern is also being soft. Southern culture to me is strength in a soft package. Southern people are so giving. They offer you a smile on a good day and a hug when they don't know you... It's not a hard exterior. There is no need to bow up here and prove yourself." Dillon’s Southern identity lies in the work yet to be done. “Being Southern just means to me that I have a responsibility to continue the legacy of activism that was started far before me. That’s all there is to it.” The activists before him who walked and rode for justice: Rustin, Colvin, Parks -- certainly left him room to continue the work.
"Southern culture to me is strength in a soft package…There is no need to bow up here and prove yourself."
The current political landscape feels overwhelming, sure. For us Southerners, we are getting to see the dirty backyard politics we’ve grown accustomed to play out on a national stage. But we aren’t naïve. Megan, Dillon, and I hold a mutual understanding that the national perception of the South – the scarcity of resources, the epidemic of chronic illness, Confederate flags waving, and systemic racism running unchecked – is true. Because of that, more and more eyes across the nation are now looking to the South, some with resentment, but many are looking for direction. The three of us believe that if the darkest part of the scourge is here, the light to cast out the darkness is here, too. The American South has a long history of resistance despite the unimaginable.
“What's also been true and is so often overlooked is that in all that time there have been Southerners fighting back, standing up for what is right. You know, it was black women, it was black men, there were clergy, it was the LGBTQ community in the South that through the Civil Rights Movement, showed this country what it means to resist. The resistance certainly didn't start with the Trump era, and the reality is, the honest to God truth is, people in the south have been doing this forever,” Dillon explains.
The black and underground publications of the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights movement modeled, for us, the value of telling stories often obscured by national media.
“In the national media, you don't see a ton of representation of stories that are occurring in the South, especially the stories that kind of capture that there is truly a progressive movement in the south, there are still progressive minded, forward thinking people who have been fighting for quite some time.”
"The honest to God truth is, people in the south have been doing this forever.”
The relationship between our forewords and ourselves is a symbiotic one. While we work to collect and amplify the stories of change makers, we are affirmed in our own daily work. Hearing the stories of people overcoming challenges much greater than the ones we face, often with far less resources, only strengthens our belief that these experiences need to be shared.
“These are all people who just haven't given up on this place, and so many of them have developed this amazing vision of what they think their communities or states can be, some of them are fighting through much greater challenges than I am in my own work," Dillon reflects.
Of course, we at Foreword South want our readership to grow, we want to sell cute merch to foster a stronger brand, and we want to reimagine the Southern identity. But we want our work to heal, too. Megan captures this hope quite poetically:
“I have no idea, physically, [what will come] from Foreword South or what it will turn into, but I know that in a spiritual way and in a human-emotional way, I hope that Foreword South heals, and I hope that love comes from it. I hope that no matter who reads it, somebody gets something that they needed. Whether it's a change of heart, a piece of comfort, or a new perspective. Or a laugh.”
Dillon expands this hope by seeing Foreword South as a medium by which we can share our culture and our pride for it.
“I hope that people really start to understand that there is such a rich history here. There's such rich culture here. I want them to view this area differently than the stereotypes. I want them to recognize the South has so much more to offer. When you see people of all races, of all different backgrounds, who do have this Southern pride, that isn't something that we should be ashamed of. There have been people all along the way throughout our terrible history as well, who have, to steal from Maxine, just reclaimed their time, their space, what they have built here and never got the credit for. I think there's nothing wrong with having pride in coming from the South and I hope that Foreword South in some ways, reaffirms that.”
I hope so, too. Admittedly, when we started Foreword South, I kept comparing our project to publications I’d grown up with and looked to as beacons of what writing about people should be. But I don’t want to be cosmopolitan. I don’t want to be exclusive. I don’t want to spend a lede writing about superficial qualities of the people we meet.
My hope for Foreword South is that we continue to be surprised every day. I hope that we never stop learning from the hard workers we meet, never stop marveling at the places we go, and never stop sending heart-eyes to each other in the group message when we get good news.
My hope for Foreword South is that we continue to be surprised every day.
And lastly, I hope that as we paint a new picture of the Southern identity, we paint a new understanding of what it means to connect with humans, to share stories, and to amplify voices yet unheard. Can you believe it’s only been six months?
The future is ours, and we’re moving forward.
- A. E.