From the Hood to the Holler with Charles Booker
March 9, 2021

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We talk with Kentucky’s progressive phenom, Charles Booker, about his goals for his new organization – Hood to the Holler – and how to win over voters in rural America. We love Kentucky. Kentucky is an important part of Appalachia. We really enjoyed talking with Charles Booker about his Kentucky roots and are excited to share this with y’all.

Interview with Charles Booker

Big John: You’re obviously a progressive Democrat who is pretty well known in Kentucky now you’ve run and everything and maybe you will in the future, who knows, but. Yeah, it seems to be a disconnect between Democrats and rural Americans, as specifically in Appalachia. How do you think as a progressive Democrat that the Democrats can re-engage those people and start to trust the democratic party?

Charles Booker: Yeah, honestly that’s at the center of the work and it’s not even really a partisan thing because. Like in an urban area where I’m at in the hood, we never see Republicans.  And like the inverse of that question and the way I always answered this, we got to meet people where they are and we have to get out of our parts and corners and understand our common bonds and that we’re in the same fight.

Meeting people where they are

If we fight together for a future, we believe in a vision that we can rally around. That stuff isn’t partisan. I’m a Type 1 diabetic. I have to ration my insulin. That’s not partisan. Jobs leaving our neighborhood and never coming back, that’s not partisan – neither is trying to put food on your table, or keeping your lights on.

So I think speaking to values and meeting people where they are one of the biggest challenges with Democrats when you come to rural areas. A lot of them say “don’t even go, don’t even try.”

And we get that same type of conversation in the west end of Louisville, where politicians don’t even try to talk to us.

When you sit down and talk to folks, we realize how much we have in common and the barriers start to fall down. 

Big John: Yeah, I think that’s obviously what we’ve hit on throughout this podcast.  I ran for a house of delegates seat in West Virginia in a very rural red area. I didn’t win, but we moved the needle-like 12 or 13 points.

And by doing that obviously going meeting people where they are. So I tend to agree with what you’re saying. I think that. The thing that I questioned the most, or at least I had the problems with. I’m not sure about when you ran.  But there seems to be a lot of voters who you can meet and talk to, but there’s also that we now have that kind of, I don’t want to say Trump era, but you have the people who are just set in stone never going to come back.

Do you think that there’s hope for those types of people to come back to maybe reality rather than being where they are now? 

Winning voters by telling the truth and establishing common bonds

Charles Booker: The way that question is brought to me often is like, how do you convince people to support you? And my response is always, I’m not here to convince anybody.

I’m here, to tell the truth. I’m going to show up because I love you because you’re my family and we can work together when we can. And if we have disagreements, We can work through those two. That’s what family is all about. And so for me, nobody is too far gone on now folks get set in their ways and a big challenge that we ultimately have to face like the elephant of our elephants in the room is racism.

And how do we get to the heart of what inequity is all about and poverty and the struggles that have really burnt birth out of generations of structural inequity and racism? And the way I’ve seen Democrats in particular, but I think all of us dealing with these challenges in bridging those divides between urban, rural, and folks that have even voted for Trump is facing these things like talking about racism and being uncomfortable.

And one of the things I would do, I would go all over Kentucky, even before I ran for Senate as a state legislator. And I was the director of fish and wildlife, and I would show up the same way. And I would talk about issues  from like we’re criminalized in Kentucky, poverty is criminalized. We have a lot of folks that are battling substance abuse and addiction, and then they’re criminalized still.

They’re getting treated like human beings and being able to speak to that from a personal place, losing my uncle and talking about the fact that I’m fighting to make sure everyone has healthcare, that we have real reform in our justice system because I love my uncle.  And when I sit down and talk to folks, I got a relative like that too.

And I’m fighting for them too. So it really is possible. We honestly, we just got to try. 

Big John: Yeah, I think that is so obvious Kentucky and West Virginia are not that far apart when it comes to the opioid epidemic.  I can definitely relate to that. My dad was an addict. And now that was a lot of the discussion as well.

Trying to meet people in the middle at that point, the big question in terms of places like Kentucky looking at Georgia, right?  Is there a way that Kentucky can become the next Georgia? Do we need to have new voter laws in order to do that? Do you know? Or is it more groundwork? What needs to happen to see that kind of movement? 

Charles Booker: There are a lot of differences from Kentucky and Georgia, but the one truth that you can take out of Georgia is the power of organizing  and reaching out to places that we’ve given up on. And talking about issues from a standpoint of a vision we believe in, instead of just turning down a political opponent, we need that in Kentucky.

We need it everywhere.  That’s really why when I stood to the holler to say, we’re going to lift up the voices of folks in those places that we’ve left behind and talk about the fact that we have so many common bonds and we can address issues in a way that redefines politics, which is ultimately going at the heart of racism and has driven us apart on wedge issues.

And. I think that’s what we need in places like Kentucky, more than anything. Before we look at a candidate who’s going to run for office, we got to invest in people on the ground every day that are fighting the good fight to survive. And when we do that, we create a big coalition of folks that can lift our voices together, which is what we’re seeing with her, to the holler.

And honestly, it’s what we saw in my run for us senate. I had folks who voted for Trump volunteer on my campaign because I was speaking about issues that matter to them. When they sit down at the dinner table, 

Chuck Corra: Absolutely when I’m sure  that’s not really a story that you hear very often, somebody who was organizing for you, but also voting for Trump.

We come across this a lot. People are complicated. They’re not just someone that you cut from cloth.  But I think this is a good segue to the hood to the holler.  Like you mentioned an organization that you started after your Senate campaign. I know I’m really interested in hearing from you in your words, what. That organization is and what your goals for it are.

Charles Booker: Hood to the holler is really my life’s work. And it’s the reason I ran for state house  is because like the hood and where I’m from never gets talked about. It’s a big area in a very segregated city, the largest city in Kentucky, but we’re invisible.

And I wanted to go into space where decisions are made and be a voice for folks who don’t get heard. And as I traveled across Kentucky, I met a whole lot of folks that feel the exact same way, and the conversation to me of the work about how we, if you’re democratic, you want to win more seats. And it isn’t even a partisan thing.

This is about having people in office that care about people like that, that are valuing our lives and keeping us alive and safe and healthy and being able to keep a roof over our head and take care of our children, like basic things. And the biggest gap that I saw as a legislator is that people weren’t there like the voices of regular folks weren’t being heard.

And so good to the holler is a vehicle to activate folks, training people, to be citizen lobbyists, because corporations should tail tale of there out of time. But regular folks aren’t being heard, train the folks on how to do that and create an agenda and how to use relational organizing so that we can build power where we are like, even if you don’t have money in your pocket, You have power and telling that story.

And I think the biggest part of what we do with Hood to the Holler and breaking down bursting democracy is lifting up these common bonds in a way that can bring new coalitions together. We’re pushing Brianna’s law. You saw what happened in Kentucky and then Louisville protests all throughout the year.

For me, I’ll tailor the door of a black woman who was kicked in, but when that happened, we all felt it. Because we all want to be safe in our homes and in Kentucky there’s something that’s very important to folks about protecting your sanctuary, your castle, even that’s something that is true across the country.

And it was a chance for us to tell a story about how we all need to be safe and we all want to be protected.  So we’re organizing a new coalition because of that, we do that type of work. We can win seats at the local state and federal levels. We can end poverty in, big picture. We can do that type of work if we actually use our power as people, and that’s what we’re working for. 

Chuck Corra: Absolutely. I completely agree. Yeah. That and I want to put a pin in and Brianna’s locked because I want to come back to that.  But one thing I wanted to ask you in relation to Hood to the Holler, which again, I think that’s a perfect name for an organization because I really think it’s absolutely what you’re getting at with this and something that I think a concept that we’ve preached on the show.

One of the things you mentioned is making. Politics and just government in general, more democratic, I think on the website you talked about the concept of developing a new Southern strategy and I’m sure you can speak to what the. The original Southern strategy was, which was incredibly racist.

But  I’m wondering how much of that, like how much of that is empowering people and how much of that is changing institutional barriers. Like for example, voting was where a voter ID and voter purging laws on their face may not sound racist, but disproportionately affect people of color and low-income people. How much of the work is related to that? 

Charles Booker: The majority and ultimately the focus of the work is system-level change, which means we have to address. The institutions that allow this system of inequity to stay in place. And voting is one of the biggest aspects of that because it’s the entry point to democracy.

And Kentucky has been one of the most disenfranchised states in the country. And so we’ve been honestly telling that story like when you come from the struggle, you’re just surviving. You’re taking, what’s being given to you. You’re making the best out of it. We have faith, we’re hard-working.

We’re going to get the job done. But there are realities of things that we’re facing because of policies and because of decisions that people in office are making that we can change too. And pushing on institutional change, like codifying the restoration of voting rights so that people can get their rights restored.

Making sure that we break down those barriers where it’s easier to vote.  That registration is automatic and not just from the standpoint of voting, because it’s something to do.  No, we want to vote because we got a lot of organizing to do, to push our agenda for Kentucky after we vote.

And before we vote. And we’ve been using creative ways to tell that story, we’ve had music festivals, using artists to help communicate publishing pieces and convening folks from different areas on what it means to see poverty in your community and how elected officials and policies that come out of those offices can perpetuate or in those struggles.

Getting us to know what we’re up against, that we’re not fighting. One another, that we’re fighting a system is the bulk of the work. 

Chuck Corra: That’s a, you make a really good point with that. And I think something that is frustrating about the process of organizing is that it’s a sustained effort. That takes a lot of time. People, when they tuned into Georgia, they saw the Stacey Abrams almost won the governor’s race that the state flipped and the two senate seats that were won, but that was the product of a process that’s been going on for decades of people organizing to combat institutional problems that have prevented people, largely people of color from voting.

So I think it’s I think what you’re doing is really interesting and really smart because it gets people engaged for the long haul.  There was another part though. I was reading about some of the stated goals for Hood to the Holler and I thought it was really interesting. We’d love to hear from it in your words the goal to break down the barriers between race and class. And so I’m wondering what that means to you and why that’s important 

Charles Booker: When I talk about new Southern strategy, ultimately that’s at the core of it, like, how do we redefine our politics?

How do we talk about issues in a way that we don’t fall into the trap of wedges just to keep us divided? But we realize our common bonds and we went into a vision that is rooted in love and family.  And we fight together and that ultimately is.  I think the key to what I would say is pulling up the roots of racism in any poverty.

I, what I would see in the state legislature, for instance, are a lot of my colleagues from Appalachia that would talk about the challenges that their folks were facing. And then I would stand up and tell them why I’m supporting them. And they’re built because folks in the hood, I don’t think exact same thing.

And once we start to see one another, we can work together. And like I said, after that, we’re unstoppable.  There, the truth is in a place like Kentucky you have issues like guns gay marriage, abortion that are trigger points. That essentially right now, Republicans are just weaponizing to the fullest extent to force people into corners where they do not talk to one another.

And one, the way you get at that is to speak your truth beyond a bachelor of truth, but also lift up common bonds. Like we, we have to get on the offense for what we believe and not just play this point of argument of saying, no, we’re not as bad as Republicans say we are. We got to take the narrative back.

That’s what I’m doing. I’m going everywhere. Then folks say, Charles, don’t go there. You’re young, you’re black. No I’m going cause it’s my family. And I’m gonna talk about the issues that I’m dealing with as a Kentucky, but I’m gonna listen to them. And every time never fails, we see that output will help.

We should be fighting together cause we’re already fighting the same thing. Once we activate that the momentum will build it. And what you said about Georgia is true, man. That’s years in the making that organizing it, that engagement, doing that heavy lifting is stuff that is when you never stopped doing it.

 But we’ve seen a lot of momentum in Kentucky, and I’m excited about the future for us in a short amount of time because people are ready for change. And we’re going to honor that. 

Big John: That’s awesome. Then you mentioned something that I think is important and it’s, I guess even the namesake of your organization hood to the holler.

 So there, there seems to be, Kentucky is interesting. I think there are a couple states, Kentucky, Tennessee, which have these larger areas    for instance Louisville  which do have quote, hood, but then you have. Literally   50, 60 miles out, you have  hollers, how do you as an organizer, how do you bring those two together?

Because it seems like they would be diametrically opposed, right?  That’s the outside looking in you.  How do you bring them together? 

Charles Booker: Yeah.  The biggest thing is shining the light on, on the truth, because like you said, from the outside looking in and like the way the narrative is framed, folks might think we’re on two separate planets.

 But the truth of the matter is. Like now close to looking at Louisville, it’s a big metropolitan area. And so there’s this dynamic of lube versus the rest of the state where leaders will pit rural folks against the big city folks. Let sounds familiar. Let’s not unpack that right now, because look, what’s been one of the most segregated cities in the country and there is a person of the city, which is about 70,000 people would be the third-largest city in the state.

Where I’m from. All my family is from, that has more in common with Appalachia than it does the rest of look like when you go across the ninth street divide is what we call it. It’s like you’re driving into a time war. All the infrastructure is gone. There’s no place to get healthy food jobs have left and never returned.

Our unemployment has been around 30%.  Internet is crap.  Folks are suffering from high utility costs.  Folks are unhoused.   And they’re criminalized. And so when you tell that story and to shine that light, it’s really easy for folks to get it because they’re fighting these same things.

 It’s just, we don’t have leaders with the courage to speak that truth and to go to those places.  And that’s why I hooked to the holler as a name was really important to me because. The holler is really like the hood with a beautiful bag, great backgrounds. I envy that, but like when I would go across the tuck, my man, this is just like my neighborhood, except you’ll have much prettier scenery, but we’re fighting a lot of the same things.

And when you shine the light, more people want to speak up too, because we want to do things differently. We see it. We’ll fight for it. That’s why Mitch McConnell was terrified of what we were doing. And that’s why we’re going to keep winning.

Big John: I’ve got one more. I know that Chuck wants to talk about the Breonna Taylor law and I do too. To wrap up just the discussion of your organization, I know that there are a lot of organizations that do similar work to you that have very similar mission statements. But I think the degree of success is always very different. How, what does a successful hood to the holler organization look like in the future? How do you value success at it? Thanks. 

Charles Booker: Thank you for asking that question.  Because one of the things I want to make clear is. Hooked to the holler is not an organization that is trying to build programming for the sake of it so that we can feel good about ourselves.

We want to activate people to go into those spaces, the organization that is already doing the work boards, commissions elected office so that they can lead out in the world. So we’re really trying to do the work of reaching the people that never get spoken to. There are a lot of organizations that do great work even in my community, but the people that need it the most are very rarely in the room.

And there are institutional barriers or structural barriers and people have given up, or they’re too busy trying to survive. And I think as a messenger of that, I’ve been able to speak to folks that had really checked out of the political process. Don’t have time for it and really encouraging people to try something different.

And so we’re training folks. So we’re doing this political training for folks to run for office or get involved in the campaign. We’re partnering with the arena this national important to do that all across Kentucky. And we’re getting folks from every county that are saying, yeah, maybe I couldn’t run for office.

If this guy could do it, hell I can do it too.  And so I think that’s our biggest contribution is all these organizations doing great work. We want to get more people plugged in and  I think that’s the X factor. 

Chuck Corra: And the time we have left, I wanted to touch on Breonna’s law. I know that this is something I think that you all have been talking about on social media, something that’s extremely important.

And if I’m getting it right, it’s in the Kentucky legislature right now, it obviously is named after Breonna Taylor who was murdered by police officers last year.  And my understanding is that among other things that would ban no-knock warrants  I’m interested in your take on this and what you think the likelihood of passages and Kentucky if this could create a ripple effect for similar laws and other states. And just anything else around that? 

Charles Booker: Yeah. Breonna’s Law – I was actually working on this on my way out of the legislature and Representative Attica, Scott, my colleague, I was working on it as well at that time.

She was the only black woman in the legislature and I wanted to support her.  You understand that in often cases, women get silenced, especially black women and that this was a pivotal moment. And I worked with her on this bill and we were able to push big coalition folks, organized the demonstrating, and Louisville to get an ordinance passed at the local level that was unanimous to address banning no-knock warrants and additional provisions around body cameras.

And so we’re trying to do that at the state level. And we have our work cut out.  The Republicans are in a supermajority in both chambers and have really set up additional proper processes of bureaucracy to make it harder for bills to get heard.  But the powerful part about this is because there’s such a broad coalition to urban, rural black, brown, and white aisle degrees of class that is pushing for this are Republican leadership.

Having the knowledge that this is a bill that should be brought forward. And even the president of the Senate and the speaker of the house have said that they support something along the lines of addressing banding on no-knock warrants. So we have room to work with our work is cut out, which is why we’ve been activating our volunteer network of over 9,000 Kentuckians.

To email every member of the house and Senate judiciary saturating them with emails and phone calls and folks doing videos and letters to the editor.  We’re covering all our bases here.  The crazy thing about it, or the exciting thing about it is the work we’ve done here already to coverable effects in other states because we’re seeing Brianna’s law being lifted up and upstairs across the country.

And now it’s okay, y’all. This is ground zero. This is Kentucky. We’re helping to tell the story that is inspiring people across the country. Let’s do it here. And  I’m committed to the long call because this type of legislation opens the door to the bigger conversation about what public safety even means and how we police and criminalize communities that don’t have a lot of resources or are underserved.

 And. What it means to know, to be a Kentucky and that’s afraid of being killed in your home by the agency you pay for to protect and serve you. 

Chuck Corra: Absolutely.  And being that Kentucky’s a super-majority Republican legislature, something like this that you can see measurable gains like that, even with a supermajority of Republicans, not only says something about the organizing work in Kentucky, but it also says about how.

Common sense.  This actually is, and it’s something that, as you mentioned about several other things, in the beginning, shouldn’t be a partisan issue to feel safe in your home. It shouldn’t be a partisan issue to not want a police officer breaking down your door without a warrant.  So I appreciate the work that you’re doing on that.

I think it’s really important and I hope that we’ll put some links in our notes to this, that other people, especially our listeners can and Kentucky can get involved and become a part of that.  Charles, you have a great name. I got to say, and I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today.

This has been a  really great conversation. I’ve really enjoyed it. And  I’m excited to see what you do in the future. 

 Charles Booker: Thank you, Chuck. I do think it’s a very good name. If I say so myself again, John Love you too, man. Have a great beard. A lot of discipline.

Big John: The beard adds votes. 

Charles Booker: I’m working on it. I’m coming, but you gotta keep your eyes on us and Kentucky, man. We’re doing the heavy lifting. We’re reaching out to folks in places that have been left behind for too long and evaluating what’s next for me to include next year.

I work as cut out, but I’m proud of Kentucky. Appalachia is in my heart, just like the west end of Louisville is, and I’m just humbled to be a part of this journey. We’re going to win our future. 

Chuck Corra: That’s awesome.  Thank you so much.  And  we appreciate it. We’re going to keep an eye on Kentucky and you.

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