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: There seems to be a disconnect between Democrats and rural Americans, 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?

Disconnect between Democrats and rural Kentucky

Charles Booker: That’s at the center of the work and it’s not even really a partisan thing. In an urban area where I am is largely Democrat represented, we never see Republicans. 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.

If we fight together for a future, we believe in a vision that we can rally around. That isn’t partisan. I’m a type one diabetic. I fed the rest of my insulin. That’s not our lesson, like jobs leaving our neighborhood and never coming back. That’s not partisan trying to put food on your table, keep your lights on.

Speaking to values and meeting people where they are. One of the biggest challenges with Democrats, when you come to like rural areas they’re like, don’t even try. 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. 

Meeting Kentucky voters where they are and forming common bonds

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

Charles Booker: I’m often asked how do I convince people to support me? 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. If we have disagreements, we can work through those two. Nobody is too far gone. Folks get set in their ways and a big challenge that we ultimately have to face is racism.

How do we get to the heart of what inequity is all about and poverty and the struggles that were birthed by generations of structural inequity and racism? 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 – talking about racism, being uncomfortable.

I would talk about issues that are criminalized in Kentucky when I’d travel. Kentucky criminalizes poverty. We criminalize substance abuse.

We have to treat people like human beings and speak to that from a personal place, I talk about losing my uncle how I’m fighting to make sure everyone has healthcare, that we have real reform in our justice system because I love my uncle. When I sit down and talk to folks, they say “I got a relative like that too.”

Charles Booker, former U.S. Senate candidate for Kentucky
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Can Kentucky be the next Georgia?

Big John: The big question in terms of places like Kentucky looking at Georgia. Is there a way that Kentucky can become the next Georgia? 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.  I started Hood to the Holler to lift up the voices of folks in those places that we’ve left behind. We’re going to 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.  

Hood to the Holler

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. 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.

Charles Booker: Hood to the Holler is really my life’s work. Where I’m from never gets talked about. That’s why I ran for the legislature. Louisville is the largest city in Kentucky, but we’re invisible.

I wanted to go into space where decisions are made and be a voice for folks who don’t get heard. As I traveled across Kentucky, I met a whole lot of folks that feel the exact same way.

This is about having people in office that care about people like that. It’s about valuing our lives and keeping us alive and safe and healthy. And it’s about being able to keep a roof over our heads and take care of our children. People in power aren’t listening to regular folks.

Hood to the Holler is a vehicle to activate folks. We’re training people to be citizen lobbyists. We train people how to do that and create an agenda. We train how to use relational organizing so that we can build power where we are.

The biggest part of Hood to the Holler is lifting up these common bonds to bring new coalitions together.

Breonna’s Law in Kentucky

We’re pushing Breonna’s Law. You saw what happened in Kentucky and then Louisville protests all throughout the year for Breonna Taylor.

The door of a black woman was kicked in, but when that happened, we all felt it. Because we all want to be safe in our homes. 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.

It was a chance for us to tell a story about how we all need safety and protection.  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.

A new “southern strategy” for Kentucky and the U.S.

Chuck Corra: Absolutely. I completely agree. You talk about a new southern strategy. I’m wondering how much of that is empowering people and how much of that is changing institutional barriers. For example, voter ID laws may not sound racist, but disproportionately affect people of color. 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. Voting is one of the biggest aspects of that because it’s the entry point to democracy.

Kentucky has been one of the most disenfranchised states in the country, so we’ve been honestly telling that story.

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. Pushing for institutional change, like codifying the restoration of voting rights.

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 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. 

Breaking down barriers of race and class in Kentucky

Chuck Corra: 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 the new Southern strategy, ultimately that’s at the core of it. 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. Then I would stand up and tell them why I’m supporting them and their bill because folks in the hood are dealing with the exact same thing.

Once we start to see one another, we can work together, and after that we’re unstoppable.  There, the truth is in a place like Kentucky you have issues like guns gay marriage, abortion that is 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.

Common bonds

The way you get at that is to speak your 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. 

Bringing urban and rural Kentucky together

Big John: Kentucky is interesting. You have Louisville but you also have miles and miles of hollers. How do you as an organizer, bring those two together?

Charles Booker: The biggest thing is shining the light on, on the truth. Folks might think we’re on two separate planets from the outside looking in because of how the narrative is framed. Specifically to Louisville, leaders will pit rural folks against the big city folks.

Where I’m from we have more in common with Appalachia. When you go across the ninth street divide. It’s like you’re driving through a time warp. 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, are unhoused.   And they’re criminalized for that. So when you tell that story and shine that light, it’s really easy for folks to get it because they’re fighting these same things.

A need for better leadership

It’s just, we don’t have leaders with the courage to speak that truth and to go to those places.  That’s why Hood to the Holler as a name was really important to me because the holler is really like the hood with a beautiful background. When I’d go across Kentucky, it would look like my neighborhood, with prettier scenery. 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. Mitch McConnell is terrified of us. And that’s why we’re going to keep winning.

Making Hood to the Holler successful

Big John: What does a successful Hood to the Holler organization look like in the future?

Charles Booker: Hood 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, to the organizations doing the work -boards, commissions elected office – so that they can lead out in the world. 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.

There are institutional barriers and people have given up, or they’re too busy trying to survive. I think as a messenger of that, I’ve been able to speak to folks that had really checked out of the political process and really encouraging people to try something different.

We’re doing political training for folks to run for office or get involved in the campaign. 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.  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. 

Breonna Taylor’s Law

Chuck Corra: I wanted to touch on Breonna’s law. 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 passage is in Kentucky, and if this could create a ripple effect for similar laws throughout the country. 

Charles Booker: 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.  Women get silenced, especially black women and that this was a pivotal moment. I worked with her on this bill and we were able to push big coalition folks, organized the demonstrating in 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.

Working on bringing it to the state level

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.

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. We have room to work with, but 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. The exciting thing about it is the work we’ve done here already to coverable effects in other states because we’re seeing Breonna’s Law being lifted up and upstairs across the country.

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. 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.

What it means to be afraid of being killed in your home by the agency you pay for to protect and serve you. 

Ending

Chuck Corra: Absolutely. Thanks so much. 

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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