Project South. Photo credit: Steph Guilloud

We’re just two weeks past the biggest presidential election in a generation and the country is still anxious and waiting for the other shoe to drop. The Democrats are elated but infighting; the Republicans are frozen and pouting. Voters are realizing just how much our votes matter, while Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities are flipping entire states and feeling the possibilities of our power.

And the country looks to Georgia—not just because of the presidential election results but also because two key US Senate seats are in a runoff, which will take place January 5th and will determine the control of the US Senate. The importance of Southern states in shaping the trajectory for the entire country should not be news, but millions are coming to realize just how important the South is.

How we understand this election, how we move over the next two months, and what we build over the next four years and beyond must be rooted in the social movements that delivered this victory. In this moment of danger, there is also an opportunity to change the course of this country for the good of all people and not a continued path of Trumpism or a stagnant old order.

We won in Georgia. And let’s be clear, Southern freedom movements did not do it for the Democratic Party; we did it to save ourselves. We know all too well that we cannot rely on the government to save us when we are drowning in hurricane floodwaters, sludging through oil-soaked coastal lands, being caged like animals along borders and in overcrowded prisons, forcibly sterilized in detention centers, or dying from a deadly viral pandemic.

By now, many people outside of Georgia realize that Joe Biden’s victory did not just happen in one election cycle. Stacey Abrams’ meticulous and broad-based campaign for governor in 2018 was only subverted by mammoth efforts to suppress the vote. Georgia flipped this time after years of organizing to build movement power within grassroots, urban, rural, Black, immigrant, queer and trans, and Muslim communities across the state. These groups include the Hunger Coalition, 9to5, New Georgia Project, Project South, Southwest Georgia Project, Women Watch Afrika, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, Southerners On New Ground (SONG), ProGeorgia, The People’s Agenda, Women on the Rise, SisterSong, and many more that have deep roots and work across the Peach State.

Social movements defeated Trump. Social movement leaders have been building organizations, not parties. Social movements have been developing community organizers, not one-time voters. Social movements have visions for generations, not campaign platforms. Social movements will be here before, during, and after inauguration day.

And what we are contending with today is more than arrogant pollsters who got it wrong and white people’s daydreams about a return to some kind of “normal” presidency. We are facing off with a dangerous combination of emboldened racists who are organized and armed and complacent liberals who think the urgency is over. We’ve got to stay mad, stay ready, and focus on the South.

The South has always been the pathway. The Republican Party expends an exhaustive amount of time and resources to keep Southeastern states subordinate to their agenda and therefore deeply red. We know, like they know, that ultimately the country needs the South for any party to stay in power.

Georgia is not alone. Nearly three-and-a-half years after white supremacists descended upon Charlottesville with tiki torches and support of the sitting president, Virginia voted Trump out. North Carolina has yielded close margins in critical races for more than 12 years—not because of the Democratic machine, but because of the organizing of groups like SONG, Repairers of the Breach, Beloved Community Center, BluePrint NC, SpiritHouse, and others that have trained and scaffolded local community leadership that believes in restoration and in developing a pathway forward that models justice. Statewide coalitions and community organizations had Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott shook. Even in typically solid “red” states like Kentucky and South Carolina, the Republican establishment saw its once-unmovable foundations begin to quake with close Senate races.

To prevail in the next decade in this long-haul journey for liberation, we need to understand people’s movement in the South and in relationship to the world. We have to look to history and be vigilant. We also need to invest in social movements that are massive, with sophisticated infrastructure, full of many people playing many roles, and that carry the vision and the political will that the Democrats just don’t. We also have to prepare our communities for the counterattack and create sustainable democratic processes to develop and implement transformative visions.

Georgia can be our beacon and our test.

We could allow the national frenzy to overrun Georgia and distract from the long-haul movement building we are doing. Or we can catalyze this spotlight and energy into a powerful burst of momentum towards the bigger battles to come. The difference will be in how seriously we take social movements, and whether we can effectively counter the old and predictable patterns of a run like this.

We are challenging the country not to “gentrify Georgia,” as Project South’s Co-Director Emery Wright said on African American Policy Forum’s Under the Blacklight webinar series. He continued, “We know what we’re doing; if you didn’t know before, now you know.” Trust and support the local leadership that won this moment and who will be here long after January 5th, no matter the results. Let’s learn the lessons of the most recent past and build out a path over the next two months with the next ten years in mind.

There are lessons we need to remember from 2012 and 2016. In 2012, what felt like a victory in Obama’s second term resulted in liberal complacency that allowed him and his administration to deepen harmful policies against every community that we name as having been terrorized during these last four years of Trump.

We watched Black people shot in the streets and zero accountability or meaningful change from any governmental sector. We witnessed millions of people deported. We witnessed attempts to compromise with the uncompromising and lost a critical supreme court seat. We watched as white supremacist rhetoric and propaganda ramped up and over to a climax.

And then the order of this country imploded in 2016. We witnessed the dismantling of state systems, overextension of the executive branch, bold and horrifying manipulation of the courts, and the stasis of Congress. We cannot go back to something. We must go forward.

Social movements must be centered, not abandoned, in going forward to win the larger struggle. We have to keep a few considerations in mind and be smart about how we approach the next few months.

2020 Considerations and Cautions: ABC

A is for the Abrams effect. The media wants this to be about individuals. There are champions and powerful people—Black women, organizers, and long-haul warriors—who need to be lifted up and celebrated, without a doubt. But our struggles will not be won by individuals, and we have a responsibility to shift the narrative about Georgia and the South. There is a long legacy and continuum of leaders from the frontlines. Let’s tell the story of the people’s fight. Shayla Walsh, an organizer in Miami with National Nurses United, read out a list of wins in the South at the Southern Movement Assembly on November 7th, and it went on for pages and pages. We owe it to ourselves to tell the story of social movements that rise up and protect our communities.

B is for Backlash. Every win has a backlash, and we will feel that counterpunch sharply in the South. On the day of the Assembly, hundreds of our phones were beeping with the news of the Biden-Harris win. We celebrated for a minute, but we got right back to work and synthesized hours of planning into a cohesive campaign for 2021. At the same time, armed militia showed up in Little Rock, pointing guns at a young Black woman organizer who was hosting an event. The next day, hundreds of Trump supporters and militia members caravanned from North Georgia to the capitol steps. Preparation for immediate backlash and potential violence is critical and obvious. The preparation necessary for four years of backlash and deepening resentment on all sides cannot be underestimated or under-resourced.

C is for COVID. The pandemic did not end. What was true eight months ago remains true. We cannot tell our communities to return to a system that does not work, that makes us sick, that endangers the most vulnerable, and that decides who lives and who dies based on race, access, and generational poverty. We will continue to be our own first responders. We can learn lessons and hope for a smarter national plan, but we are already fighting for our survival and will continue to do so. And this pandemic has to be a portal to new realities.

Do not gentrify Georgia: Resource / Reinvest / Resist

Resource social movements in Georgia and across the South. The urgency is not over. We need to resource movements to weather losses and hold wins. Communities of color in Georgia will be resisting gentrification, incarceration, detention, and COVID regardless of the two Senate seats. If we do not grow Southern movement power over the next four years, the country will be looking down the barrel of electoral backlash rather than a domino effect of multiple Southern states flipping in 2022 and 2024.

Resource movement organizations like Democratic candidates get resourced. By investing even 10 percent of the election race donations in four years of movement infrastructure, we can help avoid the need to face off against an electorally competent authoritarian rise to power.

Reinvest in Black, immigrant, Muslim, and queer and trans lives. There are many ways to support this moment in Georgia. If people are coming to Georgia, contribute to Black and Brown communities. If you are coming, do not reinforce structural racism. Hire local people and trust local leadership. You can invest your dollars into Black and Brown-owned businesses, lodging, and food. You can invest in sustainable, independently owned sources. If you’re coming to Georgia, invest like you care about the real communities just as much as the results on January 5th.

Resist complacency & build power. In the South, the Southern Movement Assembly (SMA), a large group which brings together multiracial grassroots groups across 13 states of the former Confederacy, has met annually since 2012. Our ninth SMA on November 6-7th produced a plan we call the People’s First 100 Days, which is set to launch January 1st regardless of electoral outcomes.

Come what may, we know what is important: We are ready because we stay ready.

But as we gear up for the January 5th election, let’s show unity and solidarity across the country. Join us for a national day of action to protect the polls, defend democracy, and resist the regime on December 14th, the first day of early voting in Georgia. Let’s show our force and name what we need. Spoiler alert: We need today what we needed yesterday, and every day of the last decade—food, health, land, safety, and freedom.

Will Cordery is a Southerner, a Donor Advisor & Consultant with Leverage Philanthropic Partners, a Trustee of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, and a member of the Economic Justice Advisory Committee for Nonprofit Quarterly. Will can be reached at LinkedIn and on Twitter.

Stephanie Guilloud is a Southerner, an organizer for the past 25 years with experience in community, regional, and global justice work, and Co-Director of Project South, an anchor organization for the Southern Movement Assembly. Steph can be reached at LinkedIn.