Reflections from a Grassroots Leader
Jefferson County KFTC member Cassia Herron represented the organization at The Rally to Move Forward in Louisville on January 21, 2017 – one of several local marches that took place across the state in solidarity with the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. KFTC organizer Alicia Hurle sat down with Cassia to learn more about her thoughts on leadership development within KFTC and how she approached having the opportunity to speak to such a large audience at what feels like a historically significant moment. Click here to listen to Cassia's speech.
Why do you identify yourself as a community organizer?
From a grade school student who rallied my peers to challenge our prejudice teacher to a student at the University of Louisville who worked on improving the conditions on campus for students of color, I have always been a community organizer. It has been a natural position for me as my peers and colleagues have looked to me to represent a particular position or idea, to rally others in support of it and move us collectively toward action to remedy it. I have had the opportunity to receive professional organizing training from union organizers and Highlander Center trainers as well as working with Community Farm Alliance and now KFTC. Of course I’m biased, but I feel these are the best organizers in the south and certainly in Kentucky, and I’m proud to be a product of their great work.
How did you approach this public speaking opportunity and how was it different from other public speaking opportunities you've had in the past?
I was certainly apprehensive. The invitation came exactly one week in advance and once I was made aware of the groups involved and recognizing there were no groups representing a predominately Black constituency who’d signed on to the rally was problematic for me. However, I saw it as an opportunity to improve my public speaking skills and express my support and involvement in work in which I champion progress. I am becoming more and more aware of the importance of my role as a community leader (versus my role as a community organizer) and I viewed this speaking engagement as a way to market my personal brand as a leader “for” great things versus a community activist who is often “against” bad public policy. I had previously only spoken at one other rally and that was over 10 years ago, so I saw it as a way to challenge myself to speak in an unfamiliar environment. I’m much more comfortable running community meetings and facilitating dialogue between different constituencies.
What inspired you to share the poem you read?
I am a writer who is re-teaching myself how to write - to have my political voice heard. As an adolescent, poetry was the genre that helped me find my voice as a writer. After hearing Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” poem for the first time a few years ago, I was inspired to write “Omni on Third” – as a critique on local economic development policy (as Scott-Heron’s was a critique on the national space program at a time when - similar to now – urban communities were struggling for basic services and the idea of sending someone to space seemed out of touch). I struggled to write a prepared speech and decided after several attempts to just rely on being in the moment and thought the poem was a provocative way to catch the audience’s attention and communicate a complex issue – economic development policy.
Why did you decide to focus on economic development, the Louisville Food Co-op, and upcoming elections and how do those things connect to KFTC's work across the commonwealth?
I live this work every day so in some respects it was easy because it is the work in which I’m most familiar. One of my mantras is that I believe “food can be a catalyst for redevelopment for both urban and rural communities.” While Kentuckians continue to allow ourselves to be separated by geography, race and economics, I believe food – the growing, harvesting, distribution, selling and consumption of food – can become part of the solution to bringing people together and improving our democracy. We are using principles of cooperation and equity to create a democratically controlled social enterprise – a cooperatively-owned grocery store – to answer community issues of access to food and improving our local food system.
Similarly, central to KFTC’s work is the idea that ordinary people have the knowledge and skills to develop creative solutions to challenging community issues. Whether its food, energy policy, education or election reform, we must have ordinary people with great ideas to actively participate in democratic processes to fix these problems. It is only through this that our democracy improves and I know no other way except through community organizing to give people the opportunity to participate. Having an audience of thousands is the perfect opportunity to invite others to join our efforts!
How were you feeling right before you took the mic? How did you feel after you left the stage?
I was anxious all morning! I knew that I would read the poem and that I’d mention the co-op and KFTC, but I had no idea how I’d weave it all together. Once I arrived at the rally, my anxiety increased because the crowd was so big and the energy was very electric. I felt pressure and the need to connect and I was relieved that the rally audience made the job palatable. I could tell they wanted something to cheer and so I tried to use words and phrases that feed that desire.
Afterwards, I was happy it was over and was even more anxious to know if my words resonated with the audience. I was so out of it that when I spoke with Ben Sollee afterwards and didn’t realize it was him until later that day! I still feel so silly about not recognizing him.
What did it feel like to talk about KFTC's vision?
I wish I would have actually read part of KFTC’s vision because the words are so powerful and the audience would have hung on every one of them. It felt good to hear the crowd roar when I said “I’m a member of KFTC.” Immediately, I felt supported and in community with comrades. I knew most in the crowd were not KFTC members, but that our name, our vision and my ability to articulate some of our work drew them in made me feel proud to represent the organization.
You did a great membership pitch for KFTC. Why do you think it's important for us to consistently invite people to join KFTC?
People equals power! When people join KFTC, the organization raises resources to support our work, but more importantly it increases the opportunity for us to improve our democracy by giving ordinary people tools to create solutions to our everyday problems.
What's some feedback you've received since you gave your speech?
This has been the hardest thing to accept – that people really liked my speech! I’m a very critical person and I’m just as critical of myself as I am known to be of our mayor, so I could go on and on about what I did wrong or how I could improve my public speaking. However, none of the responses I’ve gotten from folks has been critical at all. People’s reactions have been validating and made me feel supported and loved when this complex, hard work can be lonely and emotionally taxing. I’ve had random strangers come up to me, old associates reconnect with me and people I know tell me how much they appreciated my words and how they were inspired to do something. I’m honored and have been overwhelmed by the support.
What's some advice you would share with other members who are invited to speak about KFTC at rallies, forums, etc?
- Read directly from KFTC’s vision statement (and other framing language on our issues)
- Prepare notes or a written statement when possible
- Be vulnerable and find a way to connect with the audience. Storytelling is a great way to personalize and clarify complex issues.
- Know your role and understand its importance to the moment. In this instance, I knew the other speakers probably wouldn’t focus on economic development policy and that there wouldn’t be another person who could speak to food access like I could.
- Ask the audience to join KFTC! People equals power!