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Morandi Hurst: Returning to my radical roots

I was born in Los Angeles, but I grew up in rural South Dakota.

I was born into a family with a long tradition of political organizing, but I learned quickly as a child in the rural Midwest that things are difficult when you stick out — when you’re different from others around you. I saw my radical Los Angeles roots as something that always got me into trouble. I saw my parents estranged from our conservative community because of their values.

My approach was different. I tried to be pragmatic and empathetic, to seek compromise rather than confrontation, and to find ways to work together with people who were different from me.

After graduating from college in New York, I moved back to South Dakota and became a teacher. It was the least controversial (radical, yet understated) profession that allowed me to work for social justice, but cloak it in a well-respected and accepted profession. I threw everything I had into my work as a teacher.

I spent five years teaching multigrade middle school in the traditional Lakota community of Spring Creek on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. I convinced myself that hours upon hours of work in the evenings and on the weekends would lead to transformative opportunities for my students.

But I realized after five years, that no matter how hard I worked, my students’ paths were not fundamentally altered. Overall, the vast majority of my students continued to face the same realities, the same inequities, the same lack of opportunities that they had faced before I became their teacher.

In my final year of teaching, I was exposed to LEE’s work on the reservation. I became involved in the first series of house meetings there, and the first listening session to hear community concerns. I knew I wanted to explore a new path to educational equity outside of the classroom. I applied for the Community Organizing Fellowship with LEE, and was placed with Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods (CAN) in Durham, North Carolina.

Over the next six months I partnered with a coach from LEE, Katy Jane, and learned the essentials of community organizing. LEE provided me with a solid foundation of skills and strategies for working in my placement, and a cohort of peers who supported and challenged me in my new work. Katy was there for me every step of the way, listening and brainstorming with me during weekly check-ins, facilitating conferences for Fellows to challenge their understanding of organizing, and pushing me when I began to complain about the months of groundwork that went into organizing a successful campaign. And eventually, it was Katy who helped me envision my future in organizing.

My first year as an organizer has been a challenging learning curve — and a difficult adjustment after five years in the classroom. It was incredibly hard, largely independent and self-driven, and at times isolating work. But man, was it satisfying.

I recalled frequently: “It’s like I’m learning this secret code” of how to address and change all of these issues I faced in the classroom. I lamented, “Why didn’t I know this five years ago?” I couldn’t believe how impactful the skills I was learning truly were.

When I won my first campaign to hire additional guidance counselors and bilingual counselors in Durham Public Schools, I felt like I had unlocked the riddle. For the first time in my life, I embraced the desire for power, because I had seen what it could accomplish.

I had the good fortune to be hired as a full-time organizer with Durham CAN following my fellowship. My coach and support system at LEE helped me realize just how special it was to find stability, mentorship and an opportunity for development within an organization that does this work. LEE also laid the groundwork for me to be employed as an organizer, and to acquire the skills necessary to do this work long-term.

I now organize with Durham CAN and the North Carolina Congress of Latino Organizations, our sister organization that works to build power among the Latinx community throughout North Carolina. I have had an amazing opportunity to learn and work in a state with some of the most historically strong organizing in the country.

Ultimately, I want to learn as much as I can and gain as much experience as possible organizing in North Carolina. Then, I want to return to South Dakota and apply those skills to organizing multi-racial groups in my home state. For the first time, I feel like I have found a niche that is specific to my strengths, ambitions and the needs of my home community, and a way that I can contribute to the fight for social justice on the Great Plains.