By 1980, Si Kahn had been a '60s-era civil rights activist in Arkansas, rallied textile workers in the Carolinas and organized miners in West Virginia. But the Reagan era was ushering in a different world and it "felt more and more like there wasn't something there to support and reinforce the good social justice work that people were doing," Kahn says.
Grassroots Leadership became that something, and 25 years later the organization Kahn founded is still around. Grassroots is credited with helping shut down privately run prisons, delay construction of others and aiding the formation of progressive activist groups throughout the Southeast. What's more, Kahn is a well-known political folksinger who plays for audiences around the world.
But in Charlotte, Grassroots Leadership is seldom recognized as a proper noun, even by local decision-makers. "I've never heard of them," said Jon Aneralla, chairman of the Mecklenburg County Republican Party.
That's been fine with Grassroots' leadership. The organization was designed to work behind the scenes. "When you are helping people organize, one of your jobs is to really empower them. ... That means you're not the leader," says Alfreda Barringer, director of operations. "You're helping these people to step out front and to have a voice."
In the beginning, Grassroots Leadership didn't champion specific causes or seek the spotlight, and it rarely made headlines. Instead, the group worked to start, build and support other progressive groups.
Kahn moved to the South from Harvard University in 1965 to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. "I don't know what the parallel is today, but [the movement] was so all encompassing. It was the headlines; everybody was talking about it," says Kahn, 61. "I think, frankly, there was a romance to it. The idea of going to a part of the world that for me seemed somewhat mysterious, a place I'd never been, you know, and go down and fight injustice."
Fighting injustice behind the scenes may be what Grassroots set out to do, but that began to change by the mid-1990s. Kahn said the organization noticed other groups were filling the niche Grassroots had carved out. So Kahn and his colleagues -- who by then had opened Grassroots offices all across the South -- changed their focus, getting involved in child support enforcement in Mississippi and privatization of welfare in Georgia.
Then they turned their collective eye to prisons run by corporations -- a privatization of public services that Grassroots Leadership found pernicious. "Over time, what we've learned is that the one [issue] that generated the most emotion was prison privatization," Kahn says. Private prisons, activists worry, turn prisoners into commodities and make prisons less accountable to the public. "It affects the people who are incarcerated and their families and their communities, but it also affects the people who work there, who are often the kinfolk of the people who are in there," says Kahn.
Some fellow progressives initially scoffed at the group's new mission. "People were like, 'Why are you guys going to work on an issue that nobody's ever heard of and nobody really cares about?'" Kahn says.
In Mississippi, Grassroots Leadership urged the temporary closure of the privately owned Delta Correctional Facility, and Kahn estimates Grassroots has been instrumental in blocking construction of several other private prisons. Kahn even sees a link to post-Patriot Act encroachment of civil liberties and the use of torture by the US military. "Private prisons have an ideology that is basically efficiency. It's a totally utilitarian argument: The only thing that counts is results," Kahn says. "I think that's part of what happens with Abu Ghraib and other things."
These days, Grassroots Leadership's staff has grown to a dozen people spread throughout the Southeast. On Dec. 9, the group celebrates its 25th anniversary with a 7pm reception at the Wadsworth House honoring Rep. Mel Watt and the Mecklenburg County Drug Treatments Courts.
The drug treatments courts program is one local issue that Grassroots Leadership has actively campaigned for, says the Rev. Tonyia Rawls, pastor of the gay-friendly Unity Fellowship Church and part-time worker for Grassroots Leadership. But the organization also has played a role in starting Carolinas-based groups such as the Piedmont Peace Project and the Southern Empowerment Project. In Charlotte, the organization has helped form the Charlotte Organizing Project, which advocated for issues such as affordable housing; the Mecklenburg Voter Coalition; and the Community Support Project, which involved UNC-Charlotte professors who encouraged students to help neighborhood organizations.
More recently, Grassroots Leadership has supported communities such as Hidden Valley off North Tryon Street as residents lobby for improvements ranging from sidewalks to new schools, says Barringer, the organization's director of operations. Grassroots' Ujamma Project hopes to encourage African-American fund-raising and involvement in nonprofit groups.
Why, then, has Grassroots Leadership not achieved more notice in its hometown? Is it Charlotte's conservative reputation? Rawls says the behind-the-scenes organization wouldn't receive any more local recognition if it called Chapel Hill or Austin home. "The work we do is about empowering others," she says.
Kahn acknowledges the Queen City's political climate may be a factor. "I think actually there's a remarkable number of really good people fighting it out in Charlotte on really good issues," he says. "[But] this is a town -- how do we put it? -- it's not a town with a sustained progressive political culture."
An exception, Kahn says, is Rep. Watt. "He cares about our issues," Kahn says. "It's not like we picked our local congressperson out of a hat."
So Rep. Sue Myrick shouldn't be expecting her phone to ring?
"I suppose it all depends on what she does," Kahn says, with a smile. "If she leads a campaign to abolish private prisons, I think she would be worthy of respect and honor. She should call me."