Arkansas Site Visit Recap

by Rolynné Anderson

Navigating the limitations of pandemic organizing forced us to collectively reroute, recalibrate, and reevaluate how we engage and/or sustain connections with our base. Southern Organizing is known for birthing the most beautiful modalities of revolution between sips of sweet tea—as we commune with our kin atop wrapped porches—the moment soundtracked by mating cicadas and humming humidity. Contrary to the beliefs of many, the pandemic is still ever-present; however, some of the limitations have shifted, and with plows in hand, SONG is back in the field–with hearts and minds positioned and ready to till the soil and rekindle the Kindred. 

Brimming from a golden conversation centered on reconnecting with our Kin, SONG staffers Lorie Bryant and Angela Henderson were inspired to take a long overdue trip down the curves of Tennessee into Arkansas. On the cusp of her new role as Co-Director, Carlin Rushing refused to be left behind, and she, along with SONG member/F3 Cohort Coach R’Yana Michele (from the New Economy Coalition), trekked to Little Rock, Arkansas…making one of SONG’s Founders, Suzanne Pharr, their initial stop. “I really feel like a lot of relationship building takes place on the road,” Rushing explains. Setting the tone for her hands-on approach to leadership, Carlin spent her first twenty-four hours (as Co-Director) on the ground to spark conversations with comrades and movement elders. With each mile, the questing quad filled their car with talks of strategy, SONG lore, and assessments of the current political moment. 

With connection as the overarching theme of this trip, several activities stood out. As the trip progressed, intentional interactions with SONG’s beloved added and stirred the gumbo that made the trip delicious and nourishing for the soul. Arkansas was chock-full of one-on-ones, garden visits with Pharr and Mama Crump, provocative wee-hour conversations, displays of romantic senior partnership, charges from Miss Major, chats with Rumba at the Trans liberation organization Intransitive, and full experiences with the “base-building-one-on-one mastermind” Forever SONG member Shead. It was exceedingly evident that there is an insatiable appetite for spade work to drive this next era of SONG’s movement. Spade Work is loosely defined (by Rushing) as “really getting to know a person and staying in conversation with the person… pulling out for them/with them/what their gifts and what their offerings to SONG could be/would be/should be.” 

Seeking our deep connections quells our angst and longing for our Kin. It forces us to evaluate and ask ourselves, “Where are our roots?.” The spirit of Southern tradition reminds us to share our labor and tell our stories. The liberated future that we seek is directly connected to how all hands nurture connection and tend the fire. Intergenerational organizing is essential to sustaining the longevity of Southern movements. With that in the fore, time spent with each member of this trip’s cast resulted in the imparting of the foresight and hindsight that SONG needs to continue this work. “Being able to connect with queer and trans folks, Southern folks doing good work in the South, is so important,” Rushing shares. This interplay between foundational and emerging figures of SONG’s leadership creates a fertile sod– ideal for our new ground. 

An interview with Angela Henderson

Why did you attend this trip?

Little Rock is just a short trip down the road for us, so we decided to take Suzanne Pharr up on her invitation to come out and visit! Recently celebrating 30 years of SONG’s existence, we know the importance of honoring this legacy and maintaining relationships with our founders and longtime SONG family who have poured into this organization and who continue to pour into newer generations.

Did any activities particularly stick out to you? Please provide sensory details.

What stood out to me was the gratitude I felt to witness the work of people who love their community and all they have built for our people to thrive. Soon after we arrived, we had the pleasure of sitting with Miss Major Griffin-Gracy at her home. It was an honor and delight to see a place of refuge for trans people. Walking along the stepping stones in the backyard, you couldn’t help but sense the immense love and life of the space. This was just one of many places we visited in Little Rock that showed the importance of building our own spaces as one part of how we work toward liberation. We also visited a wonderful community garden spearheaded by Forever SONG member Kendra’s mother. With the blue skies and shining sun, it was the perfect day to connect to the land and learn about this inspiring project and the model it’s become for community members in Little Rock. One final place that stood out was visiting the building of Intransitive, an organization that works to advance Trans liberation in Arkansas. Throughout the South, I see a need for more brick-and-mortar community-owned spaces for trans and queer people engaged in radical political work. So it was amazing to see this in Little Rock–to walk into a center with a cozy library, with walls lined with love letters to trans youth, with clothing racks for gender-affirming clothing swaps, with artwork, and a backyard with space for cook outs and basketball games.

Did any conversations/discourse resonate with you? How?

On the first day we arrived, Pharr and her partner Renée welcomed us into their home for dinner. After settling in with light conversation over cold drinks, sweet tea, chips, and homemade guacamole on the back porch, we soon sat around the dining room table for a home-cooked meal and got deep into conversation about organizing and what’s at stake for queer and trans people in these times. This conversation carried over into the next night, where we all met again with other SONG beloveds over a ridiculous amount of food from a local barbeque spot. Normally, I would’ve gone straight to bed after a meal like that, but we had a full house of some of SONG’s finest: brilliant strategists, expert base-builders, healers, and committed lovers of our people. So instead, we stayed up late into the night talking Little Rock SONG history, talking vision, talking concrete plans, talking weaknesses of our movements, talking deep about our lives and our stakes in this fight. We told stories of block-by-block organizing, bar outreach, throwing house parties, and more.

Did any star personalities illuminate/shape the space? How?

Shead!! I first heard about Shead just weeks before this visit and how Shead wouldn’t leave a bar without talking to every single person and letting them know about the organization. Then, when we had Shead over for dinner, I was surprised that for the first hour or so, she was pretty quiet and observant. But before long, Shead is working her magic: asking those juicy questions that challenge us, having 1on1 time with each of us, looking for what motivates us and what we hope to see in SONG. Around midnight, Shead and I took a couple of walks around the block, and our conversation really made me dig deep and reflect on my role within SONG, my approach to organizing across difference, and some tips for stronger base building wherever we go.

What insights did you gain?

Before the trip, I never understood the great depth of SONG’s history in Little Rock, Arkansas nor much about Arkansas’ position in the South. It’s been so insightful for me to get just a taste of the decades of community building and organizing that has happened here. I’ve been moved to hear and witness clearly the value that our people in Little Rock see in SONG. I felt reassurance that our organization–even after a period of focusing on needed internal work–still has a place across the region to be a powerful, active, unified, and joyful force for LGBTQ+ liberation in the South.

Through the lens of this experience, why is Intergenerational work significant…especially in this political moment?

Intergenerational work is key to our work at SONG. As members of SONG, we have such a gift in that many of our founders, elders, and decades-long members are open and ready to pour into us. Throughout the trip, we were blessed with the homo hospitality of Pharr and Renée–their initial invitation opened the possibilities for so much intergenerational goodness to fall into place while we visited. Engaging in political work across generations allows us to conduct work in alignment with a broader arc that recognizes both the urgency of the political moment and the lifelong nature of the struggle toward a new world. As we were reassured during the trip, our elders are also available to help us move through conflicts that bubble up, deep political questions, and disagreement while encouraging us to keep our eyes on the prize. It is in intergenerational spaces where I have witnessed some of the most transformative agitation. During this trip, I gained a deeper understanding of the importance, in particular, of the work of Daliz, Zo, Lorie, and Rolynné (to name a few) in sitting with, taking care of, documenting the stories of, and taking seriously the ongoing political contributions of SONG’s elders. This trip really underscored how imperative that work is.

If you could, would you modify the trip in any way?

I would’ve pushed it back a week or so so we could help Shead with planting corn in preparation for the corn maze of her epic annual Halloween party! I would’ve have also loved to have stayed a few more days to have more time to learn, strategize, and dream together.

How will these insights inform your future work/engagement moving forward?

I plan to do more travel and site visits with formations and elders across the South. There’s something beautiful about meeting each other where we are in our homes, cities, and towns and learning about the local conditions, legacies, relationships, and desires. As we move forward, we must understand the motion happening on the ground and how that fits into a regional context in order to transform the South and our world.

One response to “Queer, it Is: 

  1. Thank you for the poetic description of SONG’s return to its great tradition of staff road trips. So meaningful, so much fun. One correction, though: Renee and I, despite 32 years in a committed relationship, are not married.  While we honor the marriages of our friends, we do not believe in marriage because we believe the state has no legitimate right to sanction our relationship. For us, we have chosen a what we think of as a liberatory approach to commitment and responsibility.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.