George Goehl On Community Action in Rural Communities and National Empathy

George Goehl began his speech with a quote from Vincent Harding: “I am a citizen of an America that is yet to be born.” For Goehl, in the next 30 years, the United States has the potential to become that dream. Goehl is the director of People’s Action, one of the largest multiracial poor and working class people’s organizations in the country, according to the organization’s website. Goehl shared his perspective on being a community organizer during the virtual All-School Meeting (ASM) on October 2. 

Growing up in the small town of Madora in southern Indiana, Goehl witnessed the mass unemployment and rising levels of drug addiction that followed after both the brick and automobile factories shut down in the town. Gohel himself developed a drug addiction and frequented a local soup kitchen. However, after he began volunteering in that same soup kitchen, he was inspired to begin his work in using community organizing to target systemic issues.  

“After eating at the soup kitchen a few times, I noticed that people who ate there would also pitch in, and one day I decided to ask if I could help. Three years later, I was the assistant director, and we’d serve tens of thousands of meals. I was super proud of what we were doing and what I was doing. Yet on this one afternoon as we started serving the meal, I looked at the line and I thought, ‘This is basically the same group of people that were in line with me three years ago to eat.’ And it hit me hard. Nobody has starved on our watch, but we have done absolutely nothing to change the underlying reasons that people need to eat at a soup kitchen in the first place. I happened to be mopping up the floor, and I realized that I could keep mopping things up or I could try to find the leak,” said Goehl.

People’s Action is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping rural and multiracial communities find justice and fight for their rights. Many of the organization’s pursuits, including seeking a clean environment and humane living conditions for community members, have been successful. According to Goehl, People’s Action’s success in organizing is proof that the ordinary citizen has power if they purposefully engage in their communities. 

“We brought people together, began developing strategies to get action on the issues they cared about most. And really quickly, we started winning. We [wanted] a rural living wage. We won. Policies to create clean air and water. We stopped big factory farms from coming into the community. We stopped a fracking pipeline that was going to tear up folks’ neighborhoods. And we want better health care and treatment for addiction. And winning is one of the most important things we do in organizing, because that gives people evidence that engaging in civic life, engaging in democracy actually works,” Goehl explained.

After the 2016 election, People’s Action launched the largest progressive organizing project in rural America, with the goal of combating misinformation and white nationalism in rural communities. People’s Action conversed with 10,000 people to understand their struggles. According to Goehl, through these empathetic conversations, many rural residents started to reject past racist and xenophobic views. 

“We asked people three things. ‘What issues do you most want action on?’ ‘What do you see as the solution to those issues?’ which was our effort to not project a progressive solution on the problem. And three, ‘essentially who and what do you see as responsible?’ But [what] I think may be the biggest and clearest takeaway [is] over and over folks said, ‘You know what? Nobody’s ever asked me that before. We haven’t had somebody come knock on our doors and ask these kinds of questions for years.’ Then we did what good organizers do: we got to work on those issues,” said Goehl.

From his years of experience as a community organizer, Goehl emphasized the importance of engaging with those with conflicting viewpoints with empathy and understanding. According to Goel, communication is pivotal in bringing people together and reaching a better future for everyone.

“America is at a crossroad. We can choose a path that I think much of the country’s on right now. And it sounds a lot like this: ‘you believe you don’t believe what I believe. Therefore, you know what, we’re not going to be in a relationship. Goodbye.’ Or, as a country, we can choose change. I want to understand what you’re up against. I want to understand the struggles you face, and I truly want to understand how you came to see the world the way you do. I want to be vulnerable with you. I want to share what I’m up against. I want to share how I came to believe what I believe. I think this is a much more courageous route. It’s a hard one, but I think it’s one that allows us to bring so many more people along in the project of reckoning with our past and charting the way to a new future,” Goehl finishes.