Hood to the Holler – thousands involved, and still growing

Bruce Maples (bruceinlouisville@gmail.com)
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In 2020, Charles Booker made history when he challenged incumbent Mitch McConnell for his seat in the U.S. Senate. Despite a loss, his campaign reached hundreds of thousands of people across the nation and once again brought a spotlight to Kentucky politics, but Booker didn’t stop there. Following the buzz of his Senate campaign, he founded the organization and movement, Hood to the Holler, focused on bringing together Kentuckians across the state to fight for change.

Now with over 50,000 followers across social media and thousands of volunteers, the movement has taken off in a big way. Less than a year after its founding, we sat down with Booker to talk about how Hood to the Holler has grown, what goals he has for 2021, and what might be in store for the future.

For those who are unfamiliar, Booker shed some light behind the mission that drives Hood to the Holler:

“Hood to the Holler is a grassroots based organization that is really focused on empowering people so that we can inspire a new wave of leaders to run for office, boards, and commissions. We can break down the barriers to democracy so that more people are involved in the democratic process and are able to take the lead in their neighborhoods, their block, their holler. The biggest part about it is we are focused on bringing people together and addressing issues of structural inequity, racism, and poverty so that we can form new big coalitions.”

In an interview with Forward Kentucky, Booker reflected on how his days a child in West Louisville motivate him to continue facilitating grassroots organizing throughout the state:

“Hood to the Holler was a rally cry for my run for the U.S. Senate, and I’m from the West End of Louisville, I’m from the hood in Louisville, I grew up in poverty, and lived in one of the poorest zip codes in Kentucky. We wanted to tell this story about how if you can listen to people, connect with folks all over Kentucky, that we’ll see our common bonds and we can organize around that.”

He expressed genuine appreciation for the countless volunteers and organizers that have taken the initiative to get involved with the organization:

“A lot of people that have gotten connected to Hood to the Holler did so because they didn’t feel like their voices mattered or they didn’t know how to get involved and they were inspired because they heard my story and saw someone like them, that comes from the struggle, stepping up to lead in my own right.”

“In spite of what the national media might show and what some of our national politicians might be speaking about, the people of Kentucky are ready for real change and it makes me proud.” he said.

Booker expressed optimism and gratitude for the progress the organization has experienced since its founding last year:

“Things are going really really well with Hood to the Holler. I’m fired up about the momentum that we’re building. We have been telling the story about how Kentuckians — people from all backgrounds, all corners, and all walks of life — can come together and fight for a common purpose of transforming our future, and really breaking down those barriers that divide us. … The response all across Kentucky, all 120 counties, has been incredible.”

“I’ve been absolutely blown away by how fast this organization has grown, and even bigger than that how the movement has grown from regular people taking a stand together. It’s not partisan, it’s not limited by the typical division that you would see with urban and rural areas or black, white, and brown, those who have a lot of money in their pocket and those who don’t have any money. We’ve really been able to show how if we all come together we can do big things.” he stated.

“In the midst of all of the pain around Breonna Taylor and her life being taken from us, folks were organizing all over Kentucky. The fact we were able to help them and train folks on how to communicate on issues and to really take an issue, like what happened to Breonna Taylor, and explain that this happened to a black woman for specific reasons that are unique to her. But when it happened to her, it happened to everybody. We all want to be safe in our homes, so we all have a vested interest in fighting to address the ills in our justice system and how we criminalize communities. To be able to have done that and engage half a million Kentuckians in just a little over three months with a brand new organization was mind blowing.”

During a year that also presented many complications from the coronavirus pandemic, Booker says that challenges have become the fuel for innovation and growth for the organization:

“The challenges with COVID-19 really helped to provide a new unique opportunity to meet people where they are. Even before the pandemic we had a lot of barriers and walls built up that blocked regular folks out of the democratic process, or that blocked folks out of being able to lead for change in their community. I think the pandemic in-and-of-itself really helped to expose that fact that we can’t keep ignoring folks. That we have to think outside the box and we have to push ourselves to connect and build coalitions together because we need one another.”

“We were really leaning into ways to make organizing easier, using social media, a lot of folks have a phone, even if the internet is crappy. How can you start to engage your family, your friends, using relational organizing. So, the pandemic really showed the value of doing that type of work.” he told Forward Kentucky.

“Over the course of the year coming out of my primary and when I founded this organization, we kept doing digital organizer training. We had started the summer with around 6,000 folks that signed up to volunteer because they wanted to learn how to be an organizer in their community. They wanted to figure out ways to take the lead for themselves, a lot of folks were protesting and demonstrating because they wanted to see real change. This was a way to say: how do we turn those protests into policy change?” 

Digital organizer trainings proved to be a success, and Hood to the Holler continued to have a reliable stream of volunteers ready to put in the work throughout the year:

“Every week through the summer and through the rest of the year we did these digital organizer trainings, relational organizing trainings, and then we deployed folks to use that to register voters, to educate folks on various issues, like no-knock warrants.” 

For Booker, the work has more than paid off: “In the last quarter of the year we engaged half-a-million Kentuckians using person-to-person outreach.”

In the upcoming year, Booker says the organization has set high goals, further building on a passion for change that Kentuckians have had since former Governor Matt Bevin was in office:

“We definitely have some big goals; the organization is not yet a year old, so it really does speak to the story that I was able to lift up in my own rights, and also just the energy and excitement that Kentuckians have been building on for years. Even when teachers were going into the Capitol saying, we’re not going to take it, standing up for our children and our future.”

“What we’re really trying to do this year, because those trainings were so well received and people were so excited about them, we want to build that into an annual training and do that multiple times per year. We are working with Arena to build that and tailor it to Kentucky.” he stated.

Arena, a national organization devoted to political organizing, hosts intensive five-day training sessions where citizens can develop the skills they need to organize within their communities. The national partnership with Arena could have an unmeasurable impact on the longevity of the organization, says Booker: “They have these academies they do nationally, they have never come to Kentucky before, and they reached out to me because they saw what we were doing, we were training folks, and we had trained several thousand volunteers who then were training folks.”

“When Arena reached out to us and offered the chance to partner on creating a political academy to help folks from the forgotten places, underserved marginalized communities, to get access to this training that’s typically several hundred dollars, we were able to provide it for free and had 280 folks in our first class. The largest one that Arena has ever done. We had thousands of applications from across Kentucky. And it was a five day training that was really intensive and we’re actually doing another one … because the excitement was so great and so it’s just an example of the appetite Kentuckians have for leading for change themselves. And I’m just really excited that Hood to the Holler can help be a part of it.”

The goal is to form coalitions among citizens and organizations alike, building a strong network of change-driven individuals who want to see progress in their communities:

“Our aim is to train 25,000 ambassadors on how to uplift support and drive voter engagement in their community, so 25,000 new voices. The aim is that they will then have the capacity to train others. … We’re partnering with a lot of these organizations like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and People’s Campaign, ACLU – there’s a lot of folks across Kentucky that are already doing great work in urban and rural communities. If we partner together, we can turn this into something that happens all the time, where democracy is taking place all the time.”

He is adamant on establishing Hood to the Holler as an integral part of the Kentucky political scene: “We just launched a voter registration campaign that’s a statewide campaign on getting folks registered, updating their registration, and engaging folks in the democratic process during an off year. Our aim is we are building out a three-year plan for this.”

Booker stated that he and others would like to see change in the Commonwealth take place sooner rather than later, reflecting on community organizing taking place in other states, such as Georgia. “I’ve talked to Stacey Abhrams about this project, and she’s fired up about what we’re doing in Kentucky.” he stated.

Beyond wide-scale voter registration, he revealed that the organization is taking big steps towards ensuring their stability as an organizing force in the state through producing training materials: 

“We’re also building a lobbyist training and resource guide that will be online and in print so that we can have more folks be advocates in local government, state government, and federal government. So this year is a really big foundational year for us to build out, so that this can be a long term value add to Kentucky.”

“Hood to the Holler is an organization that is focused on activating people, we’re looking to create programming so that we can stay around for a long time. We just want to inspire more people to lead themselves and help give them the tools they need to do it.” he stated.

“Our aim is if we can activate more folks that never thought they could get involved, didn’t know how, didn’t know what to do, that they can plug into organizations that exist and help the work go to the next level or they can create their own new thing. So ultimately, the big picture, that’s what we’re trying to do. I think the fact that it’s non-partisan gives us a chance to speak to a bigger audience and build some new coalitions that I think can help transform politics in Kentucky.”

He told Forward Kentucky that Hood to the Holler is a culmination of his life’s work: “This has been my vision. It’s why I went to the state House, it’s why I’ve worked in every level of government, and why I ran for Senate.”

Booker is still considering another run for Senate in 2022, this time taking on incumbent Rand Paul. With the deadline to announce his candidacy quickly approaching, he stated that there are big things coming.

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