When we left Phoenix for Washington D.C., not far from our launch site, the Sky Harbor Airport hit two daily records of the warmest low and highest temperature for June 18th. It was 117°F outside when UNITE HERE Local 11 & Case Action AZ launched our coalition of Phoenix Freedom Riders to travel for the next 10 days by bus ride to Washington D.C. Rural Arizona Action was just coming off of a 3-day long, organization-wide retreat focused on team relationship building, leadership skills, and personal growth. To me, everything seemed embarrassing about going on a trip for 10 days with my coworkers because I had just cried my eyes out in front of all of them. I felt maxed out on personal growth and was down to never think about anything that I had shared while being that emotional. What happens at a RAZA retreat, stays at a RAZA retreat. So in a sense, it seemed fitting to have extreme heat peaking at the same time as all of us emerging out of a shared space, where we had been that vulnerable with each other. Because the heat was so immediate and physically encompassing, it was difficult to feel my apprehension and my genuine excitement for what was to come. It seemed inconceivable in that moment and in that atmosphere to imagine what the next 10 days would look like, especially after undergoing so much change with my coworkers. In retrospect, that moment was just one tiny peak, one glimpse, of what was to come. I was not aware of how different the fight for voting rights would feel by the time we’d land back again at the Sky Harbor Airport.
Rural Arizona Action is based in the city of Coolidge in Pinal County. It’s located about five minutes away from the Casa Grande Ruins, a brown structure made of caliche soil that sits underneath a metal awning. Constructed by ancestral people in the Sonoran Desert, it is known as the United States’ first archaeological preserve. As I pass by it on my way to work, it always strikes me as silly that I am about to go to an air-conditioned space, to type emails and have check-in meetings, when a 700-year old structure sits not far from me, baking in the sun, and has had thousands upon thousands of passersby within its existence.
At RAZA, I work as a research assistant. During the spring, I helped with research on bills in the Arizona Legislature & with data for various canvassing campaigns. Back in May, before I knew about the Freedom Ride and before our organization launched our S.1 Campaign, I did not really know much about the For the People Act and my role felt uncertain with the Arizona Legislature winding down. Working in a job that is so directly tied to my personal & political values is hard and the risk of burnout is high. Much like the extreme heat I’d feel later on in June, the environment matched my outlook. The only vibrant green naturally growing in Pinal County came from the small patches of grass dotted along the sides of farmland. Vibrant green that grows by chance of a breeze catching drops of water that are invaluable, but only designated to fall on agriculture. When we left for D.C., the ground was cracked, the Gila River appeared to have no water in it to flow, and the hills in the northwestern part of our county appeared to be locked in lack of color.
In 2020, Arizona had its second hottest & driest summer on record, with Pinal County experiencing its highest combined number of heat-related and heat-caused deaths in the last decade. Back in May, the National Drought Mitigation Center classified the majority of Pinal County in the highest tier of drought intensity called ‘exceptional drought’. These conditions are a part of a regional drought across most of the Southwest. Urgency to act and prepare for both immediate and long-term water shortages has been ongoing for western states. Pinal County farmers are already planning and preparing for cuts in water supply that comes from the Colorado River and will be required to do so with the recent announcement of the Colorado River entering into its first ever Tier 1 shortage. Managing and mitigating extreme drought conditions caused by climate change will be one of the most challenging policy feats of our region. Committing to action now from the perspective of one individual can seem abstract and impossible when it is about a deeply complex, ecological and social issue. Therefore, this fight will require systemic and transformative change.
Source: Curtis Riganti, National Drought Mitigation Center, 2021 [Image displays a map of Arizona and different colors across the state to represent intensity of drought]
For issues that seem insurmountable to fix, like climate change or voter suppression, it can be difficult to know where to start. When I joined RAZA as an intern in late 2020, I did research on Pinal County relating to voting rights. As someone completely new to organizing and to local politics, I was taken aback by how much time, emotional energy, and physical energy was put into our canvassing campaign to get out the vote. I had no idea how massive of an undertaking that can be, especially for an organization that was also completely new to organizing on the ground. With the historic election of Arizona largely turning blue, that was not entirely the case in Pinal County. For the presidential election, Trump won by about 17 percentage points. Compared to surrounding counties, Pinal had the lowest voter turnout at 74.86%. This result is a part of the driving force behind our S.1 Campaign and the reason why we want to engage with our community about rural voting rights. While voting on election day can be the starting point, it should not be the endpoint of what we ask of each other & our community. Democracy is about relationships and about energy. It takes work to transform energy from one state to another. And that starts in the way that we interact with each other.
During the Freedom Ride, there are several memories that live in the back of my mind. After spending over a year either stuck inside my house and at our office in Coolidge, I was in so much awe of every location that we traveled through. I found the most solace and the most transformation in the in-between moments. The long hours of us traveling from one site to the next gave ample time to feel the weight of what I was experiencing. It is from a place of privilege when I say that I had space and time to process the sites that we went to and that my lived experiences allowed for that to happen.
A memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life is a moment of travel in Alabama, close to the Georgia state-line. The day before, we had visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, AL that commemorates all of the Black lives stolen by lynching in this country. In the exhibit, large pillars of copper metal stand and are suspended over the ground as you walk deeper into the center. Each pillar represents a county in the United States where a person was lynched and has the names of people lost, engraved on the center. Personalizing the names I read was what broke me. Sometimes, 5 or 6 people would be on the same pillar with the same last name and the same death date. I’d think, were they married? Were they siblings? Cousins? Best friends? How close were they? What did they laugh about? Who did they aspire to be before their lives were stolen? The deepest sadness came when I would see “UNKNOWN” engraved on the pillars, along with their death date. It was devastating to me that I had nothing to grasp onto who they were aside from that they were lynched, where they were lynched, and when it occurred. At the end of the display, there are steps that people can sit on to view the wall directly across that reads, “Thousands of African Americans are unknown victims of racial terror lynchings whose deaths cannot be documented, many whose names will never be known. They are all honored here.” All of us arrived at those steps at different times and joined each other to sit in silence, cry, and stare at the wall in front of us.
When we were off to our next destination the next day, this time to Greensboro, North Carolina, I had a moment to process what I had experienced the previous day. It was such a comfort to me to see Alabama and Georgia so green. I had never in my life seen foliage that dense, that green, and that physically encompassing. It seemed to twist around any human-made structure visible, as if the earth was taking back what it had grown. I felt dumb thinking wow, this is what water in the atmosphere can do! Water works? It makes things grow? No way! Passing over bridges, there would be small pools of water underneath, swirling around land that looked like it was made out of gemstones. Rich emerald greens and mist mixing with trees to give off sapphire blues. The beauty and the vitality of the environment appeared to exist at ease, as if there could be no alternative other than to thrive. It was a moment of disbelief, in this question of how is it a reality that so much suffering occurred on this land by the hands of racist & violent oppressors when it is this vital of a place? I felt deep anger. How dare they take people away from this land that is so lush, so full of magic, that it seems impossible to suffer on? How could they bring so much hatred to this place? And how did the original Freedom Riders keep fighting within this landscape, with that reality? How did they do it? And I realized that, as it is with the land, it is acting as if there could be no alternative other than to thrive. Because we have to. It is inherent to who we are as human beings and as life that evolves & transforms on this planet. They did not have a choice, and neither do we. So in a sense, it is strange to me that I can think about Alabama & Georgia and feel this split in my mind of so much simultaneous grief and joy. The grief of the atrocities committed that can never be undone, of the Black people that can never be brought back to live their full and beautiful lives. And the joy. The joy that I get to be in this fight. That I love the people that I will fight for and fight with. And that there is no end to what we can accomplish together.
Taken on June 22, 2021, near the Alabama-Georgia state-line. [Image shows a stretch of highway in Alabama, with two houses. There is thick, dark green foliage and trees, along with power lines parallel to the road. The sky is overcast.]
As I am writing this, it is a little over two months since we arrived back in Arizona from Washington D.C. In this time, we have started canvassing in Pinal County and are about to launch in Coconino County for our S.1 Campaign. Since we’ve been back, we have had several days of persistent and heavy rain. Late summer monsoon rains that have made me question if we are in the right time and place after months and months without a single drop. I have never seen Pinal County so green. And it is green that surprises me, growing in places that I naively did not think could sustain life. The land in between sagebrush and cacti, the land far away from irrigated water, or the land distant from the Gila riverbed. Within the area protected by the Casa Grande Ruins, tiny yellow flowers are growing that almost give off an optical illusion, where at an angle, the ground looks completely yellow. I look around and think, how was I unaware of all that was dormant? While moderate drought still persists and only time can tell for how our region will benefit from the rain in the long term, our region is no longer in exceptional drought. It seems lame that a brief period of rain could make me feel so different, give me so much hope. But the green reminds me of Alabama and Georgia. And the stories and memories and the pain I witnessed. Seeing green makes me remember 2020, when I felt like I would never see rain again. So while the threat of drought is still here, the heat is back, and the fight to pass S.1 still exists, I look at this as a moment to cycle through. Work is being put in. Energy is being used with intention. The green has followed us home. And we are committed to our inherent nature to thrive.
Taken mid-August 2021 by our Pinal Regional Field Director, Devin, of our S.1 Team in Superior, AZ [Image shows three canvassers walking. There are green mountains and homes scattered in the distance.]