Activist Erin Byrd grew up moving from one military base to the next – from Virginia to Texas to South Korea to Texas to Germany and back to the U.S. again. Throughout her childhood, Byrd witnessed military families get free dental care, free health care and reduced-price groceries. The government supplied these basic services to the military population, and she wondered why the whole country did not have the same benefits.
Byrd has since dedicated her career to activism in North Carolina. She has worked on campaigns to raise the minimum wage, create public financing for judicial elections, and ensure same-day voter registration. Now she is organizing to create a cooperative grocery store in the food desert of southeast Raleigh called Fertile Ground. Host Frank Stasio talks to Erin Byrd about how her childhood as a military brat informed her life and work today.
On studying sociology:
I grew up as a very angry, black child. I saw things happening that I didn't understand, I experienced things that I didn't understand. You get a sense that people are looking at me funny, or you get this sense when you're growing up. And a lot of times the public education system doesn't address the history of slavery or white supremacy in this country, any of these things aren't really addressed, and so I was just really mad. And it was the introduction to sociology and starting to understand, actually it's not me. There's not something wrong with me. It is this system that is wrong, and the whole way that it plays out. And when I began to understand the systems and the structures … That was healing in a way, and it gave me a political analysis that I really still carry.
On why she is creating Fertile Ground, a co-operative grocery store for southeast Raleigh:
To really build the entrepreneurial spirit in our community. To have a place where we can do education, nutrition, classes – just be together. And to provide access to affordable, healthy food and create living wage jobs, ultimately jobs with dignity, as we would say, where folks can come to work, and they're part of what they own. They own this grocery store as well as the people who consume there and the people who produce the products that are sold there.
In the white community when you spend your dollar, your dollar actually stays in that community for a couple of weeks. In the black community, it's like six seconds, because there are not a lot of places for you to spend your dollar and then that dollar gets spent again and gets spent again in your own community. And we want to create that underground economy to make that possible.
On her motivation to keep up her activism:
What keeps me motivated is that this is my purpose, and that I just can't sit. I can't actually sit by and watch. I'm actually unable to sit by and watch some of the things that are happening and not feel like I've got my shoulder to this. My children are looking at me, and other children are watching all of us, and I want my sons to be able to say: My mother played her part.