Which side? | Kentuckians For The Commonwealth

Which side?

Dear KFTC Friends, Family, and Community,

This will be my last month on the KFTC Staff.  This won’t be news to most of you – I announced my decision to the Steering Committee twenty months ago, and we’ve reported it in various ways all year.  But I wanted to take this opportunity to share a few reflections and appreciation before I step out.

On Friday night, to help kick off our annual meeting, a few of you organized a virtual celebration of KFTC, Jenny, and me that a couple months ago I had first tried to discourage, then accepted as inevitable, and now will cherish for the rest of my life.  The evening was filled with loving faces, kind words, photos, videos, original songs, much laughter, and of course, stories.  There were stories about chapter meetings, lobbying legislators, and standing in the back of the room, stories set on mountains and in board rooms, stories featuring motorcycles, butcher paper, game balls, dinnertime conversations, flyovers, celebrations, and chainsaws.

For me, stories are the renewable energy of community organizing.  They are how we communicate with each other, how we remember, learn, make meaning, share wisdom from person to person.  Stories are how we establish contact and build relationship, how we turn moments into movements.  Stories are gifts.

One of my favorite stories these days doesn’t originate with KFTC, but it makes me smile every time I think of it, and it speaks to a fundamental challenge for our work.  It’s a very human story one of Jenny’s co-workers shared about a busy Saturday morning.  She, with her three small children in tow, was facing a long list of errands.  Anticipating how they might respond to such a tedious morning, she cut a deal with her kids.  If they would be good through all the stops, she would reward them with a favorite treat, a kid’s meal from the local Kentucky Fried Chicken.

After multiple stops around town, the kids were starting to get antsy, but the bargain held and just before noon, she pulled into the Colonel Sanders’ drive-through.  She started to place her order, then at the last minute remembered a critical detail.  KFC kid’s meals came with either chicken nuggets or a drumstick, and for her kids getting the nuggets would be a disaster that could result in a meltdown – a sad ending after so much effort.


She leaned out the car window and spoke into the intercom.  “I need three kid’s meals please,” she said.  Then she emphasized, “All three have to come with the leg, not the nuggets.  Please make sure each one has a leg.”  She relaxed back into her seat, crisis averted.


“Yes ma’am,” came the teenage voice over the speaker.  “Got it.  Which side?”


“There I was,” she later described, “sitting in the car completely dumbfounded, beginning to panic, trying to figure out the answer to a question I had never even considered.  I stared out the window for a full minute trying to decide before blurting out, ‘well … right I guess.’ I didn’t know it mattered.”


“Uhmmmm, no ma’am” crackled the box.  “Which side – applesauce or potato wedges?”

My organizing career began in June of 1983, working with members in Leslie and Harlan Counties, including a group of folks who lived along the Clover Fork in Harlan County, where close by, fifty years earlier, Florence Reece wrote the organizing anthem, “Which Side Are You On.”  Reece was very clear about the sides of her day – “you’ll either be a union man, or a thug for JH Blair” – and everyone who ever sang that song knows which side she was on.


Defining sides is a well-established organizing strategy – we do it all the time – but it’s rarely as simple as applesauce or potato wedges.  And sometimes sides can divide us, or at least keep us apart.


I started out organizing in Leslie and Harlan Counties, but within a few months I was also staffing the Letcher chapter and new chapters in Knott and Perry Counties, as the campaign to abolish broad form deeds caught fire across our southeast corner of the state.  Even with a pretty clearly defined shared goal, I remember being surprised at some of the generations-old suspicion and wariness some members had about folks on the other side, in this case on the other side of county lines.  “You be careful over there in Perry County,” folks in Knott County would warn me.  Or folks in Leslie County would caution me about their neighbors to the south, “you know they call it Bloody Harlan for a reason.”


Over time, through organizing, folks overcame their fears, in part because they recognized what they could do together, and only together.  Of course, having LD Gorman – an ideological descendant of JH Blair if ever there was one –to organize against also didn’t hurt.  But the brilliance and magic of KFTC was established well before I showed up, when in August of 1981 forty folks (including a few who were also on last Friday night’s zoom party) from different counties, with different primary interests came together to establish a “statewide” organization. 


The seeds of mutual support and common purpose were planted then and they have borne fruit ever since.  What those forty founding KFTC members had figured out, whether or not they expressed it, was that the task before us isn’t simply to pick a side, the necessary task for us is to build one.  When we declare, “We are Kentuckians; we choose each other!” we’re talking about creating the side – the grassroots power – we need.

This past Spring over 100 KFTC member-leaders Imagined and Envisioned, six of them collected and consolidated the ideas, and in July, the Steering Committee adopted a vivid description and audacious goal for KFTC’s next ten years, aspiring to be a collective light, a beloved community, of 100,000 Kentuckians across 120 Counties.  Achieving such a vivid, audacious vision will require hard work, collaborative spirit, creativity, discipline.  If ever there was a clear charge to build the side we want to be on, to nurture the side we want to pick, to create the side we need, this is it.


Listening on Friday night to the stories and kind words of friends and family from across Kentucky and across the country certainly brought back a flood of memories.  In the end though, I was not left with a sense of what has been, but of what is possible.  I believe that KFTC’s best days are ahead.  We are an organization that has embodied a confidence born of commitment, an aspiration that keeps us humble and hungry.  We have learned much, built much, and are capable of much more.  KFTC will always be my side, the side I choose, the side I am on.  I’m excited to see how y’all continue to build it.


Working for KFTC has been the honor of my lifetime.  KFTC introduced me to extraordinary people, invited me to create and contribute, offered me work with wide purpose and deep meaning.  KFTC is a community that taught me uncountable lessons, pushed me to exceed my expectations, helped Jenny and me raise our children.  KFTC affirmed and embodies my belief that anything is possible.  I do not know how to repay such generosity.  So, I will just say, thank you.

With love and admiration,

Burt Lauderdale