Alamance County, North Carolina, is probably best known for its defense of Confederate monuments and backing Republicans in every presidential campaign since Jimmy Carter. But an important grassroots fight for racial and economic justice is currently unfolding there. One of the leaders of that fight is Dreama Caldwell, a Black working mother who, in 2015, faced a $40,000 bail for a crime she didn’t commit—now she is working to organize across racial and class lines to build grassroots power in rural areas that have been abandoned by the major political parties.

In the latest installment of his investigative series “Defending Democracy in the 2022 Midterm Elections,” supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, TRNN’s Jaisal Noor speaks with Caldwell about her story and her organizing work with Down Home North Carolina.

Featured music courtesy of Joe Troop: “The Rise of Dreama Caldwell” by Joe Troop

Pre-Production/Studio: Jaisal Noor
Post-Production: Jules Taylor


TRANSCRIPT

Dreama Caldwell: I truly believe now that movements in North Carolina, in order to be strong, [they have] to be led by the most impacted people.

Jaisal Noor:         I’m Jaisal Noor for The Real News Network. This is the next installment of our ongoing series about the fight against voter suppression and gerrymandering across the country. Our most recent report focused on rural organizers who are fighting dog whistle politics in North Carolina. We’re kicking off today’s podcast with a song. This is The Rise of Dreama Caldwell by Joe Troop.

[SONG INTERSPERSED THROUGHOUT]

The Rise of Dreama Caldwell:                                

Alamance County jailhouse back in 2015 

In a place where the biggest crooks get off scot-free 

A hard working mama went weak in the knees 

40,000 cash bail, an outlandish decree

Jaisal Noor:        Alamance County, North Carolina, is probably best known for its defense of Confederate monuments and backing Republicans in every presidential campaign since Jimmy Carter. But it’s also where important grassroots fights for racial and economic justice are unfolding. One of its leaders is Dreama Caldwell, a Black working mother who, in 2015, faced a $40,000 bail for a crime she didn’t commit.

The Rise of Dreama Caldwell:                                

Dreama was counseled to take a plea deal

Which meant three woeful nights locked in concrete and steel 

Where she stared a sick system point blank in the eye 

And vowed come hell or high water, one day she’d watch it die.

Jaisal Noor:     The experience drove Caldwell to become a community organizer and grassroots leader with the group Down Home North Carolina, which is seeking to upend the system that put Caldwell behind bars by helping working people take power in rural communities in North Carolina.

Rise of Dreama Caldwell:                                

That’s how Dreama wound up here

Fearless leaders persevere

Fight on Dreama, through the years 

Sent to lead and help us heal

Jaisal Noor:    Down Home is fighting the dog whistle politics that dominate rural North Carolina’s political landscape by focusing on local political races and engaging with local residents, listening to their concerns, and building a political platform that emphasizes multiracial and cross- class solidarity. In 2020, Caldwell lost her bid to become an Alamance County Commissioner, which would’ve given her the power to change the cash bail system. Despite getting 34,000 votes, she had little support from the state Democratic Party.

Dreama Caldwell:   I was actually told not to run because I’m a formerly incarcerated person and they were worried that that would blemish their other candidates.

Jaisal Noor:     Despite Caldwell’s defeat, she said Down Home’s approach paid significant dividends in the 2020 election.

Dreama Caldwell: We increased Black voter turnout by 42%, which was more than what the state percentage was. So we know focusing on local, very local needs, it pays off. Ricky Hurtado, who was elected to the North Carolina House, he’s the first Latinx elected in the state of North Carolina. He only won his election by 400 votes.

Jaisal Noor: Here’s our full interview with Dreama Caldwell. We started by asking her to share her journey from being a working-class mother to co-director of Down Home North Carolina, the grassroots group that’s fighting voter suppression and gerrymandering throughout the state.

The Rise of Dreama Caldwell:                                

Said, “Dear magistrate, pardon! But that’s an awfully high bail” 

He said, “I meant what I said! She pays up or gets jailed!” 

Such was the harsh fate of Dreama Caldwell

[SONG ENDS]

Dreama Caldwell:  I was a lifelong resident of Alamance County. When Down Home came to town in 2017, it was also following my own criminal justice run, or whatever, with the system. And I came out of that where… Literally I was there for the same issue as my co-defendants, and the only difference was they were arrested in a different county from me. And in my county, they were allowed to sign themselves out, and they gave me a $40,000 bail. And I came out of that experience of, I didn’t know you paid for jail fees. I didn’t know about the supervision fees.

All these things I didn’t know. And so I came out just looking for organizations that were working on it. It felt very localized to me. I didn’t realize it was a national issue. And so Down Home had a targeted Facebook ad that I saw asking about working class issues. I responded and went to Down Home. An organizer, he first met me. The thing that I love about Down Home, they’ll meet people where they are. And so they met me in the coffee shop. We talked for a couple hours and then I came into the office. And when I came in, I saw the butcher paper, the power analysis of our area, all these elected officials talking about what they do. And that was kind of like, I knew I had to be there because I’d always been a voter, but I didn’t know what I was voting for. I just voted because I’m Black, and I thought, my ancestors, it was a duty. And so I joined, and I was actually a member, up until 2019 I was a member. And I was immediately able to take my issue and bring it to the working class group they had called Criminalizing The Poor.

We sat down and we talked about bail, the issue, and we began to realize that people in our community didn’t know it. And so we started teaching people in the community by holding things called Bail 101. We went out and we talked about people, explained the issue. I think we knew we were onto something when the local bail bondsmen got upset and mad and they came and crashed a couple of our meetings.

Jaisal Noor:         And what is the biggest challenge that you face in North Carolina? The biggest challenge to getting democratic representation? To having this democracy work in the interest of the people that live there?

Dreama Caldwell:  The biggest issue for me is that people are totally disengaged. They haven’t seen their lives get better from voting. They don’t see representation. We are in an area where most of the rural towns that we work in, they don’t have districts or wards. It’s all an at-large system, and so they just have no way of getting representation. So people are righteously disheartened, and so it’s caused them to disengage. So the biggest challenge is helping people to understand that really there is power, that we hold the political power if we will just show up at the box. And so for me, that is the hardest part of the work.

Jaisal Noor: And so I know the response to that challenge has multiple components in it. Can we start with race-class narrative? Why that’s such an important tool, and just how it works when you’re out talking to people?

Dreama Caldwell: Yeah. So I spend a lot of time when I’m talking with people… You definitely have to acknowledge that race and class is an issue and not pretend like it’s not. And so instead of it being the behind-the-scenes conversation, it’s at the front and center of the conversation. And helping people understand that no matter what our differences are, we actually all want the same things. We want a transparent and accountable government. We want safety for our families and our communities.

And so bringing the race-class conversation in and allowing people to say their piece and how they feel, and not responding in anger but actively listening to that and being able to respond in a way that brings it back to full circle. Those differences may exist, but we are still the same. And then understanding how things have been used to make us mistrust one another.

So by saying that we don’t have any jobs because the immigrants are taking our jobs. No, we don’t have any jobs because we don’t have any jobs in the area. People aren’t being paid living wages. And going back to those real issues when they go into a place of speaking from race or class, or all the poor people getting all the free benefits. And going back to say, we do deserve a living wage. We deserve benefits. We should be able to go to the doctor. We shouldn’t have to rely just on Medicaid. And have those conversations in a way that brings it back to our commonalities, but acknowledges our differences.

Jaisal Noor:   I want to ask you specifically ahead of the midterms coming up. I know that it’s a big election for North Carolina and for the country. Talk about some of the work that Down Home North Carolina is going to be doing in the next eight months.

Dreama Caldwell:  Yeah. So we are building out. We just offered our first time offering an organizing director. It’s the largest organizing effort that we have had in the history of Down Home. We’re going to a regional-based model where we can truly be the best from the mountains to the sea in North Carolina. And so the organizing director will have regional managers that will focus on just the West, the Piedmont, and the East, as opposed to us looking at the whole scale, really being able to do that well.

But one of our goals is we hope to be able to play in the US Senate race, we call it Throw Down in the Senate Race. But most of our work is we are now being in contact with people who have said, hey, we need you in our county, people who have reached out to us, and connecting with those people, making sure they have leadership skills to continue the conversation in their own community.

We also are really excited about a fellowship program that we’re starting, which again is a generational intervention where people who have never organized for a career, BIPOC, rural people, working-class people will get an opportunity to learn the skills of organizing. They’ll come on at a regular organizing salary, a good salary, good benefits, and their only goal will be to be able to learn. And this is something we think is going to make us not just stronger for Down Home, it’s actually an intervention for North Carolina because it’ll be the right people leading the movements, who will be trusted messengers in their communities to get the messages out.

Jaisal Noor:   So what’s your staff size and how much is it going to expand?

Dreama Caldwell: Oh. So we’re currently a staff of six and we’re going to be hiring on the C3 and C4 side. We’ve just made, what, four offers? Probably by the end of the year we’re going to expand. I don’t even know the exact number, but at least 13 to 14 people. And then we’re going to have lots of temporary staff. So we have canvasses. Our canvassers a lot of times come from our membership. They’re paid canvassers. They can canvass door-to-door. We’re going to spend a lot of time doing canvasses door-to-door, hearing people, their issues. You know, that’s what our first canvasses will be. And of course, as we get closer to the election, we’ll also do some canvassing to make sure people have voter guides and know what’s going on. We do endorsements because we also have a PAC and our endorsements are done by our members.

Our members decide who they’re going to endorse. And then once we endorse, our members, we throw down for them. That looks like canvassing, it could be on the phones, it could be mailers. So we’ve been identifying where the crucial races are. One of the things that we know is happening in North Carolina is the right is using school boards currently. The same bottom-up approach that we’re doing. They’re using school boards. And so we are helping our coalition partners and ourselves to build a coalition that will be able to counteract that.

Jaisal Noor:       Is that around like mask mandates and critical race theories?

Dreama Caldwell: Critical race theory, mask mandates. Yep. We’re seeing a lot of right-wing candidates have already filed for office in various areas.

Jaisal Noor:      You already talked about how this is going to take a long time. But I saw this Harvard political scientist, Theda Skocpol, say that you can talk to white rural voters who watch Fox, but you’re not going to convert them. There’s a lot of romanticism on the left that if you talk to people about things you’ll change them. You’re not going to overcome the racial divide very easily. And she’s saying that about places like North Carolina where there is a big racial divide, a lot of people watch Fox News. What’s your response to that?

Dreama Caldwell:  We’ve spent time, we call it counteracting misinformation. We’ve spent time making sure people could speak to their own family members, how to have conversations, and encouraging people not to shut people down and not to be like I’m done, because that’s another thing. That’s how the right continues to build. Because as soon as someone makes us upset, this whole cancel culture, they’re canceled and they’re pushed off, and then the right comes and scoops them up. Instead of us trying to foster conversation and lead with curiosity and asking more questions about the things that they feel and why.

I have this picture I love from my campaign. We were out doing our last get-out-the-voter event, and this guy pulls up in his Trump hat and he was like, I need to register to vote. We fed him. We registered him to vote. We knew he wasn’t going to vote for us. But making an environment where it was welcome for him to come.

And so Down Home is a nonpartisan place. We have had people who are Republicans there. We’ve had people that have family members that are a part of hate groups and things. And the beauty of having them in the place is being able to prepare them to hold those conversations at Thanksgiving. Prepare them so that it doesn’t turn to a place where those people are shut down and shut out, because that’s a lot of times how they just end up on the right completely.

Jaisal Noor:      Right. I know that’s a big issue for people, especially on the holidays when getting together and seeing your family. So I want to ask you, what insight have you learned from this work? What lessons have you learned that make it relevant and accessible to others? Because this isn’t just a North Carolina thing, this is an issue across the country.

Dreama Caldwell:   One thing I’ve learned, it’s what I’ve learned and what the challenge is, is that racial, multi-class, multiracial building is a way, the way. Especially in a place like North Carolina where you don’t have places where there are large populations of Black people, and so you can’t just count on just the Black vote. But also that is the challenge, is multicultural building. And there are challenges to it. You know, you have to give each other the space and the grace. One of my words that I always talk about is having accountability with compassion. That is really hard, because there’s so many ways that we’ve been taught to distrust one another and it turns into a fight. And so that is one of the challenges, but it’s also the way that we’re going to change North Carolina.

Jaisal Noor:        Would there be anything you could change about the work you do that would make it more effective? For example, if you had more resources. What would you do differently if you had more resources?

Dreama Caldwell:  I would continue… I mean, honestly, I would continue to hire people, build capacity, because there’s 80 rural counties in North Carolina. And so I would continue to build capacity. Right now we only can choose which areas we can go to, when we know that it is much more crucial to be in more places. That’s one of the things that I would do. That’s what I’d do. Yeah. I think capacity, because we’ve seen that to be the challenge in our work, not having enough capacity.

Jaisal Noor:    What gives you hope?

Dreama Caldwell: What gives me hope is to see the work that we’ve done in Alamance County since we’ve been there and to see the political landscape change. That gives me hope that we could do the same things over and over and over and make change. The number of young people, too, that through their parents are members of our organization, or they’ve just found out some other kind of way. Young people give me a lot of hope because they definitely want to do this differently and they’re not standing for that’s just how it always is. So that gives me a lot of hope. And a time of seeing Black voices elevated. We’re in a time where Black voices, in particular Black women’s voices, are being elevated and being brought to the table to be decision makers. That’s a whole new thing, and I think that that’s exciting.

Jaisal Noor:      That was our interview with Dreama Caldwell, co-director with the grassroots group Down Home North Carolina. Go to therealnews.com for all of our coverage of the 2022 midterms and the full print version of the story. This is Jaisal Noor.

[SONG BEGINS]

The Rise of Dreama Caldwell                              

Alamance County jailhouse back in 2015

In a place where the biggest crooks get off scot-free

A hard workin’ mama went weak in the knees

40,000 cash bill, an outlandish decree

The escorting officer, startled as well

Said, “Dear magistrate, pardon! But that’s an awfully high bail” 

He said, “I meant what I said! She pays up or gets jailed!” 

And such was the harsh fate of Dreama Caldwell

Dreama managed a day care till one summer’s day 

When another employee made a tragic mistake 

A child was left on the school bus, a close call but still grave

Though Dreama wasn’t at fault, she was destined to pay

When they issued a warrant, she went and turned herself in

And fell prey to a venomous magistrate’s whim

Her kinfolk knew of a bondsman, they found a way to post bail

She went home in exchange for a mountain of debt

That’s how Dreama wound up here

Fearless leaders persevere

Sheriff Johnson wants Mayberry, thinks Andy Griffith is real

Another twisted old man with cold-hearted ideals

His prison’s raking in millions, stealing bonds from the poor

He takes great pleasure exacting what they cannot afford

Dreama was counseled to take plea deal

Which meant three woeful nights locked in concrete and steel

Where she stared at a sick system point blank in the eye

And vowed come hell or high water, one day she’d watch it die

And that’s how Dreama wound up here

Fearless leaders persevere

Fight on Dreama, through the years

Sent to lead and help us heal

After serving her sentence, life was never the same 

with a criminal record tethered tight to her name

O’er the death growl of Dixie, amidst a brutal firestorm

Dreama Caldwell has risen, and she’s demanding reform

Fight on Dreama, through the years

Sent to lead and help us heal

Jaisal Noor

Reporter

Jaisal is a host, producer, and reporter for TRNN. With his expertise in education policy and systemic inequity, he focuses on Baltimore, Maryland. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio NewsDemocracy Now! and The Indypendent.

Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years.

 
jaisal@therealnews.com
 
@jaisalnoor