Early in the morning on Election Day, Margie Ellison went down to her Chatham County precinct to vote. Approaching the Bonlee polling place, she was stopped by a campaign worker who asked for reassurance that he had her "yes" vote on a referendum proposal to split the county into single-member county commissioner districts.
He had no idea to whom he was talking.
Ellison, the organizer of Take Back Our Vote, a group of about 30 African-American residents fighting to preserve the current system of countywide voting, planned to spend the rest of the day in Siler City persuading voters to vote "no" on the ballot question, which she believes is an attempt to disenfranchise black voters and dilute the political power of northeastern Chatham's growing populace.
Herbert Gaines, the pro-redistricting campaigner, was taken aback by Ellison's dedication to defeating the measure; she, on the other hand, saw an opportunity.
"For a few minutes, we had a chance to connect, and I know there's room for us to find common ground, to build some bridges," she says.
While the results rolled in on election night, Ellison sat, unmoving, directly under the numbers projected on the wall of the General Store Café. Though she accepted congratulations with aplomb, she refused to celebrate until the last precincts were tallied and the measure was defeated 55 percent to 45 percent. Meanwhile, around her, comrades spun anecdotes about what a warrior she is in the trenches.
"She can draw people into her and get them to talk to her, and to listen," says Barbara Ford, who had campaigned alongside Ellison all that rainy day in a Siler City precinct unfriendly to their cause. "She went and bought a tent, and she'd just call people over and talk to them; she didn't quit."
Election Day also brought Ellison another victory to celebrate: the official election of Commissioner Carl Thompson, who ran unopposed this fall after defeating an incumbent in a May Democratic primary—a campaign Ellison managed.
A retired social worker and Chatham County native, Ellison also serves as a member of the steering committee of the Chatham Coalition. A grassroots citizens PAC that organized to advocate for better planning in the wake of Chatham's runaway growth, the coalition led the successful ouster of Chatham's developer-friendly board of commissioners this year.
For decades, she has tackled each challenge with the same belief: that those who empower themselves can change the world.
Born in 1949, Ellison grew up in Pittsboro, attending segregated schools and splitting time between her parents' house and that of her grandparents, who cared for her and her sister while her parents worked. Her father was employed as a chauffeur and cook for a local banker and her mother worked in a poultry plant.
"They worked hard for their children to have a better life, and education was the key," Ellison says of her parents. "They wanted us to be the first generation to actually go to college."
Ellison fulfilled their dream, graduating from N.C. Central University, where she was thrust into the Civil Rights movement at its heyday.
"It was mind-boggling to sit and hear these people talk," Ellison says. "That's what struck in me the power of being an activist, and ignited me to see the power of what organizing can do."
Her public service was also driven by a sense of duty.
"During that time, there were expectations not only from your family, but from your school and your community, to not only make something of yourself, but also to make a contribution," Ellison says. "You had to give something back because so many people had done so much to help you."
After college, Ellison took a job in New Jersey helping adults complete their high-school equivalency education and set career goals.
"That really helped me see that people could change their lives and become powerful in their communities—that change within themselves can transform their community when they find common ground. It starts with being able to recognize that in themselves."
Moving back to her hometown in 1982 with her husband and young son in tow, Ellison found Chatham changed.
"There were lots of new people, new ideas, and it was more open and diverse," Ellison says of those years. At the same time, she says, it was clear the same old power systems were still in place.
"I started asking, where was the organizing? And very quickly found out there was none," Ellison says. She began voter education and registration drives, and quickly built a network. "I just starting working and began to understand a lot of work needs to be done to move African Americans into getting elected, into having a voice in government. There has been a continuous effort to manipulate the African-American vote, even back then."
This year's referendum was a particularly tough battle because prominent African Americans lined up on both sides.
"She faced a huge challenge," says Anita Earls, director of advocacy for the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which provided support to the Take Back Our Vote campaign. "While there's never complete unanimity in minority communities, she faced a situation where there was a clear and strong divide.
"She went about it with dignity and respect for everyone she talked to, and she was much more of a leader than she would ever give herself credit for."
In addition to her work on campaigns, Ellison has long been involved in youth and public education issues. Last year, she launched the nonprofit Growing Healthy Communities, which exposes minority children to role models using projects such as leadership summits and community gardens. She took up that calling after retiring in December 2004, capping 23 years of social work in foster care for the Chatham County Child Protective Services.
"I knew that there was something I was supposed to do, that I was supposed to lay down the professional part of my life," says Ellison, who often relies on faith and prayer for direction. "We lacked the thing that creates new leadership, the place for new leaders to be birthed and nurtured."
And in yet another arena of activism, Ellison has recently become the organizing director for the N.C. Waste Awareness Reduction Network, which advocates for sustainable energy and has been a vigilant watchdog of safety at Progress Energy's Shearon Harris nuclear plant.
NC WARN's Pete MacDowell has worked with Ellison for 15 years on various issues.
"She's a strong, principled justice fighter who's always right in there," says MacDowell. "She knows how to empower people, and she facilitates that process of saying, 'You can do it. We can do it. Let's go.'"