A few weeks ago I went to the Southern Girls Convention in Memphis, Tenn., billed as "An annual grassroots meeting of pro-woman activists devoted to networking, organizing, educating and agitating to empower women and girls in the South." I'm not really a Southern girl, but I live and work here and wanted to meet other Southern women, meet the Southern radical community, and find out what the community in Memphis is like, a bigger Southern city and one I haven't spent time in.
A guy named Doug picked me up from the airport wearing a bright yellow hand-printed "radical cheerleader" shirt and holding up a homemade "Southern Girl" sign. The convention was housed in the First Congregational Church. I'm not normally very comfortable in churches but quickly realized this one is different. The First Congo is the center and home of the activist and radical community of Memphis plus a whole lot more that needs a place and support.
I spent some time exploring the huge church before the convention started. I spotted a big bike stencil on the wall of a staircase and followed it down. I found a basement with hundreds of bikes of various states and styles, and a bike shop. A guy appeared and introduced himself as Anthony. He told me about the all-volunteer bike recycling program, called Revolutions. He helps run the shop and lives in the church, as do various people and families who need a place to live. The program runs on donated and abandoned bikes that people bring in, and donated tools and parts. Anyone can go in to get fixed up, help fix up a new bike, and kids can help in the shop and get their own bike in exchange for six weeks of work.
Continuing to explore, I discovered the Media Co-op. Like most of the programs, initiatives, groups and over 20 nonprofits that the First Congo houses, the co-op wouldn't exist if the space hadn't been donated to them. I found Morgan Jon Fox, founding member and the major push behind keeping the Media Co-op running. We went over the particulars of the screening I would do that night and tried to fix up an uncooperative DVD. Morgan was patient with my questions and excitement about the co-op. They have regular screenings and hold an annual digital media festival. There are free workshops every Tuesday on digital video, plus other workshops and screenings. I met about five or six members of the collective. They were all friendly and passionate about what they were doing, and anxious to show it off.
During the convention, I participated in workshops and discussions on activism in the South, radical cheerleading, navigating healthcare in the South, Fatphobia, anti-Zionist Jews, and confronting sexual assault and harassment in radical communities.
I met some amazing women; freight-hoppers, radical cheerleaders from Memphis, Mississippi and Lake Worth (where radical cheerleading started in the mid-'90s), folks who live in radical/sustainable/intentional communities, collectives, co-ops, and who grow their own food. Women from Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala., Cleveland, Miss., and middle Tennessee talked to me about bringing Ms. Films to their towns.
I was inspired by what I saw there, generated new ideas and came to appreciate even more what I experience in the community here. In Memphis, this church is a haven for the cultural and radical community, but outside of it, people who organize are very spread out. So much of life there is directly controlled or influenced by the Baptist church that the people who are organizing find it hard to connect with others. This gave me a new perspective on the community here, spread across the Triangle yet tight-knit with support for each other's projects and get-out-there-and-do-it mentality. I know I'm not a real Southern girl, but I care very much about where I am, this town, and the larger community of the South I've just started getting to know.