15-1 Tenants Organizing Against Hate

By Gabby Ross, NLIHC

This article was adapted from an interview with Tristan Call of the Bedford County Listening Project.

Tristan Call is a community organizer for the Bedford County Listening Project, a group based in Shelbyville, Tennessee, that is dedicated to organizing renters in its community to advocate for better housing conditions and more affordable rents. Tristan, who is originally from Huntsville, Alabama, got involved in community organizing in Shelbyville a decade ago, initially focusing on labor organizing and immigrant rights advocacy. He describes the political landscape in Shelbyville as a “battleground” for civil rights in Tennessee. In that effort, he became part of an organizing team that helped create what is now known as the Bedford County Listening Project.

In 2017, Shelbyville residents stood against a demonstration of hatred that had come into their town. After the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that summer, white supremacist organizers had descended on Shelbyville, hoping to find more support for their movement in the rural community. Other organizers and residents formed a broad coalition across Shelbyville, including Black, Latino, and white residents, and greatly outnumbered the rally planned by the white supremacist group. This organizing success was a catalyst for the creation of the Bedford County Listening Project. The group fostered an environment for organizers to reexamine together the world we live in, the struggles we share, and how to implement effective change. The Listening Project uses a model in which renters can make decisions for themselves about the direction of the local movement. The organization does not just advocate for renters; instead, the organization is made up of renters standing up for each other and stepping into their power.

“Everybody in town that’s poor has the same landlords. Everybody has the same bosses. Nobody can afford to live here. Everybody’s getting pushed out,” says Tristan. “The thing that has been very clear to me in my time organizing in Shelbyville is that renters want to organize because the conditions they’re up against are totally unsustainable, and people need solutions. The problem is that the power difference between renters and landlords is so steep that the costs of organizing are too high to bear for most people who want to. Now, as the situation gets worse, people will organize in larger numbers anyway, even against the risks that are out there. It will happen.”