Partner perspective: Sherrell Byrd, Executive Director, SOWEGA Rising

I’m the Executive Director of SOWEGA Rising — an organization focused on mobilizing people and resources to improve the well-being, quality of life, and political power of marginalized Southwest Georgians. For the past number of years, we’ve been doing deep community organizing work, education, coalition-building and advocacy — all focused on human and civil rights and social justice. So you might be surprised to hear that the first time I attempted to do organizing work — I got it all wrong.

When I was in college and living with my aunt in Stone Mountain, Georgia, she and I were really upset about pending property tax increases in a historic Black community nearby called Shermantown. We went to what was called “Shermantown Homecoming” and started sharing with people about what we felt was a critical and urgent issue. Not surprisingly, they weren’t so interested in what we had to say. While we wanted to help, they felt like we were outsiders who didn’t take any time to get to know them.

Since that time, I graduated from college, got married and started a family, and had an entire professional career as a fund development and marketing executive.

Then Travyon Martin was murdered. And too soon after, Michael Brown was murdered. And I knew I couldn’t stay the path in my current work.

I was feeling helpless and hopeless. Having grown up in Albany, Georgia, I was well aware of the racial tension in our community. I couldn’t just continue knowing that my son could be walking down the street and the same horrible injustice could happen to him.

I kept saying out loud: “You have to change this — you have to do something.” It was my daughter who said to me, “Mom, you keep talking about this. You have to do something about it.”

So I did something. I signed up for an organizing 101 workshop — and met an amazing teacher — Amna Farooqi — a powerhouse organizer. I learned so much from her.

I learned that community organizing is all about listening and building trust — which was exactly the opposite of what I did my first time trying to organize. So now I learned the better, more effective way to do it.

We all did. The truth is — Amna was the impetus of our local movement. She brought together all these community advocates focused on economic justice, medical debt, high living costs and utilities — all of us wanting to do more, but not really knowing how. Amna helped us coalesce our separate efforts into a local movement. And that’s when SOWEGA Rising was born.

Building and cherishing trust in our community is at the core of what SOWEGA Rising is all about. One of our main goals is to build a political home for people in Southwest Georgia who want to see our communities change for the better.

So we were thrilled when we were introduced to Community Catalyst. The truth is, some national organizations who raise and share resources with local organizations don’t really understand or value the input and perspective of local organizations. But Community Catalyst is different. They listen and share their perspective too. They create opportunities for us to share our perspective on a much larger scale — to meet with funders in other states, to advocate at federal hearings, to work on crucial policy changes together — like talking with the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau about making sure medical debt doesn’t impact credit ratings (which resulted in a critical policy win.)

Community Catalyst helps us bring our power to monumental conversations and spaces.We’re talking about work that will have a huge impact on our community. And we learn so much from them — about strategies and tactics we haven’t explored yet, policy ideas that can benefit our communities, and opportunities for collaboration with other partners in the health justice ecosystem.

A Canon DSLR camera is held by the photographer, revealing the digital screen and controls. On the screen is a just-captured photo of Sherrell at her desk with a laptop, smiling directly at the camera.
A photographer captures a moment of Sherrell at her desk – during the video and photo shoot at Sherrell’s house.

So I was more than happy when the folks at Community Catalyst asked if they could come to my space — my home in Albany — to film my story. You’ll see my video on this site, and my face on their homepage. I couldn’t be prouder to be part of Community Catalyst’s new website — and bigger picture, the Community Catalyst community and our collective vision for a health system rooted in race equity and health justice. I’m thrilled about the new direction they are taking with their new strategic plan.

I don’t really think I have the words to describe how powerful the relationship with Community Catalyst has been — but I hope this helps.

We really are united for health justice.