Erin Byrd grew up in a military family. Moving every three years, she had to quickly learn to adapt to change. Since arriving in North Carolina in 2000, Byrd has worked with organizations that forward progressive causes, most recently in the capacity of Executive Director at Blueprint NC. I sat down with Byrd one weeknight as she finished cooking dinner for her sons. I listened as she told her journey from military kid—witnessing a world where everyone had access to social services—to one of the most powerful and influential organizers in our state.
Byrd describes a culture at military bases that surprises me; there are adequate benefits and care for all. She recalls: “In the military you have dental care, health care, you have reduced groceries. Everybody kind of has basic benefits. A lot of African-Americans actually go into the military for this reason. It made me question why we can’t have those resources in the rest of the country. Why can’t everyone have health care, why can’t everyone have dental care? Why are these resources only given to some people when we are one the wealthiest countries in the entire world?”
In addition to living within a structure that took care of people, Byrd grew up in a family that dedicated themselves to service. She describes her mother as a strong woman, someone who doesn’t “take anything off of nobody,” and who gave her daughter confidence in her own voice.
After high school, Byrd ventured from base life in Virginia to a university thirty minutes from home, the College of William and Mary, where she majored in sociology. It was here that she learned about the systems of oppression that she would eventually dedicate her life to combatting. “It wasn’t until I went to college and started to study sociology that I really understood what racism is and what inequality is—and why my people are suffering as a result of it. I think it was this understanding that I actually didn’t have to accept inequality and that I could fight against it that made me want to take a stand.”
After graduating William and Mary and completing a graduate degree, Byrd came to North Carolina. At school she had found no outlet for the growing discontent she had, and it wasn’t until she moved to the Old North State and began networking that she really broke into social justice work. “I did some networking, asked people who to talk to, and I got this job application to be the coordinator Voter for Clean Elections. I interviewed for the job and got it. I got it because I was young and passionate. I had a sense of money and politics, and I could talk about it in a way that made sense.”
As part of the Voters for Clean Elections collation, Byrd participated in the passage of one of the first pieces of legislation that allowed for publicly funded elections in the United States. Though this was a huge success, Byrd felt burnt out by money and politics and wanted to focus on people: “What really sticks with me are the relationships I built with the people doing this work.” She transitioned to Southerners for Economic Justice, and finally to Blueprint NC.
In addition to her formal organizing work, Erin Byrd has been involved with some of the most important progressive movements with North Carolina—most notably HKonJ, which has evolved into the Moral Monday movement.
“I was very active with HKonJ. We had started this Women of Color legislation movement and we had a big lobby day. The person organizing it with me asked Reverend Barber to come in, and it became the People of Color Organizing Day. Out of that it became HKonJ and now it’s the Foreword Together Moral Monday Movement.”
With all of this impressive work, Erin Byrd still considers being a good mother to her two boys her number one priority. Other passions include creating a food Co-Op called Fertile Ground for Southeast Raleigh (a food desert in desperate need of such a resource).
When asked about how she defines leadership, Byrd answers: “I define leadership as the ability to inspire people to see their brilliance and shared purpose, and to act on it collectively.” She believes that you must always “show up as a real person. Learn to love yourself fully and completely so that you have the ability to love others. Follow your intuition. And learn from your mistakes.”
I’m proud and inspired to have such an impassioned, caring leader looking out for our state .