Warren Tidwell is firmly convinced that those bleak post-apocalyptic movies have got it all wrong, at least when it comes to the South.
Tidwell, an auto mechanic from Walker County, Ala., has spent more than a decade as a community organizer in the rural areas of his home state, leading recovery efforts for all manner of crises, from tornadoes and hurricanes to COVID-19.
“Something happens when the chips are down and we’re broken down to our basest levels,” Tidwell told Reckon. “I’ve seen what happens to humanity when we’re knocked to our knees, and Alabamians – and Southerners in general – you can’t beat us when it comes to that.”
Tidwell was named to the 2022 Reckon List because of his deep commitment to improving the rural South. He’s spent countless volunteer hours building networks of mutual aid among small, rural nonprofits and community groups, the kind that don’t always make headlines.
This year he’s working with the nonprofit Hometown Action, a social justice collective that focuses on rural Alabama, to build “resiliency hubs” in communities around the state. Their goal is to help rural communities and small towns improve their ability to respond to a crisis – whether that’s climate-related, like a tornado, or whether it’s economic hardship or even COVID-19.
“There are wonderful leaders in every one of these towns,” Tidwell said. “We find folks, support their efforts and empower them.
“I’ve seen the potential of our people, and that’s why I believe in them. That’s why I am such a fierce advocate for the rural South.”
‘Our state’s finest hour’
The COVID-19 pandemic struck just two weeks after Tidwell began officially working for Hometown Action in March 2020.
The job had been a dream come true for a guy who was working in an auto shop near Auburn, Ala. and organizing various recovery efforts in his spare time.
He’d organized after the April 2011 tornado outbreak devastated parts of central and north Alabama, killing more than 230 people in Alabama alone. The viral “Toomers for Tuscaloosa” campaign, which organized Auburn fans and others to send support and supplies to hard-hit Tuscaloosa, was his brainchild. A year after Tidwell founded the Facebook group, Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa had served 82,000 meals, remodeled houses, distributed clothing and baby food and other necessities, and even assisted with relief efforts in other states.
“I had a front row seat to our state’s finest hour,” he said. “I saw the potential of Alabama. When rural folks are given a way to help each other, they’re going to do it.”
But in March 2020, COVID-19 posed an entirely new kind of threat. As Tidwell was thinking about how to pivot in his new role with Hometown Action to address the virus, a friend in the nearby rural community of Beauregard reached out for help. The man had a lung condition and was terrified to leave his house without protection. But at the time, masks were impossible to get.
Tidwell asked another friend on Facebook to sew a few cloth masks for his Beauregard friend.
“And I saw all this interest in the comments,” Tidwell said. “So I thought, we could get masks made for the immunocompromised. We didn’t know exactly how COVID-19 worked back then, but we were just trying to get any protection we could” to people who needed it.
East Alabama Mask Makers was born, an online army of mask-sewing volunteers that would eventually, with Tidwell’s help, spawn similar groups all over the state, thousands of members strong.
All told, they made and distributed a quarter of a million cloth masks across eight states. Tens of thousands of those went to meatpacking plants in Alabama, where workers hadn’t gotten the personal protective equipment they needed. Alabamians also outfitted all eight COVID-19 wards at Boston General Hospital in Massachusetts with supplemental PPE and surgical caps.
“I believe in the power of people working together,” Tidwell said. “I believe we’re going to win this thing together, whatever that looks like.”
Escaping the South
When Tidwell was younger, he couldn’t wait to escape the South.
“I had this self-loathing thing that I think a lot of white Southerners have, like, how do I come to terms with such a painful past and such horrific things that I benefitted from? The land I live on and the opportunities I have,” said Tidwell, who is white. He grew up in largely rural and white Walker County, his family full of coal miners and textile mill workers.
“I used to take this strange comfort in thinking we (the South) had the market cornered on all the bad stuff, like racism and bigotry, and that if we could fix it here, we could fix it anywhere,” he said. “And as I’ve grown, I’ve learned that there are sadly bigots from sea to shining sea.
“But there’s a lot to love about the rural South. And there are things I’ve seen from rural folks that I wish other people could see.”
The Southern working class, Tidwell believes, are the “unsung heroes, underpaid, with not near enough good benefits.”
But they often struggle to see past race and class barriers, he said, because they’ve been “manipulated by grifters with ill intent.” When politicians and decision-makers, on both sides of the political aisle, abandon rural places, “that vacuum has been filled with extremism.”
It’s one reason why he sees the work of Hometown Action as so vital, bringing communities closer together and giving them space to meet and work for change: “You can’t dehumanize somebody who’s right in front of you.”
In some of the towns where he works, he said, there’s an “invisible barrier” between the Black activists on one side of town and the white activists on the other. In other places, there’s a resistance to hearing about issues, like climate change, that have been politically polarized.
“For us, it’s not about left versus right,” he said. “It’s about uniting working-class folks and getting them to understand that these issues affect all of us.”
But always with the understanding that he and Hometown Action aren’t coming into a community to tell them how to run things.
“If there’s anybody out there in these small towns who wants to get involved, those are going to be the leaders,” he said. “We’re just coming in saying, ‘What can we do to support what y’all are doing, and how can we get folks talking again?’”
In the end, he said, even on the most frustrating days, it’s the little wins that keep him going: a changed mind on LGBTQ issues, or a grudging concession that climate change poses a problem for Southern communities.
“The smallest wins are the biggest ones for me, on the individual level,” he said. “It’s relationships I get to build in these rural towns, where the people are amazing.”
You can follow Tidwell and his work across his and Hometown Actions’ social media accounts:
Instagram: @hometownaction and @hometownorganizing
Twitter: @hometownction and @hometownorg and @warrentidwell