A record-sized wave of women running for office and becoming politically active is breaking over the South, too. Coco Papy’s frantic existence shows just what it takes to make political action your life’s work.
Story by Ariel Felton | Photographs by Kaylinn Gilstrap
The front door of Courtnay “Coco” Papy’s house in Savannah, Georgia, is almost hard to find amid the jungle of plants tangled on her porch. In her kitchen, more leafy plants hang from the ceiling and stretch their vines in a sunlit window above her table.
On her counter rests a small bowl filled with white and brown speckled eggs, courtesy of a flock of ruffle-feathered chickens in her backyard. Their images generously populate Papy’s Instagram feed, where her bio reads, “Come for the shenanigans, stay for the chickens.”
The “shenanigans” she speaks of are her constant actions in the politics of her community. Political pundits are already labeling 2018 “the year of the woman,” because record numbers of women are running for Congress and statewide offices around the country. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, 50 women — Democrats and Republicans alike — are competing this year for U.S. Senate seats. The CAWP estimates more than 400 women will compete for seats in the House of Representatives, and almost 200 women will vie for statewide elective offices, including 80 who will compete for governorships.
Papy isn’t sure when she will cross the line from activist to candidate, but her life illustrates vividly just how much work is required of women who choose to make political activism a central part of their lives.
Connect Savannah, the city’s alternative weekly newspaper, last year named Papy “Best Local Community Activist.” The 32-year-old Savannah native prefers “community organizer,” she cannot dispute she is active. The list of local organizations and causes Papy is involved with includes the Creative Coast, Inc., Planned Parenthood Southeast’s Young Leaders of Savannah, and the Savannah Cultural Affairs Commission. She co-founded Emergent Savannah, a social and cultural organization that advocates for the community through thoughtful conversation and personal action. She also serves as president of her neighborhood association, where she plans to fight fiercely for better sidewalks.
In Papy’s living room, handbooks for political action spill off the shelves. “Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds” by Adrienne Maree Brown, “If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics” by Marilyn Waring, and a wittily named 2004 treatise called “How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office: The Anti-Politics Un-Boring Guide to Power.” An eclectic collection of art hangs on her walls, small sketches and mixed-media prints from local artists or found in junk stores over the years.
A large painting of James Baldwin draws my eye. Immediately, I recognize it as the work of PanHandle Slim, a well known Savannah folk artist, whose colorful portraits adorn billboards and street corners downtown. The Baldwin piece illustrates the author’s face along with the quote, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
“Slim gave that to me as a housewarming gift and I love it so much,” Papy tells me. “Baldwin was brilliant and had a deep love and sadness for this country. I think his words are incredibly patriotic - that we, as stewards and inhabitants of this land must always, always be vigilant in being vocal about what is unfair and unjust, and work to make it better.”
It may surprise some that a woman so heavily invested in her surrounding community once left it behind. At 17, Papy fled Savannah, chased away — like many young Southerners — by the South’s reputation as uncultured, lacking employment opportunities, and less desirable than the nation’s other regions. After a brief stint in Atlanta, she moved to New York, chasing the allure of bustling city life, where she could use her passion for community organizing to have an effect on the world.
For a little over a decade, Papy embraced New York, going to school, supporting the Occupy Movement and desperately trying to ditch her Southern accent. But it wasn’t until she returned to Savannah that she realized she’d gotten it all wrong.
“When I was organizing in New York, I always fell into the background, unsure if it was really my place, if I knew enough about the community or issue that I was rallying around,” she confesses. “When I moved back home to Savannah, to the South, that’s when it became clear that this is where my work is and where my place is.”
Papy came to realize if there were any place where her hypervigilance for injustice and her dedication to community engagement would be welcomed, it was back home — a place where everybody knew their neighbors, and where she talked the same way everybody did.
Papy’s bloodline is stuffed with engaging women who challenged the status quo.
Among them was her grandmother, Jeanne Mimi Papy, who in 1970 became one of the first two women in Savannah to earn her real estate license — and who immediately chose to sell homes to African-Americans, a controversial move at the time. Papy, though, is reluctant to paint a picture of her Mimi as a saint. Rather, she calls her a woman who “took no shit in an age and culture when women had to know their place and had little protection.”
“But also, she was very much a woman of her times,” Papy adds. “When she was alive, we had knock-down-and-drag-out debates on how differently we saw the world and our places in it. She participated in a culture of Savannah I saw as very removed and protective of privilege. But through those debates, I was able to grow as a person and as an organizer and understand how to have difficult conversations in a way that leaves people in a place of better understanding, rather than bruised and confirming our separate beliefs.”
Regardless of their opposing stances on privilege, Papy definitely inherited her grandmother’s fighting spirit and strong moral compass. Papy was in high school when she joined the movement against the Iraq War, a cause she took up after stumbling into a protest in Savannah’s Johnson Square.
“It was during the height of post-9/11 aggression, a time when anyone who was questioning the war or speaking out was considered very anti-American,” Papy recalls. “I was really young, but I think most of us can look at something and say, ‘Nope, this is wrong.’ And seeing everything that happened after 9/11, seeing how anyone brown was being treated, it wasn’t hard for me to say, ‘No, this is wrong, the Patriot Act is wrong, these things are all wrong.’ I didn’t have a vocabulary for it, but it felt like my job to say something.”
From there, Papy continued to work with Food Not Bombs and even joined demonstrators at Sea Island when world powers met there in 2004 for the G8 Summit. Soon, the budding activist started believing her dreams were too big and her politics too blue for Savannah.
“When I was a teenager, Savannah felt very heavy,” she says. “It felt like there were no possibilities. You could either become a waitress or, if you’re lucky, maybe some dude’s wife. Not only that, but back then, the whole idea of Southern pride seemed like something you just didn’t touch. The people I knew who were out and proud about the South were the same people who waved the confederate flag everywhere. I didn’t identify with that way of thinking, so I felt like Savannah wasn’t for me. I was too young to really understand that you can be Southern without identifying with the parts you don’t agree with.”
At 19, in 2005, Papy enrolled in the School of Visual Arts and moved to New York City, where she became involved in the Occupy Movement, wrote impassioned articles on social justice, and worked at a Harlem after-school program.
She also found herself navigating the same preconceived notions about the South she thought she’d left behind.
Coco Papy remembers a particular job interview in New York City.
A potential employer in Brooklyn interrupted her in mid-sentence and said, “I can’t hire you because you sound like an idiot.”
Understandably shocked, Papy asked the person to explain.
“Your Southern accent. People aren’t going to take you seriously.”
“I thought, ‘I have this thing that I’m carrying around that is going to make me unemployable. I have to get rid of it,’” Papy says. “I started contorting myself to agree with that state of mind and trying to distance myself from these Southern stereotypes. I didn’t want to be seen as dumb or backwards. It was like a moral stickiness I felt I had to run away from."
Then, in 2012, Papy’s Grandma Mimi got sick. Papy began to visit Savannah more frequently. Concurrently, she had begun questioning the effectiveness of her work in New York.
“I’m not sure exactly what it was,” Papy says, “but I just started to feel like there had to be something more than what I was experiencing. I was working this peanuts job and shouting into the void about politics. I just remember thinking, there's gotta be a different way.
“I started to get a little bit defiant and protective about where I come from. I was even in a relationship with someone whose parents thought the South was a terrible place, and I just got sick of denying who I was and where I came from. I’d find myself three glasses of wine in at night — you know that's when the accent really kicks in — and I'm yapping to my friends about all the cool stuff that came from the South while they rolled their eyes at me.”
In December of that year, Mimi Papy passed away. Soon after, Coco came home to Savannah for good, leaving behind a job, a partner, and a New Yorker’s life she had cultivated for 11 years.
“I don’t want to make it sound like New York is an awful place,” Papy says. “It did teach me how to hustle. But I just felt like there was something here in Savannah. Very simply, it felt like home.”
In Savannah, Papy moved into Grandma Mimi’s house and wasted no time looking for ways to get involved and reintegrate herself into the community.
Her search led her to the Deep Center, an award-winning literacy nonprofit for Chatham County’s public middle schools. As a writing fellow, Papy led after-school writing workshops with groups of students, encouraging them to write original and fearless prose. Often, Deep Center students write from their own experiences — what their schools are like, what happens in their neighborhoods — revealing Savannah from a new perspective.
“I began to realize that there are so many different stories in Savannah that need to be amplified, and protected, and shouted from the rooftops. It’s so important to the survival of people in any place,” she says. “I think I also, as a person, had changed. I realized that the only way that Savannah would change was if people like myself came back and rooted themselves down to changing it.”
In 2015, she co-founded Emergent Savannah, a social and cultural organization built to bring the community together for thoughtful conversation and personal action. The nonprofit’s events include monthly “Monday Means Community” discussions and storytelling opportunities, leadership classes and even fundraising dance parties. For Papy, this focus on community building through grassroots organization is the key to bringing larger change.
“So often in politics, people talk about ‘having a seat at the table,’” she tells me. “But a lot of the time, nobody is handing out invitations to that table. You’ve got to go to the woods first and chop down the tree, and whittle the table and the little chairs, and force your way into that conversation to have your voice counted.”
A millennial through and through, Papy also uses social media to invite people into conversation. Her Facebook page is full of the latest political and cultural articles from an array of local and national outlets. “Savannah, what do you think?” she asked followers the morning after the Savannah City Council passed a resolution to rename the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge. (Talmadge, who served three terms as Georgia’s governor in the 1930s and ’40s, was a staunch segregationist.) Sometimes, she takes a more direct approach and simply links to a live stream of a City Council budget hearing along with a friendly reminder that the event is open to the public.
As much as Papy wants people to get involved, she is careful not to treat her neighbors like mere numbers or a set of hand that can get things done. Instead, she focuses on cultivating genuine relationships with those around her, believing it the surest way to building a stronger community.
“When in New York, I noticed activism was really transactional. It was all about mobilized action. There was work, it needed to be done, and it felt like we were just checking off boxes,” Papy says. “In Savannah, I can focus on relationship building and trust building. Here, activism is about deep community work — not just calling on people when you need someone to speak at an event or answer a survey question, but cultivating honest friendships with people. You’re not only doing work together, but you’re also taking care of one another.”
Her community-building strategies seem built for Southern culture, where everyone knows you, and your family, and what happened to your crazy grandfather back in 1927.
“We live in a place where all sorts of people have been institutionally or culturally separated from one another,” Papy says. “Savannah, with all of its districts, is designed to be siloed, and we have to be really intentional about breaking down those silos, and making sure you’re hearing from large swaths of people from all the different cultures that exist down here.”
Her work in the community has had an unforeseen side effect. Papy has fallen in love with Savannah again.
“Being back home, it’s easy to see that the story I had told myself about Savannah and the South wasn’t necessarily true,” Papy says. “This place is so much more complicated than people realize, and there will probably always be disagreements on what it means to be Southern and have Southern pride. Personally, I think it takes a very special type of person to hold onto all the complexities of the South — the heaviness, the sadness and the oppressiveness, as well as the goodness and hopefulness. All I know is that I feel very rooted here at the moment.”
If you were following Coco Papy on the evening of the 2016 presidential election, you would’ve seen this status: “Y'all, just remember, we gonna be alright. #youareyourneighborskeeper.”
The very next post was a link to a Jezebel article, “A List of Pro-Women, Pro-Immigrant, Pro-Earth, Anti-Bigotry Organizations That Need Your Support.”
“A lot of my coworkers were crying that next morning, but as emotional as I was, I didn’t really feel like I could cry,” Papy says. “Instead, I gave myself three hours to sit in my feelings and then, I told myself, ‘You have to do something.’”
With her desire to support organizations she felt would soon be under attack, Papy quickly became involved in the Women’s March on Washington the day after President Donald J. Trump was inaugurated.
“I have to admit, I had no idea what it would become,” Papy says. “When I got involved, the whole thing was [still] just an idea spread by a woman in Hawaii that I’ve never met.”
That woman was Teresa Shook, and weeks later her idea had snowballed into the largest single-day protest in United States history. As a Georgia state organizer, Papy joined forces with five other area women and helped secure transportation and additional resources for thousands of women from Savannah and surrounding cities to travel to Washington for the major event.
“It all happened really fast,” Papy says. “We planned the march before we even knew what was going to happen when we got there…. We started looking into buses and sponsored tickets for people who couldn’t purchase $120 tickets. We took efforts to make it financially accessible and ADA accessible. And it just kept getting bigger and bigger. There was a time when my phone was always going off with people emailing or messaging me with so many questions.”
Papy also got PanHandle Slim involved, commissioning the artist at a discounted rate to create signage for marchers to take to Washington. In day-of pictures, it’s easy to spot Savannah marchers with their colorful, Slim-made signs that carried the faces and words of Roxane Gay, Gloria Steinem, Grace Jones, Dolly Parton, and more.
"We wanted Savannah to stand out in the march," Papy says. "We wanted people to know Savannah had showed up. I always knew there were amazing people here fighting for the South, and now the world would know, too."
A week after the group returned to Savannah, the signs were displayed at Trinity United Methodist Church, while the protesters took turns sharing why they joined the march. A picture in the next issue of Savannah Morning News shows Papy, arms raised and muscles flexed, as she stood behind the podium.
Looking back, Papy considers the event a success.
“With the help of [fellow Georgia state organizers] Nadja Payne, Hannah Lodge, Lyndsay Arrendale and a lot of other really amazing and dedicated people, we pulled off a really good mobilization moment that led to a lot of other things happening,” Papy says. “Which is the whole point, right? First, you march, and then you go back and do all the other stuff — you show up at city council, you vote, you show up at your neighborhood association. You keep that fire going. And I think that’s exactly what we did.”
In the months following the Women’s March, Papy began rounding up a group of like-minded local women to create Planned Parenthood Southeast’s Young Leaders of Savannah group. True to Papy’s informal style, the group often met in her living room or a restaurant to discuss how to spread information about Savannah’s newest Planned Parenthood facility and the services it offered.
“We aren’t a policy group,” Papy says. “We aren’t advocating for any political party. We’re a group of young women who know that Savannah will come together for a cocktail and a good cause. I find if you feed people and give them something to drink, they are a lot more open to discussing issues and volunteering time or money.”
While America’s new political realities have left many people angry, confused, and feeling powerless, Papy responds by sharpening her focus on how to build a better Savannah.
“If anything, this new administration has made me hone down much more locally,” Papy says. “It has really shone a light on how important it is to have thoughtful and capable people in office. If those people are making decisions, you better make sure they understand how lots of different people live, and not just folks who look like them, talk like them, and go to the same country clubs as them.”
Most recently, Papy’s focus has been on encouraging young people from different backgrounds to run for office. And she’s not afraid to push for that goal herself. In March 2017, she was accepted into the Georgia WIN List, a political action committee dedicated to getting pro-choice women in office, where she studied how to effectively manage a campaign. This statewide network of women famously throws house parties the night before elections simply to dial constituents and remind them about their candidates — which Coco was doing the night of the November 2017 state elections
“I think there are a lot of really important conversations happening in Savannah right now about what the city will look like in the future, what direction it’s going to go into, and where dollars should be invested, and I think that younger folks should be in those discussions,” Papy says. “I learned about the Georgia WIN List from Amanda Hollowell, who was the first Savannah graduate of the program and someone who I hope to one day work on her campaign.”
With all of her work in Savannah, Papy has unsurprisingly become a bit of a local celebrity. Her face can be found screaming into a microphone at an International Women's Day celebration downtown, or sitting down with the morning news anchors on WSAV-TV, a black blazer dressing up her T-shirt, which reads “Michelle & Kamala & Elizabeth & Maxine & Ruth.” You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in town couldn’t recognize Papy’s dark hair, red lipstick, and giant hoop earrings.
She admits the attention isn’t always positive, but those who support her often ask when — not if — she is going to run for office herself. She says she is considering her own campaign, but she keeps further plans close to her vest.
“I’m not ready to announce anything quite yet. The official tagline is that I’m currently researching positions,” Papy says, smiling. “I know some folks in town refer to me a ‘rabble-rouser’ or a ‘pot-stirrer’ in a negative way, but truth be told, troublemakers get things done.”