School of Hard Knocks: An Interview with Aaron Scott of Chaplains on the Harbor

On a mission to speak with innovative, creative political educators working across the country, TESA’s Darya Marchenkova recently interviewed Aaron Scott.

Aaron Scott is the organizer and co-founder of Chaplains on the Harbor, a church dedicated to good news of the poor, by the poor, for the poor in rural Grays Harbor County WA. Chaplains on the Harbor supports and develops the leadership of people experiencing homelessness, incarceration, and poverty. Their projects include survival, worship, pastoral care, popular education and organizing. Aaron is a Standing Commissioner for the New Poor People’s Campaign, a second-generation preacher, a third-generation organizer, married to Shelly and newly the proud parent of baby Moses.

What is it like where Chaplains on the Harbor works?
We work all over Gray’s Harbor County, Washington. Gray’s Harbor County is a rural county on the coast of Washington state. A hundred years ago it was the lumber county of the world. It was also a hotbed of organizing through the Industrial Workers of the World. A lot of the Wobblies (IWW) were homeless and would ride the rails to wherever there was work, agitating and educating along the way. That’s the local history of resistance.

More recently, there have been generations of state repression, and vigilante violence that’s tied to state repression. The timber industry has collapsed. They’ve mostly gone to places like the Amazon where raw materials were cheaper and labor laws were nonexistent.

Incarceration is the only industry that has replaced timber.

How did Chaplains on the Harbor and the School of Hard Knocks start?
Chaplains on the Harbor started as a street ministry, doing community-building and hospitality. It was started by Reverend Sarah Monroe, who grew up in this county while the economy was in freefall. She has memories of out of work loggers coming to her family’s farm begging for work and food. She went to seminary and got trained in street ministry in Boston, then came back to Washington. Sarah’s got two generations of her family in law enforcement. She thought police brutality would be different in a small town than it was in Boston, but it isn’t.

Sarah did 2–3 years just of relationship-building, going out in the street, talking and eating lunch with people. That started a small network of church volunteers, and they started doing food programs. The volunteers are people living in poverty and homelessness themselves. People started opening up with more explicitly political issues they were facing on the street.

In 2015, the city pushed to evict the largest homeless encampment in town. Homeless people have camped on the same piece of land since the Great Depression. It was horrific. Sarah got in touch with local media, who did a very good piece about it, interviewing Sarah and folks living in the encampment.

Since then the organizing has exploded, and we decided to set up a popular education project. I started it and called it the School of Hard Knocks.

From the jump, I was blown away by how much more radical people were than I expected, radical based on their experiences.

The popular education process has been an education process for me too. There’s so little scholarship on any level on rural poor white resistance today.

What happens in the School of Hard Knocks?
We have really informal 2-hour-long weekly meetings with food. We’ve pulled people together around themes that were popping up frequently, such as Police, Prisons, and Poverty.

Our materials need to be more visual-based than text-heavy. A lot of folks in our base haven’t had access to education. There’s high intelligence but low literacy.

We have to be careful not to make this feel like traditional school because a school type of setting can feel very triggering to people, especially younger adults. We have the highest rate of jailing kids for non-criminal cases in the nation.

People have gone to jail for missing school. So school is not something that people resonate with.

Another thing we do is go on one-on-one visits to jail. We have more access and time because we’re clergy. Eventually we’ll have to change School of Hard Knocks to a prison correspondence course.

What is an experience that stuck out to you from the School of Hard Knocks?
One of the brightest moments so far was watching Fruitvale Station (the story of Oscar Grant, who was killed by Bay Area police in 2009). People lost it because they immediately saw it as their story, and this is a county that’s like 85% white. From this, we got the idea that some of our core organizing should be against state violence.

Once we spoke out against street violence, our street credibility grew. The School of Hard Knocks had been drawing an older crowd—people comfortable to enter a church and sit down and have a conversation. But local young people have been really scapegoated for all of the ills of the community. A lot of them are homeless and involved in the drug economy. They’re framed as bad people, or that they have bad parents. There’s very little analysis of these problems as part of the prison industrial complex. We need to reach young people because they’re the most radicalized and mobilized and because they’re the most harshly impacted.

What advice can you offer to people doing popular education in their communities?
Popular education starts from viewing people as their own experts and coming to them for the content. People are coming to these conversations with their own frameworks and lenses for understanding things. They might be trying to discuss something like unemployment but they’re coming with a right wing lens. You have to see through what this person is saying through their lens and ask questions like: did you lose a job in this county? Bring it back to questions about their life.

Our interview with Aaron was edited for length and clarity.

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