At home in WNC
“I’ve always loved it here,” Linda Stout says of Western North Carolina. Her home in Reynolds reflects that devotion. The open floorplan allows light to pour in from one of her several porches; her expansive lawn is meticulously landscaped to showcase the area’s natural beauty. “That’s why we bought that land on Garren Creek Road in Fairview and built that little round purple house,” Linda explains. “Because I was homesick.” She pauses, then adds, “I bet people will remember that little house.”
Linda’s connection to Western North Carolina is in her DNA. Like her mother, Linda was born in Sylva. She spent her early years here in NC’s mountains and enjoyed many holidays and extended visits with her Appalachian relatives. So, although the Stout family moved east to Asheboro when Linda was about five, her love for WNC never wavered.
A life-altering tragedy
In Asheboro, the Stouts lived with relatives in cramped quarters, saving for a place of their own. Linda’s father worked as a tenant farmer and her mom as a millworker.
“Then the wreck happened, and Mother was disabled from then on,” Linda’s bright affect darkens momentarily at the memory.
It was 1959. A drunk driver plowed into the young family, leaving each of them with life altering injuries. Despite the staggering damages, the Stouts never received remuneration for their losses or any assistance with their mounting medical bills. Their meager—if growing—savings account was just one more victim of the devastating wreck.
The injuries Linda’s mother sustained left her unable to care for her children: Linda and her two younger sisters. Plus, Linda’s dad, now the sole provider, had to work even longer hours. By default, the cooking, cleaning, and childcare fell to Linda.
A good mom who happened to be disabled
“But Mother made it into a game,” Linda laughs. “She was the queen, and I was the princess,” Linda shakes her head remembering. “Of course, it wasn’t always fun!” On the days when it all got to be too much, Linda would announce that she was running away. Her mother would say, “Okay, just pack a sandwich for your trip and don’t go farther than the sound of the car horn.” With the necessities packed, Linda would set off for a day in the woods.
“Those days were wonderful!” Linda says, smiling. “Our whole family lived in a camper about the size of this room.” She gestures around the room then clarifies, “Actually, it might have been smaller.” In truth, the camper was 10 x 40 feet (for a family of five). “Anyway, I would just walk away from all that stress and spend the day in nature all by myself. Before it got dark, I’d make my way back home.” She pauses, looking out at the birds dining in one of the dozen or so feeders on her porch. “I guess I did that once a month or so. My parents knew I needed it.”
In school, Linda was an outstanding student, committed to making the top grades in her class. “I told my teachers I was going to go to college to become a teacher,” Linda recalls. “Then one day, in front of my whole class, a teacher said that I was stupid, and that I should forget about college.” Linda remembers the moment with frustration. “Unfortunately, for a while, I believed her.”
Today, it’s hard to imagine anything slowing Linda down. She went on to graduate high school as valedictorian and was awarded a National Merit Scholarship (a fact she gladly shared with that teacher who bet against her). Then, when red-tape and sloppy administration killed her college dream, she began forming a new vision.
As a little girl, Linda had learned that people living in poverty are often treated with disrespect and even disgust. This classism had marked her youth and followed her into the workforce. Then, as a single, professional woman in the 1970s, she faced sexism and witnessed overt racism. Linda is a 13th generation Quaker; she was formed from an early age by the Society of Friends’ belief in the value of all humanity. She had grown up learning to reject these -isms wherever they arose. As an adult, Linda often had to choose between her ideals and her employment.
Piedmont Peace Project
So, when the time was right, Linda started a nonprofit, Piedmont Peace Project, where her vision of peace and justice set the standard of operations. Under Linda’s leadership, Piedmont Peace Project produced tremendous results. Folks noticed. Among those who realized Linda’s extraordinary talents? Harvard University.
“They offered me a Public Policy Fellowship in 1993,” she says, “and I taught a class a semester for two years.” That’s right. Linda Stout took her high school diploma right on up to Cambridge and joined the faculty. “There was this one time when they listed the fellows’ education in some publication. When they asked me for my degrees, I told them I had a high school degree, but that was it.” Linda’s laugh is always ready, particularly when she identifies the ways her experiences have combined to afford her opportunities, seemingly out of reach for that little girl from Sylva.
Her time in Massachusetts stretched out beyond the two years, though. She married, she and her wife took in three children who they raised as their own, and her work as an organizer continued to thrive.
Over the course of her career, Linda has authored multiple books and countless articles. She is known internationally as an expert in grassroots organizing and has worked alongside some of the great social justice advocates of the day. She has raised millions of dollars for social justice and has launched dozens of nonprofits through Piedmont Peace Project and her current nonprofit, Spirit in Action. Her efforts have circled the globe.
“I would always come back here though,” Linda says. “I would spend time in the little purple house in Fairview writing and planning for events. And I always knew I wanted to retire in this area.” The wind blows the chimes on her deck, a breezy melody to harmonize with the birdsong. “I just love it here!”