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Alicia Garza is a civil rights activist and author with a lot of irons in the fire:
- she co-founded Black Lives Matter in 2013
- she works with the National Domestic Workers Alliance
- she co-founded Supermajority in 2019
- she’s founded the Black Futures Lab
- her book, How to Turn a Hashtag into a Movement, will be out in 2020
We went deep fast in this conversation! We talked about transforming anger into love; we went deep into the topic of redemption; and Alicia presenced for us the idea that black communities are a part of the antidote to the poison that is spreading throughout this country.
Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy
Dr. King’s speech, “Beyond Vietnam”
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On this week’s podcast, I interviewed Alicia Garza. She is a civil rights activist and editorial writer who in 2013 co-founded Black Lives Matter, a black-centered political will and movement building project that you’ve probably heard of. [laughter] Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock in the United States, you’ve heard about Black Lives Matter these last few years, and Alicia Garza has one of the forces behind that movement.
She also works with the National Domestic Workers Alliance together with Ai-Jen Poo – who I’ve also interviewed for this podcast. And most recently Alicia has cofounded Supermajority, a new home for women’s activism that amassed a base of 200,000 women within weeks of launching in I believe 2019, and which aims to mobilize an army of 2 million women in the largest women’s voter contact program in the country. And as if all that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, her forthcoming book, tentatively titled How to Turn a Hashtag into a Movement, will be published in 2020.
We sure did go deep fast. And in this interview we talked about transforming anger into love; we talked about redemption being a societal thing, not just an individual thing; and Alicia presenced for us the idea that black communities are a part of the antidote to the poison that is spreading throughout this country, under the current presidential administration. And that if we are to activate that antidote, we must invest in engaging, activating, and motivating black people.
While the topics that we covered sound like they’re deep and heavy, and I guess in some ways they are, Alicia brought to this conversation a level of lightness and I would even say joy that I personally found really inspirational. And I talked just a little bit about that in the introduction of our interview when I talk about how she and I met each other. So anyway, I hope you enjoy listening to this conversation as much as I enjoyed recording it for you.
Julia: Alicia, welcome to Solving #MeToo.
Alicia: Oh, thank you for having me.
Julia: I am so thrilled to have you on the show. Not just because of your interesting perspective and many accomplishments, but because of one particular moment in time. It happened the moment I met you a couple of months back at an event here in Chicago, in Hyde park where I live, that you put on together with a couple of the other cofounders of Supermajority, one of which is Ai-Jen Poo, who I’ve also had on the show.
Julia: At the end of the panel discussion that evening, you took questions from the audience, and your answer to one in particular simply floored me. it was such a simple answer, and maybe to some, it was even an obvious explanation. But for me it was so moving just how compassionate your answer was, and maybe in particular because that evening had been a pretty feisty one. Another thing that you said that night is, “I wake up every day mad and I’m tired of it. Instead, I want to feel powerful.” Which is a sentiment that certainly we’re going to get into here.
But so against that backdrop of that feistiness and feminine power and righteous justified anger, you went immediately to compassion with your answer. And that balance of being on the one hand, so angry and fighting mad while on the other hand, being compassionate for those who are genuinely trying to be better and do better is what this show is all about.
So in that moment, my heart just exploded towards you. and I became completely compelled to want to have you on as a guest.
Alicia: I’m so glad to be here
Julia: So what can you say about that balance between being angry and trying to get things to change? But on the other hand, expressing that – that just, that just sprung so instantaneously to your lips. Speak more to that. that balance that obviously exists harmoniously inside of you. Or, well, I shouldn’t say so harmoniously. [laughter] I don’t know. Maybe it’s a daily struggle, but what can you say about that?
Alicia: To be honest, I think a lot of us out here are angry. We’re angry about the ways in which this current administration keeps us from having the things that we need. But of course, we know that, you know, the problems that we’ve been facing, whether it’s as women or as women of color, or as people who are struggling to make ends meet, or maybe all of the above, the reality is, is that those conditions have been true for a while. And throughout time, I think anger has really sparked action.
When we think about the anger that women felt not being able to participate in the electoral process, that helped to spur and spawn the suffrage movement, which eventually won voting rights for women.
If we think about the last period of civil rights, people were angry about racial terrorism. People were angry about separate and unequal facilities. People were angry about not being able to participate in the process of making decisions over your own life. And so that sparked bus boycotts and massive voter registration drives and marches across bridges and throughout communities across the United States.
And I think that what is also real in each of those instances, in any instance where anger has sparked something powerful, is that anger in and of itself is a catalyst. But it cannot be the thing that builds the types of relationships that transform the conditions that we live in.
If we’re angry all the time – and I know everybody who’s listening right now has been around somebody who’s angry – and the reality is it’s hard to connect from that place. And, when we’re angry – and angry all the time – one of the things that happens is that if there’s no – not just outlet, but if there’s no transformation of that anger into something that is long lasting and sustaining, then it can actually be corrosive and dangerous.
Our opposition right now is angry. They’re angry at the things that we’ve won over the last few decades. They’re angry about the fact that they think that they are a declining majority, which is true. And they’re angry about the fact that they think that there are people who are getting things that they don’t deserve.
And that anger, as we can see, is corrosive. Whether it be the recent acts of aggression that have happened over the last couple of days on Iran, whether that be the rolling back of rights for women, and the attacks on women, whether that be the continued marginalization of trans people in our society. That kind of anger, not transformed into compassion, into empathy, into connection, eventually devolves into the same corrosive forces that we claim to want to be fighting.
And so for me, the way that I hold those things is that I understand that anger is important and that anger is actually one of the most human expressions of how we experience injustice. And, what is also true is that if we’re unable to transform those dynamics into the dynamics that we actually want to see, then we’re not able to progress towards the things that we all deserve and all long for.
So when that young woman asked that question in the audience, the reality is I’ve been so mad in conversations with some of my male friends about things that they haven’t seen. But the reality is our society is constructed for them to not see the things that I experience. And we can be mad at each other, or we can join each other in a fight to take down those kinds of dynamics so that we can really truly see each other over the long term, and that we can have each other’s backs.
So I felt her in a deep way. I could tell how angry she was. She had every right to be angry. And I thought it was important to encourage her on the other side to just recognize that, like most of us who have learned something that we didn’t know before – and something that is deeply painful to people that we love – our ignorance, or our lack of understanding, can be absorbed by another person as not caring.
It’s not to say that we should give everybody the most amount of leeway ever. I mean, I personally believe that there are people who are committed to misunderstanding you. And then that form, I don’t think that’s a good use of time, given all the things that we have to do in our lives.
But for people who are not committed to misunderstanding you who are in fact committed to better understanding, “How did this happen? How did we get here, and what role can I play in taking it down?” It’s our responsibility and our commitment and our duty to really be clear. Not only in our firmness about how these dynamics cannot continue, but also to be loving and connected enough and empathetic enough to understand that in order for people to enact change, they have to be invested in that change and they have to be invited in.
If we’re never inviting people into the process of change, nothing’s ever going to change. There’s just going to be a small group of us who think we know everything and a much larger group of people who are just coming into it for the first time and scared to ask questions and scared to deepen their knowledge so that they actually can change the dynamics that we’re all impacted by.
Julia: So many directions to go from what you’ve just said. And, you’ve mentioned inviting people in to the change with us, and what that evokes is, of course, a deep fear, because as soon as you invite someone in well, now you’re making yourself vulnerable to that person. And what if that’s a mistake? What if they’re actually going to harm you? What if that’s their intention from the front end or what if they just stumble into being harmful, right? So being open like that is so scary and it brings things up for people.
Secondly, you talked about people who are committed to misunderstanding. That brings up the question, how do we know the difference? How do we know the people who are worth investing our energy in, and those who are not? Which brings up a third corollary issue, which you didn’t speak directly to, but it’s a big one for this podcast, is how do you know the difference between people who just need to be constrained, ie punished? Versus those who have the potential to redeem and change and be forgiven and be welcomed back in,
Alicia: Yeah, I mean, I believe deeply in the power of redemption, and I believe it because I’m a person of faith. And I recognize that I myself have had access to redemption many, many times over my life. And I do struggle with this question sometimes of well, does everybody deserve redemption? And what if people don’t see the error of their ways? Or what if people are obstinate in their approach? And I just sit a lot with the work that Bryan Stevenson does. Bryan Stevenson runs the Equal Justice Institute in Alabama and is the subject of a new movie that’s coming out called Just Mercy, which is based on his book that chronicles his work, working to exonerate people who are on death row in Alabama.
And I have to say that one of the things that Bryan Stevenson says that always sticks with me like a stinger, right in my finger. Paraphrasing him, he says that each of us deserve to be better than the worst thing that we’ve ever done.
And that is something – whenever I hear it, it just gives me chills because it forces me to go inward and say, God. What is the worst thing that I’ve ever done that I’ve been so ashamed of or so embarrassed about?
And what changes when we isolate and extradite people? Nothing. If we disappear people who have done harm, we haven’t actually gotten rid of the harm. We’ve gotten rid of the person who committed the harm, but the person is still a person that is capable of redemption.
Now, let’s take this to another place because the reality is there are lots of people out here doing really terrible things. This week, Harvey Weinstein goes to trial for his sex crimes where he has been accused of raping and sexually assaulting dozens of women that have come forward and perhaps many more that we have never heard their names.
And so you might ask yourself, is he worthy of redemption? And I would say yes.
Redemption though is not just a one-way street. Redemption requires taking responsibility for your actions. Taking responsibility doesn’t just mean saying I’m sorry. Saying I’m sorry is only the first step. The other steps really involve transforming yourself so that those dynamics don’t continue to happen.
Then of course, we are human beings that are also shaped by our environments, right? And so we do have to take on these questions of how do we reshape environments that encouraged and condoned violence?
You know, the United States is an interesting place. It is the country that I call home, and I can say that I do agree with people like Martin Luther King, Jr. who have said that the United States is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. When he said that what he meant was not just war as in military action. He was literally talking about the ways in which this government of this country turns a blind eye to the abuses that happen in communities across the country and across the world. He was talking about the ways in which this country’s government helps to instigate acts of violence.
Whether it be the death penalty, whether it be the way that we incarcerate people, whether it be the ways that we allow people to live under bridges and freeways and tents in freezing cold weather. Those are all acts of violence. Other acts of violence are not being able to make decisions over whether or not you want to have or start a family. These are all ways in which our society is constructed to condone and instigate violence.
And so if you want to have redemption with somebody who has committed an act of harm you do also have to transform a society that says harm against certain people for certain reasons is okay.
And so in the case of Harvey Weinstein, he committed several terrible, awful acts that will impact people’s lives for their entire life. And at the same time, he lives inside of a society that has told him that that is okay because he is a man, because he has money and because he was in positions of power over women.
He is not the only one to ever commit these kinds of acts. Certainly we’ve had other the types of publicity around people like Bill Cosby or R Kelly, who have also been accused and in some cases convicted, of, of literally inflicting harm upon people, in the dozens. And they were allowed to do that for years and years and years because our society said that the people that he was harming didn’t deserve to have a voice didn’t deserve to care and say no.
So I think that redemption is a complicated practice and process, and it’s not one that the United States engages in equally.
I say that to say – and the reason that I contextualize it in the context of the United States – is to say that that level of violence in the way that we condone it, is inherent in every structure that holds us together as a country. And so we do have to reckon with what it means to uphold people’s humanity even in the face of the worst thing that they’ve ever done.
And we have to look at the ways in which our structures and our systems and our societal bonds help to support that kind of behavior in homes and workplaces and communities across America.
Julia: So tell us about the work that you are doing to change, overturn, tear down – whatever verb you want to use – some of those structures that have upheld violence.
Alicia: A lot of the work that I do is centered around making black people powerful in every aspect of our lives. Whether that’d be the work that I’ve done with Black Lives Matter, whether it be the work that I do with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, or whether it be the work that I do with the Black Futures Lab or Supermajority. My passion and my focus is ensuring that black communities that have been locked out and tossed away, I am, have the opportunity to be powerful in every aspect of our lives.
Now for me, what I’m focused on in this moment is building black political power. We know that we are in dire straits in this country. We are facing one of the most important elections in my lifetime and in my generation. There’s a lot at stake, and I believe very deeply that black communities Are a part of the antidote to the poison that is spreading throughout this country. And part of what it takes to activate that antidote, right, is to deeply invest in engaging, activating, and motivating black people to participate in the decisions that impact our lives.
So to that end, we have done a ton of work to survey black communities across the country, to the tune of the largest survey of black people in America in 155 years. We have turned that information into a black political agenda that we feel can unify black communities and activate black communities to want to be engaged in the political process, want to make sure that they’re pushing people who are trying to seek their votes to have a clear agenda around how they plan to invest equally in black communities and in the success and the dignity of black communities.
And then of course, we’re also working to expand the electorate in this country that is black that, doesn’t get talked to except During election cycles. For us, we know that this upcoming election is not that complicated. It’s a turnout election. Meaning you’re not going to necessarily change people’s minds in the next 10 months. But what you do have to do is get them to take what they believe, what their values are and what they’re angry about to the voting booth or to the envelope that they’re going to mail their absentee ballot in.
And so if we believe that that’s true, then we’ve got to go deep inside black communities who we know already participate at high rates, but also who we know are not only being attacked by insidious tactics like voter suppression – like what happened in Georgia last year, or two years ago, I should say – but also it means that we have to expand the electorate in the sense of reaching into black communities, into constituencies that have not been touched by these parties.
The reality is black people in America has been living under terrible conditions since we were brought here ,in 1619. And so the way that we engage in political processes in this country is very pragmatic. for us, it’s not about rallying around a candidate. It’s very much about which one of these candidates will invest in the issues that we care about and invest in our communities for the long term.
So that’s what we’re focused on. And I believe that activating the imagination and the vision of black communities will translate into the political power that we need to change what’s going on in this country, not just for black communities, but for every community.
Julia: And what you’re talking about fundamentally is activating people to a sense of their own power. Because I participate in many of the same kinds of political activities that you’re describing. And so often when people tell me that they don’t vote, it’s because they say it’s not going to make a difference. In other words, I don’t have any power. I can’t do anything to change my individual life much less the larger life of my community and my country. And the words that you used was activating people’s imagination and vision. and I’m wondering how you see an overlap – because you use the word power a lot – how you see that overlap. And once people are empowered to vote or to utilize their power in any area of their lives, it translates across the board – into solving #MeToo, as an additional example. People recognize I have agency, I don’t need to be treated this way, I can use my voice.
And so what are the obstacles on a deeper individual level to activating that power? What, what do we really need to speak to?
Alicia: Well one of the things that I think is really important is to transform the way that politics happens in this country. And that sounds like a lofty task, but I think the work that we’re doing at the black futures lab, that super majority at the domestic workers Alliance is really doing that in real time.
So much of the time when we look at unequal and uneven dynamics, we are so focused on the people who are causing harm that we forget about the people who are experiencing that harm, who are shouldering the burden of that harm.
I was taught that the people who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution. And so for us, and for me, I think the way that we kind of counter this dynamic of cynicism is to actually connect with the people who are being – who are cynical.
Black communities have a lot of reason to not believe in this political process, whether it be the lines that I watched grow uh, in prospect park in Atlanta, Georgia, where people were turning out in droves to vote ostensibly for Stacey Abrams, and there were voting machines that were empty because they had no plugs.
Alicia: And that state actually this year announced that they’d be kicking 300,000 people off the rolls, for, changing their address or for not voting in the last election.
Julia: Wisconsin did a similar effort. Yes. It’s happening around the country.
Alicia: That’s absolutely right. So I mean, there’s lots of reasons for people to be cynical. And I think the problem is, is that we tell people all the time, don’t be cynical. But in fact, we rarely ever acknowledge that you actually have a right to be cynical. What’s happening here is not good. And if we acknowledge that from the get, then it helps people feel like I’m not alone, and I’m not imagining this. So much of the time those of us who have been pushed aside or left out of the process are told that it’s all in our heads.
I was reading an article the other day about Weinstein’s upcoming trial and there are people still two years later coming out and saying I don’t believe that that actually happened to the dozens of women who risked their reputations careers paychecks to stand up and say this man did something wrong to me. There are still people out here saying you’re imagining it. So if we continue to tell people, well just don’t focus on that, then we’re telling them that we don’t take them seriously.
The work that we’re doing at Supermajority, the work that we do at the Domestic Workers Alliance, the work we do at the Black Futures Lab really meets people where they are and says, you know what? You’re right. What’s been happening is terrible, and we see it and you’re not making this up. And if we want to change it, we can’t sit this out. We cannot afford to leave anything on the table because as long as we turn away from the processes and the people who are making decisions over our lives, the longer they are able to have power over us, rather than be held accountable for the ways in which they’re abusing their power.
It starts from there, and once people feel like they have some level of agency to change it and they’re armed with a plan and activities to take in real time to change those dynamics, I can tell you a groundswell will emerge. These are basic tenants and principles of organizing. I’m not making anything up here, and I’m not a genius.
People have been doing this for many, many decades now. but I think sometimes we forget that people are motivated largely by self-interest, but they’re also motivated by results. And the reality is it’s not enough for us to just say it’s terrible. We have to also be fighting and winning changes in people’s lives. And that is how we combat cynicism. And one of the things that we can do to win changes in people’s lives is to arm them with the tools that they need to fight back and to fight back with, effectiveness so that they can win.
Julia: And are there any specific wins that you can rattle off the top of your head? Other than, of course, we flipped the house in 2018 and we’ve won a bunch of state houses. That’s all terrific. That’s showing that progress is in the right direction. And what you just said, changes in people’s lives, I’m sitting here racking my own brain. I’m thinking, I’m not sure I can come up with much that’s fundamentally on the ground, changed I, and I’m wondering —
Alicia: I’ve got a ton!
Julia: Oh, tell me.
Alicia: So just in the last couple of months for example we won one of the most expansive domestic worker bill of rights in in Philadelphia in in Pennsylvania. This bill of rights actually Provides benefits for domestic workers that are locked out of most federal labor protections and excluded and carved out from most labor protections and those benefits they can take to any employers that they work with. It’s unprecedented and anywhere else in the country and it results in material tangible changes in people’s lives.
We can also say that at super majority We literally in just a couple of weeks amassed a base of 200,000 women and our friends who said we’re ready to sign up and we are ready to mobilize an army of 2 million women in the largest women’s voter contact program in the country and that’s going to kick off in September. That is a huge change when you think about the power of women and the power of women to tip elections for so many people in such a short time to raise their hand and say I’m in and to be consistently engaged since we launched last year is an incredible, incredible victory.
The reason I call it a victory is because there are 200,000 women in our friends across the country right now who say, I no longer feel alone. I no longer feel isolated, and I no longer feel like this is all going on in my head and I’m just mad in my own house and nobody else cares. That’s important as we go into the 2020 election.
And then finally, we had this victories in state houses across the country, and I want to lift those up because we can’t underestimate how powerful that is in this age and in this era. In places like Virginia in the South Where not only was there a supermajority won, no pun intended, but there’s also a majority of women of color and black women who are elected to the state legislature. That’s the first time that, that has happened in the history of that state. And that is really important. It’s an important indicator for how power can change, but it’s also an important indicator for, all of the women of color and black women in that state who have never seen themselves reflected in their state or local government. That’s incredible. So if we look at Alabama, if you look at the groundswell in Georgia, we look at the groundswell in Florida. We look at the ground swell in Virginia. These are places that people said would never have democratic majority
With that being said, I think that victories are those things that open up new opportunities for more wins. It’s not a victory only that a democratic majority was won. That just opens up more work for us to make sure that the parties in those States are actually being accountable to the things that people want.
But I can tell you it’s an important step because if I were to try to sit down, for example, with Stephen Miller and try to talk to him about all the things that I care about. And he was my legislator. I guarantee you I’d be working in a much uphill, a much more uphill battle than I am with a woman of color who comes from my community, who experiences the things that I experienced and who shares my values.
So I think that there’s a tide of change that’s sweeping across the country. Tons of victories that are happening in people’s communities. And the best is yet to come.
Julia: Oh, the best is yet to come. Yes. What a hopeful way to end this podcast. Alicia, thank you so much for coming on solving me to today. It’s just been terrific.
Alicia: Thank you so much, talk soon.