Writing in Truthout, organizer Ejeris Dixon, who has worked with the New York City Anti-Violence Project and the Audre Lorde Project, describes base-building as, at heart, relationship-building: “a series of activities designed to introduce, engage, and keep people involved in our movements. That means meeting individuals where they are and building forward from that place—the barbershop, the salon, the laundromat, the doorway—where we come together as people and have a conversation.” The Movement for Black Lives policy table, which grew out of a national gathering of activists at Cleveland State University last summer, recently set out to do just that. In January, the policy table announced the start of a six-month process to develop a national agenda. Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, a regional organizer with Project South, is a participant. She says she feels the pressure of developing a vision and creating infrastructure while responding to the seemingly endless killings of black people by police: “We’re building the bicycle while riding it and being shot at.”
Henderson’s background, like Carruthers’s, shows deep connections to earlier iterations of the black-liberation movement in the United States. “My mom is an original Black Panther Party member, and my father was very big in the Black Arts Movement in Tennessee and also in the black radio scene,” Henderson says. When a 66-year-old black man named Wadie Suttles died in custody at the Chattanooga jail in 1983, her father took the bold step of naming the police officer suspected of the fatal beating on the air. In 2004, Henderson met veterans of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when she took a monthlong bus ride with other young activists to register voters and commemorate Freedom Summer.
Among the current organizers, evidence of such long-standing commitment to racial justice is common, notes Barbara Ransby. Many leaders are taking the skills developed in labor or prison or community organizing and applying them to new collaborations. “Oftentimes we don’t do that genealogy, and a new organization feels like it came out of the blue,” she said. “There were new formations, but they were not newly formed organizers.”
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“The work we have to do doesn’t necessarily lend itself to 140 characters.” —Rachel Gilmer, Dream Defenders
What is new, at least for many, is the space for explicitly black organizing undertaken by activists tied to black communities. Makani Themba, a longtime organizer and founding director of the Praxis Project, explains that in the 1960s, the leaders of the movement were the heads of black institutions with sizable bases—think Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael. That changed in ’70s and ’80s, as black leadership came to mean “the most deeply penetrated black person in white or mainstream institutions,” Themba adds. As civil-rights organizations began to depend more on corporate contributions than member donations, and as Reagan-era cuts decimated organizations serving the black poor, black activists who wanted organizing and advocacy jobs turned to the institutions that had the resources to pay and retain them—often unions and economic-justice organizations that operated outside any explicitly black cultural context.
That pattern has shifted in recent years. The phrase “unapologetically black” appears on T-shirts and hoodies worn by movement activists, and a dedication to using messages appealing to black audiences dominates today’s approach to racial-justice organizing. New groups like BYP 100, the Dream Defenders, and Black Lives Matter have blossomed in the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal. Denise Perry directs Black Organizing for Leadership & Dignity, whose stated mission is to “help rebuild Black social justice infrastructure…and re-center Black leadership in the US social justice movement.” BOLD launched in 2011 and graduated its first class of trainees the following year. Perry says that the focus on black organizing was new for a majority of participants. “Many of them were organizing in multiracial, multiethnic organizations. That work is important; we’re not going to win on our own. But the space to have conversations about what we need to work on was new for 98 percent of the people in the room.”
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After the Dream Defenders’ successful occupation of the Florida statehouse in 2013, its members were tempted to focus on actions that would satisfy a Twitter following that had jumped from about 4,000 to more than 30,000 in a month’s time. But the work of organizing “has to be done,” says Rachel Gilmer, 28, who joined the group last summer, “and it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to 140 characters that are going to get retweeted thousands of times.”
In the end, the commitment to building local campaigns won out over the lure of high visibility. The organization, which has eight chapters in Florida, is now in the midst of a yearlong effort to determine its long-term strategy, regardless of the ebbs and flows created by social-media buzz. Last fall, the group put a three-month moratorium on social media, which strengthened relationships and built trust among colleagues, Gilmer says. “It was an opportunity for us to take a break from all the noise in order to get back connected with one another.”
It also forced a reality check about relationships in the movement. “We’re like ‘Hey, fam!’ [online], but people don’t really know each other,” Gilmer says. “There’s no substitute for human interaction.”