There are two narratives of women activists in this political moment.
In one telling, women are at the forefront of the resistance. The day after Trump’s inauguration, thousands of women (some in pink knitted hats) took to the streets of every major American city with a promise to oppose whatever this president hoped to achieve. They came home from the march and stuck political signs in their suburban lawns for the first time. They are the reason Trump’s approval ratings are so low.
In another telling, the pink-hatted women protesters were stragglers who arrived late to activism. They hadn’t bothered to attend any rallies against police violence or marches for LGBT rights in the Obama era, but they were finally showing up for social justice now that they felt personally threatened by a president they never thought would get elected. And the jury is still out as to whether these women will continue to show up as their election outrage fades.
Activists at the forefront of women-led justice movements that predate this president, like Black Lives Matter, see some truth in both of these narratives. They want to grow their ranks, which means welcoming new activists. But they want to remain focused on people who are most threatened by the current regime. And they don’t want their years of work erased by stories about how women are flocking to social-justice movements for the first time.
As one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza is an expert on how to draw more people into the fight for justice. In her day job, she serves as special projects director for the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance. Prior to that, she was executive director of a labor organization called POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights) in San Francisco, where she led the fight for free public transportation for youth, pushed back against policies targeting undocumented immigrants, and demanded fairness in real-estate development. In 2013, after Trayvon Martin’s killer was acquitted, she founded #BlackLivesMatter alongside Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors. The group, which came to greater prominence after the protests of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri, now has 40 chapters worldwide.
In January, Garza wrote a widely circulated essay admitting her frustrations with the initial messaging about the Women’s March. But, she wrote, “I decided to challenge myself to be a part of something that isn’t perfect.” She wants to build a movement of millions at a time when the right has labeled #BlackLivesMatter a “terrorist” group, the left is still often slow to show up in solidarity, and “woman” is both a powerful unifying identity and one that is too broad to be meaningful.
I called her up to talk about how she’s navigating the Trump era, and to get her advice on how the rest of us should handle the overwhelming work still to be done.
Nine months into this presidency, I’m wondering if new activists — white women in particular — have stepped up in the way that you’d hoped and given them space for.
Well, it’s complicated. [Laughs.] For me personally, being a black woman and a black queer woman, I feel like I live in this perpetual state of limbo where I want to believe that this country can be different. Then when I walk outside of my house every day, I’m like, How are we ever going to get there? That never goes away. And so have white women acted differently since being given the room to act differently? Yes and no. An example of that is this whole controversy with the Tina Fey sketch. Obviously it’s satire, right? Obviously she’s trying to bring forward these major issues that are plaguing our country and have been for a long time. And yet the way in which she is operationalizing that is perpetuating and reinforcing it.
I agree, and yet celebrities have never been perfect political figures. I’m more interested in nonfamous people who want to stand against Trump’s policies. I think many of us have gotten good at voicing our opposition on social media or privately among friends. Not everyone is showing up at hearings and protests, though. The intentions or high-level beliefs might be good, but the actions still haven’t caught up.
I’m seeing a lot more people step up and say “I want to do X or Y or Z,” but there’s also some hesitancy around really addressing the things that need to be addressed. And to be specific, in the wake of Charlottesville, we’re like, oh, yes, neo-Nazis are horrible. The KKK is horrible. But if we were to start to get into a conversation about prisons, then people start to waffle. Or if we were to get into a conversation about how schools are resourced, people start to waffle. So there’s still a lot more work to do. With that being said, there’s also still not enough clarity on how can people do it differently. I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to be really concrete about that. Because it’s one thing to say, “Well, you’re not doing it right.” And it’s another thing to clarify what the “it” is.
It’s not always easy to meet people where they’re at — we all come to these issues so differently. Can you talk a little bit about who you were before “organizer” was one of the first words in your bio?
I tell people that I could’ve been Condoleezza Rice, and then I found the movement and I’m so glad that I did. [Laughs.] I came up at a time in this country, and particularly in California, where there was a lot of conversation happening about, “Are we a melting pot or are we a salad bowl,” you know?
The search for the perfect multicultural metaphor.
Right. There was this whole thing around multiculturalism and a real effort to infuse our schooling with these frameworks. But part of who we are is that we are a bunch of people who come from different places, and we converge in America, under the promise of liberty and justice for all. My framework, before I was an activist, was “Everybody should be treated the same.” I grew up in Marin County, which is a wealthy suburb of San Francisco. Incredibly diverse, but not where I lived. Liberal and conservative all at the same time. And my family is a mixed family in a whole bunch of ways, meaning my parents are a mixed-race couple, so my dad is a white, Jewish man and my mom is a black woman from Toledo, Ohio. Growing up in a school that was majority white, my understanding of the world was that I was different, but that differences shouldn’t be talked about because it’s uncomfortable. In my community that’s certainly how a lot of people thought: That individual achievement is a result of hard work and perseverance, and also that it’s actually okay for resources to be concentrated in particular places because you earned it.
So what happened to change your thinking about power and privilege?
When I was 12 I got really involved in the movement for reproductive justice, because there was a debate happening in my school district about whether or not to provide condoms in the school nurses’ offices, which contributed to a larger national conversation around family values. Were we going to support comprehensive sex health education that talked about a range of experiences and lives? Or were we just not going to talk about it at all? And in this little, wealthy suburb of San Francisco that was generally liberal, people got real conservative, real quick. “I don’t want my kid to talk about sex at school.” Well, why not?
There’s a common theme here: “Sex, we’re just not going to talk about it. Race, we’re just not going to talk about it. Class, we’re just not going to talk about it.”
A lot of my peers were already having sex at 12, so it was like, “Why would you not talk about it?” Because people are doing it, and we’re just going to act like it’s not happening? How does that work? But to be honest, having the frameworks that I talked about earlier, I think that was reflected in the work that I did. Very race-neutral. Very class-neutral. And also still in the frameworks of who “deserves” and who doesn’t. When I look back on it, I’m like “Oh, Jesus. Sorry for anybody I’ve harmed.”
For me and for many of the feminists I know, reproductive justice was our way into activism. And then we broadened the lens as we began to understand how these issues play out along lines of gender identity, race, class, sexuality. After you do that, it’s really easy to get overwhelmed. This has always been true, but it feels exceptionally difficult under this presidency. No one wants to create a hierarchy of causes they believe in, yet there are only so many hours in the day. I’m wondering how you personally decide what is worth your time and resources right now?
The way that I answer it is based on what I think will unlock other opportunities. I know that every fight is not the final fight. I know that there’s not a silver bullet that’s going to cut across all these things and make it so that we don’t have to deal with them again. And I also know that I don’t have to work on everything. So a lot of my work is based on strengthening and building a really broad movement, like a movement in the millions, so that I don’t have to feel overwhelmed about the scale of the problem because we have people working in every lane possible. It took me a long time to figure out that I didn’t have to do everything, that it was actually a lot more helpful if I did a couple things really, really well than a whole bunch of things really badly, or nothing at all because the whole thing was overwhelming.
How do you remind yourself that this is a long game?
Having the presence of elders in my life who lived through some of the most turbulent moments in this country really helps to give me perspective around that. So people who were part of the Black Panther party and people who helped lead the third world women’s liberation movement and people who were a key part of the anti-war movement against the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Their clarity and their perspective is so helpful personally because it makes me understand that things change slowly and there are moments of eruption that disrupt how we do things now. But to cement or make permanent those disruptions takes time. People take time to change how they do things and we make a lot of mistakes along the way. And so part of it is how do you train yourself to be a long-distance runner as opposed to trying to sprint everywhere and getting winded all the time?
I am driven by wanting to see change in my lifetime. As I was coming up in organizing, people would say things like, “We’re fighting even though we may not see it in our lifetime.” And I’m like that’s BS, like why would you do that? [Laughs.] That doesn’t feel worth it. I mean, if it’s going to come at some point three generations from now, then why am I working so hard?
A lifetime is so long, though! Most of us need a few wins in the meantime in order to keep going. What does positive change look like for you?
It’s about being bold and creative and innovative so that new opportunities are unlocked along the way, and we don’t have to keep banging our heads against a wall trying to solve the same old problem. I don’t want to keep having this debate about whether or not black lives matter. I want to solve different kinds of problems. And so that’s how I focus and prioritize: I want to work on things that get us closer to that. Like, can we put the KKK to bed already? Why are we still fighting these people? Not that we shouldn’t fight them, but wouldn’t it be great to take on different challenges?
The idea of picking a few lanes and staying in them for the long haul is very appealing to me. But then I think about my lived experience — how I consume the news, or the emails I get that are saying “We need your presence today at this thing” — and it’s so hard to feel sure of where I can really bring my value and skills to bear.
For folks who are newer to the movement, newer to activism, that feeling that you just described is real. Sometimes we feel like we have to take on everything. The situation you describe is totally overwhelming, which is why I unsubscribed from a lot of that stuff. I need to create an environment where I can be my best self, and that means being unapologetic about saying no to things that don’t serve me or move me closer to my purpose and the things that I care about the most. You have a lot of agency over how you participate, and it’s important not to be a perfectionist in that arena. Because what happens to folks like you and me is that we can try to take it all on and then get so tired and stressed out and full of anxiety that we can’t do it anymore. And the consequence of that is really astounding. What happens in this moment if people are burned out? Under this administration, in this political climate, what happens if people can no longer do the work of getting rid of Trump and Trumpism, and building the country that we all deserve?
I shudder to think about it. But you’ve been able to keep momentum up for Black Lives Matter, and one thing that I think is so uniquely effective about BLM is the decentralized nature of the organizing. How are you feeling about that model at a time when there is so much centralized national support for white supremacy?
Honestly I feel like we’re in a moment where we need both. I say this to people all the time: The reason that we created Black Lives Matter in that way is because we wanted to build a sense of empowerment and self-determination. Early on in the development of Black Lives Matter, we set up some social-media pages that we intended to offer information about anti-black racism and state-sponsored violence, so people really understood what it looked like concretely in our present time. And we would get lots of inquiries — every day — from people who would say “I’m a white teacher in Louisville, Kentucky and I want my students to know that their lives matter and I’m wondering if you know how to do that.” And I’m like, I’m not a teacher. But here are all these teachers that are contacting me. Why would I not just remove myself from the center of that and put y’all in relationship to each other so that teachers can figure that out with teachers? That’s your lane. That’s what you know how to do.
It’s about recognizing the expertise that each individual brings to the fight.
What does it mean to build a force more powerful than white supremacy? We do need a way that we are coordinated. We also need a way in which we break this dynamic where people want to look to one person to tell them what to do. As long as we organize ourselves in that way, I think we’ll be not successful because it doesn’t encourage innovation. It doesn’t encourage experimentation. And it also doesn’t encourage relationship building.
Maybe there doesn’t have to be one label bringing us all together if we all have shared values but different lanes.
That’s right. That’s right.