The world today seems to be falling apart, and yet the common vibe I encounter most often is not gloomy despair, wickedness, or even unease. More often than not, I witness a defiant desire to “do something,” anything, to stop the unjust suffering of others. At protests or online, most people express a wish to honor the dignity of the lives of others, to help keep others alive and well. The question that hangs over everyone is: how?
Enter Alicia Garza. She is best known as the founder of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, but her work extends far beyond social media. As a community organizer with decades of experience, Garza puts a hand on the shoulders of her readers while reviewing where we have been and what we can do now that will make a difference.
“Dignity and survival are our primary concerns,” Garza writes, and she repeats this message throughout the book. These two priorities seem simple. But Garza opens up to her own personal history and the context of her time – namely, the Reaganism and the suffering it has caused black people for decades – and, in doing so, she shows how important those goals really are. difficult to reach for far too many people.
She emphasizes that empowerment is not the same as the power to really change injustices. The first is a feeling, while the second requires work. Power, she says, is “the ability to make decisions that affect your own life and the lives of others, the freedom to shape and determine the story of who we are.”
Often this job involves knocking on doors, one by one. Many times. The essence of community organization is to “build relationships and use those relationships to accomplish together what we cannot accomplish on our own.” Social media alone cannot make a difference. Subscriber engagement doesn’t produce lasting change. Relationships based on specific short or long term goals do.
Change cannot happen through the efforts of one person. “Organizations are an essential part of movements – they become places where people can find community and learn. . . to act, to organize, ”and to forge alliances, even with those whose priorities are very different from ours.
Religious leaders should, however, exercise caution when forming alliances. During protests in Ferguson, Missouri following the police shooting against Michael Brown, says Garza, traditional black religious leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton “were deposed because of the kind of leadership they have tried to exercise ”. Both underestimated the anger and trauma of the crowd. Jackson “gathered a crowd and asked for donations for the church,” and Sharpton urged the protesters “to calm down and vote.”
Jackson and Sharpton have both been criticized for responding too moderately to Ferguson, and in that sense,
Ferguson’s rebellion marked a major change, a time when black protesters stopped giving a damn about what white or “respectable” blacks thought of their uprising. . . . Whether Black Lives Matter or the Ferguson Rebellion or the subsequent Baltimore Uprising had been taken into account. . . advice on respectability. . . there would have been no uprising, no calculation, no call for accountability.
Too often, religious leaders see us as heroes, marching at the same pace as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, Arundhati Roy and the Dalai Lama. A nostalgic view of these leaders can provoke a sort of pastoral movement tourism. I’ve seen people of faith show up for a day of protests, volunteer once in a crisis, and maybe even gain an online audience after a touching speech. None of this is organized. For a movement to be successful, leadership must be integrated and responsive to the community, before and after a crisis. Change happens, Garza explains, “through sustained participation and engagement with millions of people over a period of time, sometimes generations.”
Garza also makes mistakes. His review of patriarchy includes terminology that is confusing even to me, a non-binary person. I don’t understand why someone in the LGBTQ community (as Garza identifies) would write “male bodied” and “female identified” in one sentence. It reads like two references, both outdated, to trans women. I wish Garza took the time to say that trans women are women, trans men are men, and non-binary people are who they say they are.
That said, Garza makes it clear throughout his book that a mistake can be corrected and relationships repaired, as long as we are committed to each other’s dignity and survival. And it clearly is.
As a former organizer (although she was much less successful than Garza), I can attest to how difficult it is to do the job she writes about. I have heard it said among religious leaders: “Community is washing dishes. We have to do the work that no one wants to do. Yet when it comes to organizing for social change, more often than not I can’t find people of faith doing the dishes. Even when some do, others refuse to see the value of the patient and mundane work of the justice process stretching over years – and sometimes a lifetime.
When the question of how remains unanswered, there are usually mistakes, internal struggles, lack of strategy, and empty rhetoric. “It breaks my heart,” Garza writes,
to see activists and organizers lashing out at each other, angry with money, power and credit, replaying our traumas over and over again. . . . Self-awareness and tools for dealing with trauma. . . are part of the battle; the other part is the healing of systems that create inequalities and feed on trauma.
Doesn’t that also describe religious organizations?
Garza speaks to liberal religious leaders who wonder why we can’t just get along; Gen Z influencers looking to harness an online audience to change hearts and minds in order to save the lives and dignity of loved ones; organizers of a union, community or cause who continually face roadblocks; old-school conservatives wondering how to move forward (or wondering why Reagan invokes such pain among others); and those who attended protest after protest, volunteered over and over again and saw nothing change. The purpose of power is for everyone.
A version of this article appears in the print edition under the title “Getting the job done.”