Analysis Based on factual reporting, although it incorporates the expertise of the author/producer and may offer interpretations and conclusions.
How Black History Paves the Way for a Just Black Future
Alicia Garza’s name will go down in American history as being one of the three women, alongside Patrisse Cullors and Ayọ Tometi, who conceived of and popularized the slogan #BlackLivesMatter nearly 10 years ago in response to Trayvon Martin’s 2013 killing. That hashtag went on to frame the 2014 Ferguson uprising, and the record-breaking racial justice uprisings of 2020.
And yet, the question remains: How can this country ensure that Black lives matter?
Garza frames her approach to racial justice within Black futurist visions—she refers to the month of February as Black Futures Month rather than Black History Month. According to her, “Black communities have always been futurists.” What that means is, “Because of the way that the rules have been rigged against our communities, we’ve been forced to imagine a new future with possibilities for freedom.”
Her organizations, Black Futures Lab and Black to the Future Action Fund focus on Black communities achieving the political power necessary to realize a just world, free from police violence, segregation, poverty, and disparities in health, wealth, and more.
Working during and in between elections, Garza is leading efforts to ensure grassroots groups are properly resourced to engage and mobilize Black voters, as well as train a new generation of individual organizers.
Garza spoke with YES! Racial Justice Editor Sonali Kolhatkar about what it takes to realize a just future for Black people.
This interview has been edited for clarity, and was conducted before the public release of the video showing the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Tell me about the organizations that you are the principal of—the Black Futures Lab and Black to the Future Action Fund—and specifically the work that these organizations embarked on right after last year’s midterm elections to infuse Black-led voting rights organizations around the country with the financial resources that they need ahead of the 2024 elections.
Alicia Garza: So, what we did is we established what we’re calling a Black Organizing Innovations program. And the reason that we did that is because we know, every single election cycle we are lamenting and wringing our hands about how Black communities are under-engaged or engaged at the last minute. And so, what ends up happening every single cycle is that people get confused, concerned, about how Black people are going to participate, whether or not Black people are going to participate. And in a lot of ways, you know, this is a never-ending cycle that we hope to make an intervention in.
What we know about Black community participation is that Black communities participate in elections at higher levels than many other racial or ethnic groups, and it’s because Black communities have a lot at stake and a lot on the line. But the other reason that Black communities participate regularly and often is especially when we are engaged year-round and not two weeks, three weeks, or four weeks before an election cycle.
We really wanted to invest in organizations that have a strategy of year-round activation of Black communities, not just when we want something, right? But making sure that we are there every single step of the way to encourage and help germinate Black political participation, not just during election cycles, but everywhere in between.
With the Black Organizing Innovations program, we are resourcing creative ways that organizations are using in Black communities to keep our communities engaged between election cycles. What we know and what we believe is that infusing those organizations and those strategies with resources to keep our communities engaged will play out better for us in the next election cycle.
Research shows that when Black communities are engaged early and all the time, that we will participate in elections. And so, we are trying to help encourage that participation by resourcing what is often not resourced, which is the work that it takes to be the glue between election cycles.
Kolhatkar: Since the donations were made to organizations after last November’s election, there was already, I understand, one test of it—in Georgia. We had a Senate runoff race and the organization Black Voters Matter, which has been one of the most important on-the-ground organizations for years now, engaging and mobilizing Black voters in the South—tell me a little bit about what they did with the funding your organizations gave them.
Garza: Well, we partnered with Black Voters Matter to do a “Wakanda Votes Forever” activation. As you know, Wakanda Forever was released just before the election, and Black communities far and wide were rushing to the theaters to see the next installment of Black futures and what that looks like. And for us, it was important to support Black Voters Matter in the work that they were trying to do to keep Black communities engaged.
Here’s what we know. What we know is that organizations like Black Voters Matter were deeply underfunded to do the work that our country depends on to keep Black communities engaged. We love the work of Black Voters Matter, but when it comes to actually resourcing them, and making sure they have the tools and the money that they need to do the incredible work that they do, being the glue for communities, and bridging the gap between what government does to engage us in the decisions that impact our lives and the decisions themselves, it’s asinine to me to hear a group like Black Voters Matter—which is doing some of the most important voting rights work in the country—to hear them say that they don’t have the resources that they need to do the work that we depend on them for.
So, we definitely did, gratefully and happily, move resources to that organization. And we also partnered with them. And so, what that meant was that we were getting people involved and excited after they had been voting, a lot, in the previous couple of months, and we also got people looking future forward.
We had people taking the Black Census to let us know about what their policy priorities were moving into 2023 and, of course, in upcoming cycles where we’ll be deciding who leads this nation in 2024. And we’re hoping that more partnerships like that can and will happen through the Black Innovations Organizing project.
We are resourcing organizations throughout the South, throughout the Midwest, and a couple in California to do that necessary work, to keep our communities engaged in the process of democracy. Democracy doesn’t begin or end with casting your vote. Democracy is a project that needs to ensure that all of our communities are responsible for what happens in the state legislatures and in the White House. And in order to do that, we need to make sure that our communities are being engaged consistently. And we need to make sure that our communities’ priorities are being heard.
Kolhatkar: You mentioned the Black Census project, tell me about this. It sounds very ambitious—“the largest survey of Black people in the U.S. since Reconstruction”—but it started several years ago, right?
Black communities are being undercounted and under-engaged. And that has devastating consequences.
Garza: That’s right. The Black Census project is currently the largest survey of Black people in America since Reconstruction. And we did launch it in 2018. It was the very first program of the Black Futures Lab and the goal of it was to really better understand, from Black communities ourselves, what we were experiencing every single day in relationship to the economy, our democracy, our society. And bigger than just the problems that we’re facing, we really wanted to understand what solutions Black communities wanted to see to address some of the biggest problems of our generation.
We take those solutions and we turn them into policy that works for our communities and we try to get that policy passed in cities and states across the country. What we know, now, going into another interesting political era, is again that Black communities are being undercounted and under-engaged. And that has devastating consequences for whether public policy is in fact public. Meaning, does public policy reflect the needs, the concerns, and the experiences of Black communities who certainly disproportionately feel the negative impacts of public policy that does not address our needs?
And so, we decided to relaunch the Black Census project to become the largest survey of Black people in American history. And we are well on our way. We are collecting 200,000 responses to the Black Census project. You can still take the Black Census at BlackCensus.org, and we’ll be using the data from this project to inform our legislative priorities going into the 2024 election cycle.
Kolhatkar: So, you’re basically calling on Black Americans around the U.S. to go to that website and voluntarily express what it is they want to see? What are the sorts of questions that are being asked? Because we know that surveys, especially, can be so politicized to get the results that you want, and it tends to skew what it is that the people actually want.
Garza: Well, here’s what’s so great about the Black Census project. Number one, it’s a nonpartisan survey. So, we are not looking for people who just agree with us. We’re looking for responses from Black people from every position on the political spectrum. You don’t have to be an activist. You don’t have to be somebody who believes in social justice. What we want is to have you have your voice heard. We want to better understand the needs, experiences, and priorities of Black people in America. And what that means, too, is that you don’t have to be an American citizen to take the Black census if you are Black. We are serving Black people in America, not just Black Americans.
The other thing that’s really important about the Black census project is that you don’t have to give any of your personal information to participate. We allow you to do that if you want to opt in so that you can be engaged in campaigns and in our partners’ work to achieve some of the solutions that you might identify.
But we don’t require it for you to be a part of history. And that tends to be something that can turn people off from surveys—they’re concerned about where their personal information will go, they’re concerned about whether or not their personal information is going to get sold to somebody they don’t want it to go to. We don’t require you to give us that information in order to have your voice heard and your needs, and your experiences, prioritized.
Last thing I’ll say that’s important about the Black Census is that we do offer opportunities for you to be a part of the solution. We don’t just want to collect data. We want to make that data live and real in the service of transforming your everyday life for the better. And what that means for us is working with partners all across the country to run policy campaigns in cities and states across the nation that change the rules about how Black communities are resourced, that change the rules about how Black communities can participate, and that change the rules about the conditions of Black communities.
Black communities deserve to be the people who are making the rules, and changing the rules, that are shaping our lives every single day.
And that’s why it’s important that if you are a Black person living in America, that you participate in the Black Census project. And again, you can participate at BlackCensus.org.
Kolhatkar: Let’s talk about how individual organizers are being trained and why that’s important. The Black to the Future Public Policy Institute has graduated, or will be graduating, in the next few months, almost 100 Black organizers. Tell me about this aspect of the organizing work that it’s going to take to have a sort of multi-spectrum approach to elections, and democracy, and voting.
Garza: The reason that we started the Black Public Policy Institute at the Black to the Future Action Fund and the Black Futures Lab is because we want our communities to be equipped with the tools that we need to make the rules and change the rules. And at the end of the day, when we think about laws and policies that impact our lives, most of the time our communities are not involved in the development of those processes, but we certainly are impacted by them. And so, we want to change that equation. We think that Black communities deserve to be the people who are making the rules, and changing the rules, that are shaping our lives every single day.
And so, with this eight-month policy fellowship, we take Black organizers from across the country, and we help to train Black communities how to write, win, and implement new rules in cities and states across the nation. You’re not just in a program where you get a training booklet and then you’re sent off with a certificate. We actually have you in this program, design the policies that you want to see enacted in your city or in your state, and we help support you through an actual legislative cycle, [to] get that policy passed.
And we’ve been successful. In places like California, we worked with the Young Women’s Freedom Center to make sure that we change the rules about sentencing guidelines for young women who were coerced into committing crimes as a result of being in a domestic violence partnership, or an intimate partner violence partnership, where they were coerced into committing a crime. We want to make sure that the needs of our communities are being addressed, and that’s a great example of how we do that.
And so, the program is rigorous. This program resources organizers to participate. So, it’s not something that you have to do on your own time, on your own dime. We are really looking to build the capacity of organizations to be able to learn and know how to make the rules and change the rules that are impacting families and communities in your city, and in your state.
The other thing that is so important about this program is that you get mentorship from experts that are policy advocates and know how to do the things that we’re trying to train you in, in particular in your area of expertise.
And finally, the thing that is so awesome about this program is it’s really, really Black! We have Black trainers. We have Black participants. We are using the experiences and the cultural competency in Black communities to train our communities on how to make the rules and change the rules.
All Black people deserve to be powerful in every single aspect of our lives.
It’s a very unique program that we’re so honored to be able to offer to our communities. And we’re already seeing the results, and we’re deeply grateful and humbled to everyone who has trusted us with this process.
And I can tell you that of the 80-plus fellows that have graduated from this program, we’ve gotten incredible feedback about how important and useful this is, not just for individuals, but building the ecosystem and infrastructure in our communities to be more powerful politically.
Kolhatkar: We are heading toward Black History Month, and you are someone who has attempted to really uplift the idea of Black futures and looking forward and envisioning what a just future could look like. How do you link history to the future? What are the most important lessons that you take from Black history as you envision a just future?
Garza: One of the most important things that I take from Black history is that Black communities have always been futurists. Because of the way that the rules have been rigged against our communities, we’ve been forced to imagine a new future with possibilities for freedom.
And that’s why during Black History Month the Black Futures Lab spends our time focusing on the future. We take lessons from the past. We take experiences from the present. And we take this opportunity to really reimagine what our futures can and should look like, with all of us working together towards a common goal.
For me, what Black Futures month offers us the opportunity to do is to reimagine a just society, a just democracy, and a just economy, where everyone has what they need to thrive and where nobody is getting left behind merely on the kind of merits of our race, our gender, our sexuality, our disability, our immigration status. We believe that all Black people deserve to be powerful in every single aspect of our lives, and Black Futures month is really an opportunity for us to reflect on the work that we’ve done thus far to get us there, and the work that we still need to do to keep us going.
Kolhatkar: And then when we think about how organizing happens today versus 20, 30, 50 years ago, we do live in a very different world, and yet, of course, there are things that are the same. But the biggest difference is digital technology, which has its upsides and its downsides. How do you harness the best of technology to ensure that those things that people were fighting for 50 years ago can still be realized, using these new tools?
Garza: I think the trick is to make sure that what stays consistent, across generations and across eras of organizing, is the building of personal relationships. What we know about organizing in the ’30s, in the ’40s, and organizing in the 2000s, the 2010s, and the 2020s is that organizing and moving something together requires relationships.
What technology allows us to do is build relationships across physical or geographical barriers. But it still requires relationship building. You cannot meme your way to justice. You cannot reel your way to justice, right? The path forward is to make sure that we know each other, that we’re connected, that we know that we depend on each other to survive.
And so, it’s important for us to remember to nurture the relationship-building aspect. Sometimes that can’t happen only behind a screen. Sometimes screens and technology can help facilitate bringing us together with people that we wouldn’t be able to do so otherwise. But we have to make sure that there’s other work that’s happening to deepen those relationships beyond the screens, beyond the hashtags, and beyond the memes.
Kolhatkar: We’ve had two and a half years since the racial justice uprising of 2020, and the spark for that was the brutal murder of George Floyd. People marched in the streets for racist police brutality to end. But organizers like yourself, who had been active for many years before, put that into a broader context of what freedom means, and it’s not just freedom from police brutality. And yet, Black people are still getting killed by police. Patrisse Cullors’ cousin was just fatally tasered by LAPD. We’ve seen reports that more Americans were killed by police in 2022 than any year before that. It was a record-breaking year for police killings. Why has greater public attention and the protests that took place in 2020, why have they not seemingly had an impact on even just this one critical aspect, which is racist police brutality?
Garza: Well, I would argue that they have had an impact, but it’s not enough of an impact. And, what I think we’re getting to here is that the “racial reckoning” of 2020 is not complete. And it’s interesting to see these reckonings happen in various cycles.
You know, achieving racial justice cannot just be symbolic. We cannot just put up signs in our windows and not change laws. We cannot just post a hashtag or black out our profile pictures and not hold police accountable when they commit crimes in our communities. It’s important for us to reimagine public safety, to stop investing the resources that we are investing in policing, and thinking that it’s going to get us to some kind of racial justice goal—it will not.
What gets us to racial justice is making sure that people have the things that they need to survive and thrive. What gets us to racial justice is making sure that the rules are applied evenly across the board, whether that be in government, whether that be in policing.
And what gets us to racial justice is ensuring that we are not allowing for uneven and unequal outcomes based on your race, your gender, your sexuality, your disability status, or your citizenship status, amongst other things. The racial reckoning is not completed, and it doesn’t get complete just by saying “Black Lives Matter.” We have to enact policies and change rules and hold people accountable in order to reach the goals that we seek, and that is an ongoing project that we cannot afford to abandon.
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com