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Alicia Garza: You Don't Get Far Being Mealy-Mouthed

Alicia Garza

People often look at the magnitude of Alicia Garza's accomplishments and wonder how they can be replicated. "How do you start a movement?" is the question most frequently asked of Garza, the co-creator of Black Lives Matter.

"I didn't start a movement. Black people have been trying to get free ever since we were brought here. I cannot take any kind of credit for that," she says. "But this is our generation's stamp on a movement that is ongoing."

By the time the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was first used in 2013, Garza was already a seasoned organizer, having spent the previous 10 years knocking on doors and engaging her local community in the Bay Area. "The first time I had a sense of my own power was fighting and winning the ability to have access to contraception in school nurses' offices." From there she was hooked. Her book, The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart (now out in paperback) details the lessons and tools she learned from this first fight and those that followed, including her work with Black Lives Matter and beyond. 

Today, Alicia Garza is the director of strategy and partnerships at the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the principal at the Black Futures Lab where they recently conducted the largest survey of Black people in the United States since Reconstruction.

Garza spoke with the LGBTQ&A podcast about movement building, lessons the LGBTQ+ community can learn from the successes of Black Lives Matter, and why she says, "Representation is not power."

You can read an excerpt below and listen to the full interview on Apple Podcasts

JM: You write that building broad support doesn’t mean you have to water down your politics or be less radical. “It meant that being radical and having radical politics were not a litmus test for whether or not one could join our movement."

I think saying that should not be radical, but, in practice, it is.

AG: That's right. We are in the fight of our lives right now and there's been so much conversation over the last year especially about, “Have we gone too far?” So all the hand-wringing and pearl-clutching about Defund The Police is the same hand-wringing and pearl-clutching that was being done about Black Lives Matter a decade ago. And the thing is, you don't get far being mealy-mouthed about what you want. You just don't. And at the same time, it's important for us to remember that all of us have gone through a process where we've had to change our minds about a thing, or we've had to overcome our fears about a thing, or we've had to ask ourselves what we really believe about a thing.

My friend, Ai-jen [Poo], who I work with at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, she always says, “We have to make room amongst the woke for the waking.” And it's something that we don't do well. When we look at the conservative movement, which has built so much steam and power over the last 40 years, they invest in a slow process of radicalization. They do that by building institutions where they can capture people, where they're forming their ideas and where they're learning about what they care about and what they believe. They do that by creating an inclusive home where people can belong and giving people a sense of belonging. And they do that by rewarding people for their progress. And it's something that we can learn from.

There are so many people out there who are looking to get involved. There are so many people out there who are looking for us. And our job is to find them, to give them a home, to give them something, to believe in and a vision to fight for, and to hold the contradictions of what it means to grow and evolve as a person.

JM: How do you work with the tension between those two things? I assume there’s conflict between not watering down our politics and the goal of achieving broad support.

AG: There can be and this is such an important conversation for right now because there are no shortcuts to getting to where we want to be. And sometimes we gimmick our way to false victories and the way that I see that conversation happening right now is around bipartisanship. We throw around that word as if the way to win is reaching across the aisle and uniting with people that you disagree with in order to get a thing done. And while that can be a practical solution for short-term gains, and sometimes you do need to do that, it is not a sustainable long-term strategy for transformational change.

The truth of the matter is not everybody is coming and not everybody is always going to agree, and we have to hold that complexity with how do we hold our values and our integrity while also building as broadly as we possibly can?

It makes people feel better to think that we're uniting with people, that we're not forcing to think exactly the way we think and all of that. And that's important. But where do you draw the line? That's the question. There is a line between coalition building and building unlikely coalitions of people and entities that nobody ever thought would get together and then the integrity of those coalitions. Do you draw the line at people who want to kill you? Do you draw the line at people who are causing untold destruction and devastation? Where do you draw your line?

I'm not interested in uniting with people like Jared Kushner. I'm just not. And I think I can get things done without uniting with people like that. Because more often than not what they're doing is using you for their nefarious purposes, so while you're getting a little bit of something, they're getting a lot of bit of something.

JM: We've seen issues galvanize the LGBTQ+ community like HIV/AIDS and marriage equality, but there hasn’t been the same energy recently, even as the majority of statehouses try to ban trans youth from playing sports or accessing healthcare. How do we begin to convince people in and out of the community that they should care about these things?

AG: I think that for a lot of people, conditions are getting worse and our lives are becoming more and more insecure. I think that convincing people to do something is really contingent on people feeling the actions that they take will actually matter.

From voting rights to housing to healthcare, why we engage in politics is to demonstrate that politics can actually work for people. And that means that it is incumbent upon us to make sure that we're meeting needs, especially in the places where people's needs aren't being met, and then translating that into power. People have a thirst for surviving and for doing more than surviving, doing more than just trying to make ends meet.

I have seen over and over again, people who stood up to fight when they didn't think that they could, when they didn't think that they would win, when they didn't think that anything would come of it, when they thought they weren't the ones. And it is such a beautiful process to watch people see and activate their own power in relationship with others and it transforms people. I know I've been transformed by it.

And that is really the job of an organizer. It is to transform people from feeling like things are happening to me and I can't do anything about it, to I'm going to make things happen and I'm going to be the one to do it.

JM: When we tell the story of how Black Lives Matter was created, we often leave out that you were already a community organizer. You’re painted more as a woman who was frustrated one night and took to Facebook to write a post about how Black lives do matter, not an organizer with 10 years of experience.

AG: Totally. It's true. There is a narrative that we kind of dropped out of the sky. It's important for people to know that for so many of us we'd been organizing in our communities for almost a decade prior to Black Lives Matter. In fact, this week with the release of the paperback, I also put out a picture of baby Alicia in 2003 in an organizing program that I was in learning how to be an organizer in west Oakland. It's adorable, actually. I was looking at myself like, "Oh my God girl, were you ever that young and small?"

What was the hardest transition was not being a national organizer, per se. It was being such a public figure as somebody who's very private and used to working in the background. And I don't think I've really gotten used to being so public. I prefer to just do the work that's needed and I'm not afraid of shining, but that's just not how I was brought up and that's not how I learned how to do this work.

JM: It took a while for the media narratives of Black Lives Matter to acknowledge that it was co-created by three women and it wasn’t until years later that I found out that two of those three women, you and Patrisse Cullors, are queer.

Are you saying that early on, you intentionally tried to stay out of the spotlight because it made you uncomfortable?  

AG: You know, it's interesting. I'm really rooted here in the Bay Area. There are no questions about me being queer in the bay. Up until recently, I was in a relationship for 17 years.

I mean, think about 40 years ago, 50 years ago, people were fighting for the same things that we're fighting for right now, and it was absolutely not possible to be out, to be queer, to say that you're gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender. It just was not possible. Our conditions as a society did not allow for it. And one of the things I'm really proud of is how we have fought unapologetically to not be left behind. I think that it's an advance that I'm really proud of in terms of what we've been able to accomplish together. Not just the three of us, but as a movement, we still have a lot of work to do. We still have a lot of work to do.

I mean, representation is not power. It's not like we're not still struggling around not just being seen. We're much more visible than we were before, but in terms of decision-making and in terms of resourcing and all of that, we still have a ways to go.

I think that we have brought forward a new way of imagining who can be movement, who moves. So in that way, when I say it wasn't possible before, it's not like we weren't there. It's not like we weren't shaking trees. I mean, 100%, we were shaking trees. But the challenge here was that the stories that we tell about who was doing that we've turned into fairytales to make people feel better as opposed to be accurate about how we got here. So I am proud that we are fighting those fairytales right now. I'm really proud of that.

JM: It frustrated me to learn about your queerness so late because I felt like we were seeing modern queer history being actively erased.

AG: You know what's interesting is...I feel like I have also seen so much, "Why does that even matter? Why does that even matter?" And then it's like, "Oh, you're trying to move a gay agenda." There's just so much weird stuff out there, and I was like, "Actually I'm not sure that's what we're trying to do. I think we're just trying to get free. I think we're just trying to get free."

There's still resistance. Let's be clear. And I agree with you. I mean, erasing our contributions is detrimental to advancing our movements, because when we do that, then we actually end up fighting the same fights over and over again. It's like Groundhog's day, you know what I mean? Where you're like, "Oh my gosh, are we still doing this? Are we still doing this? Why are we still doing this? People have already done this. We don't have to keep doing this." So that's what I'm hoping we're unlocking is the ability to make new mistakes and having learned from the ones that we've already made time and time again.

JM: With the Black Futures Lab where you’re now the Principal, you completed the Black Census Project, the largest survey of the Black community in 150 years. You asked people, “What do you want for your future?” How do you answer that question?

AG: For my future, I want to be able to live three-dimensionally. And what that means for me is I want to be able to pursue joy. I want to be able to have the things I need to live well and I want to be involved in the decisions that are impacting my life every single day.

And that seems really simple. What I've learned over time is that there's a lot of work it's going to take to help get us there, and that's what I'm hoping my book, The Purpose of Power, can help us reorient to. What is it going to take to get us to that place where we can be three-dimensional beings?

Listen to the full podcast interview on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. 

The Purpose of Power by Alicia Garza is available now. 

LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Billie Jean King, and Roxane Gay. New episodes come out every Tuesday.

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