skip navigation
September 1, 2016

Alicia Garza Fireside Chat

In June, Black Lives Matter co-founder and Special Projects Director for National Domestic Workers Alliance, Alicia Garza sat down with NoVo Foundation Program Officer Jesenia Santana for a conversation about what is needed to end violence against girls and women. From discussing the practice of intersectionality to uplifting examples of successful community-based models, Alicia Garza provided tremendous insight into what she believes creates powerful and inclusive social movements. Through this 5-part series, we will be sharing with you the movement building lessons we’ve learned from our conversation.

Part 1

Orlando. Nice. Kabul. Baton Rouge. Munich. St. Paul. Dallas. Until a few weeks ago, this collection of cities might have seemed random but the violence that has marred these past few weeks has brought these cities into tragic association. Adding to the despair following the killings of black men, gay club goers, French civilians, and public servants, is the response of political figures and pundits who advocate answering violence with more violence. This response is particularly prevalent in the United States, and our country’s affinity for using violence as tool to fix our problems has only continued this seemingly endless cycle.

So why do we as a country meet violence with violence? Alicia Garza has a theory:

“It’s woven into the DNA of this country that we use violence to solve problems. We use violence to create problems, we use violence to control, use violence to surveil, we use violence to keep people in line, and we use violence as a way to build this [nation building] project at the expense of everyone else in the world.”

As Alicia points out, violence has been a part of this country’s history, even before its founding. From this history, we have created a culture and society that continues to use violence both as a tool and as a solution. By first acknowledging our country’s violent past, we can begin to address how violence manifests in our society today.

Using the shooting in Orlando as an example, it is tempting to view the massacre as an isolated incident carried out by a deeply troubled individual. By interpreting Orlando through this lens, we fail to recognize that this act of violence is yet another iteration of our society’s patriarchal culture. Patriarchy devalues people who don’t fit the mold of a heterosexual, male-dominated social structure and uses violence, in its many forms, to punish them.

However, understanding the shooter’s actions as a product of patriarchy is only one step in ending violence overall. In our conversation with her, Alicia called on us to also acknowledge all the ways we ourselves have been shaped by a violent and patriarchal culture. Following the Orlando massacre, the airwaves were abuzz with calls to destroy ISIS and to imprison the shooter’s wife for her complicity. We must question our own tendencies to fight violence with further violence and continuously ask ourselves what are we contributing to.

So what does this mean for you? How can you contribute to the creation of a world without violence? To start, our Movement Makers have some ideas that you can read about that include a call for a shared vision and a plan for collective action. They put out this call almost three years ago exactly, in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin, and, as these past few weeks, months, years have proven, it is just as relevant today.

Part 2

At Move to End Violence, we often draw upon lessons and strategies from the Civil Rights Movement to inform our own movement building. However successful our Civil Rights leaders were, there is at least one movement strategy that we can do without: centering the voices of the majority and silencing the voices of those at the margins.

“My being gay was not a problem for Dr. King but a problem for the movement.”

These words come from an essay written in 1987, where Bayard Rustin describes how the Civil Rights Movement intentionally disassociated itself from activists who were vocal in their support of gay rights. Despite the fact the some of the movement’s biggest freedom fighters, namely James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin, were openly gay and supported gay rights, advisors to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned that advocating for gay rights would irreparably weaken the movement as a whole. Acting out of fear, the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement chose to reject intersectionality from their vision and strategy, invisiblizing their gay brothers and sisters.

Alicia Garza sees the same push out happening in the social justice movements of today:

“I think that in the practice of movement building, often what we try and do, is we try to sameify…What’s the lowest common denominator that we can then unite people around, when in fact what that ends up doing is flattening our experiences and in some cases pushing people out of movements. Movements are meant to be complicated and messy, they are meant to have contours, to have curves, they’re meant to be like mosaics. It’s not meant to be a one size fits all, it’s meant for there to be a space where everybody involved can feel human.”

In the movement to end violence against girls and women, the invisibilization of Native women, women of color, queer women, poor women, immigrant women, and trans women continues to happen today. This is why it’s so important that we improve our ability to hold an intersectional lens in our work and vision. This is most visible in our selection of Movement Makers – who they are, which communities they work in, which issues they work on. But, as Alicia Garza notes, the most important thing about intersectionality is that it is a practice. To that end, we are continually grappling with intersectionality – how people are seen as their whole selves, how we can be more inclusive, and how we can better center the experience of those at the margins.

One of the immediate places where we can put out a call for intersectionality is in the current electoral debate. Farah Tanis, Executive Director of Black Women’s Blueprint and Cohort 3 Movement Maker, demands that presidential hopefuls use an intersectional lens to pay more attention to women’s concerns around gender violence, the persistent feminization of poverty, affordable housing, the growing Black women prison population, immigration protections, and more. 

Part 3

Many of us have referred to ourselves as allies with the understanding that it refers to people who use their privilege to act in solidarity with oppressed people. However, many activists now bristle at the word “ally” and how people have used it to claim that they are supportive of a cause or community without having to actually engage in meaningful action or build meaningful relationships. As well-intentioned as the term is, its use is now fraught, leaving many of us questioning how to show up in social justice movements.

“The thing I don’t like about the word ally is that it is so wrought with guilt and shame and grief that it prevents people from doing what they ought to do,” says Alicia Garza.

Allyship today, whether it’s with Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ rights or other movements, is often characterized by profuse emotional outpouring yet severe inaction. With so many tragedies happening almost daily, it is easy for movements and their allies to be overcome with grief and sadness, so much so that continuing the movement work seems impossible. But, as Alicia points out, what movements need are people who are ready to act, who are ready to conspire.

“Co-conspiracy is about what we do in action, not just in language,” says Garza, “It is about moving through guilt and shame and recognizing that we did not create none of this stuff. And so what we are taking responsibility for is the power that we hold to transform our conditions.”

During this year’s international learning exchange in South Africa, Movement Makers encountered a similar dichotomy between ally and comrade. For Karen Tronsgard-Scott, Executive Director of Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, she grappled with this following our meeting with Shirley Gunn, a former member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress.

“I remember that Shirley leaned forward in her chair and proclaimed, ‘I am not an ally. I was never an ally, I am a comrade. I was tortured and fought side by side with other MK members. I am a comrade!’” wrote Karen in her blog post about allyship versus comradeship.

After this encounter with Shirley, Karen began to see the ways in which she operated as an ally rather than as co-conspirator in her role as an executive director. This realization was troubling but pushed Karen to imagine ways she can transform herself and use her privilege as a woman in leadership.

“To be a comrade is to be fierce and to take action to upend the status quo…I would be willing to risk social standing, ambition, and acceptance by my peers to do the right thing.”

This isn’t about semantics or about replacing the word “ally” with the words “comrade” or “co-conspirator”. This is about truly challenging ourselves to become better partners, comrades, and co-conspirators to the movements we stand in solidarity with.

Being a comrade requires taking risks. Making that leap from allyship to co-conspirator may seem daunting, but, as Alicia Garza breaks it down in the interview, the very first step is simply showing up. Showing up in ways beyond posting the obligatory Facebook post. Showing up in ways that leverage the power and privilege we hold toward supporting on-the-ground leadership. Showing up in ways that demonstrate a commitment to the movement, even if that means risking one’s social status, livelihood, and sometimes, in Shirley Gunn’s case, one’s life.

Stories like Shirley’s, Karen’s, and Alicia’s are powerful reminders to push ourselves to think and act in comradeship. What does it mean to you for someone to be a comrade in the movement to end violence against girls and women? Do you have a personal experience with challenging yourself to shift from ally to comrade? Please share with us in the comment section below. We would love to hear from you as we continue learning.

Part 4

Social services can be all-consuming work. Because of the incessant chase to meet the needs of survivors of violence, a large part of the movement to end violence against girls and women has been and still is about providing essential services. With crisis being a regular visitor in the lives of survivors of violence, meeting the demand for social services seems more imminent and worthy of our time and money than social change work. Movements can wait. People in crisis cannot.

However, without social change work, there will always be more and more fires to put out, more and more people in crisis. This is why Move to End Violence has advocated for a collective shift in our focus to include social change work if we truly want to end violence against girls and women. One essential aspect of that social change work is politicizing people.

“This country does a really good job of blaming people for their own conditions. It does a really good job of obscuring who’s really behind the misery that you are facing,” says Alicia Garza, when asked why she incorporates social change in her work with black communities and domestic workers.

Using the example of unemployment in her community, Alicia explains that people are often told that the unemployment rate in America is high because illegal immigrants entering the country are “stealing jobs from Americans.” But, as she saw in her work with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, when you give people time and space to truly understand the forces that are shaping their condition, many become aware of an alternate story that exposes corporations as the culprits for exploiting cheap labor in foreign countries and for the high rate of unemployment.

For NDWA, the politicization of domestic workers begins with giving them space to question the dominant narratives that are designed to deflect blame and attention from the real culprits for the social ills and oppression that people experience in their lives.  From there, the hunger and energy for social change work builds and people are ready to act. Domestic workers, activated by their sense of injustice, have already passed a “Domestic Workers Bill of Rights” in seven states. This is social change work. This is work whose purpose is to target, disrupt, and replace the systems of oppression that create the need for social services.

Part 5

Have you ever had a conversation about systems of oppression and got to the part where you ask yourself, “well, if we removed that system, what would we have in its place?” How many times have you left that conversation with everyone scratching their heads and shrugging their shoulders in the “huh, beats me” way? How many times has someone proposed a solution, and you left, thinking in your head, “psh, that’ll never work”?

We are often clear about what we are fighting against and the values we are fighting for, but are then at a loss to envision new systems, especially when dealing with violence and safety. Alicia Garza understands this well and believes that we should be bold in our vision for new models.

“We don’t want to tinker with or reform things that we know aren’t working, we actually need to birth new things that meet the highest expectation of what we’re capable of, that help us reach our highest potential and that also show us more of what’s possible,” says Alicia.

What’s possible. Often that is one of the hardest parts, believing that a new model is possible. For inspiration, here are three examples of communities that Alicia shared with us who have been bold in their vision for new models of public safety and are doing the work to make those visions a reality.  

Police Reform Organizing Project logo
  1. Swipe It Forward, Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), New York City, NY: With fare beating being the largest contributor to arrests in New York City in 2015, one group, PROP, saw an opportunity to bring attention to a harmful police practice while also supporting its community with free subway fare. According to PROP, in 2015 alone, NYPD arrested 29,000 people and ticketed another 70,000 for fare beating, with 92% of these arrests being of people of color. Arrests for fare beating can have incredible impacts including losing one’s job, facing an eviction and even deportation. Recognizing that the policing of public transportation systems was causing more harm than good in their community, PROP created the Swipe It Forward campaign where PROP members swiped in commuters who needed fare while conversing with community members in the city’s subway system about changing public transportation policing practices.

Dignity and Power logo

2. Civilian Oversight Commission, Dignity and Power Now (DPN), Los Angeles, CA: Due to the hard work of DPN and LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the LA Sheriff’s office now has a civilian oversight commission, an initiative that was over two years in the making. DPN is a grassroots organization in LA that advocates for incarcerated people, their families and community. The commission will have nine civilians selected by the board of supervisors to serve three year teams. Currently DPN and the LA community are fighting to secure subpoena power for the commission and to bar former law enforcement officers from sitting on the board. This is an on-going effort by DPN and other community organizers to structure a new civilian oversight model that lives up to its promise of being an effective agent of change.

SpiritHouse logo

3. Harm Free Zones, SpiritHouse, Durham, North Carolina. SpiritHouse is a home for cultural arts and organizing that works closely with low-income families and community members “to uncover and uproot the systemic barriers that prevent [their community] from gaining the resources, leverage and capacity for long-term self-sufficiency.” One of their community-based models is the Harm Free Zone Project which is aimed at creating true accountability for community members while reducing reliance on law enforcement. Based on the belief that genuine security derives from strong relationships between community members, the project offers tools and trainings to develop people’s capacity to confront and defuse harm. Click here to watch a video about the project.

These are just three examples of communities taking ownership of what they want their community to look like and how they want public safety to be practiced. Although the models that these communities have developed are very different from each other, one thing that they have in common is that they are a work in progress, a practice. They are social experiments. And the beautiful thing about experiments is that you don’t need all the answers to get started.  

“Good alternatives unlock doors to other opportunities and so that’s really what we’re working on. We don’t have a lot of those answers but that’s what it means to govern, to take in all power in a different way,” says Alicia.

But in addition to new models being a practice that needs constant tweaking and modification, transforming systems inevitably means transforming the people involved: ourselves. For Swipe It Forward, it means changing our perception that public transportation is a right. For Dignity and Power Now, it means transforming our community’s relationship with law enforcement. For Spirit House, it means assuming responsibility for our own community’s public safety.  

“It’s not just about the work we are doing in our communities,” says Alicia, “it is also about how we are transforming ourselves in the process of trying to enact freedom.”
Art by lizar_tistry