Culture & Conversation Politics

‘Black to the Future’: A Q&A With Alicia Garza on Building Black Political Power

Regina Mahone

The Black Lives Matter co-founder launched the Black Futures Lab earlier this week "to transform Black communities and the constituencies that are building power in cities and states."

Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza launched a project earlier this week that could become “the largest [survey] of Black people in recent history.”

The Black Census Project aims to hear from 200,000 Black people online and through a door-knocking campaign in 20 states, which were selected based on their “concentration of black Americans, black LGBT communities and black immigrants, among other black demographics,” Mic reported.

The effort is part of Black Futures Lab, an initiative the organizer launched in partnership with Demos, Color of Change, the Center for Third World Organizing, Socioanalitica Research, and the Tides Foundation to build “the capacity of Black communities to live powerfully,” Garza told Rewire in a phone interview on Thursday. For the Black Futures Lab, which also launched on Monday, “it’s really important to offer a bigger picture of who Black people are, so that we can engage Black people differently and change the quality of life for Black people in general,” said Garza.

Rewire spoke with Garza about the new effort and the significance of being understood, why drafting policies is a key step in creating change, and what it means to truly disrupt the current political landscape on a grassroots level. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

RewireI’ve noticed recently that there are at least a couple efforts under way to try to better understand Black people—who we are, where we come from, what we need and are most interested in. Why do you think Black people are so misunderstood in politics?

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Alicia Garza: I feel that way after observing how Black communities are engaged during election cycles. In 2016, Black people were kind of engaged symbolically, and certainly engaged culturally, but there were very few interactions with Black communities around the issues that we really care about. And that has an impact on how and when Black people want to engage in politics. It also has an impact on our communities; if candidates who are making major decisions on our behalf don’t fully understand our priorities, then that translates into policy that will have a negative impact on people’s lives.

The Black Futures Lab really aims to transform Black communities and the constituencies that are building power in cities and states, and the census project is an opportunity for us to project the diversity of our communities. We’re not just Black people who are born in the United States. We’re not just Black people who live in cities. We are Black people who are immigrants. We are Black people who are queer, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. We are Black people who live in rural areas. We are Black folks who are incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. We [at the Black Futures Lab] think that expanding the breadth of understanding of who Black communities are will also expand the depth of understanding about what issues we face. That is a real contribution to politics, because if we’re able to impact a better understanding of the complexities of our communities, we’re also able to work on policy and practice that better reflects that as well.

Rewire: This misunderstanding is not just among non-Black people, right? Some Black folks even may not fully understand the breadth and depth of Blackness. Why do you think that is?

AG: One thing we can look at is the current debate around immigration, which Black people are certainly tied up in. Lots of the ways that we talk about immigration now is immigration from Central and Latin America. There are certainly Black people who are part of these communities. But also we have to look at what’s happening with Black people who are migrating here from Haiti and other places in Africa. The rate of migration from African countries has increased significantly in recent years. As we grapple with an administration that not only wants to build borders, but also wants to restrict the freedom of movement that people should be entitled to, Black people are caught in the crosshairs of that. Many people, including Black communities here in the United States, don’t understand that. For the Black Futures Lab, it’s really important to offer a bigger picture of who Black people are, so that we can engage Black people differently and change the quality of life for Black people in general.

Rewire: Among other things, the census survey asks participants about the change they wish to see. What is the change you wish to see to improve Black lives?

AG: I want to see Black people living powerfully and living well. I want to see Black people shaping the policies that impact our lives. I also want to see Black people represented in our culture in different ways. And I want to see Black people actively engaged and inspired. That’s really the charge of the Black Futures Lab.

Rewire: Can people who may not have the ability to vote, maybe because they’re immigrants or formerly incarcerated folks, participate in the census project?

AG: Absolutely. The census survey is for all Black people. We want to encourage people who have been excluded from the political process to engage with us and to participate in the survey process.

Rewire: And so using the census project, the Black Futures Lab will begin drafting policy plans as well as use that data to inform elected officials. How did the project decide on drafting policies, and why is such an undertaking a critical component of building political power?

AG: The Black Futures Lab will launch the Black to the Future Policy Institute later this year, in August. Our goal is to build the capacity of Black communities to legislate the solutions that we want to see. So we want to build the capacity of folks to be able to know how to create policy and how to move that policy through their city council or state legislature. We think that’s important because we really want to start to demystify how these things happen, and we want to be able to expose the dynamics that are happening when policy is being made, and in whose interests policy is being made.

We really want to create a dynamic where Black people are directly shaping the laws and the policies that are impacting our lives. What we know about Black communities now is that we’ve been marginalized from the political process for so long, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t created solutions to problems in our own communities. We really want to bridge the gap between that and use the creativity and innovation that Black communities have always had to have in order to improve our quality of life and actually make those practices policy instead.

Rewire: The Black Futures Lab site notes that the project is seeking to create a legislative agenda. I attended the Power Rising Summit in Atlanta last weekend, which also sought to build an agenda, though one focused specifically on Black women and girls. At the event, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) and others spoke about the importance of a coordinated effort. Given how deep and wide-ranging Black communities and our needs are, what could coordination look like to build a more united front against attacks against Black people?

AG: First of all, I’m super excited about what happened at Power Rising. It’s been a long time coming and I’m so glad it came. The way that we want to coordinate is to figure out, are there things amongst our wide range of agendas that we can work on together so that our collective power can achieve something concrete. You have groups that are working to build a policy agenda for Black women and girls; working to make sure that Black women get elected to office; and trying to transform democracy itself.

Those are seemingly disparate agendas, but there are places where those groups can and should come together to build each other’s capacity to win. For us, what we’re hoping to do is bridge that gap as well. We want to play a role in bringing together some of the traditional civil rights organizations with some of the newer ones, in helping there be strong coalitions and alliances that can actualize their power together in cities and states.

Rewire: Let’s talk a little about the Shirley Chisholm “Unbought and Unbossed” Black Politics Project, which is an initiative of the Black Futures Lab. Many advocates have spoken about the importance of supporting Black candidates. This project seems to take that one step further. Can you break down how it does that?

AG: Sure. Really, the Black Futures Lab is focused on building the capacity of Black communities to live powerfully. The Black Politics Project is really focused on that. We want to put the tools of democracy back into the hands of Black communities. We want to interrupt the dynamic where we have to appeal to somebody else to do some things on our behalf.

There’s a lot that we can put in our own hands. For us, that looks like a few different things: One, we want to be able to make sure that we are engaging Black voters year round, not just election cycle to election cycle. Two, we want to be able to train people on how to run political campaigns. So, if there’s somebody in your community who you think would be an incredible leader, we want to make sure that you know how to get them from being your homey to being your city council representative. We hope to play a role in that. The third thing is that we’re really looking to address some of the dynamics that keep Black people out of politics. One of those, in particular, is trying to crack open how we shift the dynamic where corporations are disproportionately influencing the policies that affect our lives. And then the fourth thing that we’re really interested in doing is supporting Black legislators. We really want to close the gap between movements and elected officials who are Black. We want to make sure that there’s alignment and that there’s connection and relationship.

One of the things that we see over and over again is that Black people get elected to office and then feel really isolated from communities. We want to play a role in working with legislators who are really keen on making sure that they are representing the interests of a movement. So, we’ll be doing some work on that as well.

Rewire: If someone wants to support a political campaign, what’s the best way to do that?

AG: Oftentimes, you can go to the campaign website—they have to have a “donate” button. In doing that you can support candidates either on a recurring basis—having $5, or $10, or $20 a month going to that candidate to support their candidacy—or you can give in a large sum.

The other thing that you can do, obviously, is to volunteer and help support making sure that other voters know who that candidate is and why they’re important to you. You can also do some fundraising for that candidate yourself. It may be that you’re personally not able to give in a lump sum, but you might know ten other people who will. So, you can gather those folks to learn more about who that candidate is, why you think they’re important to represent you, and you can amass resources in that way as well.

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