During my first week of the John Lewis Fellowship, an Uber driver warned me to expect additional traffic, because Fast and Furious was filming car racing scenes in Atlanta. Looking back now, I find this wholly appropriate, as I can summarize my main takeaways using this metaphor of cars and driving. I had written an overly-sentimental application essay that included these words:
“There is a metaphor I like… ‘Passion is the fuel, skill is the vehicle.’ Besides the fuel and vehicle, there is also the navigation amidst bumpy or non-existent roads, which requires direction from others. I hope to learn from the thoughtful guidance from a committed community like that of Humanity in Action.”
Additionally, during an initial discussion on group dynamics and rules of engagement, Professor Littleton and other Fellows articulated the principle of “staying in your lane” which means, to me, recognizing: (i) positionality, (ii) when to listen rather than speak, and (iii) that we may differ in the cars (differing methods, etc.) we drive, but as collective, we are driving in the same direction (shared intent). (1)
This principle gave me a framework for thinking about activism. The cars (opinions and means) may look different, and there are pros and cons to each vehicle some are better for the environment, some have better safety features or mileage, and some are simply beyond my ability to afford or drive. The principle of “staying in your lane” requires a constant examination of the lane, the cars around us, the space we occupy, when to should hit the gas pedal a little harder, how to carpool, and how to pick the right car.
A second theme of the programmed content was an emphasis on the importance of long-term strategic thinking in sustaining a social justice movement. The combination of these two principles – “Stay in your lane” and “Strategize for the long-term” - create a lens through which I could observe lessons from the Civil Rights Movement (“CRM”). Two categories of observations are discussed below: [A] strategic deployment of human capitol, and [B] strategic organizational structure.
[A] Strategic deployment of human capital (“how to drive carefully and stay in your lane”)
Under this first category of observations are some takeaways relevant to modern social justice movements that I learned from this Fellowship.
The principle of “staying in your lane” requires a constant examination of the lane, the cars around us, the space we occupy, when to should hit the gas pedal a little harder, how to carpool, and how to pick the right car
“any intentional action one takes towards one’s own physical, mental and emotional wellbeing,” is important not only as “a form of self-love,” but also as “a form of resistance” because “living and surviving in the midst of scrutiny and violence is a radical act.” (2) During the CRM, the black church provided a form of self-care and “escape from the harsh realities blacks were temporarily free to forget oppression while singing, listening, praying, and shouting [and] and institutional setting where oppression could be openly discussed.” (3) Today, emotional burnout rates have long been a particular concern for those in the activist and/or humanitarian space; self-care needs to be prioritized in order to sustain movements. (4)
[A.2] Passive ally-ship is another name for complicity, and neutrality is another name for quiet perpetuation.
As Dr. Daniel Black puts it, “When you get to heaven and you stand before God, He won’t ask you a thing about your life. He’ll ask you how many other lives you’ve saved.” (5)
[A.3] Humility is critical to successful leadership and sustained social justice engagement.
Former Atlanta Shirley Franklin also identified humility and the flexibility to change as critical competencies. (6) Community organizer Adelina Nichols advised “staying in your lane” by organizing around community needs rather than self interest, describing her own approach as “organiz[ing] in a way where, if I die tomorrow, people can easily continue to organize.” (7)
It was humbling to learn about positionality, the understanding of “how we are positioned in relation to others [and] where [we] stand with respect to power” which is “an essential skill for social change agents” and to apply the framework to myself in the context of Fellowship group dynamics. I also learned about the importance to continuously be wary of engaging in “ally-theater” performing on social media, for example - rather than effective and needs-based ally-ship.
[A.4] Social justice movements are not free of discrimination;
the historical and actual treatment of civil rights figures such as Anna Douglass, Ella Baker, and Bayard Rustin is clear evidence that leadership of social justice movements can be susceptible to perpetuating discrimination in other forms;
women and the LGBTQI community in particular were often relegated to roles outside of the spotlight during the CRM.
[A.5] Play chess, not checkers.
Adrienne, Alonzo, and Norris Herndon strategically built up business relationships with, and thus, revenue sources from, upper class whites that would eventually fund NAACP lawsuits.
Rather than deploy all people and allies on the streets, strategically allocate based on longterm objectives and skillsets. Long-term strategic deployment of human capital (people and skills) was a big part of the black struggle and CRM. The SCLC recognized that not everyone was best suited for demonstrations, and that some would be better deployed in other ways such as clerical work and transportation. (11) Walter White strategically pretended to be white and infiltrated Klan meetings. Adrienne, Alonzo, and Norris Herndon strategically built up business relationships with, and thus, revenue sources from, upper class whites that would eventually fund NAACP lawsuits. Bayard Rustin said “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers” not “obvious” troublemakers. (12) When Ilyasah Shabazz said “Get your five friends and organize,” she probably did not mean five friends with identical skillsets and networks. (13)
[B] Strategic Organizational Structure (“how to pick the right car”)
There is a level of organizational genius and complexity in the Civil Rights Movement that is not clearly articulated in mainstream media portrayals, or many classroom textbooks. The movement was remarkable in that a number of local, communitybased, and autonomous institutions were involved, rather than a single entity; the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (“SCLC”) and leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. forged unity through leadership, but these individual entities did not have direct reporting structures to one body, as evidenced by both philosophical and tactical disagreements with the National Association for Advancement of Coloured People (“NAACP”) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (“SNCC”); the significant effort managing relationships and joint action between these organizational structures may not be easily replicated in modern civil rights movements, as the CRM also had the unique institution of the black church to facilitate organization.
[B.1] The CRM was much more strategically complex than often portrayed in mainstream society.
It was not a homogenous and/or spontaneous movement, but an organized movement with many different, local groups, organized together loosely through the church and organizations like the SCLC). (14) The aforementioned image of “different cars driving in the same lane” perhaps with the additional image of the SCLC and church as traffic flow directors can be used here, with the takeaway that a heterogeneous, multi-pronged approach is a time-tested option in the “toolbox” of community organizing, and that social change can legitimately choose to use different organizational structures to achieve a shared vision.
[B.2] The way the CRM movement was organized cannot be replicated in modern society
The black church as the central organizing body for disseminating information and movement organization is no longer the most viable option.
During the CRM, the black church served as “the institutional center” of the movement, “suppl[ying] the manpower, finances, and communication networks that brought out the indispensable mass participation.” (15) Since then, the social, religious, and political landscape of America has changed; many modern social justice movements have shifted away from a single religious source of moral authority or homogeneous support base (e.g., feminism is not confined to a single belief system or gender), and social media has permanently altered how communities organize. The black church as the central organizing body for disseminating information and movement organization is no longer the most viable option.
We are driving in entirely new terrain and infrastructure. What can we carry over and what can’t we from the Civil Rights Movement in terms of organizational structure practices?
The two takeaways previously mentioned, which are that multi-pronged approaches are legitimate, and that the black church is no longer the obvious organizational structure, leads to a number of questions, including: “What now? What is the modern institutional center that can play the role in modern civil rights movements that the black church did during the CRM? If there is no singular source of moral authority, how can movements be organized?” To resume language of the “stay in your lane” analogy, in other words, the black church was an incredibly effective and unique car, but now that the terrain and infrastructure have changed so dramatically, what is the best vehicle for change?
These are questions that warrant further discussion and analysis. The hypothesis I will offer here, is that there is no perfect, or singular, replacement. Just as there is no singularly perfect car for all drivers, so too is there no universally perfect organization structure for all social justice efforts but we still must evaluate and pick our vehicles carefully. Thankfully, we have more tools and options (cars) than ever before.
One relatively new option to consider is utilizing the business world as both a target of and a tool for positive social and political change. Given the political and structural influence of the global financial system, it would be remiss to exclude the corporate sector from discussion. As mentioned earlier, when Ilyasah Shabazz said “Get your five friends and organize,” she probably did not mean five friends with identical skillsets and networks; when community and advocacy organizations “get their five friends and organize,” it may be beneficial to cultivate strategic relationships with structures other than nonprofits and foundations in order to broaden resources and networks of influence. I am optimistic that the business world can be transformed to be more human-centered, rather than profit-centered. In the last several decades, the number of options through which social justice agents have tackled poverty relief, advocacy, and a number of other measures has grown – it is no longer a “nonprofit vs. for-profit” decision.
The tables in the Appendix below illustrates the shift in structure options, as well as a draft outline of some distinctions.
In other words, the number of vehicles has increased dramatically, and the corporate sector deserves consideration for a few reasons:
- A multi-pronged approach is necessary to tackle systemic harms, and business is a legitimate tool that can, for example, challenge how financial systems and capitalism affect minority communities;
- In some instances, financial sustainability may be more appropriately achieved through a structure other than a non-profit;
- There are new partnership opportunities. Just as the NAACP held a relationship with the family behind the Atlanta Mutual Insurance Association that resulted in significant financial support, cultivating good relationships with a variety of organizational structures can lead to shared resources and networks; private foundations are no longer the only sources of investments in nonprofits;
- Not all social change agents or agendas are suited to the same type of work. Part if “staying in your lane” is recognizing capabilities and limitations – in some instances, these alternative structures may be the more strategic fit for some. For example, a Limited Liability Corporation has the option to lobby politically and typically has greater financial strength (via profit) than a nonprofit, but is likely not the optimal structure for physically executing community programming and local poverty relief. (16)
- If neo-capitalism is “slow motion white supremacy” as Opal Tometti describes, then at the very least, greater communication channels and engagement between advocacy organizations and the corporate sector may generate further clarity on the next steps and potential solutions.
This program has encouraged me to master hard skills in order to be a resource.
For my personal “what now?” this program has encouraged me to master hard skills in order to be a resource. As business and data seem to be “my lane” I am going to master data analytics in order to produce analyses, data visualization, and storytelling that can aid social justice and philanthropic movements in the future. As a human capital consultant, I will bring this deepened understanding of racial and economic prejudice into my work, which involves evaluating fair market pay for jobs and objective performance evaluation criteria. As an individual, I will be more involved in the activist spaces in my home community, and invest in my relationships to communicate the ideas of privilege and structural inequality.
Thank you to Dr. Karcheik SimsAlvarado, Ufuk Kahya, Professor La’Neice Littleton, and Raphael Schoeberlein for this phenomenal experience. Gratitude to Dr. Judith Goldstein, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Humanity In Action, the city of Atlanta, and Dr. Roslyn Pope for all that they have done.
- Littleton, La’Neice and John Lewis Fellowship participants. “Community Building Workshop Part II”. Humanity In Action. National Center for Civil and Human Rights, 100 Ivan Allan Jr. Blvd. NW, Atlanta, GA. 6 July 2016. Discussion.
- Anderson, Mysia. “Selfcare is resistance.” The Stanford Daily. The Stanford Daily. 21 May 2015. Web. 25 July 2016. <http://www.stanforddaily.com/2015/05/21/selfcareisresistance/>.
- Intext citation: (Norris 4). Full citation: Norris, Aldon D. h Origins o th Ci il ights o m nt lac Comm niti s Organizing or Chang New York City: The Free Press, A Division of Macmillan Inc., 1984. Print.
- Ager, Alastair. Cardozo, Barbara Lopes. Pasha, Eba. Yu, Gary. “Stress, Mental Health, and Burnout in National Humanitarian Aid Workers in Gulu, Northern Uganda.” o rnal o ra matic tr ss 2012; 25 (6): 713720. DOI: 10.1002/jts.21764
- Black, Dr. Daniel. “The Coming.” Humanity In Action. National Center for Civil and Human Rights, 100 Ivan Allan Jr. Blvd. NW, Atlanta, GA. 7 July 2016. Discussion.
- Franklin, Shirley. “Discussion on Leadership and the Building of a Center.” Humanity In Action. CARE, 151 Ellis Street, NE, Atlanta, GA. 21 July 2016. Guest Lecture.
- Nicholls, Adelina. “Grassroots Activism.” Humanity In Action. CARE, 151 Ellis Street, NE, Atlanta, GA. 20 July 2016. Guest Lecture.
- Takacs, David. “Positionality, Epistemology, and Social Justice in the Classroom.” Social Justice 29.2 (2002): n. pag. Web. 26 July 2016. <https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G199399481/positionalityepistemologyandsocialjusticein>.
- McKenzie, Mia. “How to Tell the Difference Between Real Solidarity and ‘Ally Theater.'” 4 November 2015. Black Girl Dangerous. Web. 24 July 2016. <http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2015/11/thedifferencebetweenrealsolidarityandallytheatre/>.
- Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. “All Participate In Workshops.” Southern Christian Leadership Conference Newsletter. July 1963: Vol. 1, No. 10. P. 4. Print. <https://digitallibrary.tulane.edu/islandora/object/tulane%3A21131/datastream/PDF/view>.
- Barbie Savior. Instagram account @barbiesavior. nstagram, 2016. Web. 24 July 2016.
- Brother Outsider. Dir. Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer. Perf. Bayard Rustin. PBS, 2003. DVD. July 22 2016. Film.
- Shabazz, Ilyasah. “Conversation on the Life and Legacy of Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz.” Humanity In Action. Clark Atlanta University Art Gallery, 223 James P. Brawley Dr. SW Trevor Arnett Building. 15 July 2016. Guest Lecture.
- Intext citation: (Norris xiii). Full citation: Norris, Aldon D. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York City: The Free Press, A Division of Macmillan Inc., 1984. Print.
- Intext citation: (Norris 4, 21). Full citation: Norris, Aldon D. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York City: The Free Press, A Division of Macmillan Inc., 1984. Print.
- Woolley, Suzanne. “Four Reasons the Facebook Fortune Is Going Into an LLC: A forprofit charity is highly unusual, but it comes with big advantages.” Bloomberg. 2 December 2015. Web. 25 July 2016. <http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/20151202/fourreasonsthefacebookfortuneisgoingintoanllc>.
- “L3C vs. BCorps: What is Best for Your Social Venture?” nt rs ctor C 1 November 2012. Web. 25 July 2016. <http://www.intersectorl3c.com/blog/104163/8364/>.
- “What Are BCorps?” B Lab. 1 November 2012. Web. 25 July 2016. <http://www.intersectorl3c.com/blog/104163/8364/>.
- “Short Guide To Impact Investing.” Case Foundation. November 2014. Web. 24 July 2016. < http://casefoundation.org/wpcontent/uploads/2014/11/ShortGuideToImpactInvesting2014.pdf>