Episode 1: Get It Together with Alicia Garza
Progressives have been making major inroads over the past decade, but as we face the fight of our lives — and for our lives — how do we find the courage to lead? Alicia Garza, founder of the Black Futures Lab and co-founder of Black Lives Matter, points the way toward wielding power strategically by looking into differences and weaving alliances that upend expected patterns.
Alicia Garza (@aliciagarza) is founder and principal of the Black Futures Lab. She co-founded Black Lives Matter and serves as strategy and partnerships director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She also co-founded Supermajority, a new home for women’s activism. Her book, The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together, was published in October 2020. She podcasts as the host of Lady Don’t Take No and as co-host of Sunstorm.
At age 21, George Goehl walked into a soup kitchen to eat. Over time, he became an employee – first washing dishes and eventually helping run the place. Three years later, he was struck by seeing the same people in line as when he first arrived. He began to organize.
Today, George is the director of People’s Action, a multiracial poor and working class people’s organization. He leads one of the largest race-conscious rural progressive organizing efforts in the United States.
Following the financial crisis, George and National People’s Action mobilized more people into the streets than any other organization to demand accountability, help win Financial Reform, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and secure mortgage relief.
The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN, MSNBC and others have covered George’s organizing work.
George Goehl: Hey! I’m George Goehl, and this is The Next Move, where we’re talking about the craft of organizing and how it’s changing. Today, my guest is Alicia Garza. We’re talking about her organizing journey, where she thinks we’re making progress, and where we got to get it together.
Community organizing has changed in many ways over the last 15 years. Among those we should celebrate, it’s the shift towards contesting for the power to govern. No longer content to be on the outside with signs and great chance, the field of organizing is seeking to be on the inside too. This is a big, big deal. And the shift in orientation, it’s not an easy one. It means governing an institution that has done harm to you and your people. Folks, this is complicated territory.
The historian and scholar, Vincent Harding once said, “I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.” As we contest for governing power, it is for the America that will be. I believe over the next 30 years, we will become something so much closer to that America that Harding envisioned. A more loving, hopeful, equitable, and healed place. We are becoming America, the next version of ourselves. And one of the leaders in getting us there is Alicia Garza. Many people know Alicia as the first to write those words, Black Lives Matter. She is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, the founder of the Black Futures Lab, a meta-level strategist, and without question, an artist with words. As we’ll learn today, Alicia is also first and foremost, an organizer.
Alicia, thanks for doing this.
Alicia Garza: I’m excited.
George Goehl: So organizing, so we do tons of things in our roles, but at the end of the day, we’re both organizers. Looking back, when did you become an organizer?
Alicia Garza: The first time I knew I was an organizer was when I was in a summer program, in this program called SOUL, the School of Unity and Liberation. And I had gone through this rigorous application process with this training program to learn how to be an organizer. And they put me in an organization called Just Cause Oakland, which has now become Causa Justa Just Cause. But at the time it was one office, one little room with one of those fake wood doors from the seventies, and the fake wood panels on it. And our task was to recruit a hundred people to a community meeting about gentrification and displacement, by the end of our placement. And George, for weeks we went through role-plays, and political education, and we spent hours and hours and hours out on the turf in West Oakland and in East Oakland, I believe. And it was hot, it was hot, hot.
Literally, they would tell us, “Don’t come back until it’s dark. When the streetlights come on, then you can come back to the office.” And so every day it was just about looking for people who were looking for us. And at the end of that summer, we had more than 100 people at that meeting. And I will just say for context, I was paired in the program with a guy who lived in a tree for three months, protecting it with Julia Butterfly Hill or something like that. He was just a total hippie from Chicago, he was black and Puerto Rican, his dad, I think, was a cop. And he wasn’t that interested in organizing, he was definitely interested in dumpster diving and making flower wreaths and shit like that. And he didn’t wear any underwear and he didn’t wear deodorant, but I loved him, he loved Beyonce. So he didn’t help much but he was definitely good company. So I felt really accomplished at the end of the summer because I’m doing this mostly on my own.
George Goehl: A hundred people with him next to you, that’s the masterclass right there. Did it come easy?
Alicia Garza: Yes and no. This is going to sound totally stupid, but I’m kind of shy, so I had to really work on asking questions and having conversations with people. Balancing, letting there be silence, but not letting it be awkward, and I’m super awkward as a human. It came easy to me because I’m really interested in people, and I’m interested in their stories, and what makes them tick, and what makes them who they are. But it was hard for me because I’m also very analytical. And at the time, I think I was 22 years old, so of course I was also super insecure and not fully in myself. When you’re talking to people who are older than you, who have strong opinions, who cuss you out sometimes, you know what I mean?
So I don’t know that it came easy, but it got easier over time. And I think in the process of having these conversations, you start to know more about what you’re looking for, you start to be able to pick up on things like how people say a thing. How they say no, and whether or not that no means maybe, or whether that no means get out of my face.
George Goehl: Right. That’s so funny, I love that you say that because I think… I don’t know any really good organizer who’s not curious. And curious about people and you said interested in people, I can’t think of a one who doesn’t have that, even if you are shy, you want to know.
Alicia Garza: That’s right.
George Goehl: Was this stuff you were handed down, coming up, teachings that were really important coming up, whether it caused a [inaudible 00:06:01], that you still actually agree with today and use today?
Alicia Garza: One, I came up in a family that really was super non-traditional. And I was used to being the weird kid. My stepdad was a white Jewish dude from a wealthy family, my mom was a working class woman, black woman from Ohio. And so you can imagine people would be like, “Wait, I don’t get it, is that your dad?” And I’d be like, “Well, yes, but no.” So I think that helped me be comfortable with a lot of different situations. I think the other thing I brought with me is, my family wasn’t political in a lot of ways, at least not outwardly political. But we did kind of have this ethos in our house that you always root for the underdog. And I think having that ethos and developing it over time, really helped me do the work to better understand, who was in power, and who was the underdog?
And that was important because so many stories that are told about our communities, talk about the underdog as the person in power. And so I think having that lens early on, really helped me better understand, “No, I actually don’t think that’s what’s going on here.” And I guess the last thing I would offer is, my mom had such a profound impact on me and how I see the world. And she was simple, and by simple I mean, she didn’t make things complicated. At the core of everything for her, it was about being the best possible person you could be and doing whatever you could to make sure that everybody else had a shot at doing that too. So my mom was somebody who gave freely, and she never talked about it, she never bragged about it.
When she was dying, I learned so many different ways in which she impacted people just by caring about them. And I think for me, I brought that with me. I brought that sensibility of, it’s actually quite simple. Everybody has the right to be who they are, out loud and on purpose, and our role is to fight for a world where that’s possible. And so I think what that did, was it helped me also identify people like that in communities who are often some of our biggest assets in organizing. They’re natural connectors, they’re caregivers, they are team builders and they are service providers. And consequently, they know everything that’s going on with everybody in the community. They know who they’re connected to, who they need to be connected to, and they are the eyes that are watching over everyone.
George Goehl: I love that, because I think a lot of organizer training, especially institutional organizing is, these leaders, the leader is the clergy, or the rabbi, or the head of the nonprofit, but there’s also other leaders that maybe don’t have classic positional power… They’re the person on the block everybody trusts, they’re the person that people go to, to know where to get shit and stuff like that, I think that’s… I love that. Speaking of your mom, who I felt like I got to know more by reading your book. I’m reading your book, and I just thought what a big deal that… You have a big platform, a bunch of people are going to buy this book no matter what it’s about, and it’s about organizing, that means so many people just read a book about organizing. Why that? Why a book about organizing?
Alicia Garza: Yes, you’re right, this is a book about organizing and I wrote this book because I think we have a mandate to organize differently. We are facing some of the most catastrophic crises in a generation, and in many generations if I’m being honest. The advancement of the sharpening and deepening of an economy that is based off of exploiting people. The devastation of a climate crisis that has already reached the tipping point. A complete dismantling of democracy as we know it, which wasn’t great before, but it’s really bad now. And then of course, this ongoing, pervasive fight against white supremacy. We don’t have time to not talk about organizing. What we’re doing well, what we need to unlearn, what we need to be doing differently, what we need to experiment with. We are certainly in the fight for our lives and we’re in the fight of our lives.
And yes, I do have a big platform. I could have written a book, this book could have been about Black Lives Matter and I specifically did not write that book. I didn’t write that book because I don’t want to write that book. I think the story of Black Lives Matter is still being written. I think we shouldn’t put a period at the end of that sentence in any way, shape, or form. But there isn’t a book that is being written about building movements, and what it means to build movements, and how we can do it better, and what we are being mandated to do in order to save and change our lives.
George Goehl: I’m going to quote something from the book and I’d love to hear more about what you think about this. You say, “We can’t be afraid to establish a base that is larger than the people we feel comfortable with. We have to reach beyond the choir and take seriously the task of organizing the unorganized. The people who don’t already speak the same language.” What do you mean by that and what does it look like to do that work?
Alicia Garza: When you isolate yourself amongst people who agree with you about every little thing, you atrophy. And that atrophy has impacts. Look, I’d like to hear that we have majoritarian values, but that doesn’t mean that we’re a majority. Yet. It means we have to build a majority to exercise those majoritarian values. And the way that that happens honestly, is you have to bring together people who agree on some stuff, but they also disagree on some stuff too. And the work there, is to figure out how we move through our differences and make it to the other side together. If I was to project forward into the world that I want to live in, it doesn’t actually look like everybody off the top being against globalization. I actually see us struggling over these questions of how we be in the world. How we be with other worlds. How we be in terms of how we distribute resources. How we create and produce resources. And that takes compromise, it takes negotiation, it takes understanding where people are coming from, and how they’ve been shaped, and what they’ve been taught to believe. That is the process of governance.
And for me, I think in our work right now, we have a really hard time with this. I have conversations with people a lot where I’m like, “Oh, well have you talked to this person?” They’re like, “Oh, they wouldn’t agree with what we’re doing.” I’m like, “Actually, I just talked to them and… It’s not 10 out of 10, but it’s six out of 10 and that’s pretty good, so y’all should get together on the six things. And the other four things, let’s leave that for another time, unless they’re life or death things, but they’re kind of not.” So that’s what I mean by that, I mean that in order for us to win, we have to build the kinds of alliances and coalitions that cross expected patterns. I think our opposition at this point knows us pretty well. They know how we operate, they know the triggers, they know the things that are going to break us apart, and they exploit those things. And I think a part of our playbook needs to be, what kinds of alliances and coalitions are unbreakable? Or less penetrable, or less predictable.
George Goehl: In the book you talk about the organizing you were doing in Bay Hunters Point, where you got the Nation of Islam, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, places of worship, advocacy groups to come together who didn’t agree on everything, but maybe at least could agree on one thing. And you wrote, “We didn’t look past our differences, we found the courage to look in them.” What does it mean to look into the differences? And what’s the difference between that and skipping over them?
Alicia Garza: The difference between looking into them and skipping over them, is that looking into them, you have a better sense of why they exist and where they come from, and you can connect around them. Whereas, skipping over them means you just do what America does, which is have amnesia about the fact that these things exist, which means that we’re in a perpetual state of Groundhog’s Day. One memory that I have, that I always take with me, is that in that coalition we described, let’s be honest, we couldn’t have been more different. As two organizers, myself and another organizer, we were both gay and interacting with religious organizations that had varying stances on being gay. And I remember after about two or three years of organizing together, we used to have these weekly town hall meetings. And every week, over a hundred people would come to these town hall meetings, and it was almost like inspiration for the week ahead while getting updates on campaigns and also allowing people to express what was on their heart, it was a way of community building.
They were also places for people to hear a perspective that might’ve been different than their own. And I will never forget that the minister of the nation at that time, gave a whole speech about how he changed his mind about the humanity of gay people. And how some of that story had to do with working with us. And it was really profound to me because A, it was a risk. B, it was incredibly vulnerable, but C, I think it leaned into the things that people think about, but they never say. And you know who does say it? Our enemies. Our enemies say it, and they say it plain. And because they are direct about their hate, they give permission.
And they take small pieces of what’s true and lead people to the wrong conclusion. So I was appreciative of the conversation that the minister had, because it could have been applied to anything. People would under their breath be like, “I don’t trust the Muslims.” Or whatever, but over time working together, we didn’t ignore the fact that there was distrust, and stereotypes, and all of those things, but instead we leaned into them and we didn’t force people to think a certain way, but we did force people to be in relationships so that they could challenge their assumptions. And it really meant something for the quality of the organizing and also for the impact and effect of the organizing.
George Goehl: Yeah. I feel like I’m on a quest to really try to make meaning of the last 10 years, and especially as it relates to organizing. I think of it as a stretch with so many amazing breakthroughs, both beyond organizing, but within the field. And I feel like the field of organizing, definitely the one I grew up in, was designed to win the best thing possible in the existing political and ideological landscape. This is the mayor, this is the worldview of the city of Chicago, and what can we win in this context?
Alicia Garza: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George Goehl: And I feel like that field has shifted to one where we’re really trying to help set the landscape that we operate in. And many other great shifts around race, around, I would just say, worldview generally, around a move towards politics, who’s leading our organizations, I would say more collaboration, though that’s obviously an up and down thing. And I sense something’s gotten lost along the way, in terms of the craft. I’m curious, when you look back at the last decade and specifically the organizing, what do you feel is progress, and then where do you like, “Man, I feel like we’ve lost some shit.”
Alicia Garza: I think we are progressing, in knowing that we need to govern not just win, and that part of the win is actually governance. So I’m seeing a lot more people take seriously, the electoral landscape. I’m seeing a lot more people take seriously electoral organizing, not for the sake of building parties, but for the sake of building and testing our power, and building and testing the strength of our solutions and winning over hearts and minds. The thing I think is missing, is the courage to lead. And by that, I’ll say this, I’m feeling lately like… And I’m talking about this with some of my organizer friends, I’m feeling like the Biden, Harris administration is ahead of us and we’re not talking about it. We’re tailing, we’re tailing them, and there’s consequences to that. I think being afraid to lead, means being afraid to make hard decisions, being afraid to make compromises, being afraid to say, “This is a step, and it’s not the only step.” And really mean it.
And I think we’re really terrified of becoming exactly what we want to dismantle. And some of that has to do with the fact that we haven’t spent enough time really articulating what it looks like on the other side. We shorthand it and we say justice or freedom or liberation and it’s like, “Okay yeah, but what does that look like?” And in real terms. So yes, there is the ability to be three-dimensional, but then there’s also the ability to make sure that millions of people have drinkable water. How do we do that?
I want us to fast forward a little bit and say, “Okay, well what does it actually mean to run a country? How would we change it? How would we change that process? Who would need to be connected that isn’t connected right now? And frankly, how will you continue to engage with people who will be rightfully skeptical of your ability to lead?” I think there’s a courage that we’re lacking to really be the governing majority. And until that shifts, I think we’ll always be in this back and forth where we’re either tailing behind an administration that I think has really good intentions, but they don’t have as good of ideas as we do. I know that. Or we’re so far forward of where people are, that folk don’t see it, feel it taste it, or touch it.
George Goehl: I know for me, I grew up very good at, basically a kind of organizing that was designed to be outside the building of power, throwing rocks, but no aspiration to be inside. Can you lead it and hate it at the same time?
Alicia Garza: I used to think so, but I don’t think so anymore. And I’ve thought a lot about this.
George Goehl: I bet.
Alicia Garza: Black folks have, obviously, a very complicated relationship to this country. We live here, we built it, and we hate this country because of the things this country does to us everyday. For me George, I spent a lot of years organizing from hate. And not the kind of hate where it’s like, “I hate white people, I hate this, I hate that.” It’s not that kind of hate, but really, I’m not for this project, and I don’t believe in it, and really all I’m trying to do is take it out. And that’s not enough for me anymore. It wasn’t sustainable for me.
George Goehl: Right.
Alicia Garza: I feel like my vision started to atrophy and I stopped being able to imagine new strategies and new tactics, because at a certain point, it’s almost like you get organizing depression, you’re like, “What’s the point? What’s the point?” If I’m not trying to build something better, then why am I doing all this work? And why are we constantly subjecting ourselves to this kind of pain, and grief, and anguish that comes when people don’t have the things we need, when we don’t have the things we need?
For me now, I still have a very ambivalent relationship to America, but I have hope in the promise of America. And I think about what a project could look like, where we really could all belong, and I don’t think that, that’s a pipe dream. I think it’s a puzzle, I think it’s a conundrum, and I think it’s one of the greatest challenges that faces us, as has faced every generation since this country was founded. But I like a challenge. I like a challenge. And these days, what drives me is thinking about how black people get to be powerful in this place that we built. And how we get to do so, not at the expense of other people, but for the good of everybody and for the good of ourselves. And that, I think, is making me a better organizer.
George Goehl: I love that. And I get it’s way, way complicated. Do you have a favorite organizing axiom?
Alicia Garza: Yeah, I do, I have several. There’s one that I heard very recently that was quoted by someone that actually originates with Caitlin Breedlove, who’s an incredible organizer. And she said something to the effect of, “It must be nice to think that our main task right now is to cut, rather than to sew.” Or that we have enough time to cut as opposed to sew. And that has been sitting with me for a while now.
George Goehl: What does that mean?
Alicia Garza: Well, that we have the luxury. That we have the luxury of dividing ourselves into smaller and smaller fiefdoms when we’re facing the biggest onslaughts of almost any generation that I can think of. We really do need each other and we need more of each other, we’ve got to reach as far and as wide as possible to have the biggest base possible to confront this tsunami that is washing over this country right now, and to basically be alive on the other side of it.
George Goehl: Yes. Hey, thanks for doing this.
Alicia Garza: Oh, it was a joy George, thank you.
George Goehl: So Alicia just pushed us to step up our co-governing strategy and practice. Leading something that has done harm to you, it’s one thing to fight against it, another to try and fix it. Leading it and loving it, to me, that’s next level wisdom. Over the last 10 years we’ve seen the power of organizing to completely reset the context that governing happens in, and the results are pretty damn good. The stars align at the federal level only so often, and while they are far from perfect right now, they’re better than they’ve been in decades. Seriously, I think decades. I hear Alicia calling on us to make the most of this moment, to deliver as much as possible for people who are hurting, to push for and set up even bigger wins down the road, and reflect, learn, and grow along the way.
She also reminded us that quote, “When you isolate yourself amongst people who agree with you about every little thing, you atrophy. And that atrophy has impacts. We have to bring together people who agree on some stuff, but they also disagree on some stuff too. And the work is to figure out how we move through our differences and make it to the other side together.” End quote.
I think Alicia just teed up one of the big organizing challenges for much of the next 30 years. Getting with people who are with us on some things, but not all the things and sticking together until we can agree on more. You can learn more about the work that Alicia is doing with the Black Futures Lab at peoplesaction.org/nextmove. You can find the Alicia on Twitter @AliciaGarza, and check out her book, The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together, it comes out in paperback in September (2020).
This podcast was produced by People’s Action and The Mash-Up Americans. It is executive produced by Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer. Our senior producer is Sara Pellegrini. Our development producer is Melissa Lo. Production manager Shelby Sandlin. Bye, now!
- The tables get turned when Alicia interviews George on her podcast Lady Don’t Take No.
- Alicia’s book The Purpose of Power comes out on paperback this fall.
- Harriet’s Bookshop in Philly is one of Alicia’s favorite Black-owned book stores. Get your copy here.
- Check out what the Black Futures Lab is up to.