Let’s begin by saying that movements are not started with hashtags and there is a lot more to creating real change than promoting a social media platform. And then let’s talk about Power, about addressing very intently and purposefully the power dynamic of white supremacy and patriarchy and changing that power dynamic. Then let’s talk about what happens when you openly address that invisible power dynamic and the shadows that stirs up in every corner of our culture. Then let’s talk about how that power dynamic tries to shut you down. Then let’s expose that we are talking about Alicia Garza and her new book: The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart.
Yes, you may have heard that name before because Alicia Garza is co-creator of #blacklivesmatter and the Black Lives Matter Global Network, an international organizing project to end state violence and oppression against Black people.
Garza co-founded that movement with Patrice Cullors and Opal Tometi and we honor them now and here in this post as well, but this post is specifically about Alicia Garza, her work, and this book, and that does not diminish the work of any other woman. Today I honor Alicia Garza, tomorrow another woman. How can we find each other and honor each other if we don’t know about each other? If we don’t know about one another, how do we hold each other up for others to see? We must make space to let one another shine now and then, so we can find and honor one another.
This is an issue Garza has been stung by and an issue she has had to navigate as she tries to lead while not being on a pedestal, bring light to her many movements without creating a cult of personality and run a huge organization without a hierarchical structure, but rather, decentralized power. I believe she is navigating it with grace and eloquence.
Because of the above-stated negative issues around promoting one person as the face of a movement, Garza has mostly tried to remain out of the limelight. But I want more people to know about this powerful woman writer’s work because I believe she is and will be a great leader. And we need people like Garza to become our leaders if we are ever to see true change. And we need to hear these powerful women activists’ voices and ideas and experiences because we can learn from them as well.
But hey, don’t take my word for it, read her book in which she teaches how to organize and run movements, tells of mistakes she made, lessons learned, and reaches continually toward the future. Garza also details her personal story in the book, which includes all the relentlessly hard work she has done and is doing on behalf of all of us. She is a seasoned professional at forty years of age. And she is just getting started.
Anyone interested in activism, running an organization or movement, using new or alternative paradigm models could benefit from this book. Garza shares in painstaking detail how and what she has accomplished and offers advice based on her experiences. I found this book invaluable from that perspective as well. How often do we get to sit at the feet of someone who has managed groundbreaking and successful movements for change and listen to their stories of what worked and what didn’t, receive the nuggets of wisdom gleaned from such hard work? It is as though we are receiving direct mentorship from Garza. It’s incredibly valuable and she is very generous to take the time to write it and offer it freely in this way.
Besides learning about #blacklivesmatter and one of the women who founded it, which is why I picked the book up, I learned so much more.
Garza writes very astutely about the politics of the past 40 years that helped us arrive at the polarized place we currently find ourselves as a country. With this effort, she is able to place many issues within a context that often gets lost in general news stories.
“For me, movements are situated within what the elders would call time, place, and conditions. The political, physical, social, and economic environment, norms and customs, practices and habits of the time share the content and character of the movement that pushes against them”(11).
She reveals how she became an activist, the training she received, her time working in Bayview Hunters Point in San Francisco, a community facing off with a powerful development company threatening the very existence of their neighborhood. For ten years she worked with that community, going door to door, building relationships, listening to the concerns of the residents so she could help act on their behalf as well as educating them on important pieces of information they needed to advocate for themselves.
“Organizing is about building relationships and using those relationships to accomplish together what we cannot accomplish on our own—but there’s more to it than that. The mission and purpose of organizing is to build power. Without power, we are unable to change conditions in our communities that hurt us. A movement is successful if it transforms the dynamics and relationships of power—from power being concentrated in the hands of a few to power being held by many”(57).
There is a lot of work in creating movements: organizers on the ground creating a base of people who would not normally come together, who do not necessarily share the same realities or viewpoints but have a common goal they can work toward together, getting people into a room who would normally never be together in a room. Garza warns that the focus cannot be only on people who agree with you on everything and look like you. It has to reach beyond those boundaries. We have to reach beyond those boundaries.
“Community organizing is often romanticized, but the actual work is about tenacity, perseverance, and commitment. It’s not the same as being a pundit, declaring your opinions and commentary about the world’s events on your social media platform. Community organizing is the messy work of bringing people together, from different backgrounds and experiences, to change the conditions they are living in. It is the world of building relationships among people who may believe they have nothing in common so that together they can achieve a common goal That means that as an organizer, you help different parts of the community learn about one another’s histories and embrace one another’s humanity as an incentive to fight together. An organizer challenges their own faults and deficiencies while encouraging others to challenge theirs. An organizer works well in groups and alone. Organizers are engaged in solving the ongoing puzzle of how to build enough power to change the conditions that keep people in misery” (58).
And then she also tells the story of how Trayvon Martin’s murder and George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict on July 13, 2013, were the impetus for the Black Lives Matter movement she began with two other women activists: Patrice Cullors and Opal Tometi.
How as a response to that verdict she posted:
“Where those folks at saying we are in post-racial America? Where those folks at saying we have moved past race and that black folks in particular need to get over it? The sad part is, there’s a section of America who is cheering and celebrating right now.
And that makes me sick to my stomach. We GOTTA get it together y’all. Our lives are hanging in the balance. Young black boys in this country are not safe. Black men in this country are not safe. This verdict will create many more George Zimmerman’s.
And that was the first time it was written.
The three women created Black Lives Matter as an organization in 2014 with this as one of their statements of purpose:
“#Blacklivesmatter is a collective affirmation and embracing of the resistance and resilience of Black people. It is a reminder and a demand that our lives be cherished, respected and able to access our full dignity and determination. It is a truth that we are called to embrace if our society is to become human again. It is a rallying cry. It is a prayer. The impact of embracing and defending the value of Black life in particular has the potential to lift us all. #Blacklivesmatter asserts the truth of Black life that collective actions builds collective power for collective transformation”(110).
Garza explains how the #blacklivesmatter movement diverges from many other black liberation movements in that it is not interested in the politics of respectability which focuses on what Black people can do to change their reality and how they can behave differently, in a way that will cause white people to respect them and find their lives inherently valuable. Instead, it focuses on the system, the history, and the inherent biases in this country that create the conditions for violence against black people to proliferate and be tolerated and seeks to change those. It begins with the fact that Black lives are always inherently valuable and worthy. That they matter.
“By throwing respectability out the window, we recentered the conversation on the actions of corrupt or violent police and the larger corrupt and violent systems they protected—and on the inherent worth of Black lives”(121).
She states over and over again that elections matter. Voting matters. And she takes on identity politics and discusses why she feels it is important. Over and over again Garza returns to the issue of power. And how she sees power.
“I define power as the ability to make decisions that affect your own life and the lives of others, the freedom to shape and determine the story of who we are. Power also means having the ability to reward and punish and decide how resources are distributed.
This is different of course from how most of us think about power, which is individualized. Most of us talk about power in relation to how we feel in any given moment. One can wake up in the morning feeling empowered—but empowerment is different from power. Power is about who makes the rules, and the reality is that most of us lack real power, even over the decisions that are closest to us. Sure, I am empowered to decide what I eat for breakfast today, but larger forces create the options I can choose from—or whether or not breakfast is even available to me. A lack of understanding of power is central to how power operates. Power prefers to operate in obscurity; if how power operates was fully transparent, I suspect many of us would rebel against it. . . So-called identity politics tries to make that invisible power seen”(163).
Garza recently founded the Black Futures Lab. This organization seeks to study Black lives and communities in order to promote, educate and participate in creating Black leaders, understand the needs of Black communities, and make Black people more powerful in politics. It studies what policies and policy changes are needed to actually help Black communities, invests in Black-led organizations, and more. She leaves us on the following high note:
“Today I’M OBSESSED WITH POWER—BLACK POWER, to be specific.
I believe that Black communities have the potential to unlock a new democracy, a new civil society, and a new economy in the United States. I believe that Black communities have the power not just to save the country but to lead the country.
I used to be a cynic. As I was developing my worldview, developing my ideas, working in communities, I used to believe that there was no saving America, and I had no desire to lead America.
Over the last decade, that cynicism has transformed into a profound hope, it’s not the kind of hope that merely believes that there is something better out there somewhere, like the great land of Oz. It is a hope that is clear-eyed, a hope that propels me”(229).
Alica Garza is a #Nasty Woman Writer and Activist.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2021
Garza, Alicia. The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart. Random House, 2020.
Featured photo: ICM Partners