A movement – though singular in vocabulary – cannot be organized, executed, won, lost, or remembered by only one person; and the impact extends far beyond the individuals that bear its weight. These powerful ideas stand out amongst those presented by Charlene Carruthers, the speaker for MLK Week’s 2019 Keynote Address. Surrounding our theme of a call to action and creating grassroots movements, Carruthers filled in the blank of how such displays of unity are orchestrated. Not by one, but by many hands.
Using the man of the hour as an example, Carruthers explained that the movement made Martin Luther King, Jr., not the other way around. While his legacy of justice has fueled hearts in every subsequent generation, he did not fly solo. Many others like Bayard Rustin filled organizing roles and were essential to the success of the movement that would one day become synonymous with MLK’s name; and their collective vision certainly lives on.
Carruthers invited the audience to participate in an activity in which she illustrated a world twenty years from now within the microcosm of an airport. In this future, you see on the news that a campaign has been won to provide everyone with a living wage. The wall was never built, and the funds were instead invested into education. Health care and quality jobs are available to all. The prison population has decreased, and more effective methods of accountability have been employed.
The reactions to this activity were mixed. Some felt a sense of relief, others felt anxious knowing that this was not our reality today; but the resounding parallel was that this was clearly a future that many people in the room wanted to experience.
It’s because of this desire to make these various scenarios a reality that Carruthers urged – now more than ever – for more figures like Rosa Parks to emerge. More individuals who organize like-minded persons into a unit to make tangible steps towards achieving that vision. Carruthers encouraged to move from within the margins, which gives us the ability and potential to change this world for everyone. She cited groups like the Combahee River Collective, who believe that through the attainment of their goal, freeing Black women, all would be more free because the systems of oppression that affect countless peoples would have to be dismantled.
But what actually needs to happen in order for this kind of collective power to be realized? Carruthers broke the process down into five key questions.
Who am I?
Without understanding your history and where your people come from, it’s impossible for movements you support to be fully realized. Carruthers explained that “incomplete stories lead to incomplete solutions.” To fill in the gaps, you have to evaluate who is present and stands with you and who’s missing from that conversation.
Once you understand who you are, and all the ins and outs that come with discovering that identity, you are equipped to proceed to question two.
Who are my people?
Who are those that share the same identity and values with you? It’s with those individuals with whom you can collaborate and craft solutions to the issues by which you’re affected. When the group you work with has as much at stake in the problem as you, your power is that much stronger through the combined passion you each bring to the table.
What do we want?
This question is critical in determining your end goal. Carruthers asks, are you trying to alleviate just a little suffering, or is your intention to eradicate it?
What are we building?
It’s not enough to simply erase the problem. The long-term solution has to include systems that replace it and build upon it to ensure lasting, positive impacts.
Are we ready to win?
If your vision was achieved today, are we prepared for it to have a positive impact? An example of answering this question that Carruthers offered was related to the prison system. In her home-state of Chicago, she observed that despite enormous sums of the budget being devoted to the police force, it really isn’t any safer; but you can’t simply stop the funding. Without the police force, where is someone who’s experienced violence supposed to go for help?
These questions, when applied to any issue in need of attention, undoubtedly produces a much stronger support. Carruthers explains that movements are not about lone wolves and the creation of a lasting impact that lives beyond you. What Dr. King would describe as having the ability to achieve your purpose is a built power dependent on the success of the whole. This methodology has been exercised for generations, and it’s our turn to employ it in order to mold our world into the shape we envision.
Keynote Address Q&A Session Recap
Are you scared about the Supreme Court making a decision regarding the second amendment (the right to bear arms and form a militia)?
Militias, like the Ku Klux Klan, have always existed in this country. It’s even easier in some states to buy a gun than it is to register to vote and exercise your right to vote. It’s certainly not an issue to be forgotten or pushed aside, but it is a far greater issue than just within the courts.
How do you organize in the face of hatred, especially as a young organizer in a place that can feel isolating?
Look to those that have rallied before us. What worked and what didn’t? Self-defense is not just about owning guns or weapons. It’s about knowing where your people are and ensuring they make it home safely. It’s having a plan for what might happen at a protest. Knowing, or taking the time to know, the people you’re protesting alongside will increase or ability to resist. It’s hard work to discover your beloved community and achieve justice in the face of the hatred. It takes un-learning on our part, it means working hard towards it, resting when you need to and relying on the other strong leaders in your community, and utilizing those people to do the work and prevent us from succumbing to exhaustion and hate.
How do you move past anger, offense, and desperation towards articulate action?
Find outlets where you can express your angst and anger. Ask yourself, does this outlet break you down or build you up? There is no one solution to deal with anger. But Audre Lorde also suggests using anger. It does have its purpose, and there are ways to harness it and transform it into something else.
What does your idea of reparations look like?
There are many groups that have sought reparations, and some that have secured them. They’re structural, not individual. Reparations also depend on how you’re coming at them. Reparations to some may not fit the definition of reparations to another. It’s ultimately about repairing historical and current instances of violence and harm that a people has experienced.
Michelle Obama said “when they go low, we go high.” What your thoughts are on that?
In the context she said it in, I do not agree with it. When people are going low, you do need to make a conscious decision of how to engage with them. If going high maintains your dignity, I agree. If it means you become dishonest and aren’t fulfilling your full dignity, I disagree with it. That statement in that context did not allow us to maintain our full dignity.
How do you address feeling like you’re not giving adequate time to all the movements you care about?
This is why it’s important to have many strong leaders. You are not the only one that can do the work. Understand how you can contribute without feeling the need to be directly involved all the time. Know that there are other people that contribute even when you cannot and focus on recruiting people like that instead. There is no rush to do all the work right now. There will always be something to work towards, so don’t try to do it all at once.