Where are the African American organizers?
I’ve been hearing this question a lot of late. I’ve heard it from grantees, executive directors, activists and others who have been observing that there are too few Black organizers in the field. For the last few years, Liberty Hill’s program staff has been hearing the concerns of seasoned Black organizers who lament the lack of emerging Black organizers in the pipeline who they can nurture to become future leaders for our region.
This is what we know: The challenges facing Black Angelenos are deep and complex. We saw this in the Los Angeles Urban League State of Black L.A. report in 2005 and again in the 2011 update. We also know this from our actual lived experiences in Los Angeles.
This is what we don’t know: Why there are not more African American organizers in the field to address these challenges?
SCOPE Executive Director (and Liberty Hill 2011 Leader to Watch) Gloria Walton and I engaged about the state of Black organizing in Los Angeles. After much conversation, we realized that we needed to bring more people into the discussion to answer it. We both knew that people were having this same discussion in other places or pockets of Black Los Angeles. We wanted to uplift the conversation locally.
So, two months ago we did just that. Thirty Black organizers and colleagues joined us. The group included organizers working to improve health outcomes for Black women, advance lesbian and gay equality in South Los Angeles, and create more jobs in Black communities, among other issues. We met at the home of Fran Jemmott, a former Liberty Hill Board Member, current SCOPE Board Member and noted nonprofit advisor. The conversation was long overdue and vibrant! Relationships were deepened. A commitment to continue the conversation was unanimously affirmed.
This past Tuesday, we met again, this time at SCOPE’s headquarters on Florence and Western. We began with a presentation from Occidental Professor Regina Freer about Blacks in Los Angeles County: Where do they live? How are they faring in this economy? What is the average age range? Which groups of Black immigrants are more prevalent in the County?
The presentation was enriched by on-the-ground perspectives from leaders like Susan Burton, the Founder and Executive Director of A New Way of Life. Susan told us about how the increasing numbers of Blacks living in Palmdale and Lancaster might be linked to the concerted effort to locate more reentry programs and services in that area. We had brilliant young minds like Nourbese Flint, the Program Manager at Black Women for Wellness, who enriched the discussion of Black women’s health. Seasoned organizers like Marqueece Harris Dawson, Executive Director of Community Coalition, helped everyone understand what’s at stake in the pending redistricting. We shared, we educated each other, and we deepened our understanding of some of the ways we might support each other and develop more African American organizers who can join us in advancing change. We also continued to bond and rebuild a community of Black organizers.
En route back to my office, I reflected on the potential of the space that the group is creating together. I thought of a quote from Barack Obama before he was President or a U.S. Senator. He said:
“Organizing begins with the premise that (1) the problems facing inner-city communities do not result from a lack of effective solutions, but from a lack of power to implement these solutions; (2) that the only way for communities to build long-term power is by organizing people and money around a common vision; and (3) that a viable organization can only be achieved if a broadly based indigenous leadership — and not one or two charismatic leaders — can knit together the diverse interests of their local institutions.” Barack Obama, 1990
I was heartened because I knew that we were taking important steps toward identifying a common vision that can inform the work of existing, developing, and future organizing groups and will result in a healthier community in which we all can thrive. And that’s change, not charity.