Solana Rice, co-founder of Liberation in a Generation, sat down with Alicia Garza to talk about her new book The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart, how our movements build power, the role of social media in organizing, and why Black communities need their own spaces to get organized.

 

Watch the entire conversation or read the edited transcript below.

 

Solana Rice: For those who haven't read the book yet, what do you see as the purpose of power? 

Alicia Garza: The purpose of power is to transform our lives and to change the things that we can no longer abide by. And the purpose of movements is to build the kind of power necessary where we can distribute power differently than it is right now. Right now, the way that power is organized is that there's a lot of it concentrated into the hands of a small few, and that has vast and devastating impacts for the most of us. And the purpose of power is to use it in the vein of changing the things in people's lives that frankly are killing us, killing our families, and killing our planet. 

Frankly, in my twenty years of organizing, I think that our movements are scared of power. We're scared of power because the way that it operates right now is deeply corrosive. It's deeply corrupt. And we don't see many of our people getting catapulted into positions of power, where we get to make the rules, where we get to shape the rules, where we decide where resources go and where they don't go, where we shape the story of who we are and who we can be together. And also where we are the deciders of the consequences that will be levied if and when people disappoint us, particularly people who represent us. 

Supervisor Holly Mitchell said it best: Power is really the process of who gets what when. I think a lot of our efforts can be geared around empowerment versus power. And that is a detriment to our agenda to change people's lives. We think about power as being at the table, but we don't think about power [as] our ability to set the menu when people sit down at the table. What are the options that people are considering? That is power. 

 

SR: You wrote about how, without Black people, there is no such thing as a progressive anything. And at the same time, you've mentioned that Black people are under-organized. If the road goes through Black and brown communities, but we haven't charted the highway or the path, what does that mean for change-making? 

AG: It's absolutely right that there is no progressive anything without Black communities. But the challenge that we face is that if Black communities are a liberatory piece of a multi-racial movement that can transform this country, and Black communities are deeply under-organized, then what do we do to activate and motivate and engage Black communities in a broader movement that serves us all? The challenge that we face is that we're not scientific enough about who our people are, and where our people are, and what they care about, what they long for, and how they describe themselves. 

At the end of the day, it's an organizing challenge for us. How do we organize communities that have been left out of our own movements for social change and for social transformation? Number one, we need to stop talking at Black people and talk with Black people. Black folks have a lot of ideas about how this country needs to be transformed. And they're excellent and brilliant. You know why? Because our families for generations have experienced what it means to be left out and left behind. We talk about these things at the dinner table all the time. What would it mean if government worked better? What would it mean if our kids actually got an education that was culturally relevant? Black people have a lot of ideas about the changes that have to happen. We've got to do a lot more listening. 

The second thing I think we have to do is approach our movement work from a race-forward perspective, as opposed to a race neutral one. And this is a concept that I think the left with a big L really struggles with. We have this class over race thing that we've been doing for a very long time and it has not been successful. Yes, class is in a lot of ways a great equalizer, but how do we understand capitalism without understanding race? How do we understand it without understanding gender? These are all deep operating principles that organize our lives. 

And then the third thing is we have to create spaces and allow for spaces where Black people can get organized without the watchful gaze of other communities. And people have a hard time with this concept because for some people it feels exclusive. [They ask,] "Well, when are we going to come together?" And say we can't build a multiracial movement if Black people are doing our own thing. The thing I say all the time is listen, if Black folks don't get on the same page and deal with our stuff in our community, we're not going to be a helpful part of this coalition. We have Black faces in high places that throw Black people under the bus all the time. We have deeply racist narratives that we have internalized about ourselves and each other and the communities that we need to be in relationship with. And somebody has to also do that work. If we don't get organized ourselves, we can't make the right contributions to the type of vibrant, effervescent movement that we deserve, [and] that is our mandate in this moment. 

 

SR: You talk about the profiles and platforms and pedestals that we all have as individuals, and you really encourage readers to use our profiles and our platforms to be in service to the movement. What is the work that we need to do in the progressive movement to embrace and balance celebrity, because as you say, we all have positions in this ecosystem of a movement?

AG: Over the last decade, it is true that many of us have gone from relatively unknown organizers in communities, running and leading and engaging small campaigns that reach smaller groups of people, [to] changing rules in cities, changing rules in states, changing rules in communities. That transition from being relatively unknown to being catapulted onto a global stage is one that is deeply uncomfortable, not just for the individual but certainly for movements. And in [the book] I talk about some of our best strategists and thinkers and leaders and organizers who are constantly told by our movements to be smaller, to not take up so much space. 

And it seems like a contradiction to me because the way I understand movements is not that they are social clubs that have very strict rules for entry, but that we are trying to reach as many people as possible, and we are trying to find all of the people who are looking for us. And like it or not, where most people look is on these mainstream platforms. And so then the question becomes is there a way to use that that is full of integrity, that holds down our values, but that also says it's acceptable to try and reach millions of people for whom our organizations are never going to touch them if we don't try. 

I think that we can use profiles and platforms strategically. I argue, however, that pedestals are the least useful in our movement work. Pedestals serve to show other people somebody that you can look up to but you can never reach that level. And as an organizer, I don't believe that. I have seen and been a part of many efforts in my lifetime where people have realized their own power and pushed beyond their own boundaries to do things they never imagined were possible. That's our job as organizers. And we need to continue to do that. And I would never tell somebody who I was organizing in public housing or somebody who I was organizing who was houseless, who got an opportunity to be on MSNBC and talk to millions of people, don't do that, who do you think you are. 

I wrote this book to challenge us because, for some of us, because the infrastructure for our movements is so weak, a lot of how people come into this work is by seeing people on mainstream platforms and aspiring to be on mainstream platforms themselves. But if that is not connected to and anchored in organizing, all you're doing is building a brand. And all you're doing is trying to be an entertainer or a celebrity. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. I'm saying that's not movement building. 

Now at the same time, I think our approach to organizing is still very much stuck in the 1960s, before the digital era. No shade to that work. I believe in the person-to-person, sitting at the kitchen table. I don't think anything can replace that. And we are in an increasingly digital world, especially under the influence of COVID. So we've got to start to learn how to update ourselves for the 21st century so that we can not only meet people where they are, but that we can find people where they are talking, where they are looking for information, where they're looking for us. These are the things that keep me up at night. I imagine that people are looking for us on Twitter and can't find us because we're like, I don't do Twitter. What are you talking about? Put your organization out there and put your work out there because people are looking for you, especially in this moment. 

 

SR: I have three rapid fire questions.

AG: Let's do it.

 

SR: Favorite color?

AG: Green.

 

SR: What 2021 is going to be about?

AG: Growing and glowing.

 

SR: Best cheeseburger?

AGMy own. I make the best cheeseburgers out there. I flipped burgers for many years and so I know the anatomy and the art of a cheeseburger. But if I am having to have a go-to, there's a little spot in San Francisco. I hope it's still there. I haven't been anywhere since the pandemic. There's a little spot in San Francisco that makes an excellent cheeseburger. It's in The Haight. The only critique I have of their cheeseburger is that they use sweet pickles instead of dill pickles. And I think that is a travesty.

 

SR: Well, thank you so much. It was great having this conversation. I hope everyone goes out and picks up The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart. Thanks for sharing your journey and your work and your lessons. And we look forward to more.

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