Doing “the work” is an oft-used phrase in social justice circles, arguably overused to the point that it can include everything from reading a poem to starting a movement.
Alicia Garza knows what “the work” is. A co-founder of Black Lives Matter, the writer and activist now works as the Special Projects Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and leads the Black Futures Lab, which strives to build independent political power for black communities. Earlier this year, the Lab drafted the Black Agenda, a comprehensive document containing a variety of policy proposals that would empower the health, safety, and prosperity of black Americans.
Garza spoke to The Root in April, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic but before the viral video of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing at the hands of two white vigilantes; before Breonna Taylor’s name was on the lips of tens of thousands of protesters; when Tony McDade and George Floyd were still alive, breaking bread with family and sharing laughter with their friends.
Wide swaths of the nation have now coalesced behind the unifying call, “Black Lives Matter,” even as a recession keeps millions of Americans out of work and the coronavirus pandemic continues to rise and ebb in communities across the country. With black liberation now at the forefront of the national discourse, and with radical, abolitionist demands like defund the police and shutting down prisons receiving more mainstream attention than ever before, much of Garza’s advice for organizing—and for remaining resilient and steadfast in the face of crisis—still applies.
[Editor’s note: Garza’s responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.]
You know, before [the pandemic] happened, I was talking with my team and orienting people around what we were doing this year in relationship to the elections. I was telling people to be prepared for the fact that you’re going to be mad. You’re going to be upset about how this plays out, because our democracy was already in crisis before in our political system, which already doesn’t serve or reflect the people who need it the most. And so I was preparing people for that. And I was saying and our job, 100 percent of the time is to find the people who are looking for us, find the people who want to see politics transformed for the better. Find the people who are willing to fight for that and find the people who are looking around them and saying, who else thinks that this whole thing is bonkers and who has a plan, who has a plan to change it and make it better?
The challenge for us, though, right now is that people are also being told not to congregate and not to gather. And so this actually makes our work even more important and it makes it more tricky. It also puts the onus on us to get even more creative than we had been before.
The Black Futures Lab is an innovation and experimentation lab. We do a lot of experiments that revolve around how to make black communities powerful in politics so that we can be powerful in all the aspects of our lives. We have programs moving on the ground, a program called Black to the Ballot, for example, where we’re registering black voters in nine states across the country and doing the work to keep engaging those voters and turning them out in June and November. Now, we have to figure out how do we now do that under conditions that have changed and will keep changing rapidly over time.
We can’t give up. We have to actually really dig our heels in and say, OK, let’s not only pay attention to how the landscape is changing—let’s listen to the needs that our communities are telling us. And let’s make sure that we have tools in place to help people stay engaged, while also making sure that people’s immediate needs get met.
I’m like everyone else where, you know, there’s a little voice in my head that says, you’re not doing enough. You could be doing more. Who are you to rest? People can’t rest. But I’ve also learned over the years that those voices have to be quieted because I won’t be around for the long haul if I don’t. So, yes, there are tons of times when I get to places that encourage me not to take care of myself, but I think I’ve gotten better at not giving in.
So when I need to sleep, I sleep. When I need to eat, I eat. When the brain is not working, it’s not working. And I really try to honor those things. I will say that part of what makes that possible for me is the community that we built. In order for that to be possible, I have to create and be a part of the kinds of communities that also support that. And so my self-care is very much guided by the possibility of community care and making sure that the culture around us encourages us to care for ourselves, in order for us to be more impactful and more effective.
One of the things that this virus has made really clear is how deeply we depend on each other to survive. And it’s all of our responsibilities to make sure that we are caring for each other in such a way that the people that we depend on to live, can also depend on us.
I really want other organizers and activists to remember that we have fucking work to do. I’m sorry to say it like that but there’s a lot of things that I see on social media that I think really reflect how scared people are. I’m scared and I would imagine that you’re scared. We’re all scared. Right now, this moment is going to determine what happens for the next decade in this country or more. And so the things that we do now really do matter. Voting matters, sense of being and community matters. Caring for yourself matters. Fighting for communities that care for you matter. And there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t matter right now.
It’s really important for folks to take some time, if you can, every single day and just really take stock. I wake up in the middle of the night every night and I think to myself, I don’t know if there’s going to be an election this year. That matters. And it actually puts a lot of things in perspective for me. And so my hope would be that we really take this time, not to be your most productive self— fuck that—it’s actually you can take this time to really get centered on what’s important to you. Who do you want to say you were? What role do you want to say that you played? When your kids or your grandkids who didn’t live through this moment ask you, ‘who were you? What did you do? How did you get by?’ What are you going to say? That’s the thing that I would offer to people.
For us to move through this with no regrets, we’ve got to be really clear what is important—to me, to this country. What is going to ensure that I and the people that I care for have a shot at having the life that we want and that we deserve.