On Oct. 30 in Memorial Church, Alicia Garza—the special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter network—gave the Ninth Annual Robert Coles “Call of Service” Lecture. She discussed her thoughts on #BlackLivesMatter, the transformative power of resistance, and how the call of service must be redefined. Afterward, there was a brief press period for reporters. When I entered the anteroom, Garza was lounged on the couch, exhausted from the lecture. She was in the middle of fielding questions from an unsettled daughter of Haitian immigrants.
Student: “They have a lot more to lose because they see the conditions where they came from—and this is as good as it gets.”
AG: “Do you think that they love their life?”
Student: “I think they’re just extra cautious.”
AG: “Scared, maybe?”
AG: “That’s what keeps most people from being a part of the movement. It’s not for everybody, but for some people. When you study history, there were so many people who were watching and it actually took them years to get over their fear. It got to a point where they didn’t have a choice, and it got to a point where they were so inspired by the people around them.”
With that, the student thanked Alicia Garza and left. A reporter from The Boston Globe began her line of questioning.
Boston Globe Reporter: “It seems like we reached so far, and then now people are asking did we backslide from the ’60s and ’70s? Was something left undone? Was there some sort of backlash that undid it?”
AG: “Both. There’s lots that I think we left undone. And one is that a lot of our movement and movement infrastructure got absorbed into the state and then we became responsible for doing the work of the state and that was a result of a backlash.”
BGR: “Some people would say that is systemic change. Systemic change is being absorbed into the state, getting your agenda on the budget, and that’s how change is affected.”
AG: “Well no, because you can make lots of changes if you have some degree of power, but changing isn’t governance, and whoever governs wins. Part of what we left undone was actually that transformative assessment of what does it mean to actually seize power. Power isn’t being at the table. I think we’ve learned that. We have a black president. We have more black legislators than we have ever had, and to be quite honest we can’t move stuff, and what we can move is largely a corporate agenda. So there was stuff that was both left undone and that we didn’t learn the full lesson of...I think the fight got re-conceptualized to being, well, if we have people at the table, that in and of itself is power. But if you don’t have a movement to hold those people accountable or a movement that those folks feel accountable to, then you’ve just got a seat at the table.”
BGR: “So much of the agenda that really needs to be out there is about class. In the ’60s and ’70s there was a huge leap forward for some people of color. Is there a possibility of a transformational partnership with the white underclass?”
AG: “You can’t have a transformational partnership with the white underclass without combating white supremacy in order to see that there’s common interest. What’s happening in Appalachia is not at all that different from what is happening in Compton, except Appalachia isn’t being gentrified. The barrier that we can’t get over is race.”
The reporter thanked Alicia, and I was able to begin my own line of questioning.
FM: “So, there’s a tendency as black students, especially at Harvard, to think that some of the things that are happening cannot happen to us, or that because we made it out, we think like, ‘Why didn’t some of our classmates take advantage of some of the opportunities that were out there?’ And so many of us are going into policy and into positions of power. I can see that this mindset is implicitly affecting us, a little bit. What can black Harvard students and black students at an elite university do to help the movement and also make sure we’re not thinking in those ways?”
AG: “Black exceptionalism is really dangerous, and what I mean by that is, for example, I’m noticing language about black folks that doesn’t include us. Even in our narratives, we are like, ‘How do we empower them? How do we help them?’ But they are us and we are them, so that’s challenging. And I think that is part of the role in some ways of these types of institutions, that it creates an elite class that then feels that it is very separate from what’s around it. And the goal is to get out as opposed to get in.”
FM: “And also this is something that I’ve noticed. Students will get to a higher, like upper middle class, and they’ll decide to live in white neighborhoods. It’s understandable, but I mean how do we change what our goals are and what we see as success?”
AG: “I think we need to stop filtering our vision of success through the lens of white supremacy, so I get what you’re talking about, too, which is there are not a lot of resources in our communities. And maybe for some people it’s not about wanting to live in white communities, but wanting to live near amenities, like grocery stores, but we still have to deal with the fact that there are still no grocery stores in South [Washington, D.C]. That doesn’t go away and, that’s kind of what I was talking about in terms of the service bit. Do we hold ourselves responsible for each other? Not so much in the way of, ‘Once I make it, I’ll serve at a soup kitchen once a month,’ but do we see ourselves as responsible for each other. I think that is something we could kind of dig into. Caring for each other means not isolating each other and being responsible for taking care of ourselves in conditions that are dehumanizing. We need our communities to support us. That can look a bunch of different ways: places of joy, places to talk about what we’re afraid of. So much of that happens in private spaces, and I think there are ways in which we can build on that.”