Makani Themba

The Personal Is Political

Makani Themba is good evidence of the heritability of activism. Both her mother and grandmother were activists. Her parents were among the first black people to move into Hollis,  then an all-white neighborhood on the Queens side of Long Island. They saw firsthand white flight at maximum speed. As Makani described it, “We moved in, we blinked, and the whole block was black except for one family who was clearly stuck.”

A decade after Brown vs. Board of Education, New York City schools remained segregated. In 1964, 460,000 students participated in this School Boycott to demand integrated schools.

Little Rock was desegregated in 1957, In 1966, Little Neck, New York, remained segregated until six students, one from each grade, all carefully chosen to succeed, groomed to impress, and trained not to react with violence and anger no matter the provocation. Makani was one of those six, chosen by the NAACP, perhaps because her mother was an activist demanding school equality. Desegregation in New York was a long, hard struggle that continues into the present.

Despite the social and political reverberations of integrating schools, Makani did not experience this as a racial justice activist, but as a child wondering “Why is this happening to me?” In fact, she gave herself a serious case of pneumonia standing out in the rain in her underwear trying to get sick so she could miss school. Recalling that time, she said, “That experience was so harrowing and so crazy and mirrored what I was watching on television…as though the whole world was on fire. There was no middle ground, There was the right side or the wrong side. Not even for a six year old.”

Makani Themba school photo.
Photo from Makani Themba

Her parents divorced and her mom moved to Washington Heights to be closer to Themba’s grandmother, one of the first black telephone operators at Ma Bell. She was deeply involved in her union, the Communication Workers of America. Her mother became involved in the antiwar and feminist movements and took her children to marches and rallies. That is when it became fun for Makani. She felt like she was part of this larger social revolution. What other people saw on television, she saw in person. She was at the Riverside Church when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his inspiring speech against the Vietnam War, Beyond Vietnam that offered a radical vision of justice, challenging us to a revolution of values–a challenge that speaks to her to this day.

Makani’s first political act of her own initiative was a walkout to protest overcrowding at her school in Washington Heights. The students also refused to salute the flag. “It was the late Sixties and it was just part of the mainstream, our mainstream culture. We were not Americans in that way, we were African Americans with a different set of values and our country was engaged in a war against us.”

While her mother was not into black liberation politics, Makani was more attuned to it. “I was in the capital of blackness–Harlem…You had Malcolm X just hanging out. People others saw on television, we would see in person…Other people were trying to figure out blackness and we were in a place where it was beautiful and okay and there was no ambivalence about it.”

Makani Themba

Makani Themba by Davey D. Cook

Makani knew she was meant to be an organizer when she was eight. It was 1968 and everything was happening, as she put it, “Who would not want to be an organizer in 1968? There was really a lot of hope then, that it would change. Even in the midst of the assassinations and craziness, we thought things would shift.” Thanks to her mother and grandmother, activism was normal, even expected. All of her siblings are also politically active–that inheritance carries true. “They’re all engaged in some change work through their writing or some activity because that was normal for us. That’s where it started and it never stopped.”

The Gang of Four book recommended by Makani Themba talks about that era of organizing and community. The link has autoplay music.

An important shift in her worldview happened while she was living in Seattle. While she was there, the Gang of Four of Bernie Whitebear, Bob Santos, Roberto Maestas, and Larry Gossett, were creating a unified community of radical racial justice organizing, uniting black, Japanese, Native American, and Latino folks, hanging out together and building this beautiful community. This community is where she found her identity as a member of the Third World. “I came up as black, Caribbean, Cuban, Jamaican. My father’s from Boston, born in the South, without much connection but his parents were very southern, so I always felt very much a Pan-African. Whatever black context I was in, it didn’t hold all of me.” Within this broader community, she found space that recognized her multiplicity.

Organizing Q & A.

What are your priorities now?

What are your priorities now?

I’m trying to figure that out. For the first time in a long time, I’m not sure. I feel like it unfolds as people ask me to do things. I am at the age where I don’t want to take up too much space. It’s not that it’s about turns but I want to make room for younger people. They have their particular ways of doing things. I don’t agree with all of it, but that’s not mine to do. The same way people elder to me when I was coming up didn’t agree with all of what I was doing. They didn’t do a good job of making room. I want to do a better job.

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Photo Credit: The Praxis Project

As I moved out of Praxis and moved into this different space of not running an organization, of trying to create the space for someone else to do the job, to have a different way of thinking about it, I found my myself asking “What is it that is mine to do right now? What is useful?” Having these intergenerational conversations that my friend Barbara Ransby nicknamed the Biddies Tour. I love that. We’re on a biddies tour. It feels in some ways people are calling on us to share these lessons just like you feel moved to document what people are thinking.

What are these lessons? What can we learn about this period? I feel it is similar to the the Eighties. Not that it’s exactly the same, but there are some parallels. The Eighties are a kind of hidden history. That history has a lot to offer about how we think about this work right now. Also, the Eighties changed so much of how organizing happens. People don’t realize how much of the work of the Eighties transformed how we think about organizing, how we think about coalition-building, and just how much of our practice came out of the 80s.

Maybe that’s part of my work, to think about that. Also, to support people in their conversations about how they are working and who they are working with. That’s another part of my work right now. I started to write about the Eighties and people were like oh, no Max Elbaum’s  going to write that book, but I read that book and it’s not what I wanted to say. This was about left, really left, work from a particular lens, that was very judgmental about organizations and didn’t have enough to say about the organizing..

This goes to where the Eighties came off the Seventies. We had this sort of backlash– and also we were dealing with the effects of COINTELPRO. There was this devastation of movement in many ways, from the outside in and from the inside out. You had these confluent factors like urban renewal and displacement of people. People have a way of talking about what happened to the Sixties that mostly blames the people who organized. That doesn’t integrate the larger socioeconomic factors that happened and why and when and how they played out. Even our relationship to land and  space and how that shifted, where we live, how we live, how we get together, and a lot of things we think about in terms of organizing…we think about door knocking, but when people are afraid, do they open the door? Do they engage with you in the same way? No they don’t. They don’t.

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Photo Credit: The Praxis Project

Philanthropy shifted to investing in super-coalitions and big national organizations. They felt like going big was going to be the way to defeat Reagan. They didn’t really pay attention to the way people of color were being dispossessed by the electoral system which is part of the legacy that gave us Trump, of how you get to win without a majority. It has so much to do with the dispossession of the urban community. That lack of history, the lack of understanding, even the foregrounding of white leadership because of folks feeling beat up and hurt by the conversations around racism–and sexism and homophobia–that was centered in the Seventies, but people couldn’t deal with it and shut it down and marginalized the groups that led those conversations. They created these safe super coalitions like Take Back America, these entities that were supposed to hold it down and be the real majority that kind of morphed into the fight against so called identity politics. All of these conversations have a legacy.

Even the practice, like the mechanization of organizing. You had these folks who rose in prominence  and were like the Henry Ford of organizing. The idea it takes this many seconds to sign people up, the introduction of clip boards and ironing boards and these things  to make it more efficient, make it go faster, and move away from the idea that organizing was something inspirational. People didn’t want to build leadership in that way or focus on what it means to build community as a part of this work. Then there was the rise of the Alinsky method. Alinsky was very local and Midwest until it blew up and went national thanks to the way philanthropy invested in it.

Some of it was conscious and some of it was subconscious, the dispossession of people of color and the rejection of that more affective organizing framework.  Organizing moved from inspirational to more mechanical organizing. What’s best is a hybrid where you have good practice, good inspiration and space, all of that – and it feels like more people are pulling these elements together in work today. Of course, all along there have been people who have operated with some level of integration but they weren’t the big groups.

How we think about that; how we think about coalitions; how we think about alliance building; how  we think about organizing; how we think about the role of electoral work in organizing – all of that came out of the 80s.

The Alinksy method is a useful tool, but to be very clear, there are risks. It is not rooted in any kind of values. It is about how you find the common denominator. It is in the ultimate white-man’s organizing. It has some good to it because you should think about those things. But the best is a hybrid model. Alinksy celebrates objectivity and distance because it’s designed to support folks who are not working where they live. It has its use.

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Photo Credit: The Praxis Project

Martin Luther King, Jr. said “The arc of moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Do you believe that?

Absolutely without a shadow of a doubt.

What gives you hope?

Hope is everywhere. I am so fortunate because I get to work with people who are committed to change and that is one source of hope. The main thing is how smart we are getting. How we are taking all this information from the past and weaving it together with everything from science fiction to yoga….people are just so smart in the work. In spite of what might feel like setbacks and this and that, there are so many people who are deeply rooted in good stuff, the new ways they are looking at the work, the questions they are asking. There’s also so many more healthy people doing this work. I love that. How can you not love that?

You have done a lot of work on messaging, framing and policy. What do you wish people knew about communicating our values?

It’s being clear what our values are. Folks are struggling a bit right now and I understand that. The words aren’t enough. People mean so many different things by the words. For example, we might say our values are fairness or justice. What does that mean? I am hopeful, because of the March and its leadership, there is a lot more conversation about intersectionality among feminists than there has been–without people totally freaking out.

That’s a place where people are starting to get a clearer sense of some shared values. So folks can say I’m a feminist and that means I can’t support police shooting folk. Or I’m a feminist so I support these mothers. I can’t support homophobic policies because I’m a feminist. People are trying to define some shared space.

With Beatriz Beckford at the Women’s March on Washington. Photo by Beatriz Beckford

Not that it is not contested, because it is. Consider the  flap over the comments about trans and feminism, but the responses have been mostly beautiful. It was an interesting study in values because we had people saying ‘I have to struggle with my sister because she’s my sister and our value is to debate and have clarity.” Then some people are saying, “Forget her, she should be x’ed off the planet, off the boat, nothing to say to her” as though they never made mistakes. With our intersectional game, nobody has it completely tight. We all try to figure it out. Our class stuff, our race stuff, our gender stuff, our ableism. There’s always some piece we don’t have completely tight. So how do we learn? We learn with people we feel safe with–who help us be better.

That’s how it works. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel pain, we don’t get embarrassed. Lord knows I have had such embarrassing moments, but when you’re grown you work through it. It was an opportunity to look at people’s shared values around this. What does it mean to be progressive? We have to recognize we are in the process of clarifying, redefining and refining what our values are and let’s be okay with that.

What is important to communicate I think is that we are a movement in the making. First, we have to help people not be afraid. This is the most important thing. Not be afraid of each other or a future where we share leadership and share the world. The only reason the right wins anything is because people are afraid of each other.

To me, when we are saying things like Trump sucks, not that he doesn’t, I wonder why do we talk about him. There’s budget issues we have to fight, policies we have to fight, but who he is does not matter. Why should we care? We should care about reinforcing that we don’t need to be afraid to come together. That there’s enough, that we’re enough, that the other person is enough. We can stop listening to him now. He’s not smart and he’s not our leader.

How do we continue to communicate that space for courage, that space beyond fear to rescue our world? What are we afraid of? We don’t have to be afraid. It will be okay. We can take those steps out of mean-spiritedness and make change. I am not asking people of color to go hug white people and let go of our legitimate pain.  We don’t need to center white people in this story. For example, when people say, “We didn’t do a good enough job talking to white people so that’s why Trump won.” Trump won because of an archaic anti-democratic system.

We have an anti-democratic system that undermines the masses of voters.  This goes beyond determining who got to vote, because even those who got to the polls did not get to vote for who they wanted to vote for. Few people understand how the system works. They don’t even know. Their sense of what happens is based on what CNN told them. So we have to continually affirm that it’s the system.  We have to continually reinforce  not being afraid, and we need to continually project this idea in film, art, and in all the spaces we can, to convey that there is safety in coming together, perhaps in ways we did not expect.

We have to help people understand the structural nature of injustice. This is not about disaffected hillbillies. This system does not work for them, for the vast majority of us and many people understand that at some level, but they don’t know how the rules work against them much less that there are alternatives. We don’t learn civics in school in any real way. Local governments used to put out handbooks about how to be a citizen where you live. They stopped printing many of the civic guides in 1918/1919 right before women got the vote. How do you know how to participate as a full citizen? What are your rights? How does that work, if no one tells you?  It’s usually taught in the private schools where they have a sense of privilege, or noblesse oblige, that they are going to participate and even lead because that’s who they are.

And then, there is a need to advance a shift in some of our deeply held values, like the value of stewardship versus dominion. In that there are so many of us who went to church, who had this upbringing that someone has to be on top or have dominion over others. It’s hard to imagine that’s not the case.

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Photo Credit: The Praxis Project

When we think of the environment and each other and what it means to live in a truly sustainable ecology, it requires stewardship and care, not dominion. That shifts so much of what we learn and how we think–all of that. So what’s more important for you to learn in school? This war and the date of that war or how to grow a garden and to think of yourself as someone here to care about other people on this planet?  I don’t think there is going to be some soundbite or campaign that will flip the game and change these values in six months. It’s a long term project.

I do think if we can be consistent and think of how to embed these values in our institutions that socialize and train our kids and our folks, that is the key to shift. So that kids going to kindergarten next fall, when they graduate in 2025,  come out feeling like they’re citizens of the world, that they have a duty of care, to be good stewards of love, of life and each other.

I think the most revelatory insight I ever got from any training was an exercise you had us do at a workshop in Seattle – drawing a picture of what we wanted the world to be like and then asking us to never do anything for a short term victory that got in the way of the long term goal. It has guided strategy and communication ideas for me ever since. Where does that insight come from, can you give examples of why that is important?

Whatever it seems like I am is the result of so many people–we are all connected. What we know is from other folks. We take it in and process it through our unique lens and it becomes something. I feel so fortunate to have a mom who is a yogi–how unique is that? How many people did that? She’s like that hippie in the Sixties with this different perspective that at first I thought was kind of wack because the world was on fire and everyone should pick up a gun. My mom is not that person. Other influences in my life have also borne fruit in my consciousness.

Ananda Sattwa & Makani Themba – Mother and Daughter two generations of activism
Photo credit: Makani Themba

That came from watching people. Coming out at the tail end, after the civil rights movement was pretty well decimated, I worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Los Angeles. It was so interesting to me, as a young upstart because I thought their focus was on individual stories and less on systems.

I later learned that was not true, but it was how others spun what was said. Through interacting with these elders, I got the chance to learn more about Dr. King as he really was, not just what was in the books. He actually did get it, that this was about transforming systems. But what he was about got twisted in the reframing. So what was presented were these individual stories that seemed to focus on the deservingness of our people to be given rights versus the rigged systems of white supremacy and patriarchy.  This felt like a set up for what Reagan did to focus on depicting people of color as undeserving of programs using memes like the welfare queen and the like.

Then we had these ballot initiatives in California that spread like wildfire, like Prop 13, and they all seemed to build on some aspect of progressive values that had gone awry. People on the left would be like, “We need to be about our family values,” and I wondered how are you going to take that from them. You don’t have the resources or the institutions to displace the right’s spin on this and echo what you are saying.  That didn’t make sense.

I would watch people trying to figure out, because they only talked to voters who voted all the time, how to say some version of what the right was saying with a little twist at the end that would make it okay. For example on Prop 187, the anti-immigrant initiative, you had “allies” working to defeat the proposition with arguments like yes, immigration is a problem but if you force immigrants underground they won’t get immunizations and they will  infect all of you.  So that is why you should vote no. What? Did you really just say that immigrants were carriers of disease? You really did just say that.

I watched time after time, people who were primarily identifying with Reagan white voters. They were trying to figure out how not to alienate them, not to take them to task, not to educate them, but not trying to work directly with them and just dealing on this superficial level. They were not trying to make sure people actually affected by it had more power.

In some ways, they didn’t know what their long term goal was. It exposed their challenges with dealing with white supremacy head on. It benefited them and they weren’t sure what to do. They had never thought it out. Part of the legacy of McCarthyism is that people are afraid to name alternatives so everybody is working incrementally and without good language that describes the end game.

Have you considered an update of your book “Talking the Walk” for today, when support for black lives, for racial justice is being framed as “costing us the election”? What is your response to that argument?

I wrote another book after that called Fair Game where I try to deal with a lot of this stuff. It helped me to think about how this stuff plays out. Black Lives Matter did not exist when the book came out in 2009, but it does talk about the backlash after Obama was elected.

I have been thinking about that. The book I am working on now is more about that, but primarily focused around black organizing, some of the shifts and the ways at which people aren’t quite looking at it correctly. They are making assumptions such as only millennial organizing is what’s happening which is kind of weird, where they now discount the legacy groups and do not know what they do. It’s about how the legacy of slavery has shaped black organizing to this day and other things, too. It has a name, but I  think I have to change it. The name I have now, it’s super-provocative so I need to tone it down. When I started the book, I think I had more of an axe to grind. I started in reaction to some things, then I found myself writing some of that back, revising it in a way that I think will be heard a little better. I hope.

Is there a difference between organizing and activism?

Yes, absolutely. Organizing is the process, or processes, of building sustainable work over time to build more power, more resources, more stuff, I don’t mean more money, necessarily. Activism can be a part of organizing, but it’s whatever anybody does to make a difference whether it’s long-lasting or not.

People keep saying we need to show solidarity with people who will be targets of the new regime. How do you define solidarity? How do we show solidarity?

I feel like it shifts. I think one way of thinking about solidarity is it’s anything that helps our work become bigger and more solid, right? It’s like when we show up, there’s more of you, more power, more strength. It requires some level of cohesion, but not permanently, right? It about seeing that other people care. That caring can make a difference. That can be raced, gendered, all kinds of ways.

So it’s a black group and people who are not black show up, what does that mean to help address their afrophobia? That’s important. If it’s women, and men show up and help take a look at patriarchy differently. That’s good. It’s helping the work be more solid and more powerful. So I think it can be flexible

Another word being used quite a bit is ally? What is an ally? Some anti-racist activists say they need fewer allies and more accomplices? What do you think they mean?

I love that. The thing is I have gotten to the point where I feel wherever people are, if they have a net positive effect, it is good. If they cannot be accomplices because the risk is too high and they can be allies. If they can be public about their allyship and translate it in ways people can understand, that’s awesome. There a lot of people who are confused.

We have now at least one generation if not two who have grown to adulthood without any kind of sense of what a justice movement feels like, They do not know what it is like being enveloped in a justice movement like many of us who grew up in the Sixties. How do you even know what it looks like or what it is because so much of that work got marginalized by the media, by whitewashed storytelling. Folks are discovering more about movement history but most of what folks discover is what happened in the Sixties. Everything else they have to really excavate to engage.

So now we have folks who want to be allies, especially folks who don’t even have that history of what that means. But it’s beautiful, how can we support that? What does the movement look like beyond what they see in the movies.

How do people become accomplices? How do people even become actors who act in support of the people in the crosshairs of white supremacy and patriarchy. We develop on-ramps that connect them to organizations. We help them learn to be organizers whether in unions or in the “nonprofit industrial complex” so they learn somewhere. So you have people jumping off doing stuff, but they are not the ones leading things.

A lot of us who were working in the Sixties and Seventies, we know we were not trained that well for the most part. Many of us learned by doing and the whole training apparatus didn’t really take off until the Eighties and the Nineties. Now there are more people being trained, more people coming through, and now there is this next level of work. So there are all these new things, how do people feel comfortable, where’s the infrastructure to support them?  Without that, we end up in a situation like Occupy.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought Occupy was beautiful, that it had an impact in the way it was centered. I felt like it was unfortunate that the right ironically used the diversity and race frame to undermine what I thought was a perfectly okay movement for white people of privilege to engage. Why not? Do your thing. Help people to understand the crisis of capitalism. That’s good. That has positive net effect.

What was interesting was that because of the nature of the action which was people staying in the same place with limited resources, camping out, you had people with quite a few resources or people who had none. That’s what the camps looked like. You had people with a lot of mental health issues who were essentially homeless but felt aligned with it and folks with high capacity and ability to hang out and organize that level of an action that was sustained over months. There was a real gap.

From a training on Strategic Communications you can watch on YouTube.

So, I feel that was the sort of level of accomplice work that people didn’t know how to work to do or figure out.

How do these people of privilege interact with these people of color without privilege? How do you vote? How do you engage and do governance, which I thought they did in ways that were really thoughtful and innovative. But they had to struggle with what the class and race implications were–how to work empowering governance together around those issues. So there are a lot of lessons there but to me it’s an example of what accomplice work can look like.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be showing up at the action stopping the BART train. People have such limited imagination as to what this can look like. I hope in the future as we think about complicity in a good way and allyship and solidarity, that we can let our imaginations break free and be open to all the ways people can show up and understand that whatever people create that has a net positive effect opens adjacent possibilities that creates more possibilities for more forward progress

Karl Popper has argued that tolerating the intolerant inevitably leads to an intolerant society. On the other hand, John Milton says truth will always defeat error if speech is unrestricted and free. Where do you find yourself?

It depends on what you mean win. I do believe the arc bends toward justice but it’s a long-ass arc on one hand. On the other hand, I believe in wormholes, too. Occupy was one of those moments, where we were thinking the conversation would be one thing than all of a sudden, you are in whole other conversation. It was like a wormhole. There’s a space around Black Lives Matter for a moment where there was a different conversation. I do believe both are true simultaneously at the same time. I believe in quantum organizing. I love the idea of quantum physics.

I think there are things we need to understand that we don’t understand yet, but it has to do with the work we need to do. I am really into this discovery of mirror neurons, the idea that we have a part or our brain that connects us deeply with everything else we see and experience. So what does that mean for organizing? This may not be an intellectual pursuit even though it has some affective and emotive imaging, but maybe there is some brain part of this we need to understand better about mirror neurons and empathy. Maybe that is one of the ways we are all connected. What does that mean for how we understand things and understand each other?

So we could have this one stage where truth rises and the other stage where truth is weighed down by the rocks of lies and manipulation. There are so many things that aren’t true that we carry as truth every single day. Because our thoughts are powerful. They can make a lie a truth. How we think of our ability, when we think of how we look, what is beauty, all of those things. Hardly anybody who lives in society who does not carry some kind of damage in their vision of themselves and their love of themselves based on what they have been exposed. It’s not true, but our very selves reflect our understanding of this non-truth.

Then where is the intervention? Is the intervention a matter of debate? Is the intervention something much deeper? What does it mean that a person who meditates at least thirty minutes a day, a part of their brain changes that allows them to see differently, to see other human beings differently by virtue of meditating. It may be less about the argument and maybe, what if every child had to meditate every day at school. What would that mean? What would that look like? What would that change?

What is your response to those who say we must reduce the emphasis on human rights organizing (identity politics) in electoral campaigns so we are more agreeable to working class voters?

Yeah, whatever. I’m not a big fan of those kinds of prescriptive things. Personally, I think we spend a lot of time thinking about middle class voters even though the system benefits them more than many of us. So OK, whatever…I don’t think that makes sense to me.

What make sense to me is what builds power for change. If we keep reifying the people who have relatively more power and expect different results, that doesn’t make sense to me. Why should that make sense to me? So the question for me is not so much what about middle class voters, but why do middle class voters count so much? Why do we have things like the Senate, the Electoral College, and states’ rights that make them even more powerful.

Do they really mean middle class voters or do they really mean white people who aren’t poor? I think  they really mean the latter. They’re just not saying it. All of that is about trying to “win”, to keep playing the game and then they wonder why the right keeps winning. The right basically starts with most of the white people but it’s usually not enough to guarantee a majority so instead of working to build the power of communities of color, of building progressive voice, Democrats are fighting over that ten percent of whites that keep going back and forth partywise because they don’t know what their politics are. So the focus is trying to speak to their values and engage them because they’re trying to win, not build power for transformative change. That’s something different.

That to me is more of the issue. I would like to figure out how we can be able to make sure everybody who has kids in a school district can vote regardless of nation status and that kids, maybe from thirteen on, get to vote for school board members because they are students and should be represented. How can we expand democracy, not how we can reach people who are already fairly empowered, that’s not an interesting question to me.

They’re not trying to win on values.

What does justice mean to you?

Justice takes into account of history. It’s not something meted out on just what happens today. It looks at historic patterns of treatment and resource distribution and effect and impact on all kinds of levels. Justice is essentially distributive. It cannot be justice if nothing is redistributed.

What is intersectionality and how should it affect our work?

Intersectionality is everything, everything. It is about how those things come together to shape who we are and what we do. It is everything, it’s gender, class, nation status, it’s how we are perceived as able or disabled. It’s about our relationships to power and to privilege. It is also about how our identity, and identity is too loose a word, how our experiences and who we are shape our relationships to power and to each other and what we have to learn about that.

Classic example, a queer black woman who is visually impaired who lives in a rural area, who is from Nicaragua and speaks no English. It is more than what each thing is, it is also how they all combine to shape how she has to interact with power or not. If I am an organizer working with her, what does it mean? What does it mean for me to be working with her? What do I have to shift in my own practice. My friend Pancho Arguelles says, “Privilege is what you get to forget about.” That’s a way of explaining intersectionality.

What kind of world do you want to leave for the next generation, or, to put it another way, imagine the world in 30 years, what do you hope it will be like?

A world where they feel like no matter where they are or who they are, they feel safe in any place, anywhere with anyone around them.

What can we do to achieve that vision?

We have to figure out how to transform the system to socialize and construct the world as we know it. To construct that world and constructing people ready for that world, people who are ready to collaborate, to understand the world and the people in it, to think of themselves as stewards, not having dominion. How do we transform the system that teaches truth to contribute to change? To shift our thinking from competing and needing to master and dominate to this place of collaboration. How do we learn to collaborate. We need to shift the infrastructure to support these ways of being and learn how to understand this way of being.

Self-care is part of resistance. How do you take care of yourself?

I moved out of the big city. Now I garden and it’s something I am still learning. Who knows how it will turn out. I am trying to do a better job. One of the things I love about the new school folks is that they are thinking about that more. Part of our thinking, speaking for my comrades and folks close in age to me, you know, so many of our folks died. We didn’t imagine we would grow old doing this work. We have folks now who didn’t grow up with that kind of trauma, that assassination trauma, so they expect to do this for a while, they go on breaks, they take vacations, they go on fellowships. So wow, Rest! I am still learning.

I guess the thing I want to say is a lot of people want to talk to me about money…that’s cool, but money is not the end all be all. We can be creative about this. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s unfair for philanthropy and public monies to be used in such a way that marginalizes and isolates people of color. We should be fair. I don’t want to say forget about the money, the money is important, but let’s figure out how to fight for what’s fair, if that money given to people is given to make change, then yes, we should work to make change. But we should not allow it divide us, to focus so much on who has it and who doesn’t and do our work.

Where do you go for news and information?

I think a lot of it is from friends. I am grateful for the people who send me the things I need to read. Thank God for them. I find myself reading fewer and fewer mainstream newspapers. I am appreciative of good aggregators of news. I like some aggregators that are outside the US that focus on racial justice. There’s aggregators like Common Cause [Democracy Wire] or Berkeley Media Studies Group. I still read the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian I still look at magazines like Boston Review. Mostly what I read are things I get online from people, news and opinion pieces. Sometimes I can stand to watch a little of CNN, but it gets me mad. They receive so much money and do so little for it. There are hardly any journalists, just these talking heads.

Makani Themba is Chief Strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies in Detroit, Michigan. Before that she was the Executive Director of The Praxis Project, an organization she founded to help communities communicate more strategically to advance their policy agenda and challenge the balance of power. Some of their projects included Communities Creating Healthy Environments (C-CHE), Building Capacity Building Power, and Policy Advocacy on Tobacco and Health (PATH). In addition to teaching and speaking around the country, she has published numerous articles and case studies on race, class, media, policy advocacy and public health. She is co-author of Media Advocacy and Public Health: Power for Prevention, a contributor to the volumes We the Media, State of the Race: Creating Our 21st Century, along with many other edited book projects. Before that she was a Program Director of the Transnational Racial Justice Initiative at Applied Research Center, which is now called Race Forward. She also worked as Associate Director at The Marin Institute which is now known as Alcohol Justice. She also directed the Grass Roots Innovative Policy Program. Early in her career she was the media director at Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Los Angeles. She is author of Making Policy, Making Change, and she has also co-authored with Hunter Cutting Talking the Walk: Communications Guide for Racial Justice. Her latest book, a collaboration under The Praxis Project is Fair Game: A Strategy Guide for Racial Justice Communications in the Obama Era. She is working on another book about black organizing and has ideas for more writing projects.
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