Category Archives: Issues

Bree Carlson

The Personal Is Political

Bree Carlson has been politically active almost as long as she has been alive. She learned the importance of political engagement from her mother who passionately demonstrated it as a board member of Planned Parenthood. Her mom was also active in fighting for union representation at the casino where she worked as a cocktail waitresses. With her mother as role model, Carlson knew that she wanted to make a difference, though she did not know it would be in organizing.

Bree Carlson with her mother
Photo Courtesy of Bree Carlson

She originally envisioned a career in public service or in electoral politics, but once she was introduced to the idea of organizing as a way to win change, she knew that was for her. She was working a service job with a gang intervention program when her friendship with Bob Fulkerson at Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada showed her there was another, more radical road. In her own words, “When I understood what an organizer was, that was clear it was what I wanted to do.”

Carlson counts herself lucky to have been raised by a single mother and a “flock of cocktail waitresses” who taught her everything she needed to know, including self-sufficiency. “I am the only child of a single mother who was a cocktail waitress. Single mothers are smart humans. The only things that ever got done in my childhood, everything that got fixed, everything that got solved, everything that was made possible, was made possible by a woman. I never learned there were things I was not supposed to be able to do because I was a girl and I am so grateful for that.”

Now that she is married, her self-sufficiency bumps into her partner’s helpfulness from time to time. “For example, I got a flat tire and though he knows I am capable of changing a tire he never considered that it’s my car, so I would change it,  it’s my tire and I never considered anyone else what going to change the tire but me. There’s all these things that most women understand and navigate have to overcome that I never learned.” Continue reading

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.” Continue reading

Stephanie D. Stephens

Kayse Jama

The Personal Is Political

Kayse Jama was born in Somalia into a nomadic family. He lived the nomad life until his older brother, who worked in the Education Ministry, brought him and one of his brothers to Mogadishu to live with him so they could get a formal education. Jama was eight, with the confidence engendered by his tribal culture, but still an outsider in the urban school environment. Even at eight, he knew the organizing strategy of turning the negative into a positive and turned his difference into a leadership role in school, chosen to lead the class while they waited for a teacher to come and, later, to lead the class poetry lessons, a skill enhanced by the oral tradition of tribal life.

His first deliberate political act was when he was in eleventh grade, leading a delegation of students to the Minister of Education’s office to demand more resources for the schools, schools who were losing teachers and resources to the civil war that was consuming the country–a tribal conflict over resources that was repeated throughout the developing world as colonial empires receded leaving behind artificial borders and governments. This was a bold act in a dictatorship. Before long, the civil war consumed the country and Jama, like many of his compatriots, fled seeking refuge abroad, eventually coming to the United States.

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Kayse Jama testifying to Portland City Council, February 2008

It was here where Jama came to understand the systemic nature of oppression in the US context. While he understood well the systemic oppression of hierarchical tribal conflicts that divided his country, in the US these oppressions were linked to historical injustices different than his own experience. Certainly, he was aware of gender oppression, but when he arrived in the United States as a poor, black refugee, the full weight of these interwoven oppressions landed on him. He was soon was back to his natural mode–organizing.

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Tanya Domi

The Personal Is Political

At thirteen, Tanya Domi was volunteering for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign. The assassinations of Kennedy, Rev. Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers shocked and horrified her sense of justice. She attended Cardinal Ritter High School in Indianapolis, a school named after the prelate who, in 1938, integrated all the Catholic schools in his diocese. While the public schools were de facto segregated, Cardinal Ritter’s student body was one-third students of color. This was also a time when the Catholic church was active in supporting the Civil Rights and AntiWar movements, both formative influences on Domi’s worldview.

Cardinal Ritter High School Crest

Cardinal Ritter High School was less progressive on issues of gender. Only boys were allowed to run for student body president and only girls could run for secretary. Domi successfully lobbied to change that during her junior year and in her senior year was elected the first female student body president. One of her first actions addressed the lack of representation of students of color in student government. Domi invited the Black Student Union to nominate a representative and an alternate from each class to student government. All these years later, she still takes great pride in her work to foster a more inclusive and representative student government.

Domi describes her father as a racist and violent man who brutalized both her mother and her, if she dared to challenge him. Nonetheless, when her parents divorced in a bitter dispute while she was in college, she felt overwhelmed and flunked out of school. Her confusion and depression were likely exacerbated by her realization that she might be a lesbian, though she did not know that with certainty until  after she was being Mirandized for it.

Captain Tanya Domi

She enlisted in the Army, a utilitarian decision based on the G.I. Bill education benefits. There, she felt she found a home. She excelled and was promoted, moving into increasingly more responsible positions in Army Intelligence and was transferred to Ft. Deven, Massachusetts just in time to get swept up in a widespread investigation of lesbians in the army.

In March, 1974, she went  with five other women to The Other Side, her first gay bar. All of them were reported as lesbians. When she came back to base, she was Mirandized and told she was under investigation. Domi, unlike the usual target, had been a member of the A.C.L.U. since high school, so she knew she had rights. She called a lawyer for herself and the five other women. She survived an 18-month investigation and was found “not guilty” of being gay, mostly because they charged her before she had the chance to do more than think about it. “Did I know I was gay? I was thinking I was gay, but the messages I was getting was really it’s not okay to be gay at all.”

“The thing is, I was really good at it. I was good at being a soldier. The Army gave me a home.” Randy Shilts’ Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military covers the Fort Deven investigation and multiple additional investigations as Domi continued to advance and excel in the military. She was investigated several times but provided no fodder for successful prosecution. Women who were promoted were often accused of lesbianism by less capable men and so was Domi. She was also accused of being a lesbian after she made a complaint of sexual harassment, a common retaliatory tactic. When she was nominated to be an instructor at West Point, she was targeted with yet another investigation and decided she had enough and resigned her commission. Continue reading

Loretta Ross

The Personal Is Political

Loretta Ross is a second wave feminist, a family and movement matriarch, and a human rights organizer whose decades of organizing have inspired more than one generation. She has birthed new ways of framing our issues in social justice organizing. She led the conversations where terms that are part of our organizing lexicon such as “women of color” and “reproductive justice” were born. She served as the National Co-Director of the 2004 March for Women’s Lives, which was one of the biggest protests in U.S. history with 1.15 million participants. She founded organizations that continue to build the movement by focusing on human rights.

At DC Rape Crisis Center 1979
Photo Credit: LorettaRoss.com

Her first political organizing happened in 1973 when she came home to her apartment to find an eviction notice. Her landlord was breaking all the leases to convert the building to condominiums. He gave them sixty days to vacate. As she describes it, “I met with a bunch of residents down in the laundry room to see what we could do. I volunteered to take notes. It seemed it must be illegal to break leases like that.” This led to her involvement in the struggle against gentrification and the formation of the City-Wide Housing Coalition. They worked for and won rent control in 1974. “That was my formal entrée into social justice organizing.” Ten years down the road, the tenants bought the building. Ross had moved by then, but she still finds joy in their victory.

She defines that as her consciousness-raising moment, when she went from trying to make a living to trying to make a living doing social justice. It was during this time that she met Nkenge Touré who persuaded Ross to volunteer at the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. In 1979, Ross became its director. Continue reading

JoAnn A. Hardesty

JoAnn Hardesty

The Personal Is Political

JoAnn Hardesty was organizing long before she knew it was a career. She represented District  19 in the Oregon House before she ever thought of herself as an organizer. However, with or without the label, Hardesty has been organizing most of her life.  “I remember that from a young age I was angry about injustice. I remember constantly questioning my parents? But why, that’s not fair! I realize how much patience my mom had when I was much older! I’m sure that she prayed a lot for me.”

Hardesty developed a fierce sense of justice as a child of the civl rights movement. “My idea of justice hasn’t changed, justice is an ideal that African Americans have never enjoyed in this country but we continue to strive for. Justice would demand that the social determinants of health would be the same regardless of your ethnic or racial background. Justice would mean that your ZIP code won’t determine your outcomes in life. In pursuit of that idea of justice, she is now running for City Council.

JoAnn Hardesty speaking April 2012Hardesty’s first ZIP code was in Baltimore, Maryland, where the mothers in the community were M-O-Ms with all capital letters. “What I mean is they looked out for all the children,” she explained. “If you were somewhere you weren’t suppose to be, the neighborhood moms would tell your mom before you could make it home. At the time it was annoying but as I became an adult I realized how priceless that was.” Not only did it provide physical and emotional security for Hardesty, it also prepared her to resist internalizing the racist and sexist judgements that plague our society. As she continued, “It prepared me for the sexism, racism and other ism’s I experience regularly in Oregon…I have a strong sense of self and justice and I thank my family and community for preparing me for this ongoing challenge in our society.”

Her first job with the official organizer label was at Oregon Action, but she believes “I’ve been organizing all my life I just didn’t have a name for it!” As she clarified, “I didn’t consider myself an organizer for a long-time. I was committed to working with people to help them use their voice. I didn’t know there was a profession for it. It was just something I did.”

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