Category Archives: Economic Justice

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

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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