When over 2,000 shell-shocked racial justice activists showed up at Facing Race on Thursday, the collective mood resembled the emotional tenor of NYC immediately after 9/11. We hugged each other tighter and longer than we normally would. The giant smiles and laughs we’d usually trade with old friends and comrades were replaced by empty stares, tear-stained eyes. “How are you?” was met with terse replies: “Gutted”; “At least I’m out of bed”; “How we all are… awful.” Some of us were numb, others struggled to keep it together. We didn’t know how we’d make it through the next three days in Atlanta, no less the next four years in America.
Luckily, as Race Forward board member Deepa Iyer reminded us, being with our racial justice family was exactly what we needed to solidify our resilience and plan our resistance.
That shift happened quicker than expected. At the opening ceremony, Southerners on New Ground co-director Mary Hooks began to shake us out of our fog. To survive and challenge a racist, misogynist president-elect, to fight back against criminalization and police violence, and to quell gentrification, she reminded us, “We have to earn the respect of future generations. We have to work for it. Organize for it.” While we grieve the dark reality of a world that looks very different than it did on November 7th, Hooks said the movement can’t afford cynicism or fear. “We need you to be hungry, and ready and humble. We may not have all the solutions or the perfect strategy [yet, but] what we need is people who are willing to be transformed, to stand next to somebody and build with unlikely players.”
This sentiment would be echoed countless times across the conference’s three tracks, as activists aligned with the movements for Black lives, Standing Rock, reproductive justice, housing rights, environmental justice and other sectors wrestled with the need for deeper, more creative and more unified approaches to our work as we prepare to combat forthcoming threats.
“Our country and our movement are at a critical moment. Fascism is coming in this moment. The only thing that is going to stop it is us,” said Rinku Sen, executive director of Race Forward and publisher of Colorlines. With Trump promising mass deportations, a repeal of Obamacare, reproductive rights rollbacks, a federal version of stop and frisk and to force Muslim Americans onto a discriminatory national registry, “A cohesive, multiracial movement is our best hope, our only hope.”
Throughout about 80 workshops and panels led by more than 200 speakers, powerful plenaries and keynotes from Roxane Gay and Jose Antonio Vargas, Facing Race illustrated what that kind of transformative movement can look like. Several themes emerged. The first, described by Hooks, Sen and many others, was the dual consciousness of being unsurprised at America’s institutional racism and misogyny, yet still shocked and unprepared for the reality that so many Americans were willing to jeopardize our safety by electing as POTUS an avowed sexual predator endorsed by the KKK. In the words of Michelle Alexander, civil rights lawyer and author of “The New Jim Crow,” “At first I felt just numb. I was stunned — and I was stunned that I was stunned.”
Fear was another through-line. Speakers and attendees alike talked about being deeply afraid of individuals emboldened by Trump’s hateful rhetoric (days after the election, Muslims, immigrants, people of color, women and LGBTQ people have already suffered more than 200 incidents of vigilante violence, harassment, and gender-based assaults) and of state actors and punitive public policies. Reckoning with this allowed us to honor our grief yet pivot to a crucial question: How can we unify and coordinate bold multiracial movements for racial, gender, economic, sexual and environmental justice to make the biggest impact? Leaders across sectors called for a radical reimagining of how and with whom we must organize to not just survive but thrive in the next four years and beyond.
Another consensus was that since 63 percent of White men and 53 percent of White women voted for Trump, it is the responsibility of White Americans who support racial justice to do that work specifically with White people. When a workshop on activating White solidarity filled beyond capacity, two speakers from SURJ: Showing Up for Racial Justice offered tools to effectively mount neighborhood protection campaigns, avoid defensiveness and be accountable to communities of color. “It’s like the leaders of Black Lives Matter say, ‘White folks, get your cousins.’ That’s our work,” facilitators Carla Wallace and Coleen Murphy said. Their framework moves “away from White Savior Complex” and toward “mutual interest, focusing on how our own liberation is deeply embedded with the liberation of the people we love, who are on the front lines bearing the brunt of White supremacy.”
SURJ spontaneously created an overflow workshop and encouraged White people to “call each other in,” not call out. “People are coming in imperfect. [Movement] language can be inaccessible to many folks, especially if you’re working class or illiterate,” so White progressives should avoid shaming and alienating folks new to racial justice work. Participants shared strategies for hosting house parties and going door-to-door to have uncomfortable conversations with their relatives, coworkers, and neighbors; volunteering to walk to work or school with folks who feel unsafe; organizing block-by-block phone trees and cop-watch efforts to protect neighbors of color from hate crimes or deportation; and protesting racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia locally in schools, in politics, and in the media.
Media was another Facing Race highlight. Discriminatory news narratives, exploitative media policies and consolidated corporate ownership were critiqued, while screenings and panels presented documentaries, pop culture, and art as sites for social change. Selma and 13th director Ava DuVernay Skyped in, and CNN’s Van Jones discussed how to use TV to move racial justice. Colorlines’ four-member editorial team held a masterclass on reporting news through a racial justice lens. Led by Akiba Solomon, they spoke of centering the expertise of people of color as newsmakers and sources, and explained how to pitch and report ethical journalism that challenges stereotypes and amplifies unheard perspectives. They also offered tactics for journalists within majority-White newsrooms, from coping with racial and sexual harassment to mitigating editors’ implicit biases and power-plays over content.
Most encouraging was how deftly speakers created unscheduled workshops to mobilize the community’s knowledge, creativity, and vision toward strategic post-election planning. In an impromptu Friday self-organized session, panelists Judith LeBlanc of the Native Organizers Alliance and others split 240 attendees into six break-out groups to brainstorm “our agenda, not Trump’s agenda,” long-term strategies, community protection plans, national mobilizations, local engagement and coordination of governance and protest, and philanthropy and funders.
In just 25 minutes, these groups surfaced dozens of practical ideas for: civil disobedience; national actions; sanctuary cities; building local electoral power; voter protections; majoritarian media messaging; toolkits; digital and offline organizing; a values-based social contract for activists and legislators; and, financially sustainability. This was accomplished in under a half an hour because no matter how overwhelming the problems we face, LeBlanc affirmed, “We’re not starting from scratch as grassroots organizers. We’re already engaged… We’re not going to all have complete alignment on the left, but can we have a collective orientation?”
Moderated by Van Jones, the closing plenary “Where Do We Go From Here?” underscored this necessity. “There is no room for Oppression Olympics right now,” said Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. “It’s OK for some of us to be super radical, others not as much. We’ve all got a role to play,” she said, emphasizing inside/outside strategies and solidarity among marginalized communities. She also stressed that people of color not bear these burdens alone” “When that Muslim registration starts, the first 8,000 people on that line better be White people.” Pramila Jayapal, first-ever Indian American Congresswoman (D-WA), stressed opportunity: 38 women of color will serve in Congress in 2017; Arizona went for Trump but ousted Joe Arpaio and passed a minimum wage increase.
Sen closed out the conference with a call to “build from love” a solution-focused, reenergized mass multiracial movement “for all kinds of justice led by people of color, led by queer people, led by poor people, led by women, led by people who have a stake.” To win, she said, we need to bring in millions of people from unexpected corners. “Trump voters, Clinton voters, non-voters, Stein voters — all of those people have a stake, just like we do. White people, especially those who are working class, they have a stake too. Those are our people, there are millions of them: we have to go get them!”
The energetic shift was undeniable. No one was saying “It’ll be OK” — we’re clear on the palpable dangers ahead. But Facing Race reminded us that together, we have the will and the skill to fight like hell.