Two powerful women, Alicia Garza and Wanda Sabir, discuss growing the power of women and Black people

Alicia Garza, top grad student, delivers the commencement address at San Francisco State University on May 25, 2017. – Photo: SF State News

by Wanda Sabir

After a brief cyber hug and air kisses, Alicia Garza and I get down to talking about the Supermajority Campaign to mobilize women throughout the country as we approach the next big elections. Women are the supermajority, but women’s voices do not shape policy nor are our demands courted or valued by politicians. All that is about to change.

I ask about the Supermajority and how this fits in with her Black Futures Lab and the Black Census Project, which is pretty awesome. I kept checking the website to see when the information will be published. It is now available. I wanted to know what Black people are thinking, doing, imagining. Now I do (smile).

I spoke to Alicia on May 23, a week prior to the first webinar for new Supermajority members, May 30. It was exciting being in the room that morning, even a technically enhanced room with other women talking superpowers, burgers and electoral efficacy, some of the same topics covered in our conversation a week earlier.

At the webinar, Alicia Garza joined Amanda Brown Lierman, managing director at Supermajority: The Power of Women. Both women were prepared and sharp and like steel sharpens steel, TEAM Supermajority’s plan is to arm women with skillsets to create lasting and sustainable change in this nation.

The plan is to have trainings and send out reading lists and do some mobilizing on issues of concern. Supermajority is not for the faint of heart; however, women are ready to build power across the country as they simultaneously drive change around the issues that matter to women.

It was great to speak to Alicia, the Black Lives Matter co-founder, who is also now director of Strategy and Partnerships at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), founder and principal of Black Futures Lab, now the new contributing editor of women’s magazine, Marie Claire. (This link is to Alicia’s current column in the  May 29 issue that looks at the erosion of abortion rights in Southern states and organizations like Monica Simpson’s SisterSong we should support.)

Alicia Garza: I’m pretty lucky I get to work with some of the most talented, creative, fierce women organizers in the country. I can say that after the 2016 election after I like curled myself out of a ball like many other people there were a few of us (Cecile Richards, women’s rights activist and former long-term president of Planned Parenthood, and Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance) who got together and really wanted to figure out what can we do.

All of us have been involved in the efforts to make sure that people are participating, make sure that people are educated on the issues. We found ourselves in a position where certainly the leadership of the country had changed, but also I think what came along with that [were] some pretty blatant attack[s] on women. As we started to get together and kind of do a post-mortem and ask why do we think the leadership in this country changed in the way that it did and what can we do about it?

Just a few weeks later there was the largest mobilization of women ever (she chuckles) that happened in Washington, D.C., with the Women’s March. I think what we noticed there was that, to be honest, women were pissed off, women were on fire, and that momentum didn’t stop. Lots of people have critiques of mobilizations and they’ll say things like, OK, well, that’s cool. People went out into the streets, but eventually it dies down.

What we saw, particularly as it relates to women, is that it didn’t die down. It just kept ramping up and we saw that through the emergence of the MeToo movement. I think we saw that also through the ways in which women mobilized around [Judge Brett] Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. We started just kind of traveling around the country and talking to women who were newly activated and also to women who have been activated for a long time or maybe women who were once active and then maybe felt like things were getting better, but then saw that things were moving backwards.

We really started talking to people about what keeps you up at night? What do you long for? What are the big questions that you have about how to make change and how to be a part of a movement?

The big thing that we kept hearing some people say was: “I’m not tired. I’m on fire. I’m down for marching, and I also want to win. I want to be plugged in. I want to know what else I can do.

“I’m always down to be in the streets, but I also want to know how we take it to the next step so that these things that are happening to us in our communities don’t happen any more.”

And that’s really where Supermajority was born – it was born out of [this] desire, not to create a movement. We’re not starting anything that women haven’t already been doing. What we really see ourselves as is a new home for women’s activism.

[Supermajority] is a place where women who want to make change on the issues that we care about can come together to be in community and not be isolated. It’s a place where we can come to develop our skills and learn more tools to make the changes that we want. It’s also a place where we can come together and try and learn some of the lessons that I think have presented themselves through the last few generations of women coming together to fight for our autonomy and to fight to be treated as human beings.

So we’re super excited about it. And I think people all over the country are excited. Women have signed up in all 50 states. Within a week of our launch, there were about 50,000 women who joined Supermajority and, at this stage, it’s more like a 100,000 women.

[I gasp.]

We’ve started to kind of move some of our work, right? I know it’s amazing. So we are, as you said, we’re doing orientation calls for people who are signing up as its founding members so that they can learn more about the organization so that they can learn more about how to be involved. We also want to hear from women, what is your superpower? What is it that you want to contribute to making this effort a success?

What we know is that if we’re going to change power in this country that we need to mobilize people and activate people. It’s not enough just to be mad. We have to translate that anger into action.

To that end our plans are to mobilize 2 million women in advance of the 2020 election, and we have plans to continue to activate millions more women to make sure that not only do we change the balance of power in this country, but we also transform how power is operating in the first place.

Sabir: Wow, that’s so …

Garza: I know. It’s a big – it’s a big effort.

Sabir: The questions on the Supermajority website are really specific, yet at the end of the survey an applicant is asked to share what her passion is. Are you going to connect women who are in the same town or region who might be interested in the same issue so that we can talk to each other since we’re right in the same vicinity?

Garza: Yes, absolutely. [One of our goals] will be for women who are in the same place and who share our values to get together and help move this program forward. I know that for the next few months we’re going to be talking to women all over the country, even trying to develop a New Deal for Women.

We really think that it’s important to connect people around an agenda that we can all agree on and to use the opportunity of Supermajority as that new home to really try and aggregate our efforts and bring all of those things together to move something forward together. So that’s really our plan for the next few months and we’ll be talking to folks all over and we’ll be encouraging people to talk to each other in cities and states across the country to really hear from you what does a New Deal for Women need to include in order to change your life for the better.

Sabir: Hmm. That’s really great. In “Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times,” you contribute a letter “Dear Mama Harriett.” It’s a book I have taught since its publication. The letters all come from a philosophical place of resistance. Could you talk about some of the ancestors who guide your political vision around this New Deal? What do you want to add to that discussion? What do you want on that list?

Garza: That’s a great question. So, you know Harriet Tubman is certainly my general (we both chuckle). She really, I think, motivates me to keep going. These are tough times and I don’t want to sugarcoat how tough it is out there, how hard it is out there and how hard and tough it is in our own lives. I think you know that a lot of the conditions we’ve always faced are just getting sharper – and not in a good way.

In a discussion called “Power: Black Joy and Resistance” presented by Matatu on Feb. 20, 2019, at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, panelists are Alicia Garza, Fredrika Newton and Ericka Huggins. – Photo: Wanda Sabir

And so for me Harriet in her spirit and her work really reminds me that there are people like me who are yearning for freedom and who may not feel bold and courageous in this moment and they may need to be encouraged to be bolder and to be more courageous. And so that’s a big motivator for me.

I think the other person that really shapes my work is Shirley Chisholm. What I appreciate about her work – there’s all these quotes that people use about her and I think those are great, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” For me personally, what was so amazing about Chisholm is that she really was a regular person who decided that that she couldn’t wait for things to change, right?

She wasn’t waiting for somebody else. She wasn’t waiting for anybody to come save her. She saw her role was to fight to get people like her who would experience things like her into positions of decision-making.

That is inspiring to me, because I think in all movements there are the charismatic leaders and heroes that we lift up, and then there are the regular people who decide to do something extraordinary and that’s how they become these deified saints that we kind of hold upright and I always just like to remind myself when I feel like I’m too small to make any kind of change that actually the biggest types of changes that have happened in history have been people who are just regular [people] who decided that it was time to do something extraordinary. I’m super motivated by her as well.

Sabir: Yes. I’m sure if you had a third or fourth you might put Fannie Lou Hamer on that list, right? Because I mean that woman is like, oh my goodness (we laugh together again).

Garza: Fannie Lou Hamer was on my mind, but I said, I’ll just give two. I think there are still too many of us who are ambivalent about whether or not elections can change things and we either kind of vacillate between these notions of, well, if you don’t vote then your voice doesn’t count or your concerns or your opinions don’t count, or we say things like voting doesn’t matter and it’s all corrupt and it’s all rigged and blah blah blah.

There’s truth in both of those things, but then the way I think about it is like this. I think that elections are a stage and a platform for us to advance our most visionary demands. Elections, like it or not, are the place where most people see that they can weigh in on the decisions that impact their lives.

What if we understood elections in that way that they’re not supposed to be absolute. They are not supposed to be silver bullets. Instead, they are opportunities for us to lift up our biggest visions to millions, millions of people who share the same longing that we do. And if we do it right, what we are able to do is galvanize a whole generation of people to reimagine what’s possible.

Fannie Lou Hamer is a really a good example of that. She came from a sharecropping family. She was a sharecropper herself, [who] I don’t think had a lot of faith in existing systems or structures. But what was also real about Fannie Lou Hamer is that she was a strategist.

She really believed that, win or lose, what was important about getting involved in elections was making sure that power was not left uncontested, particularly power that was abusive and corrosive and disruptive. And so she is also a motivator to me.

I’m somebody who believes that democracy is still imperfect. I believe there are way too many undue influences on the process by which we make decisions over our own lives, and I’m also somebody who believes in the spirit of Fannie Lou Hamer, that you don’t get very far if you let power operate the way it is and you turn your back on it. She is definitely a part of my spirit every day.

Sabir: I just couldn’t not mention Fannie Lou Hamer because she really inspires me. Ms. Hamer really suffered for our participation in this democracy, just like Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm suffered. Political allies turned their backs on her, but she still stood her ground, which is really awesome. And I know Barbara Lee was right there organizing as a student, single parent at Mills College.

[Chisholm, the first Black woman in Congress, “was her mentor,” Garza says.]

And then I think about Fannie Lou Hamer and how this woman was married and her husband did not support what she wanted to do around voting and voters’ rights, because he knew that they could lose their shack if the owner put them off his land. He told the couple they would have to find another place to live if they registered to vote. The husband stayed; the wife left.

When Harriet Tubman decided to escape to freedom, her husband stayed and when she returned he’d taken another wife. These courageous women were taking stands alone; their people were not with them. They were visionary. They saw beyond the tangible moment. These women were not trapped.

Garza: That’s absolutely right.

Sabir: In another anthology, “How We Fight White Supremacy,” edited by Akiba Solomon and Kenrya Rankin, you state, “Freedom looks like being able to have dignity” (270). These women warriors – Tubman, Chisholm and Hamer – lived with dignity. They demanded respect.

Garza: I have a few thoughts. I think that women have always been in the vanguard of change and that is because we have been forced to make a way out of no way for a very, very long time and when you bring people together who have been forced to make a way out of no way, suddenly not only do they start sharing tips and ideas with each other about how to keep making a way out of no way, but then we start to question why isn’t there a way. (She laughs.)

I’m really excited in relationship to Supermajority to be a part of the team that is really trying to be that glue between women who not only are making a way out of no way, but are starting to question: How do we make a way so that we don’t have to keep trying to figure out how to get around these barriers, right? Let’s get rid of the barriers themselves.

With Supermajority, one of the reasons that I feel so committed to this project is because I think that we have a window of opportunity that we haven’t had in a while to really change how politics function. Frankly, it’s what I am inspired by. I was talking to someone the other day who I think really needed a pep talk around whether or not change was possible. What I know is that change [often] take[s] a long time, but it also can happen really fast.

Six years ago, I was watching a trial on television [and I] happened to pop off at the mouth on Facebook about what I thought about the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial when he was tried for killing teenager Trayvon Martin. In the last six years [since the founding of Black Lives Matter], not only have we grown from a hashtag that people use to share on social media, we became a global organization that now has about 40 chapters in four countries and that was in the span of six years, right?

We are now changing the conversation about what happens in Black communities and the sanctity of Black life and we have also forced people in power to have to respond to the agenda that we have put forward and that didn’t take 20 years. It didn’t take 30 years nor is it going to take 40 years; it took six. (She laughs.) I’m somebody who believes that all expressions – Black Lives Matter is not the first civil rights movement to ever exist; it is an outgrowth of a long tradition of organizing and agitating and winning and losing.

I believe that there are moments in history that allow us more opportunity to move our agenda forward than others and I believe that this is it and I think that the same is true for women. I think women are on fire all over the nation. I know it. I don’t just think it. I see it. I get chills every time I think about the confirmation hearings that happened where women literally took over the Congress building right? You could hear women screaming, “I do not consent,” as their government is like rolling over them and doing it anyway.

I think what we saw was actually a turning point where I believe that women are ready to make good on that promise. If I do not consent, then that means that the people who moved forward an agenda without my consent will no longer represent me.

And I think that that’s the spirit and the energy that women are spreading all over the country. And I think that Supermajority is a perfect opportunity to add oxygen to the fire that women are already spreading all over the nation.

Sabir: Could you talk a little bit about how Supermajority furthers your other work with the Black Census Project at the Black Futures Lab?

Garza: There’s not a formal relationship right now, but I think the way in which they’re related to be honest is that in order to really get a good sense of what it is that people care about, you’ve got to go to where people are and you’ve got to have conversations with people. We did that in creating Supermajority. We went all over the country.

We made eight stops in cities from Alabama to Arizona to Ohio and we talked to women and our allies about what keeps us up at night. And what do we long for and what are the big questions that we have? And what are you grappling with? And what kinds of tools and skills do you need?

We did that with the Black Census Project through the Black Futures Lab. We believe – I mean, we exist to make Black people powerful in politics. We are an innovation and experimentation lab that believes that the problems the Black community states are incredibly complex and that the solutions to those problems require that we get creative and it also requires that Black people have political power.

So our first project was to talk to as many Black people as we possibly could about what we experienced in the economy and our democracy and in our society and to learn more about what we want for our futures. And what we were able to do was conduct the largest survey of Black people that has been done in 154 years.

Alicia Garza (then Schwartz) consults with neighborhood activist Joanne Abernathy on May 27, 2008, at a rally for Proposition F on the San Francisco ballot that, if passed, would have halted development of the Hunters Point Shipyard until it was completely clean, then made at least half the new housing affordable. A last minute infusion of millions by developer Lennar defeated the popular measure, and Lennar has since built upscale condos on contaminated land. Alicia was a major organizer around those issues. The rally was held across the street from the Bay View. – Photo: JR Valrey

We were able to build the capacity of Black led organizations across the country. We trained 106 Black organizers not just to administer the survey but to learn the tools of organizing so that they can build power in cities and states.

We also accomplished – and this is really exciting for me – a new way of people understanding who Black communities are. Too often we’re being engaged as symbols and they’re often racist symbols. Instead, what was really important to us at the Black Futures Lab was that we project Black communities are not a monolith, right?

You can’t wave fried chicken around in front of us and think that that means we’re going to get behind you, that we actually expect you to understand what our experiences are and that our experiences may be different than those of other Americans, because they’re tainted by racial discrimination and racial segregation. When you understand that as a decision maker, then you’re making different decisions – or you should be at least – about policy, about issues that impact our lives.

So we can’t just talk about health care; we have to talk about the fact that Black women are dying in childbirth at rates that are four times higher than white women. We can’t just talk about wages, right? We have to talk about the fact that Black women make 68 cents to every 80 cents that white women make and every dollar that white men make.

And until we’re able to drill down on that level, we can’t pretend that there’s any level of seriousness from decision makers, from policymakers, about actually changing the conditions in our lives. And so we hope that the Black Census Project will be a tool for decision makers to better serve their constituencies.

Similarly, I think, Supermajority is looking to engage women from all walks of life to better understand what is it that we are experiencing in the economy and our democracy in our society? And what do we want to see done about it? And it’s about time that the issues that are impacting women aren’t just seen as special interest issues, but instead they’re being seen as issues of national importance.

We are the majority of the population in this country. We are the majority of people who are mobilizing folks to participate in this democracy. We are the majority of donors and volunteers that get these candidates elected and it’s about time that people were afraid to disappoint us.

And so I think the relationship here is that both Supermajority and the Black Futures Lab are really looking to build power for these particular constituencies while also looking to build the kind of movement that can change the way that power functions in the first place.

Sabir: Thank you for this conversation. I have one more , however. I wanted to ask you to give a shout out to your mother.

However, I am also thinking about women who are locked up in jails and prisons. Women are the fastest growing population in prisons. I think about the children who are being deprived of their mothers because of this mass incarceration. How will Supermajority take into consideration the dreams and aspirations of my sisters who are locked up?

Garza: That’s a great question. Let me talk about my mother first, for there’s nobody more important in my life than my mother. My mother is somebody who has taught me how to be a phenomenal woman and how to do that unapologetically, but also how to do that with kindness and compassion. I wouldn’t do the work that I do if it wasn’t for my mother.

And I think that when my mom passed away a year ago, you know, it was a very, very hard time for me and it still is difficult. You never kind of move on from losing somebody that you love so much.

And at the same time, I remember having a thought when I was sitting with her in the hospice that what I know my mother wanted more than anything in the world was that I didn’t go before her. I remember feeling really grateful that I had not been so hard-headed and stubborn and impatient that I had put myself in a position to die before her because for her she would know that she was successful if her baby girl grew up to be a successful, impactful woman.

There are so many mothers in this country who don’t get to see their kids grow up, who don’t get to have that kind of relationship with their children. There are way too many mothers in this country who are losing their children before it’s their time. There are too many mothers in this country who cannot say that they can depend on watching their children grow up to be adults and that is absolutely unacceptable. And I think Supermajority is clear about that.

One of the things that is really important to me about this organization – and I mentioned this a little bit earlier – is that we don’t repeat the same mistakes of the past. We cannot afford to leave anybody behind if what we are trying to do is transform power.

A highlight of the Bay View’s Black Media Appreciation Night on Sept. 12, 2015, was the presentation of an award to Alicia Garza for her work fighting police terrorism. On Nov. 28, 2014, so-called Black Friday, she led Black Lives Matter to shut down BART at the West Oakland station both ways for hours to protest police terror. A long time Bay Area organizer, Alicia reconnected that night with many old friends, including Bay View publisher Willie Ratcliff. – Photo: Malaika Kambon

Now if all we’re trying to do is replicate how power already operates, then sure you should only focus on the most elite women, the most white women, the women who have the most assets and access. But the way that power operates right now is not working for us.

If we believe that, then what we also must believe is that in order to make power work for us, you have to not build the kind of power that doesn’t allow mothers to see their kids grow up to be full adults. I think that there’s a real opportunity here to build a movement that has learned the lesson that nothing about us should be happening without us – and that means all of us – and I’m really excited for the steering committee that we built for the organization.

I’m really excited about the complexity of people who are signing up to be members, and I really hope that we’re able to continue to expand our reach to our sisters who are behind bars. And also I really hope that we’re able to free people from cages in general.

Supermajority is one organization and as much as I can wish I could wave my magic wand and solve every issue, I know that we can’t, but I know that we can sure as hell try. We are really excited to be working in partnership with so many incredible organizations that are deeply rooted in these communities.

I know that we don’t have to do it all by ourselves and that if we do things right, we’ll be able to build the kind of network that doesn’t leave anybody behind, because we will touch every single corner of the country.

(In a recent Marie Claire column (April 30, 2019) Garza addresses the issue of mass incarceration of women.)

Sabir: Right. Yes. Well, thank you. Thank you so much for this wonderful conversation. Did I leave out anything that was important that you wanted to share?

Garza: No, your questions were so good. I wish I got to do interviews like this all the time. Thank you so much. My love to Willie and Mary.

Sabir: Oh, I certainly will relay the message to them. It’s been really great speaking to you. I look forward to seeing you soon.

Garza: Yes, we’ll talk next week on the membership call.

Sabir: Oh yes. Excellent! Super!

And Alicia and I did connect (with thousands of other women) on the call at the first founding membership meeting (smile).

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wanda@wandaspicks.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.