Alicia Garza talks power and empowerment during CJP’s 25+1 Anniversary Celebration keynote

Alicia Garza opened her keynote address at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding’s (CJP) 25+1 anniversary celebration with a moving introduction to her life’s work as a community organizer and political strategist. 

I really believe that we deserve to be powerful in every aspect of our lives, and for too many of us, power is elusive. Every single day, we confront things that we believe that we have no control over. Things that we believe we cannot change. We’ve spent the last decade in the throes of what has now become the largest social movement in history, and that social movement has exposed the rigged rules of racism that continue to shape our lives and continue to break our hearts.

Garza spoke to celebration attendees virtually on Saturday afternoon, imparting lessons she’s learned from nearly two decades of organizing – lessons which are captured in her new book, The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart (Doubleday, 2021).

Find the full keynote address and all other sessions at EMU’s Youtube channel.

Garza, who is based in Oakland, California, currently serves as the special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which advocates for domestic workers in the U.S. In 2019, she helped launch Supermajority, a membership-based organization that aims to build equity and power among women in America through advocacy, community building, and electoral participation. She is also the principal at Black Futures Lab, a project to build “Black political power” and influence and transform black communities.

She is also one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Throughout all of these initiatives, working with Black communities and other disenfranchised groups to build power, she’s developed her own definition of that term.

“The ability to make the rules, and the ability to shape the rules,” she explained in Saturday’s address. “Power is the ability to shape the story of who we are and who we can be together. Power is the ability to deliver consequences when someone disappoints us, particularly someone we put in place to move our agenda. And power is also the ability to decide where resources go and where they don’t go and why.”

She acknowledged that many who seek freedom and power are afraid to pursue it, beleaguered with questions of how to begin and how to succeed in their struggles. Her book doesn’t provide answers to those questions, she said, but asks “what we lose if we don’t at least try.”

Anniversary committee chair Patience Kamau MA ’17, who emceed the keynote, asked Garza to describe her theory of social change.

“People who are being impacted by the myriad of problems that shape our lives every day have to be a part of designing the solutions to those challenges,” Garza replied. 

Where advocates and service providers may have a tendency to speak on behalf of affected parties, or act as an intermediary with authority figures, Garza said those dynamics need to change “by closing the gap between who’s making decisions on whose behalf, and by changing the way that we exercise power in the first place.”

Kamau also asked Garza for her take on identity politics. 

“Identity politics, I think, gets a really bad name,” Garza said. “The conservative movement has done a lot of work to plant seeds of doubt about how we understand ourselves and the world we live in. And they have really converged around identity politics as one of those core places.”

She said that, while race, gender, and class are socially constructed categories, they have real impacts on people’s lives, including the resources they have access to. And without having difficult conversations addressing those differences, real multiracial and intersectional coalitions can’t be built.

Towards the end of the talk, an audience member wrote in asking Garza about the place of faith-based organizations in the Black Lives Matter movement. Garza noted that with the movement’s decentralized power structure, she couldn’t speak for it as a whole. From her perspective, though, she instructed them to “organize themselves in relationship to the movement.”

“I think about this a lot, especially in this movement where there are so many queer and trans participants,” Garza said. “There’s a lot of distrust that’s been sown in relationship to how we’ve used our faith-based communities not to grow our team but to narrow it, and to judge it. So I think the most successful collaborations have been the faith-based institutions that have been willing to challenge themselves internally, to be able to live the principles of the movement inside their institution, not just be related to it externally.”