All Black Organizers and Activists Should Read This!

{Check out my fourth book, “My Two Cents: Unsolicited Writings on Racism, Politics & Culture.” It contains some of my most popular and informative essays from this blog.}

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I’ve been blessed over the last 3 decades to work with students, parents, fellow organizers, intellectuals, artists, schools, and other community institutions in efforts toward establishing empowerment and social justice. We won some campaigns and lost some.

In reflecting on these experiences, I have identified patterns of thought and behavior that characterized the successful and not-so-successful movements. I’d like to share some thoughts wuth Black organizers and leaders that you may find helpful.

In the campaigns that were successful, the people had faith in themselves, were able to unify around common goals, work around their deficiencies, build upon their strengths, resist the temptation to make excuses, and demonstrate great courage and commitment over time.

These empowering attributes led Black college students to literally renovate and strengthen their Black Studies Department, create an award-winning Black Studies library, develop a Master’s Degree program in Black Studies, hire more Black professors, create a state-of-the-art Community Folk Art Gallery, and develop a study abroad program in Africa; The same qualities led working-class Black and Latino parents to remove incompetent and non-motivated principals from power at two elementary schools their children attended; These traits stirred frustrated New York City public schoolteachers to create a new high-performing middle school in the Bronx, NY; These winning qualities galvanized a block of residents in Harlem, New York to take the tragedy of an innocent young brother’s murder and create an annual gun violence awareness event; These empowering qualities took at-risk students at a middle school in upstate New York, and helped them improve academically and behaviorally. Those same students created the school’s first student-run student funded and administered school store providing school supplies and snacks to the student body.

The lost campaigns or broken movements in which I was involved are too numerous to mention. These disappointing experiences however, became a tremendous education in their own right, teaching me lessons I couldn’t learn in school or from mentors alone. These unsuccessful attempts at social justice all involved excuse-making, fear, cynicism, lack of discipline, and divisiveness. From both sets of experiences, I have developed a few observations I’d like to share that might make your own campaigns for social justice more effective.

First off, the people we attempt to organize must understand that their suffering is not “natural,” “redemptive,” or positive in any way. Those who are religious must understand that God does not mandate suffering for anyone. As longtime organizer Ruby Sales notes, “This is poor and inaccurate theology.” She goes on to note, “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice.”

As organizers, we must dispel the illusion that being poor, powerless, homeless, uneducated, victimized by violence, without adequate healthcare, or living in abusive or negligent homes are natural or inevitable forms of suffering. These conditions are in fact, facilitated by governmental and corporate agencies and our own ignorance and compliance.

As a result, we have a right and responsibility to peace, health, learning, safety, empowerment, and prosperity. Therefore, we must organize, fight, and build. ANY ideology, faith-based or otherwise, that promotes, celebrates, or facilitates our suffering is by definition a tool of our enemies and should be challenged and dismissed (along with those propagating such foolishness).

Related to the first point is our need to acknowlede that that the enemy’s objective is to deceive, mistreat, exploit, degrade, and attempt to control and limit us. If they didn’t operate in this manner, they wouldn’t be our enemies! We must effectively teach our people this point. They should know how others oppress them and how they benefit from our oppression. They should know how oppression negatively affects us and robs us of our right to live peacefully and joyously.

The people we organize should not be shocked or depressed by continued acts of injustice directed toward them. They should instead be righteously indignant and motivated to act in their own interests! Our people should not engage in pity parties or excuse rituals. When they do either of these things, we should gently remind them that doing so only prolongs their suffering and allows the evil empire to remain unscathed. As I mentioned earlier, suffering is a choice.

We must always remind those we organize that there is great power in choosing. We should emphasize that empowered choices lead to empowered thinking and actions. The objective is to transform our people into agents of change and empowerment, not hopeless or self-pitying victims.

In times of crisis, people will cling to the habits and thinking they are most accustomed to adopting. When confronted about being late, unprepared, lazy, or engaging in other self-defeating behavior like refusing to take responsibility for their lives and actions, they will say “That’s how I’ve always been,” or “I didn’t go to college,” or “I didn’t have parents that cared.” This of course is the thinking of those who have accommodated to their suffering or made peace with it.

Our goal is to transform this thinking through our organizing efforts. They must begin to see enriching possibilities in their lives and develop the discipline and commitment to do the work necessary to make those possibilities become realities. There is nothing more saddening than to see a person full of potential, choose to continue living in misery, failure and suffering because they lack faith and discipline.

Speaking of faith, our people must develop unwavering faith in the righteousness of their cause. They also need to have faith in their ability to solve their problems.

Many of our people who participated in liberation struggles during the 60s and 70s didn’t have great material wealth or technology. Nor sometimes did they have much formal education. What they did have were great reservoirs of faith and trust along with a burning desire for liberation.

These triple treasures compelled them to challenge brutal government forces wealthier and seemingly more powerful than themselves. Faith and trust in themselves and their people (helped along by racial segregation) led Black people to develop our own businesses and to use our own talents, ideas, and resources.

While the Ford Foundation pioneered the use of philanthropy to  sabotage social movements in the 60s, this strategy reigns supreme today, and many Black people can barely conceive of creating social justice and liberation programs without the assistance of corporate funding.

Volunteer-based social justice organizations of the 60s and 70s gave way to the professional and salaried nonprofit organizations we see today. Consequently, many of our civil and human rights organizations receive significant funding from white foundations – who as partners of the American empire – have an interest in sabotaging and controlling threats to their finances and social order. If you look closely enough, you will discover that some Black organizations and educational programs even receive funding from the FBI and police organizations! What level of activism can you reasonably expect from a Black organization funded by a government surveillance agency and police?

The implication is clear. Organizers must develop a strong sense of faith in the Black community and this should take the form of Black self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Our people must know that those who subjugate us cannot be depended on to fund or promote authentic and effective attempts to dismantle their power. Black people in 2015 have purchasing power to the tune of $1.1 trillion. We must raise consciousness in our communities and help our people change their financial priorities, pool and invest their resources wisely, and fund our own projects with possible help from some conscious Black athletes and entertainers.

We organizers must remember to promote the art and science of organizing! As I recently posted on Facebook today:

Organize, organize, organize! Stop talking about Black liberation, our problems, and what we need to do if you are not taking opportunities to work with others. No individual regardless of their talent, knowledge or experience, will solve our problems by themselves. Individual superstars are exciting and even valuable, but only a CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM and networks of CHAMPIONSHIP TEAMS are going to liberate Black people. So if you’re not finding ways to organize and collaborate and you’re still “flying solo,” it’s time for you to seriously re-evaluate your methods. Additionally, one’s willingness or unwillingness to work with others is a barometer of how serious they really are about Black liberation….

Lastly, those of us who make the bold and beautiful decision to advocate for our people, must remember to sustain and protect our own bodies and spirits, lest we burn out or become mentally or physically ill. For example, we must:

  • Get proper rest and know when to take a break from movement activity or learn to delegate responsibilities to others.
  • Understand that we cannot save people, we can only empower them. We cannot force people to change and become empowered beings, nor can we “force them to see the truth.” They must embrace change and truth for themselves.
  • In those cases when our people prove hostile, toxic, or dangerous to us, we should not feel guilty for disconnecting from them. This includes relatives, lovers, and friends. No one has the right to steal our physical or mental health, our joy, or our peace. We can’t take these situations personally, blame ourselves or waste precious time and energy on one person. The sun shines on 9 planets and an entire solar system. Our social solar system is the community of Black people wherever they exist. If one is hostile or refuses to be cooperative, trust and know that some others are receptive and appreciative.
  • Be patient with people. Everyone will not “see the light” immediately. People grow and learn at different rates. Sometimes our approach is not effective. The Black Liberation Movement has a sense of urgency but is not a sprint. Much of our success will come gradually.
  • Organizers are not machines; We are human beings. As such, we thrive in healthy and mature intimate relationships like anyone else. However, unlike everyone else, we spend much of our lives educating, defending, empowering, and advocating for others. We represent a minority of our community in this regard. We have special needs in a relationship. An attractive, “nice” or funny person simply won’t do. In addition, we need mates that understand and support our work and vision. He or she must complement our personalities and facilitate peace and understanding in the relationship.

    . We spend too much time fighting in the outside world to come home to petty arguments, insecure jealousies, and immature attitudes. Our mates should be people whose decisions we trust, people we can confide in, and people who will tell us what they really believe, not what we want to hear. It also helps if they are genuinely interested in our work and involved in our work as well. You must be “equally yoked.” We should also have the strength and honesty to respectfully end relationships when our partner does not bring these elements, or when we don’t have the time or energy to provide them with the time and love they need. There is no sense in prolonging your or another person’s agony and dysfunction by staying in a dead-end and non-supportive relationship. Any partner of a serious organizer/activist has a package deal in a relationship. They must love and accept you AND love, accept and value the important work you do…otherwise, the relationship has no chance to bloom.

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 Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. In 2015, Agyei released his fourth book, “My Two Cents: Unsolicited Writings on Racism, Politics & Culture.” This book features the most loved and insightful essays from this blog. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” 

Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment. Agyei is Education Director for an organization called “Souljahs of the People.”

Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at truself143@gmail.com.

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