Building a Home for Tomorrow: Racial Justice Infrastructure as if We Believed It Were Possible
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“Imagine all the people sharing all the world
You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one”
- John Lennon
There is an old bumper sticker that reads, “Imagine World Peace.” Popular during the 70s and 80s, it was a symbol of a mass shift in assumptions about the inevitability of war and the power of vision from “below”. Today, there are still millions of people around the world who believe in the possibility of a world without war and are willing to stand in that belief. It’s an important legacy of the peace movement.
Ironically, racial justice doesn’t yet have that kind of affirmation – even among those who can imagine world peace. The idea that racism is inbred and intransigent is widespread among progressives, much less conservatives. Few of us step to this work as if it can be solved – especially in philanthropy. And our lack of belief in the possibility of racial justice reflects in our work and our investments.
Why is it so hard to “imagine” racial justice? One challenge is that racial justice threatens the status quo. Many of us imagine progressive victory and even social transformation as a world where global majorities (people “of color”) play a supportive, not leading role. Same world order but with nicer leaders. The idea of subverting white privilege for a more collaborative and representative democracy feels unsafe, messy and even unfathomable to implement. Relatedly, there is the perception that racial justice is marginal and perhaps unnecessary to achieving social justice and, in fact, distracts us from the “real’ issues by focusing on our discomforting differences instead of our commonalities.
“Here’s our chance to dance our way out of our constrictions.”
- George Clinton
These are a few of the many ways that structural and internalized racism work together to undermine our capacity to see our work beyond defensive struggle at best or marginal and impossible at worst. However, we can break through these restrictions by grounding our investments and work in vision and supportive infrastructure that imagines racial justice in a world transformed.
What might racial justice look like? What will it take to achieve it? We would have to transform policies and people/culture – and the systems of authority that play synergistically between them. We would have to change the basic rules of governance from the Electoral College to the Senate, to voter suppression laws and more all of which operate to maintain white privilege and marginalize communities of color. We would need to amplify alternative narratives and cultural frames in mass media, school books and popular culture that advance the basic notion that all people deserve respect and a life of dignity and agency. In short, our work must operate in at least these two spheres – building better, more powerful movements and transforming the environment in which we live.
Concretely, this means investing in infrastructure that helps us:
- build an active, engaged base that extends beyond professional advocates, increases the power and numbers of those affected to advocate in their own interests and significantly expands networks and alliances;
- leverage media and culture in all its forms to capture space on the public agenda and public conversation in ways that helps transform belief and perception and builds mass support, influence and power;
- Identify and move concrete handles for mass participation and a clear set of demands that results in changes in policies/systems/conditions and moves decisionmakers to act in our interests;
- connect to and use good information/research and analytical resources that evaluate and identify promising practice, generate solutions and critique current and proposed policies/practices;
- have time and reflective space to connect, build relationships, develop leaders, expand, regroup and respond to changing conditions; and
- institutionalize our organizations with enough resources (i.e., staffing, knowledge, materials, technology, etc.) to effectively advance the work over time.
We can set concrete benchmarks for building organizing infrastructure in key regions like the south and southwest by increasing the number of paid, well trained organizers, strengthening intermediary organizations and regional alliances and investing in communications capacity and independent media networks. We can embrace long term strategic communications efforts to advance racial justice frames understanding that many of these ideas will take years to take hold so we might as well get it started. And we can make measurable changes in the systems that help us make meaning of the world around us – schools, faith institutions, workplaces and more – with changes in curriculum, pedagogy, training and organizational culture that helps us value the history and humanity of all people and better understand the past that makes this unjust present.
“By the winding stream we shall lie and dream
We'll make dreams come true if we want them to
Yes all will come play the pipes and drum
Sing a happy song and we'll sing along
Everyone, everyone, everyone, everyone”
- Van Morrison
If we would make these investments with an eye toward building long term capacity for change as if we believed change was truly possible, we would lay the foundations for the tomorrow of which our best dreams are made. Bold, courageous, inspired investments in racial justice will be a game changer for every issue on the progressive agenda because – try as we may – we can’t have real justice without racial justice. It is a critical building block, an essential element of democratic architecture for a world that truly works for everyone.
Makani Themba is executive director of The Praxis Project, a movement support intermediary based in Washington, DC that provides capacity building support and assistance to help communities forge a world that works for everyone.