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The Feministing Five: Charlene Carruthers

For this week’s Feministing Five, we spoke with Charlene Carruthers, the national director of the Black Youth Project 100 and a co-organizer of this past week’s #ReclaimMLK.

Charlene CarruthersAfter an MLK weekend of actions in support of justice across the country, we were honored to speak with Charlene about her activism, her views on leadership, and her vision for the future.

Suzanna Bobadilla: You’re one of the organizers behind #ReclaimMLK. What does reclaiming Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy mean to you? What has been happening? 

Charlene Carruthers: When I grew up, I remember celebrating MLK Day as a day of community service, talking about peace, talking about this person who was largely responsible for achieving civil rights for black people in America, and who inspired the entire world. And so yes, all that was true, but it left out a major part of Dr. King’s legacy.

The Dr. King that I learned about later in life was really one who was very adamantly anti-war, anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, who was also a supporter of reproductive rights for all people. So what this weekend is about is expanding the narrative of what we have been told about Dr. King — that his role in the movement is significant not because he followed in the footsteps of Gandhi, but because he was trained in non-violence by people like Bayard Rustin who was a gay black man. The work that Dr. King did was largely not just supported but informed by women, such as Ella Baker and Rosa Parks, not just as a seamstress but as an organizer. #ReclaimMLK is about about honoring Dr. King’s lifework but also talking about the larger movement of women, men, queer folks, straight folks who were involved in the movement for freedom and justice.

People have been engaging in direct action in places like Oakland, Boston, and Chicago over the weekend. One of the actions that stands out for me is the one that happened in Chicago on Thursday night. The action was led by young people of the Village Leadership Academy in collaboration with groups like We Charge Genocide, BYP 100, and Project NIA. I wasn’t there, but I saw the photos of these young people leading this march to the juvenile detention center in Chicago. The young people inside the center heard them, they knew people were out there, and those inside stood along the windows. The incarcerated young people can’t even see through the windows because the windows are frosted, but they still knew that there were other young people outside talking about them, who actually care about their lives, and believe their lives matter.

Things like that are happening all over the country. Folks can of course follow #ReclaimMLK to see what’s happening.

SB: It has been really exciting to see young women of color leading this movement as we’ve seen with #BlackLivesMatter co-founders Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, and Patrisse Cullors, yourself and many others. How do you view leadership and how does that influence your work?

CC: I respect the leadership of Opal, Patrisse, and Alicia so much. I consider all three of them to be my sisters, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with them. For me, I’m a student of organizers like Ella Baker. When I think about organizing, organizing in the way we do at BYP 100, it is always in a group leadership model. This means that we don’t just have one person who can speak on behalf of the organization. It means that we don’t just  have one person who develops the strategy, makes all of the decisions. There are many people who are invested in making sure that even more folks are equipped with the analysis and the basic skills needed to do this work. This is why we invest so much in leadership for our organizing.

Ella Baker talked about how strong people don’t need strong leaders. I believe in that. We should build strong people who have the capacity to be those strong leaders. They don’t need a single person to look up to. When I think about leadership, it’s all of that. It’s people who decide to take action in the face of uncertainty. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but you believe in something, in being a contributor in creating the world a we believe it should be.

Leadership looks like so many things, and I believe that everyone has the capacity to be a leader. It doesn’t mean that a leader is someone who is always speaking. It could be the person who knows how to tell a story about the work that we are doing, that can connect to people. That is brave.

SB: Along with your work for #ReclaimMLKDay, you are also the national director of the Black Youth Project 100. What do you see on the horizon on the national level?

CC: 2015 has been dubbed, by organizers like Cherelle Brown, the year of resistance. People are working out of a framework that is like “We aren’t done.” We aren’t fighting this to tear down the so-called criminal justice system — we are fighting to make a new system, to transform ourselves and our communities.

I see there being a sustained movement of people who are really diving in and who think about the kind of world that you want to live in. I also see people building up leadership capacity in our local communities and nationally.

I see also a continued coordinated approach, because the work that we do is actually quite coordinated. None of it happens out of the blue. I see more and more of that happening next year.

SB: It’s an especially interesting time for reflections on MLK Day, thanks in part to Ava DuVernay’s Selma. If there were to be a movie about this movement, how would you want it to be remembered? 

CC: First, the movie would be an ensemble piece. It would be a movie with multiple actors and multiple players who are involved with this movement. There would be people of various gender expressions. It would include black people of various backgrounds, not just college students, but people who are young parents, teachers, in labor unions, and people who have been formerly incarcerated.

It would also have a lot of dancing and singing. The movie would show very clearly the time that we took to heal with each other and pay homage to our ancestors.

The movie would be this combination of young black people, of leaders from all sorts, and show that how we built together was really about liberation for all of us.

One thing that isn’t as fun but that should be shown is the amount of meetings, because we have a lot of meetings. Lots and lots of meetings! We couldn’t have a movie about what’s happening right now if we didn’t show ourselves in meetings. We have meetings in airports and even cars!

SB: We were excited to learn that you are also an amazing singer! If you could share the stage with anyone, who would it be? 

CC: Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, and Janelle Monae. Oh and Lalah Hathaway! She’d sing me under the table, but I’d love to be on stage with her!

SB: Let’s pretend you are stranded on a desert island. You can take with you a food, a drink, and a feminist. What do you pick? 

CC: For food, tacos and rice and beans. I’d also probably take jerk chicken with rice and beans too! For drink, a very high quality bourbon with ginger beer. For a feminist, I don’t know if she identified as a feminist, but I’d take Lucille Clifton and Octavia Butler. I’d also take my four-year-old niece Sarai — she’ll be a feminist one day — and I’d take my partner!

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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