FFJ Advisor Discussion Series: Charlene Carruthers
Next up in our discussion series with FFJ’s Field Advisors, staff interviews Charlene Carruthers, Founding National Director of BYP100 (Black Youth Project 100). Read our interview below to learn more about their work on nationalizing the invest/divest demand, Black queer feminist (BQF) lens as an organizing framework, and the importance of leadership training and political education.
Don’t forget to also check out BYP100’s Agenda to Build Black Futures and Charlene’s forthcoming book “Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements” which will be published this Fall 2018 on Beacon Press.
BYP100’s Agenda to Build Black Futures is a powerful outline for critical policy change and structural transformation across work, health care, the criminal justice system, and financial systems. Can you tell us more about BYP100’s work to nationalize the invest/divest demand? How do you translate local chapter organizing to a national demand?
BYP100 started its journey into invest/divest demands with direct action and local chapter organizing. In 2015, we joined local organizations in Chicago to disrupt the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Conference through a mass civil disobedience action. The IACP conference brought over 14,000 law enforcement agents from across the world to Chicago. We called it the “Stop the Cops | Fund Black Futures” action. The idea to call it that came from one of our Chicago member-leaders. So much of what we based the action on came from the Ella Baker Center’s justice reinvestment work. That action led us to tighten up the framing of the Agenda to Build Black Futures, our second public policy platform, which advances our vision for transforming the material conditions of Black people and all oppressed people. That one action involved members from five different BYP100 chapters across the country. We used our resources effectively to weave a narrative to educate our members, the broader public, and the movement. We believe in the divestment from every system of punishment in this country and investment in reparations, quality public education and jobs, healthcare, and thriving communities. That’s what our work is about.
Intersectionality has become a buzzword in philanthropy, but most people don’t know that the concept was created by Kimberle Crenshaw to describe discrimination faced by Black women workers, and is part of a tradition of Black women’s thought leadership. Can you tell us what a Black queer feminist lens is? How does it inform your work?
The Black queer feminist (BQF) lens is an organizing framework we’ve developed in BYP100 through deep study and action. It is deeply rooted in work of radical Black feminist and LGBTQ movements and people including Cathy Cohen, Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker, Marsha P. Johnson, and the Combahee River Collective. As I define it in my upcoming book, Unapologetic, the BQF lens is a political praxis (practice and theory) based in Black feminist and LGBTQ traditions and knowledge, through which people and groups seek to bring their full selves into the process of dismantling all systems of oppression. It’s about building alternatives for self-governance and self-determination, and by using it we can more effectively prioritize problems and methods that center historically marginalized people in our communities. This means that the issues we work on, the stories we tell and the visions we develop are about centering the most marginalized. By doing this, we are able to tell more complete stories and create more complete solutions. It means that we understand that none of us will be free if all of us are not free.
Young people of color are rising up all over the country to move tremendous social change at a scale not seen in decades – on state violence, immigration policies, and education funding. How do you see the importance of training & political education to develop all leaders?
The measure of a good organizer is how many leaders the organizer has helped to develop – not simply how many campaigns the organizer has won. Leadership development isn’t a one-stop shop, it takes time, energy, and money. Like any other craft, it takes skill from experienced and practiced leaders to develop other leaders. Training and political education are cornerstones to helping people understand themselves, others, and the world we live in. Both give texture to shared experiences and tools to transform what doesn’t serve our liberation. Movements are not sustained by happenstance; they require deliberate and ongoing leadership development. Finally, I believe in Ella Baker’s teachings of group-centered leadership. No one person will get us free.
What should funders be doing in this moment to support social movements and lasting change?
In this moment funders should continue to support organizations led by and for Black women, queer and trans folks who have both a critical analysis and an organizing practice that aims to transform – and not just reform – structural realities. That means that funders should focus on general operating support for grassroots organizing. Our organizations need resources and capacity programs that don’t require us to compromise our values for the sake of policy. It also means that we need to develop more flexible funding for 501c4 efforts and support to build individual donor and revenue-generating programs.
Charlene A. Carruthers is a Black, queer feminist community organizer and writer with over 10 years of experience in racial justice, feminist and youth leadership development movement work. She currently serves as the national director of the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), an activist member-led organization of Black 18-35 year olds dedicated to creating justice and freedom for all Black people. First politicized as an 18 year old while studying abroad in South Africa, her passion for developing young leaders to build capacity within marginalized communities has led her to work on immigrant rights, economic justice and civil rights campaigns nationwide. With a focus on intersectional liberation, Charlene’s organizing capacities span across a broad range of topics and she currently serves as a board member of SisterSong, a reproductive justice organization that promotes solidarity among women of color. She is an Arcus Leadership Fellow and Front Line Leadership Academy graduate who has led grassroots and digital strategy campaigns for national organizations including the Center for Community Change, the Women’s Media Center, ColorOfChange.org and National People’s Action, as well as being a member of a historic delegation of young activists in Palestine in 2015 to build solidarity between Black and Palestinian liberation movements.
Awarded the “Movement Builder Award” by the United States Students Association, Charlene is deeply committed to working with young organizers seeking to create a more loving and just world. She has facilitated and developed political trainings for organizations including the NAACP, the Center for Progressive Leadership, Young People For and Wellstone Action. Charlene is the winner of the “New Organizing Institute 2015 Organizer of the Year Award” and has served as a featured speaker at various institutions including Wellesley College, Northwestern University and her alma mater Illinois Wesleyan University, where she earned a B.A. in History & International Studies. Charlene also received a Master of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. Charlene was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago where she currently resides and continues to lead and partake in social justice movements. In her free time, she loves to cook and believes the best way to learn about people is through their food. Charlene’s inspirations include a range of Black women, including Ella Baker, Cathy Cohen, and Barbara Ransby. Her work has been featured on many national outlets including Ebony Magazine, Feministing.com, USA Today and the Washington Post. You can find Charlene on twitter at @CharleneCac.
In the spring of 2017, Funders for Justice (FFJ) launched its inaugural cohort of Advisors – nine field leaders recognized for their leadership in community power-building, racial and gender justice, police accountability campaigns, and anti-criminalization movements. We asked them to share their insights on the current political climate, how we can build a vision for the world we want, and what funders can do in this moment.