The Power in Community Based Work

Hailing from Oakland, California I am fundamentally shaped by the Black Panther Party. Their legacy lives on within every aspect of the culture within my city. From activism to coalition building, to promoting community-based services, Oakland continues to think about what does it mean to say: all power to all the people? I even ran into Angela Davis, though not directly a Black Panther, one weekend at the farmers market in middle school.

Often, when individuals think about changemakers, they compare Martin Luther King Jr. to men like Malcolm X. People make a clear distinction between those who operate within the system and those who operate outside of the system. Every day, I am torn between thinking about the best way to affect change. It is the reason that I am a Public Policy major at Duke but it is also the reason that I am deeply influenced by the Black Panther Party and have engaged in many community-based programs in my hometown.

When I was younger, my mom forced me to read every book, attend every museum exhibit, and watch every movie that touched on historical Black figures and their fight to lead movements to affect change. Because of this, at a young age, I constantly had conversations with myself about whose strategies were best? Was Nat Turner’s rebellion more powerful than Harriett Tubman’s plight to save enslaved people? These questions of fighting within the system, or quite literally burning down the system and killing those within, such as Nat Turner did, have always served as a constant tension. However, despite being exposed to so much, I could never shake the influence of the Black Panther Party. The power in the Black Panther Party was their dedication and determination to invest in the people, and that fundamental belief is something that guides all my work. I believe that the most marginalized are the experts of their own experiences, and we must listen to them for the solutions. The Black Panther Party showed the importance of listening, but also springing to collective action. Black people were being assaulted by police officers? Fine. We have the right to bear arms and we will police the police. Low-income Black children are not being fed? Fine. We will feed them before school through a community breakfast program. The newspapers and school systems are not adequately representing, reporting, and educating us? Fine. We will create our own. Time and time again the Black Panther Party fought to have the needs of the community met. They not only were powerful in Oakland but they were responsive to the needs of Black people all across America until they were steadily dismantled by COINTELPRO.

When I think about where I want to disturb the system, I am still unsure, but I think that I want to bridge policy and community-based programming. So often, politicians propose policies without engaging the stakeholders most relevant to the problem. As a policymaker, I want to think about how we bring community-based programs and groups responding to the problems on the ground to the table so that they can have a say in the problems affecting their communities. In addition, I also want to think about the implementation process. Once a policy has been approved, I want to engage with diverse stakeholders to think about how we can implement, sustain, and evaluate policies that are both community-centered and community-responsive. For me, that is the best way to balance the teachings of the Blak Panther Party with my knowledge of the importance of Public Policy.

Uplifting Her Voice

Breonna Taylor’s death was the first time many Americans had heard about Black women experiencing police brutality. Maybe a few Americans had heard of the death of Sandra Bland, but the hundreds of other Black girls who lost their lives due to police brutality failed to have their stories told and receive justice for the harm done.

Throughout my life, I have seen the harms that can occur when we do not center the stories and experiences of Black girls. They lead to people forgetting the lives that Nia Wilson, Rekia Boyd, and Kendra James lived. So often, Black girls are spoken for, stripping away their agency. Seldom, do spaces advocate for and uplift the voices of Black girls. I decided to participate in the 20 l 20 Scholars program because I want to utilize this project as a platform to better understand how we can make spaces better for Black girls in America.

Within policy, programming, and organizing, we can mostly directly address the needs of those we are seeking to help when we center our work within the voices of those who will be most impacted by the problem and solution. So often, individuals who are not situated within the context of the problem believe that they can offer the best solutions. However, when people are not keen to all of the factors that shape one’s experiences, they may end up doing more harm than good. When we ask Black girls, “What do you need? What does a better and more just world look like for you,” those answers can allow us to craft solutions that best meet the needs of the group that we are seeking to serve. Black girls are the experts of their own experience, and stakeholders need to understand and believe that when crafting programming and policy.

My participation in the 20 | 20 Scholars program will provide me with a platform to better understand how we can make Black girls’ voices a priority in all decision-making spaces that affect any aspect of their lives. I want to engage in conversations that promote an understanding of how we work to provide justice, freedom, and liberation for Black girls across the United States. Even more importantly, I want to better understand the national landscape for working to promote justice for Black girls.

I have often thought, what am I willing to sacrifice to better the lives of Black girls, and it is my labor. So often in social justice work, we say that it is unfair or unjust to put the labor on the oppressed to educate the oppressor. Personally, in the work that I am involved in, I am willing to be the person who works alongside both the oppressed and the oppressors to educate the oppressor so that we can work towards a solution. Too often, I have been the only Black face in so many of the spaces that I occupy. I was conditioned to be the one to speak up for my community. Though this was sometimes a lot to ask of a young student, it has now become a passion of mine. I find power in speaking up and being a voice to educate. So, while this feat can be draining, I find joy in knowing that I can work to make spaces, communities, and systems better for Black girls.