Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza on hope, positivity and power

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Stylist’s guest editor and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, Alicia Garza, discusses everything from what drives her to keep going and the questions we all need to ask ourselves to shape a better future.

“We’re celebrating Black women. But are we lifting up Black women in a real way?”

That is the question Alicia Garza poses. It’s the question at the heart of so much of what she’s been working towards since co-founding the Black Lives Matter Global Network with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi in 2013. And it’s the question we need to keep asking ourselves as we measure how far we’ve come (and how far we’ve got to go).

Alicia and I are chatting over Zoom. The preparation for her special guest edit of Stylist magazine this week and takeover of Stylist.co.uk had been a little unorthodox. The entire thing was arranged over emails and video calls between London and Alicia’s home in Oakland, California. The West Coast of the United States was covered in an alarming thick smog created by the Californian Wildfires in the days preceding the cover shoot. 

And, of course, we’re also working against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and a global re-awakening to the Black Lives Matter movement, prompted by incidences of police violence that cut through millions of us around the world. 

With this in mind, I’m aware of how strange the question “how are you feeling,” comes across at the moment. When I ask Alicia, she chuckles knowingly as she potters around her kitchen making breakfast (it’s 9am for her, 4pm for me) before turning to the camera to say: “You know, my spirit is strong.”

“Things feel chaotic and, at the same time there’s still a sense of possibility and hope, and I have that too,” she explains. “This moment feels like everything is at stake and I have hope because I see people all over the world pushing and fighting and having reckonings of things that needed to be faced for a long time. So that gives me hope – that we are actually moving toward the place where we’re supposed to be.” 

Kimiko Barbour

Though I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to Alicia ahead of this interview in virtual planning meetings for her guest edit, and experienced the measured impact with which she speaks about everything from Black empowerment to her adoration of Rihanna and the Fenty brand, it’s in this moment that I’m especially grateful for how infectious Alicia’s energy is – even from 5345 miles away.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s struggled with hope this year, so I shyly ask how Alicia finds it in herself to not only keep hold of hope but keep going in the face of despair. “You know, sometimes I don’t want to,” Alicia admits. “I think it’s important to say that part. I so appreciated what you said here about ‘Sometimes I don’t feel hopeful’. Sometimes I don’t feel hopeful too. But for me, the possibility is what drives me.”

“I spend most of my time thinking about, working for and plotting around how to make Black people powerful in every aspect of our lives and the challenges of that make me want to stay in bed. But the possibilities of what happens if we’re successful is what gets me out of bed,” she tells me, smiling.

Potential, possibilities and hope are all words that I’d associate with Alicia’s memoir, The Purpose Of Power: How To Build Movements For The 21st Century. It’s the story of her life as a Black woman, and how she responded to the world telling her that Black lives do not matter as much as white ones. It’s a rallying cry for all of us to recognise our own agency and, in understanding the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement as we know it now, feel empowered in ourselves and our communities to pay it forward for a better future. 

Alicia tells me that even within movements like the one she started, it’s still a personal journey. “And in your personal journey, I can’t really tell you what to do because it’s your path. And also, to be fully honest, every place is so different that it’s not up to me or Patrice or Opal or anybody else to tell you what’s right for what you need to do in your particular corner of the world. That’s where the organising work comes in, right? That’s where you have the opportunity to bring people together in your place, to assess what’s possible and to make a plan to make it happen.”

So to revisit that crucial question, are we really lifting Black women up in a real way? 

Yes, I’d personally like to think that it feels like the narrative has shifted this year. But the work is far from done, and if there’s anyone who can speak to the weight and communal responsibility of that reality, it’s Alicia. 

“Are we changing the rules that make it so that Black women are disproportionately being affected and impacted by the worst kinds of disparities that we see in our societies, whether that be, maternal health and mortality rates or undefined violence and murder at the hands of intimate partners?” she says. “The cultural conversation is important. And it also needs to result in rule changes. So yes, I think the conversation has shifted in an important way. And I think Black women are still waiting for our countries to work hard for us as hard as we work for them.”

The Purpose of Power: How to Build Movements for the 21st Century is published by Doubleday and is available from 20 October 2020

Images: Kimiko Barbour

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