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Patrisse Khan-Cullors

How the founder of Black Lives Matter started a global movement

We meet Patrisse Khan-Cullors to talk about what preparation goes into creating a new future and building a better world

In a world where asserting that your life does in fact ‘matter’ is a radical act, it can feel impossibly naive to dream of equality, of a black life lived in dignity. Patrisse Khan Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, dares to dream of that radical future.

As well as being one of three BLM founders, Patrisse Khan-Cullors is an artist, organiser, and freedom fighter from Los Angeles, California. She is also a performance artist, Fulbright scholar, popular public speaker, and an NAACP History Maker, and in January 2018 published her memoir. When They Call You A Terrorist follows the life of Patrisse, placing her activism against a historical backdrop of various institutional failings of African Americans, and narrating the rise of black rebellion in response to these failures, written together with the award-winning author and journalist asha bandele.

While on a tour through the United Kingdom promoting her new book, I had the privilege of hearing Patrisse speak at the Women of the World festival at the London Southbank Centre, in a discussion between three women on the front line of global movements, including Laura Bates, author and founder of the ‘Everyday Sexism Project’, and Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, lawyer and founder of the Women in Leadership publication, and one of the organisers of the London ‘Women’s March’. The topic was women’s leadership in global movements: what is an activist? Who becomes one, and why? Following this talk, I had an opportunity to interview Patrisse and learn more about the activist behind the movement.

At the Women of the World festival, you spoke about who becomes an activist, as well as the standards set for women leading movements. I wanted to ask you – how does your identity as a woman of colour inflect on those ‘standards of leadership’?

Patrisse Khan-Cullors: I think there is a mistaken understanding of activism for black women as ‘natural’, as though there is nothing special about what black women do in order to build an entire movement. It’s not seen as movement building, it’s seen as a form of caretaking, a thing that women just do ‘naturally’. First of all, that’s sexist, and patriarchal, and full of misogynoir! I think that when black men are spokespeople, or lead movements, they’re seen as doing something powerful, special. And what we’ve seen time and time again is that actually black women have been at the helm of social movements for a very long time. Black women have to grow these social movements, but also support a lot of the other weights of the community, and of the family.

“Black women have been at the helm of social movements for a very long time” – Patrisse Khan-Cullors

Historically, the people (and particularly women) behind movements are erased, while the movement itself takes on a life of own – as with Black Lives Matter, a movement that is now largely divorced from its queer, black, female origins. The skills that building a successful movement take are similarly erased: there is more to BLM than a hashtag, for instance. What skillsets are required to build a movement?

Patrisse Khan-Cullors: It’s not all intuitive, it’s deeply scientific, thinking about how to build a movement and make it grow. There is such a thing as being a trained campaigner, as well as being self-taught where you learn by example. I went through a year-long organising programme at the National School for Strategic Organising (NSSO), and it was led by the Labour Community Strategy Centre. We spent the year reading, anything from Marx, to Lenin, to Mao, learning all types of global critical theory and about different campaigns across the world, and most importantly every day, five days a week we were out on the ground actively recruiting people into the organisation we were in, as a way to learn how to bring people in, how to keep them in an organisation. There’s an entire skillset to this.

If activism requires a learned or taught skillset, then who is capable of doing this kind of work? Of course, we can’t all found our own movements on this scale, but how do we work together to build a better world?

Patrisse Khan-Cullors: Everybody should be activists – it’s just a matter of what we can be active in. You don’t necessarily have to do what I’ve done, it’s more about being on the right side of history, and supporting different types of movements. While on tour here in the UK there are many groups that I have had the pleasure of meeting. There’s the Yarl’s Wood hunger strike that’s happening - people should be talking about it, writing about it, telling their coworkers about it, asking how they can support. There’s also the Grenfell community activists who are still in need of support. There’s the United Families and Friends campaign that gather every year to commemorate the deaths in custody that have happened. There are so many ways to get involved – one easy way is to donate money. Another is to be physically present at events, and thirdly just continue the conversation: keep talking about these issues.

“Fight with people you’ve been building with since you were 14, not the troll on Twitter. Build relationships with the people you want in your community” – Patrisse Khan-Cullors

The work of activism itself can be both physically, and emotionally exhausting. As a black activist myself who is often on the brink of burnout, I wanted to ask you about balancing life as an activist and life, or teaching versus existing. At what point do you stop educating the ignorant and distance yourself for your own health and wellbeing?

Patrisse Khan-Cullors: We talk a lot about physical health and often neglect the idea that mental or emotional health even exist. We often treat it like a made-up thing, or something you can just deal with, but mental health and emotional health is something you have to cultivate. I think it’s important that people take the time to complete that process. I talk a lot about talk therapy, acupuncture, reiki, as methods that can allow Black folks to prioritise their health and wellness. These things aren’t just about luxury, they are about sustaining a body which is constantly under attack. Black folks should be receiving therapists as part of our reparations package! 

Also, you should organise the people who have been looking for you. Most of the time people are waiting for this work, to be a part of something, because they too have felt helpless, like they aren’t being taken care of. And some people seek out campaigns, and others don’t even realise they need it. I spend my time focusing on the people who are interested, excited, and present for this work. We should use our labour in the right places and on the right people – fight with people you’ve been building with since you were 14, not the troll on Twitter. Build relationships with the people you want in your community, and prioritise black people because we deserve it, and because nobody prioritises us!

Something you have said in the past that I found beautiful: as black people, we need to cultivate the imagination to build a different world. What does this mean for us, as activists and communities?

Patrisse Khan-Cullors: The first thing a culture does to diminish a people is to take away their imagination. So, the challenge of imagination. Can you take the time to think what could be possible for the health and wellness of our communities? We don’t do that enough. We spend most of our time talking about what we aren’t able to do – a lot of people come into organising work with such a negative outlook because they have been so disempowered. Take the time to imagine what you want to see! What kind of life would you want to live, what would you want the collective community to see? We should have the imagination to think of a world without detention centres, police, prisons, courts – infrastructures that propagate the subjugation of people of colour. What kinds of alternatives can we dare to imagine?

When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir is out now in hardback via Canongate.