Charlene Carruthers’ Guide to Social Activism "Like the artist tends to their craft, we have to tend to the craft of organizing"

Charlene Carruthers | Photo by Lucy Hewitt


By Charlotte West

Black, queer and feminist organizer Charlene Carruthers’ words of encouragement for young activists took on particular significance during a talk she gave last week in downtown Santa Cruz. Carruthers was the keynote speaker at the 36th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation on Feb. 10. As founding member of the nonprofit Black Youth Project 100, Carruther’s social justice work has focused on the intersection of race, class and gender. Civil rights icons including Shirley Chisholm, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Cornel West, Alice Walker, and Kimberle Crenshaw have previously delivered the keynote address.

On the morning of the event, graduate students at the UC Santa Cruz went on strike, demanding higher wages to help ease the cost of living in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country.

“It’s very clear that questions about power, organizing, resource distribution, representation and decision making are present right here… right now,” Carruthers said. “I don’t want to act like this is a conversation that we’re just having about the rest of the world.

“Many of you may have participated this morning (in direct actions) about economic justice, about workers’ rights, about racial and gender justice. That’s practice for the many game days to come.”

Curruthers and Savannah Shange, a UCSC anthropologist whose works focuses on critical race and ethnic studies, discussed electoral politics, political organizing, the relationship between research and activism, and how to work meaningfully across racial communities in the service of social justice. Carruthers also touched on how her Black/queer/feminist approach is relevant to people of all colors.

Shange asked Carruthers to comment on how communities who have historically been excluded from power can meaningfully approach the upcoming elections. “Elections give us an opportunity to engage in not only who will govern with us or over us, or for us, but it also gives us an opportunity to figure out governance amongst ourselves, and how we organize ourselves,” Carruthers said.

The 34-year-old Carruthers added that she has voted in every election since she turned 18, but she understands that voting isn’t an act of liberation. She said that electoral politics also provide an opportunity to practice holding politicians accountable and calling out superficial policies that don’t actually improve people’s lives.

“If I don’t engage in (electoral politics), the people who are making those decisions will just get to do whatever the H-E double L they want to do,” she said, followed quickly by “I don’t know how much profanity I can use tonight.”

Carruthers outlined five questions that individuals from marginalized and oppressed communities should ask and answer when organizing, whether they are tackling workers’ rights or other issues:  Who am I? Who are my people? What do we want? What are we building? Are we ready to win?

She elaborated by explaining that people need to be clear about their own identities and what they care about, who they are responsible to and for, what their demands are, whether they are working towards short-term or long-term goals, and if they are prepared for what they are demanding.

Shange added that Carruther’s questions help span the gap between research and practice. “Here, at a research university, we engage with the world in a very intellectual way,” Shange said. “The way you’re describing organizing is to me part research, giving us the opportunity to find out where our people are. Often, we really bifurcate our activist selves and our research selves. We turn one on, turn one off. So you’re giving us this really necessary bridge to find out where our people are.”

Carruthers noted that effective organizing requires a study of history. “There is an art to organizing. So just like the artist tends to their craft, we have to tend to the craft of organizing,” she said. “That means you have to study. Who did this before you? Who are you talking to? How are you learning better practices? Learning from the mistakes or missteps that other people have taken.”

Shange also asked Carruthers what long-term strategy the UCSC graduate students who are advocating for a cost of living allowance might pursue. “(T)he first thing you need to be really clear about is that this is a long haul,” Carruthers said.

According to Black radical tradition, racist power structures are the root causes of racial inequality in political, economic, judicial, educational and other systems. The systems themselves are designed to oppress Black people; as a result, reform is not enough because the systems themselves are racist at their core. Carruthers’ 2018 book, “Unapologetic,” draws on the Black radical tradition, as well as the LGBTQ rights and feminist movements, in its discussion of effective organizing for social justice.

Carruthers advised student activists to look at their current actions as part of a lifetime of work. She also encouraged them to think about what contribution they want to make during their four — or more — years on campus and advocated for the creation of communities of care. “How are you going to come out on the other side of it as a whole person? … Not all torn down, worn down by this institution or any other. Ask yourself that,” she said. “Your group is not going to heal you. That’s not what happens. The best they can do is create a space for you to do that work.”

The conversation then turned to a discussion of how to work meaningfully across racial communities in the service of justice. It requires honest conversation, Carruthers said. She challenged the audience to move beyond acting out of guilt.

“People have to be brave enough to be uncomfortable and to be honest,” she said. “Don’t just come in here feeling guilty about what has happened and what your people have done. You can’t organize out of guilt. You might write some checks out of guilt, that’s cool. But I can’t put my body on the line with guilt. I can’t build the new world with you if you’re only moving through guilt. We have to get through the uncomfortable, the nasty, the sticky, the painful, the hurtful parts of truth to get to the justice part.”

Shange asked Carruthers to reflect on how all people can embrace the Black queer feminist approach. Carruthers likened it to a putting on a pair of glasses. “When you put on a pair of glasses, be they sunglasses, reading glasses, even binoculars, it changes the way you see the world. It can protect your eyes, it can bring things closer, make things clearer, move things further away. So the Black queer feminist lens is about applying the learnings, the teachings of the Black radical tradition and the radical LGBTQ tradition into our (social justice) work,” she said.

“It’s about expanding and doing work in a way that people can be there for themselves, and where we can tell more complete stories, where we can have self-determination, where we can lean into what our ancestors have done, and we can expand on it. So queerness, when it relates to gender…and sexuality, is so much about expansiveness.”

Carruthers said that much of her work is about ending all forms of gender-based exploitation and patriarchy. “Without dismantling that beast [of racialized patriarchy], then liberation is not possible, for any of us,” she explained.

Shange concluded by asking Carruthers to share about her latest project, which will explore the theme of racialized patriarchy through fiction. “[I’m] taking a look at how the patriarchy enacts itself on all kinds of Black people. In particular, Black women, Black men, Black queer folks, and doing it through fiction, through world building. So much of what … I want to do is to politicize people … and agitate people, which is the work of an organizer, through storytelling,” Carruthers said.

Her book, which she described as a Black family epic, will follow two families over four decades. According to Carruthers, the idea of storytelling and building worlds based on history is part of the Black radical tradition.

“I can write another book on patriarchy, or why we need to topple capitalism, and why we need to end wars. I can do that. Or I can tell it through a story of four Black women,” Carruthers said.

“Sometimes I find when I take myself out of my own story, and go into somebody else’s story, I’m better able to understand the world around me. So that’s what the next phase of my work is about … telling a more complete story about Black people in this world.”

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Charlotte West

About Charlotte West

Charlotte West is a freelance journalist who covers education, criminal justice, housing, and politics. She is a member of the Education Writers Association and was a 2019 Kiplinger Fellow.