A New Generation of Civil Rights Activists
ED GORDON, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.
The recent deaths of Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks raised the questions, who is replacing the civil rights stalwarts who have been shaping black America's agenda for decades? And who will set the post-civil rights era? NPR's Farai Chideya picks the brain of two activists from different generations. Farai.
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
Thanks, Ed. Angela Glover-Blackwell is founder and chief executive officer of Policy Link, a national non-profit advocacy group based in Oakland, California. Beginning in the 1970s, she served as a public interest lawyer, and later worked for the Urban Strategies Council and the Rockefeller Foundation. She joins us from the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. Also joining with us is 29-year old TJ Crawford, who is organizing the National Hip Hop Political Convention taking place in Chicago in July. He joins us from our Chicago bureau. Thank you both for coming on the program.
Ms. ANGELA GLOVER-BLACKWELL (Founder and CEO, Policy Link): Thank you.
Mr. TJ CRAWFORD (Organizer, National Hip Hop Political Convention): Thank you for having me.
CHIDEYA: Angela, let me start with you. The '60's was about protest marches, challenging segregation and an attempt to finish the American revolution, as some civil rights leaders at that time have said. So what kind of movement is emerging today, if any?
Ms. GLOVER-BLACKWELL: We don't have the movement that we need. And the movement we need needs to incorporate lots that we were focused on from the past, but also recognize the struggles are different. As we go forward, the economic issues have become much more front and center. And in many ways, we've become a nation in which where you live determines your access to opportunity. So beginning to think about how to become very savvy about focusing on development decisions and what the private sector is doing is really important as we go forward.
As I think about the future, I think about the need for us to be able to cross borders actually, to let the differences begin to slide away between public and private, black and white. All of these things that used to keep us locked in are now keeping us locked out of a society in which everybody can participate and everybody can prosper.
CHIDEYA: Now, TJ, do you think that there needs to be a new political and social agenda? The color line in the past was this one issue. And even while people were working on other issues, the color line was this main organizing focus. Do you need one today, for the Hip Hop generation in fact?
Mr. CRAWFORD: I think it would be helpful if we had one central issue that everyone could organize around and would kind of galvanize young adults and older generations to work together. So you might have a couple out there that people are organizing around, such as the War in Iraq, or the criminal justice system.
But as I continue on in naming these issues, there's so many different things hitting people from so many different angles, that I think it's going to be pretty hard for us to just have this one particular piece that brings us all together, or than an act of God, such as Hurricane Katrina. But even then, it wasn't the whole country, it was only a specific region of the country that was affected; and if you had family members down there, then that issue touched more than anything else.
But I think we're going to really have to now work on ways of connecting the varying issues that affect our daily lives and find a way to coordinate those activities so that we can bring holistic solutions to whole problems, because that's how we're living these days. It's not just a piecemeal thing. We have to put it all together so we can work together.
CHIDEYA: But how can you work together if you haven't even decided what your common issues are? Have we decided in this country or in younger black America that we have certain common issues that we have to work on, and other ones that maybe we work on separately?
Mr. CRAWFORD: Folks are working on common issues, just doing it, not collectively. People in Chicago and most major metropolitan areas are working around livable wages, affordable housing, criminal justice in terms of black men and women being pushed into the prison system at horrible rates, education and folks not getting the quality education that they need from public education systems. There are issues that we have identified and are working on them.
At the first convention in 2004, we laid out a collective agenda that was comprised of what everyone was working on from a city level. But now we have to move beyond just saying what it is. We have to actually be about working together and getting past a lot of the personal issues, and then raising the funds that allows our organizing activities to move forward successfully so that we can be consistent in how we address these things nationally.
I think we get caught in the everyday life problems that come up for ourselves as persons or our own organizations that keeps us from really being able to stay in consistent contact with others across the country and across the world that are working on similar issues.
CHIDEYA: Angela, TJ is talking about making connections. A few years ago you co-authored a book called Searching for the Uncommon Common Ground: New Dimensions on Race in America. You've also mentioned a need to really pull away from just seeing the world as black and white, move people together. Is this country ready for that?
Ms. GLOVER-BLACKWELL: It has to get ready, because this is our present and it is going to be our future. TJ is right, there are no new issues emerging. It's still about education, and health, and housing, and jobs. What is different is the way that we are going to build coalitions to address those jobs, begin to see our common interests, and not be satisfied with the lowest common denominator, but try to push ourselves to find the highest points of agreement that will allow us to build broad coalitions that can stretch themselves.
So that, for example, when we think about the issue of jobs, it's not just minimum wage jobs or just living wage jobs that we have to push for. We have to make sure that whenever we make public investments that we demand that those investments address the broader societal issues, making sure that people have access to wealth building opportunities as entrepreneurs; making sure that where we actually put schools and housing build a fully inclusive society. And so as we think about the future, the coalitions will be key.
CHIDEYA: You're talking about coalitions that include people of different incomes and different races. But what about within the black community, older and younger generations? I don't necessarily see a lot of coalition building even on the generational level?
Ms. GLOVER-BLACKWELL: I don't see a lot of it either, and I think it is very essential, because if you listen to TJ and you listen to me, I think that we're talking about the same issues, and we want the same aspirations. People who are older need to understand that the struggles that we have been so proud of in the past are honored. But just reflecting and celebrating the past is not going to take us to the future. We have to connect with the new generation of leaders.
Policy Link seeks to advance a new generation of policies, but it won't happen without a new generation of leaders. And the new generation of leaders needs to understand that there's a lot of wisdom from the past that can help in the struggle for the future.
CHIDEYA: Now, TJ, you are using Hip Hop as an organizing tool. While Angela is at Policy Link, you are helping to organize the National Hip Hop Political Convention. I went to the first convention, or the convention in 2004 in New Jersey. But there's a new AOL Black Voices poll of black Americans age 25 to 45, and half of the respondents said Hip Hop was a negative force in society vs. only 28 who said it was a positive force.
So if this is how black Americans feel about Hip Hop, how can you use it as a tool for change?
Mr. CRAWFORD: Well, a couple of things. I wanted to just say that there are a lot of intergenerational dialogues happening both in Chicago and nationally. So that step has been taken to close the gap. But to answer your question, I think the outlook and the definition that the black community and the general public has about Hip Hop points to the power of media and the power that media has in defining whatever it seeks to put its attention towards.
Hip Hop is celebrated in our communities. And as we celebrate it in the National Hip Hop Political Convention it's not only that which you see on BET and what you hear on radio stations. There's a tremendous amount of tradition, value and principled behavior that's celebrated in Hip Hop culture through the five elements, and then also through our interaction in social, economic and political justice movements.
I know that Hip Hop has the power to change lives, because it has changed lives for the better of millions of folks not only in this country, but internationally. I think the problem is that we have to start reading between the lines and making sure that we are not simply being told what Hip Hop is or who we are as a people by what popular media says, but actually go back to the communities, back to the streets, back to the peoples who are kind of the purveyors or the keepers of culture, who are maintaining hip-hop and any other element of black culture for its purity and the positive effects that it has on the community and start to champion that.
CHIDEYA: Angela, does your group fund or work with or help hip-hop generation advocacy groups?
Ms. GLOVER-BLACKWELL: We are a research action policy institute, advancing strategies and policies that build a fully inclusive society, and in doing our work, we always work with local leaders and local change agents to make sure that they're authentic policies that we're advancing and that there's the possibility to sustain progress over time. So, in doing work, we partner with people of all groups, and some of them are people who are young people who would consider themselves part of the hip-hop generation.
CHIDEYA: We only have a couple minutes left, but I want to ask each of you, very briefly, starting with you T.J., what one thing could you do that will advance this kind of cohesive agenda that needs to be set for the future, you personally as part of your group?
Mr. CRAWFORD: Well, I think by hosting the 2006 National Hip-Hop Political Convention and the partnerships that we've created - one in particular with the Chicago Freedom Movement, which is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's travel to Chicago to help out with the housing discrimination issues. That in particular, that partnership is: One, helping the hip-hop generation move forward on the creating of a collective political agenda that represents our interests, and secondly, it is a demonstrated attempt at bridging the gap between generations and those leaders that have successfully fought battles before and that are still involved in the struggle today to bring that new energy and that dynamic new vision, I would suppose, to add along with it what they're doing so that we can win and not just be out here spinning our wheels. So I think the work that I'm engaged in and that my peers are engaged in every single day will kind of point to answer that question, and hopefully, the convention will help move us forward.
CHIDEYA: Angela, briefly.
Ms. GLOVER-BLACKWELL: Don't forget the victims of Katrina. That hurricane laid bare the poverty and inequality that still exists in America. We need to understand that we've been asking for in the past, we still need to struggle for and understand that to go forward, we have to figure out ways to allow everybody to participate with their voices and with their energy and to allow that participation to build a different kind of society in which we don't have that kind of stark poverty where people are isolated as we saw in New Orleans. We could find a New Orleans in every city in America.
CHIDEYA: Angela Glover Blackwell is founder and chief executive officer of Policy Link based in Oakland, California. She joined us from the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and T.J. Crawford is organizing the National Hip-Hop Political Convention taking place in July in Chicago, and he joined us from our bureau there. Thank you both.
Mr. CRAWFORD: Thank you.
Ms. GLOVER-BLACKWELL: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Back to you, Ed.
GORDON: All right. Thanks, Farai. That again was NPR's Farai Chideya.