The following is a conversation between Rinku Sen, a leading theorist and practitioner of racial justice organizing, advocacy and media, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Rinku Sen, leading theorist and practitioner of racial justice organizing, advocacy and media

Denver: Rinku Sen is a widely-read and respected theorist and practitioner of racial justice organizing, advocacy and media. She co-founded and served as publisher of the groundbreaking media outlet Colorlines, has led a number of organizations, and written a couple of books including Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy. And she’s with us now. 

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Rinku!

Rinku: Thank you so much, Denver. Happy to join you. 

So that whole first year of organizing on my college campus really taught me how beautiful a process it is when people with problems get together to share their problems and to come up with solutions, and then they fight. I learned that when we fight, we do actually win.

Denver: Tell me, how did you get into this line of work? How did you become an activist and a writer? 

Rinku: I got into this work when I was a 17-year-old sophomore at Brown University. And at the beginning of the academic year ’84-’85, there was a racial justice campaign that started on my campus after an incident of racial violence. 

I really had grown up with no real political leanings to speak of. I’m an immigrant. My family came to the states when I was 5-and one-half in 1972, and we settled initially in  largely white factory towns, and then eventually in places like Bethpage, Long Island and Morrisville, Pennsylvania, which were suburbs and adjacent to suburbs that had been kept white through things like restrictive covenants and other anti-integration policies and practices. 

So I grew up in really white communities where there weren’t many people of color at all —  a few Asian families, a few Black families,  and that was about it. College was really the most diverse community I had ever lived and been in.  And in my second year, there was a real call for action because something terrible had happened, and the Black students on campus began to organize around it. They deliberately reached out to Asian and Latino groups on campus, and we worked on that campaign together and ultimately won a number of changes on campus that we needed. 

The biggest one that I really consider a legacy of that campaign is that we had a very small Third World Center that was in the basement of the Afro-American Studies Department, and one of our victories was to get the university to give us a much bigger space. So for the last 30 or so, almost 30 years, almost 40 years, actually, there has been a big Victorian building that serves as, now, the Center for Students of Color at Brown University.  

We won some other changes in faculty and policy, and won some, lost some. But my first experience of racial justice organizing included winning, which tied me to the process pretty tightly. I thought, “Well, this works apparently.” So it works, and I found a community that feels more like me, that is satisfying some of the parts of me that didn’t get fed much while I was growing up as a South Asian immigrant in white America, and that’s how I got started. 

At the end of that year, the women who had been working on all sorts of different campaigns — racial justice, anti-nuclear, anti-apartheid campaigns — we had all been honing our skills through those other campaigns. And after Spring Weekend that year, the women got together with all our political skills, and we ran a very quick campaign against sexual violence on campus and won a bunch of stuff there too — won a dusk-to-dawn shuttle service, got two of the worst acting fraternities… got their charters revoked.

So that whole first year of organizing on my college campus really taught me how beautiful a process it is when people with problems get together to share their problems and to come up with solutions, and then they fight. I learned that when we fight, we do actually win. So that’s what got me started.

Denver: Well, that’s a very interesting background. And I’ll tell you, winning space on a college campus is a big, big win. I don’t think a lot of people appreciate how big a win that really is. That can be…a territorial place. 

So, in organizing those campaigns, Rinku, back in the ’80s for racial justice and these other things, how different was it back then compared to what it’s like today? 

Rinku: It was pretty different. For one thing, we didn’t have social media and we didn’t have cell phones and texts. So we had to do things in an old-fashioned way really by talking to each other, by picking up the phone, by walking along with other students while we were going to class and talking about the actions that were coming up. We had to really work to get into the media that existed, the Brown Daily Herald, which was our college newspaper, and other papers as we ran these fights, larger community dailies and national outlets. 

What’s really different about now is that you can create your own media and share it, and that so often our contacts with people, including our initial contacts, are not in person. They are remote contacts and contacts that use the written word because we’re texting and sending email and doing it through digital media. It’s very different, in my mind, to get a flyer with a handwritten note on it in my mailbox than to see a social media post, even if it has the exact same content. 

So I think that in today’s organizing, it’s easier to find people and get to people, but it is actually a little bit more challenging to get to know that person and to deepen the relationship to the level we need our relationships to be so that we can keep acting together, taking collective action in harder and bigger contexts all the time. 

Denver: That’s a very good point.

Rinku: So I think that’s a really big difference. 

One way that modern technology works against us is that our internal fights become much bigger. So in the ’80s, if we had a disagreement with another activist, we talked about it; we might yell at each other; we might bad mouth each other to other friends, but probably thousands of people would not be privy to that struggle. It would just be the two of us and the people around us. And having thousands of uninvested people, maybe even millions of people, who aren’t actually invested in that relationship able to weigh in, agitate,  divide further. Those have been some tough dynamics for us to figure out as movements… how to deal with them.

Systemic racism refers to the idea that discrimination isn’t just a matter of individual prejudice and bias being acted on, that when racism is built into a system, it means that the actual rules on which that system runs are themselves discriminatory.

In my experience, individuals have the best chance at changing what they do, how they act, what they think in the context of institutional support… Individuals can change when the system encourages change and holds people accountable to change.

Denver: They can slow things down, that’s for sure. Let me ask you about systemic racism because when a term like that gets so much attention in the mainstream media all of a sudden… it’s been talked about endlessly here the last few months, many people, I think, think they understand it; they get it, but sometimes they don’t fully. Tell us what it really means. 

Rinku: Systemic racism refers to the idea that discrimination isn’t just a matter of individual prejudice and bias being acted on, that when racism is built into a system, it means that the actual rules on which that system runs are themselves discriminatory. They have a discriminatory impact on particular sets of people.  The reason that it’s so important for us to focus on systemic racism in addition to individual racism, is that if we tried to go person by person and just change each individual’s thinking, stereotypes about people of color, their own individual use of power — if we have to go one by one, we would never get there. It would just be too, too slow. 

In my experience, individuals have the best chance at changing what they do, how they act, what they think in the context of institutional support. So if the news you’re watching is fighting stereotypes, and the politicians you’re voting for are talking about policies that address racial discrimination directly,  if your employer or workplace says, “These are certain standards of how we treat each other, and we all have to treat each other this way,” then it’s easier for me, the individual, to actually change the way I go through life, change the places where I shop, and change the people I make friends with, and change whose calls I return in a day because I value everybody. I value everybody. Individuals can change when the system encourages change and holds people accountable to change. 

So systemic racism means to me simply that we’re going to look at the rules, both written and unwritten, and we’re going to look at the impact that those rules are having on different communities. And if that impact is negative, we’re going to change the rule or the practice.  That then is a container for individuals to learn more, to build new relationships, to hire different people, to spend their money differently, to vote differently, to get involved in local civic activity like participatory budgeting. So, systemic racism just means that we look at the whole, and we look at the rules rather than go person by person. 

Denver: Absolutely. You are noted for your successful racial equity campaigns and organizational change processes. And one thing that you helped lead was getting the Associated Press to drop the “I” word — illegal — from their style guide and what had been their description of illegal immigrants. Now, that is a significant success. How did you go about in achieving that? 

Rinku: That might be the piece of work of the last decade that I’m most proud of. People had been protesting the use of that phrase since the 1980s when it started to become much more widely used, particularly in the press, and it really got a big push forward from the right after 9/11, and here we are talking on 9/11. After 9/11, when the folks who wanted to restrict immigration found that tying immigration to terrorism was an effective way and really the only effective way because at that point, Americans actually weren’t very upset about immigration. They thought it was pretty much fine. Immigrants made contributions to the country. It wasn’t a big deal.

In 1986, we did a big legalization program under the Reagan administration that provided a path to citizenship for all of the undocumented people who were in the country at the time. So in the early 2000s and the late ’90s, it just wasn’t at the top of the concerns of people who lived in the US. So, the use of illegal immigrant and the idea of law-breaking and outlaws, migrant outlaws, really was what the immigration restrictionists hung their hat on, and you started to see people insist, for example, that reporters use the phrase. 

I remember doing an interview with someone at FAIR, which is an immigration restriction group, and I interviewed the chair of the board and he said, “I have to insist that you use illegal immigrant and not other euphemisms.” And I was like, “I will quote you saying whatever you want to say, but–“

Denver: But I’ll say what I want to say. 

Rinku: So we noticed from our vantage point at Race Forward that when that phrase is in use, there’s a lot of hostility that arises, particularly toward Latino men. The Latino migrant man was the face of the “I” word for 20 years easily, and that, interestingly, the phrase was never applied to European immigrants who had overstayed their visas or crossed the border without papers or whatever they had done. Of course, throughout the 21st century, there’ve been lots of Irish and Russian and other white-appearing immigrants without papers in this country. 

So we decided that also there were now enough immigrants and second-generation immigrants in the country who were mad about this, who are upset about the way that they were characterized, the way that the law-and-order frame affected all immigrants and to some degree, all people of color who could be accused of not belonging. And so, the constituency, by 2010 that we made was that we had a real constituency. It was big enough, it was mad enough to act, and that we could attempt a campaign to get the Associated Press to change the style guide.

The reason we focused on the Associated Press is because their style guide is hugely influential globally. Outlets around the world use it as the word on how they should talk about different issues and communities. And so, if you change the AP Style Guide, then you’re automatically going to change the practices of millions of outlets around the world. So we focused on AP, and we created a debate within journalism circles through the Columbia Journalism Review, through blogging, through commenting, through storytelling, about whether or not illegal immigrant was a fair characterization as journalists…from journalists of huge communities of people who have very complex immigration situations, paperwork situations, documentation situations. 

So we fought for three-and-a-half years. A lot of new players entered in the last year, including Jose Antonio Vargas, whose really moving story came out in, I think it was in the New York Times  Magazine, about having been an undocumented student and then journalist, a Pulitzer Prize winner, all while keeping the secret of his immigration status. And his entry made a huge difference. 

 There was a study done in 2012 that showed that a huge number of Americans thought that all Latinos in the country were undocumented people. So we did research into how the use of the phrase had grown over the years and what its effect had been. We brought in human rights and immigration attorneys to talk about why the phrase was not the right phrase, was not actually the accurate thing to use, and we did petitions. We had the debate in as many places as we could. There were local organizations that did actions on their local papers, trying to get them to change. But really, any individual paper would tell us, “Oh, we use the AP Style Guide. So when that changes, we will change, too.”

It took a while and honestly, there wasn’t a ton of support, institutional support. There was zero philanthropic support speaking to the point of this podcast, and so we funded all of the campaign work, all the staffing and research through general support. 

Denver: That is a great how-to, and thank you for walking us through that because there are so many lessons that others can pick up on on how you go from A to Z, and just like back in your Brown days, you win. You won.

Let’s turn our attention to the COVID-19 pandemic because most of the philanthropy, Rinku, in this country is done through traditional 501(c)(3) organizations who then in turn support people and communities in need. But this current situation seems to be so dire that you’re beginning to see the rise of an effort, which I would say is more akin to mutual aid societies. Describe for us what is happening and maybe some of the implications of it. 

Rinku: At the beginning of the pandemic period, really as soon as the shutdowns started in March, middle- to late March, I noticed — I think it would have been hard not to notice — and I participated in a bunch of different efforts to make sure that people had what they needed.

So there were obviously lots of people out of work pretty immediately. There were people who could not get the things they needed because things were so shut down. Immigration courts were shut down. Criminal courts were shut down. The pharmacies were harder to get to. Public transportation was scary. I did the first two months of the pandemic in New York City and about a mile from Elmhurst Hospital, which went—

…mutual aid reminds us that we are not alone in our suffering, and that we are not alone in our love for each other and not alone in our ability to put together whatever little resources we have into a larger package of resources, that we could stand together and make things better.

Denver: That was the epicenter, all right. 

Rinku: And so, even getting groceries to people who were high-risk and shouldn’t go out, all of these things became community concerns rather than just individual concerns. 

Because I come out of the field of community organizing, and much of my community is organizers, I noticed that in addition to critiquing policy and advocating for a stimulus package, and for testing and PPE, that community organizations also began to set up these mutual aid systems. So ways to sign up, to do volunteer work. People offering to entertain your kids on Zoom so that you, parent, could do something else for a couple of hours, like work or rest. Definitely getting food to people, getting medicine to people, lots of funds to just give folks some cash relief because they had lost income. 

So mutual aid had not been part of the organizing models I learned in the 1980s, in the mid- to late ’80s, and that I had been practicing and supporting for the 40 years since then, nearly forty years, and so I got curious. I thought, “Well, this is really interesting that organizers are engaging in all this mutual aid.” 

I just started to look into history a bit, and as soon as I did, within like 10 minutes of a Google search, I realized, “Oh, mutual aid has always been a really significant part of organizing for social change, particularly in the racial justice movement and space, and particularly there as well as among immigrants and among workers at times that the state, the government, fell down in its responsibility to all– that maybe it was providing relief, but only to certain people. Maybe it wasn’t providing relief at all as we were experiencing in this country. ” What people did was find ways to help each other survive and use those survival mechanisms to build ties, to build social ties, to build relationships. 

In an article I wrote about the history of mutual aid and organizing, I think one of the things I said is that organizing requires courage. It simply does because you are an everyday person taking on sometimes the biggest institutions and systems that run our lives. That can be scary, and mutual aid reminds us that we are not alone in our suffering, and that we are not alone in our love for each other and not alone in our ability to put together whatever little resources we have into a larger package of resources, that we could stand together and make things better. That is the essential feeling you must have in order to organize for anything. You have to feel like, “I’m not alone. There are other people in my situation, and together, we could actually make things better.” 

So mutual aid isn’t an early experience of that, just like when I was at Brown and I experienced the first campaign where we won. Through mutual aid, people experienced that someone cares about me and that I can act on my caring about other people. And so, I think that it is here to stay. Having had the experience of mutual aid first during the pandemic, and then throughout the summer of BLM protests, which, by the way, are still going on, and watching the ways that people would put out a call on Twitter and say, “We need water. Could someone drop off some bottles of water at this corner in Charleston or Madison or Omaha or wherever the protest was happening.”

That really convinced me that mutual aid speaks to something that is core in us as humans, and now we’ve had this very mass experience of it, and I hope that that experience will increase our commitment to it. And then we’ll start to see institutions and government and even corporations as potential extensions of mutual aid principles. 

Denver: That’s a really interesting development. Mutual aid societies are so common in so many other countries around the world, and it does seem in America that somewhere along the line, these nonprofits were broken in two: one, providing service provision; and then separately, others doing direct action organizing, and not together. And something happened, I think, over the decades that it separated the two of them, that seemed at least in my observation

Rinku: What happened is that both the field of social work, which is what a mutual aid became institutionalized as, and the field of community organizing got professionalized. And whenever you professionalize something, give it… attempt to credential it, create standards for it. Anytime we do that, we narrow it a little bit because you’re trying to distinguish it from other kinds of work, and as its own kind of work that deserves its own credential.

And so, I looked at the history of settlement houses, Jane Adams’ amazing work to organize immigrants and workers.  The original settlement houses were like one-stop shops. It was like civic engagement and mutual aid and community arts and community education kind of all rolled up in the same place. As that work transferred into the language of social work and into social work schools, the organizing and social action part of it got separated out from the mutual service part of it. That just got further separated when Saul Alinsky entered the picture, coming out of the settlement house movement as the social worker, begins community organizing and starts writing down his theories of organizing, which then become the predominant theory, really dismissing mutual aid.

I’m not an Alinsky hater as I wrote in my article.  He did a lot of good things, and I’ve used much of his wisdom and his tactics, but he was sexist, and mutual aid was like what women did to keep things going. And it wasn’t the fight. Alinsky was interested in always getting people into the fight, and aiding each other wasn’t fighting to him. And so he kind of wrote those parts out of his theory. 

Denver: Speaking of women, among the very many things you do, you’re the co-president of the Women’s March board of directors. And you recently moderated a panel on how women’s protests have changed history. What would be some of the more striking examples of that? 

Rinku: I think … how women’s protests have changed history. Obviously, we know about the suffragist movement, and I think what a lot of people don’t know about suffragists is: one, there were many, many women of color who fought for the right to vote –native women, Asian women, Black women, Latinas — who really got written out of the US history on the women’s right to vote; and two, that it was just a brutal fight. There was violence. There were incarcerations. There was vigilantism against suffragists. And so, I think lots of people think women won the right to vote maybe just by marching, but in fact, we did a lot of civil disobedience, and they disrupted things. That was how they made it impossible not to grant women the right to vote. 

Their movements, in that panel, we talked a lot about the mothers of the Plaza in Argentina who showed up week after week to hold vigil for the people who had been disappeared, the activists and leftists who had been disappeared. We talked about the power of persistence, that protests went on for decades. I think it might still be going on actually. And quite often, it was just a few women, but showing up every single week dressed in black, doing mourning rituals and demanding justice.  

We also talked about the role that women played in the Arab Spring and uprisings in the Arab world pro-democracy uprisings. I think that women often protest in women-only groups, but they also protest a lot in mixed groups. And frankly, in my own organizing experience, the work is 90% women. It’s not men who are out here, certainly not men exclusively or even predominantly out here knocking on the…

Denver: That’s actually I think true in about every realm of life. 

Rinku: Could be. So it’s women’s energy that leads to mass protests, that sustains mass protests because somebody is actually thinking about what people need in order to protest… like childcare and water and food and transportation… and who are taking care of things in the aftermath of protest — violence, policing, surveillance, and attempts to shut down our movements and organizations.

Denver: Rinku, so many organizations have started — I don’t know what you would call them — anti-racism task forces within their organization, and a good number of them that I talked to said they were in the discussion stage, and they’re trying to figure this out the best way to approach it. You know this arena just about better than anyone else. What advice would you have for them? 

Rinku: My advice for people who are committed to racial justice in their organizations is to not just look at the inside of the organization, but also to look at its mission, its campaigns, its programs, and what it aims to do out in the world. Any internal change has to be tied to what you’re trying to do in the world. If it isn’t, then why bother making the internal change? There’s no driving motivation that’s going to keep people through the hardest parts of making that change if, in fact, it’s not going to advance the mission, or in a corporate setting… the business case of the operation. 

So, quite often, people will come to me or came to Race Forward and said, “We’re happy with the work that we do. We serve people of color,” maybe they might say, or “The policies we fight for benefit people of color. We’re happy with what we’re doing in the world, but we want to look different inside.” And I would not take those gigs. I wouldn’t work with those organizations because if they’re unwilling to let their racial justice inquiry lead them to a deep consideration of their mission and programs and actual work, then they probably wouldn’t succeed at changing their internal ways of being either. So then we just have a lot of wasted time and money and labor.

So my first piece of advice is: if you’re going to take it on, take it on, then Take it On! whether your organization is what it wants to do in the world to generate more racial justice, and then you back up into how you need to look inside. What skills do you need?  Who do you need involved? How are you going to structure all the stakeholders weighing in? How are you going to raise the stakes of learning? 

The inside has to be in service of the mission. And if you try to separate those two things and pursue racial equity or racial justice in one or the other only, you won’t succeed. However, if you have an explicit conversation, and you are really thinking about systems outside and systems inside, and you’re not just trying to go person by person… you’re going towards systems, then you can make progress without spending the next 20 years navel-gazing and confessing your racial sins, and fighting with each other over what’s the right thing to do. A systems focus and a mission focus enable actual organizational change. 

Denver: No doubt about it. And as you say, you have to have an alignment with the inside and the outside, and if you’re complacent with the outside, we’re not beginning in a very good place if you have that sort of satisfaction that everything is cool. And also you talked a little bit about the distinction, which could be helpful to some people, between diversity versus equity in the organization. Just say a word or two about that, if you would. 

Rinku: Diversity just means the presence of different kinds of people. It doesn’t say anything about what kind of power they hold in the organization or how they are distributed. So, for example, there are lots of diverse workplaces, it’s just all the people of color in the clerical roles or the background roles. That’s not an equitable workplace in my mind. That is a diverse workplace, but not a fair or equitable workplace. 

So equity means that you are looking not just at the sheer numbers, but also at the roles that people are playing and at the agenda of the organization, and at the relationships the organization has internally and externally. So with diversity, you can just count. With equity, you have to look at impact and patterns, and not just the sheer numbers. 

Denver: Sharing power.  You know this probably both directly and indirectly, but what are some of the unique challenges that leaders of colors face that are just not encountered by their white counterparts?

Rinku: I think that leaders of color face a lot more scrutiny than their white counterparts do, and I think that the world is less forgiving to us. For example, if you are white and you have a big, big, big misstep, you might not lose your job. If you do, you’ll probably be able to get another one. The thing just doesn’t chase you for as long as it does when you’re a leader of color in my view.

The other thing that tends to be different is that leaders of color tend to have to work much harder to build their social capital. Social capital, as you know, is a major factor in fundraising, in generating resources generally. Money isn’t the only resource. There’s also alliances. There’s the meeting you can get. There’s access to influential people who will do things on your behalf. So leaders of color have those and build those, but they tend to have to work harder, for example, to raise money from the same foundations that a white leader can much more quickly.

I’m actually engaged right now in a study of a grantmaker that funds grassroots work and organizing, where we have surveyed all of the EDs of their grantees to ask about their experiences of getting started, whether they were founding EDs or later EDs. I haven’t even dug into the data yet, but one thing that tells me already that we hit a nerve just with the survey is that we’ve had about 75% participation. I have never run anything that got 75% of the target group to respond.  It’s because people know that in their individual experience, it has been harder, or some white EDs know that it hasn’t been as hard for them, and they want to see us as a sector get better and fairer about supporting new EDs, all new EDs, and especially new EDs who are women of color.

We’re not actually all breathing the same air. We’re not drinking the same water. And in fact, the systemic ability, the systemic willingness to poison communities of color and to abandon them is at the core, at the root of so much environmental degradation.

Denver: There’s always that big issue with trust, too, because I think if you look at the data, it indicates that white EDs get a lot more unrestricted support than EDs of persons of color, and that has always been, for me, the placeholder of trust, that if we trust you enough to give you the money without any strings attached. And that, right then and there, is something to take a look at. 

Let me close with this because, boy, we’re running up to the 2020 presidential election, and you and some of your colleagues have laid out some principles advocating that these racial equity policy platforms be included in each of the platforms of the respective parties. Tell us about some of those principles. 

Rinku: One big principle is that we don’t get all caught up in trying to determine racial intent. We’re not trying to figure out whether the reason anyone does a thing is because they hold racist views. We just need to consider the impact of that thing. It is actually possible to create racial harm without ever intending to, and it’s also certainly possible to create racial harm and hide that that’s what you wanted to do. 

So given that it’s both easy to hide and difficult to determine motivation, really focusing on the impact of our education programs, of our city budgets, of our criminal justice systems, the ways that we structure society and try to live together; the rules we create for living together, we need to focus on their racial impact much more than we do on parsing whether or not someone holds deeply a particular prejudice or not. 

I think also that it’s become pretty clear over time that if we want to do anything about the climate crisis, we have to be applying racial justice principles to the environment. Sometimes people argue not to do that because they say, “Oh, we are all breathing the same air, and we’re drinking the same water.” And so climate and environment are unraced. They’re everybody issues, not racial issues. 

But that’s not true. We’re not actually all breathing the same air. We’re not drinking the same water. And in fact, the systemic ability, the systemic willingness to poison communities of color and to abandon them is at the core, at the root of so much environmental degradation. The reason we have suburban sprawl in this country is because of white flight. So I think the second principle is that a racial analysis belongs– and any issue that you are concerned about– probably at the core of that issue, and most issues cannot be fully resolved without racial justice principles in the change plan.

Denver: A perfect example of that would be the Coronavirus, which does impact us all, but not in the same way, and we have certainly found that out in a very significant fashion. I want to thank you, Rinku, for being here today. Now, you do such interesting writing on these and a whole bunch of other topics we haven’t had time for. Where can listeners go to find it? 

Rinku: The best place is where I blog and look at whatever’s happening at the moment. 

Denver: Well, great. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program, Rinku. Thank you for being here. 

Rinku: Thank you so much, Denver.

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