3 lessons I learned when working with living history

For seven years I worked for cultural icon and civil rights legend Harry Belafonte. We first met while I was working for Cities for Progress at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he sat on the board. The first job he gave me was sending me to Cincinnati on a one way ticket to run a campaign of a city councilor he and Danny Glover had endorsed. The candidate was not doing well and he was hoping with more support the campaign could turn around, soon I was helping Belafonte think through his “legacy projects” he wanted to support a movement that emotionally fed him and the country in similar ways to the civil rights movements he was a part. Building his nonprofit, The Gathering for Justice, was my final assignment for Harry, before heading to MIT and one that forever changed the course of my life.

Working so closely to living history helped me sankofa the shit out of my work. Spending hours talking with the likes of Bernard Lafayette, Ivanhoe Donaldson, Diane Nash and Shirley Cooks helped me understand the strategy of the civil rights movement and attempt to modernize tactics to meet the changing communications world of today.

It was always a privilege to work with Harry. The hours I spent listening to him talk to the elders and absorbing everything he said to me has evolved my work and allowed me to carry the experiences and evolve the tactics of the 60’s into the 2010’s. My understanding of history has allowed me to carry my work to the cutting edge of organizing. The lessons I learned and carried to MIT has helped me create Epicenter Community, an organization bringing together 30,000 people a year, supported 20 local businesses getting to market and has become the standard of diversity organizing in Boston.

As we enter black history month, I share core lessons I took away over those 7 years working for living black history.

Always promote personal agency within the group.

“The agenda is to find the agenda.”

At our first youth convening over 200 young people came together in Mississippi with a panel of elders to discuss the potential of Harry creating his own activist efforts through The Gathering For Justice. The first question the youth asked Harry was “what is the agenda?’. He smiled and said, “the agenda is to find the agenda!” he went on explaining that for over 40 years we have been talking about agendas and not listening to each other. Rather than push an agenda he wanted to know what agency did the youth have to create one. It provided an openness from an elder and symbolically placed batons in the hands of the youth there.

Depend on the streets

“We just need the letterhead”

In 2007 while organizing a “listening tour” of the young people involved in the criminal justice movement. This listening tour was a series of trips from the southern black youth to asian youth in California. On one of the trips we were working with some large nonprofits that I did not feel was giving as much as their rhetoric would have you believe. While reporting on the work I mentioned this and he looked at me and said, “We just need the letterhead”. His assumption was that we needed them for the legitimacy, but not to get the work done. He would constantly push me to deconstruct the notion of large organization being the true place of impact. Get the letterhead and have your own plan for self determination.

Don’t become another thing for your community to do.

“You can’t ask a women in labor for help”

While sitting with a group of activists Harry would often ask questions about what was happening locally, in the streets. The conversation sometimes would lead to a critique of the participation of the community. Harry would never blame the community for not participating but would put the accountability on the organizers, he had a metaphor he would pull out from time to time that eventually has become one of my working mantras. “You can’t ask a women in labor for help.” We so often blame the community for not getting behind an idea or not having long term commitment, we rarely ask how do we shift our work to be in service of the community. See yourself as a midwife for your community’s freedom, rather an advocate.

For seven years I learned from living history and my work has been forever changed because of it. Without such a strong foundation of our past, I could have never created new tactics for the future of movement.