Movement Profile: Charlene Carruthers
Crossroads Fund sat down with Charlene Carruthers to discuss her time at BYP100 and her new book "Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements."
Since you were in college, you’ve dedicated yourself to building movements. What experience convinced you that doing that work of organizing is the best way to fight for justice?
I first remember getting involved in organizing work when I was in college in response to an incident at my college campus where folks were seeking to take away the representation of Black students and other marginalized groups on campus. It was out of that moment that I decided to get actively engaged in organizing, or I would mostly call it like activist-y kind of stuff because it wasn’t part of a long-term effort. I knew that doing collective work was smarter and it was more effective than doing work on my own. So it was that one experience, and there were other experiences after that, but it was that one where I saw that I have power on my own but not the power to create the kind of change that I want to see in the world.
What lessons did growing up in Chicago teach you about power, how it’s built and how it’s maintained?
There’s a lot there. I grew up in Back of the Yards neighborhood until I was about thirteen and then Gage Park, to Englewood and Woodlawn. If nothing else, Chicago is an example of people making choices. People choosing to value certain neighborhoods, certain people, and certain ventures and then deciding that there are people who are not valuable, neighborhoods that are not valuable, and efforts that are not valuable. More often than not, the people being valued are not my people. So there is a reason why Englewood has the resources that it has and lacks the resources that it lacks. There's a reason why South Shore neighborhood, where I live now, is full of Black folks of various socio-economic statuses and we only have one grocery store. That’s all choice. The things that we do have are also a result of people choosing to organize for those things and not because the government or the state was benevolent.
As the national director of BYP100 you’ve been unapologetic about building a movement using a Black, queer, and feminist lens. How has the world of organizing been challenged by you and other leaders whose organizing is rooted in an intersectional lens?
Our work is an example of what it means to make consistent, intellectual, and also grassroots organizing interventions. We not only put our power in our speech, in what we write and what we communicate, our politics show up in how we work, who we work with, and what we work on. In some instances, it’s been disruptive because it goes against the norm. In other instances, it is an opportunity for bridge building and an opportunity for deeper connections because of the rigor that we have when it comes to being clear that all of us have to be free or none of us are gonna be free.
Do you have an example of some of the bridges that have been built that maybe weren’t there or that needed to be built or weren’t there?
There are very few things that we are the first to do, very few. Some of the things that I think we built on is work within Black and Brown communities. Our work with Organized Communities Against Deportations on expanded sanctuary and dismantling the Chicago gang database is one example. That’s critical work that connects us with various communities and struggles but also shows that Black people are impacted by nearly every issue in this country and the world. For us, it’s about connecting with people who get it, and sometimes people who don’t get it, and helping them to actually understand it. Additionally, I think our intergenerational work really matters, too. Even though we are an organization of young people we also work intergenerationally. We work with people who are younger than us, people who are older than us, that’s how we have always approached our work. We’re able to hear from people who have been doing this work longer than us and some for not as long. People have lived through different stages in this country’s history, which I think is really important, as people have come from different positions, different organizing positions, and have experienced different movements. It helps us to be sharper, to have a more rounded view, and I think a more grounded view.
At Crossroads Fund, we firmly believe that everyone has a role in building movement for collective liberation. With your departure from BYP100, what does that look like to you as you enter your next phase of building and supporting movements?
In the next phase of my work, first, I want to start a training agency for organizers, activists and people who are generally committed to movement work. It will be an institute for people to learn new skills, hone their skills, enhance their skills, and connect with other people in a learning community. We don’t have enough places for that to happen in this country and we need more. I think Chicago is the perfect place to do it. Second, the book I wrote, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, is really another tool for people, in all phases of their organizing, to sharpen how they approach the work and to expand the framework from which they do the work. It’s an offering and a labor of love for our people. I don’t know where that book is gonna take me. I’m not sure but I hope it will be useful for people and that it generates a lot of good conversations and movement building.
During your time being at BYP100, what have you learned about the role of sustaining and funding movements? Do you have any lessons to share with small groups that are trying to fundraise and build movements?
A couple things. The money is never guaranteed. General operating over everything. Be unapologetic about who you are and what you do. Don’t ever lie or massage what you do and who you do it for. Always be clear that money is not guaranteed and is not permanent so you have to do the work of creating a culture of grassroots fundraising in everything that you do and it’s not easy. I work with young Black people and we have all kinds of relationships with money, all kinds of relationships. If you're a person going out to raise money, you need to really interrogate what your relationship to money is and be clear about what your relationship is because I think it can put you in a position to be an effective fundraiser and a more effective organizer, too. When you have work, lean on the work, not hype. I’m able to go in and talk about our work. I don’t need to make up stories or massage anything. So do good work and build relationships. Remember: fundraising is not based on merit or how great your work is, relationships matter. Also remember, foundations have to spend this money and it’s actually owed to us. They’re not doing it to save us. So, I don’t go begging. They have to give the money out so it’s about whatever their political will is to grant it to the kind of work that any particular organization does.
When you do organizing trainings, do you talk about the role of fundraising as organizing?
Yeah, we do. We just had a midwest regional training and we did this role play where one of our staff members talked about BYP100 to funders and we asked tough questions and then we debriefed it. This helped people to see how we talk about our work, what our approach is, and we also do a fundraising training with our members.
Black women are leading movements and transforming the struggles for racial, economic, and gender justice, among other things, not only in Chicago but nationally. How do you think movements have tangibly changed because of the many Black women who are leading these campaigns?
I think we force organizations and institutions to ask different questions and to show up in different ways that are not always comfortable and not always easy. I think that’s what we do. We also give examples for what the work can look like. When we say we wanna live in a world without prisons or police, we actually live that. We talk about mistakes, we talk about the things that worked well, all of that, because none of this is perfect. I know I’m not perfect, BYP100 is far from perfect, and so that's what I think we do.
Why do you think Crossroads Fund is important to Chicago's movements?
Crossroads Fund was one of our first funders. It’s just really important be able to provide that early funding to groups. I mean we started with ninety thousand dollars and now our national budget is over one million dollars. Like Emily’s List says, the early money rises like yeast. And early money just doesn’t apply to politicians. It applies to grassroots organizers, too, and we need early money. It also gives groups practice in what the broader landscape for fundraising is like as they grow. So that was really important for me, our organization and I want everybody to know what Crossroads Fund does.