Lately it feels like there are just a lot of overlapping crises — repeals of civil rights, legislative attacks on trans people, mass shootings, police violence against Black and brown people, the climate catastrophe — not to mention the pandemic, which is not at all over. I don’t know about you, but it’s easy to feel exhausted and hopeless, wondering what I can do just as one small person moving through the world.
Brea Baker is a writer and activist whose work is focused on action. For over a decade, Brea has been a student organizer, an activist, and a strategist for national progressive movements. As she tells it, the death of Trayvon Martin when she was graduating high school was the radicalizing event that guided her into organizing. At Yale, Brea created reading lists to help educate her fellow students, and in 2017 she was one of the organizers of the Women’s March in Washington, DC.
I wanted to talk to Brea about finding small ways to bring organizing or activism into your life, wherever you’re at.
This is a conversation rooted in writing that has come before. It takes lessons from bell hooks about radical love and from Mariame Kaba about digging deep for hope. But fundamentally, the thing I want anyone to take away from it is that there are achievable, concrete things that you can do right now, in the community you’re a part of.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and condensed. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
I want to start this conversation by asking you: What have you been doing lately to combat any existential dread you may be feeling about being here in 2022?
I think I’ve had a lot of practice feeling a lot of dread over the last 10 years as an activist. To be honest, it just feels like a constant state that has definitely gotten worse.
And it just feels like an onslaught. So, unplugging in general and finding some time in nature and grounding yourself is so important.
Wait, scrolling on your phone 18 or so hours a day… that’s not recommended? So weird.
Here’s the funny part. We convince ourselves that by staying tapped in, we are better serving the movement, and then what is actually happening is that we’re exhausted, we’re desensitized, and we know a lot of what’s happening, but it doesn’t make us any more strategic at disrupting it.
When we think about the state of the world, or we think about the things that are really hard to hold and hard to carry, it’s very easy to forget about the people who came before us, like for example, bell hooks. You’ve written about bell hooks’s theory on radical love. How do you define radical love and how do you perform it? How do you bring that into your life?
I think for me, radical love gives me something to fight for versus being constantly in opposition to, or in defense against, something. I think that sometimes in being defensive, we have no vision for what we are trying to build.
If I was defining radical love, I would say it is care as a politic; sometimes the word “love” and the word “care” can be used so often that it loses its meaning for us. But [bell hooks] really grounds us in the fact that if we lived our lives not in the way that the world and our society looks now, but in the way we want our society and our world to look in the future, then we would have to be more loving.
I love that because that doesn’t make me feel jaded. It reminds me that we all have inherent worth and value that is worth loving and caring for, even if that person is not as tapped into that part of themselves.
In reminding yourself that people have the capacity to love and to care for themselves and for their community, how do you connect that to action?
I think that is where a lot of people get lost, because they have these beautiful values that they are espousing, and then their day-to-day lives don’t match up with it.
For me, the world that I want to live in requires me to spend my money in certain strategic ways, as a reflection of radical love. So I can’t spend money with people and companies that don’t match my values and then wonder why companies like that exist. I am keeping them alive, even if I think some people convince themselves, “Oh well, my $15 isn’t gonna stop anything.”
But your $15 is keeping it going. So it’s not just, “I’m boycotting Amazon.” It’s also, “I am now spending my money with a bunch of small family-owned businesses that are way more grateful for my little $15 than Jeff Bezos ever would be.”
I want to unpack love as a politic. What does that mean?
One example of what love as a politic feels like for me is that even when I don’t know enough about an issue, I don’t need a master’s in environmental justice and climate change to feel love for this planet, to feel awe when I look at nature, and to want better for it than what we are currently doing.
It has freed me a lot to not feel like I need to know everything, but to trust what love is directing me to do. Sometimes I’ll get into arguments with people and they’re like, well, you can’t even fully explain all of these things to me. And it’s like, I don’t have to. Love is telling me that I shouldn’t do that to someone that I love, or something that I love, or some place that I love.
You’re touching on something that I wanted to ask about, because it’s something that I come up against a lot. And that’s the question of how to respond when someone else is judging you, or mocking you for your values. I have someone in my life who loves to push my buttons about the things I believe and the ways in which I aspire to live my life. People can take the fact that you care deeply as an opportunity to belittle you. How do you respond with love to that sort of thing?
I think recently I’ve gotten better at sifting through and understanding people’s intentions. My first step: why are you pushing back?
I do think a lot of people do want to debate. I’m not here to debate you. I am open to a conversation.
I think it’s a lot easier when the conversation is happening digitally, because you can quite literally walk away from the phone. And I think that is something that a lot of people lose sight of when they just respond immediately to something. You do not owe that person an immediate response at all, and you don’t have to be that keyboard warrior person who’s sending paragraphs. It is both that I recognize that person’s humanity and that I recognize my own humanity enough to say, “I don’t have to put up with the way that they’re treating me.” I can walk away.
I want to ask one question about how you acknowledge privilege and power as you engage with social justice.
Because sometimes someone arrives in a movement, with all this privilege and power, and they don’t know how to recognize it, or they don’t know how to bring that context into their struggle. And you don’t want to lose them, you know, like their intentions are good. I wonder how you acknowledge privilege and power when you’re engaging with social justice.
You just described my entire experience with the Women’s March. I was a national organizer with the 2017 Women’s March and some of the subsequent actions as well. And I was actually the youngest national organizer.
And that was definitely a description of that moment, not just with the attendees of the march, because there were a lot of people who attended and said, “This is my first protest,” or “This past election was the first time I voted,” and they were two and three and four times my age. And I was like, huh?
You’ve lived through so many things, and none of that shocked you or enraged you enough?
So, that was one thing. It was mind-blowing to sit in rooms of people who were being elevated and who were being given a lot of microphones to speak and who thought a lot of themselves. And I understood it, because they really felt the need to really affirm and validate themselves after this election where a very sexist man was elected. But at the same time, I think it’s about welcoming people and not settling for that entry point, because the reality was a lot of those women who we were co-organizing with wanted Women’s March to only speak about gender and not touch on race, not touch on ability, not touch on sexuality.
Well, I’m a queer Black woman, so I can’t be in this space and not talk about sexuality and race. It’s not gonna happen, because actually I feel deepest about racism and addressing white supremacy, because if we do that, then we’d have to address patriarchy and everything else.
And so, how I deal with it is that I think you can’t coddle people. And I think people who want to be coddled are not ready to be in the movement yet. And I think that’s important, to recognize that sometimes we need to have prerequisites for the spaces that we’re coming into, and we need to have a standard of what it means to be in this movement.
The Black Panther Party, for example, is a political organization that I have so much admiration for. I have a tattoo for them on my shoulder, and every single person who entered that organization had to read certain texts, and had to go through certain trainings. And sometimes we want to make things too easy for people, that they come in with all their baggage, with all their preconceived notions. And they’re actually hurting people in spaces they’re supposed to be in. And it’s like, no, we have to have a higher standard for people and say: “Welcome! I’m so glad that this activated you. And if you care about feminism, you have to care about these things too.”
And you have to be willing to hear that: we’re willing to let you come as you are, but you can’t leave in the same way that you came, you have to be transformed.
And if you’re not willing to be transformed, then you are actually only interested in power for you, not redistributing power for all. And that’s not okay.
You are an abolitionist and that is a fundamental part of the activism that you do, and it informs all of the values that come before it.
But not everyone who is going to be a part of the movement that you’re a part of is a believer in abolition. I wonder, when people have different objectives, but they want to be shoulder to shoulder with you, how do you square that?
This is something I learned from Mariame Kaba, who is the abolitionist I learned the most from. If you have not read We Do This ’Til We Free Us, you must go get it now.
You have to go get it right now.
One of the best to ever do it.
Oh, like, quite literally. And something that she said a while back — I’m gonna butcher it, so I’m just gonna paraphrase — “As long as you are not standing in the way of my long-term goals towards abolition, we can still work together.”
Right. You don’t have to be the perfect organizer, and you don’t have to know everything. But it is really important that you acknowledge your privilege and power and think about the ways that what you believe interacts with the things that other people believe.
Yeah, one million percent. And I think sometimes I like to level-set with people and remind them that I also still don’t have all the answers, but certainly did not at other points. And so in helping people acknowledge their own privilege, I sometimes start by acknowledging my own, and kind of model for them.
I have a question about the practical things that you recommend people do.
I think it’s very easy to feel very overwhelmed. There are a lot of different issues that are radicalizing or that are going to push people towards wanting to organize.
What’s one thing that you recommend people do? And, furthermore, how can we think sustainably about the things that we’re capable of doing?
Yeah. I love that you brought up sustainability already, because I had my one action and it is, in my opinion, what will allow our movements to really be withstanding and to survive the attention span of the media, which is to join a local organization — specifically, a local progressive organization.
But I’m purposely being vague because I want you to find whatever organization is connected to that issue for you, but a local one. I say that because a lot of people, when they become activated, they go through this phase of wanting to change the world. And they believe that the only way to do that is if they have a huge following, or if they are part of national politics. And it never works that way.
I have to tell you that local organizers get shit done way more frequently than national organizers do. That is not to say that national organizers are not needed, because I do believe that we need people who can focus on national policy and who can thread together the things that are happening across the country. But local organizers do it.
National organizers cannot follow up with every single person who makes one donation and say, “Hey, we haven’t heard from you since.” A local organizer will say, “Hey, you came to that first meeting. We haven’t seen you in a while.” We’re not just planning these activities and these protests and these rallies, which are the exciting and sexy things that people want to be a part of. We’re also reading books together. We’re planning film screenings together. We’re canvassing our community and having conversations with elders. You’re able to have so much more of an impact because you know the community you live in, and you’re surrounded by people who also know the community that they live in.
One thing that has really helped me, especially when I’ve been feeling overwhelmed — and this is something that I learned from my good pal Sally Tamarkin — I was feeling really overwhelmed. Then I started delivering meals for the local food collaborative. I started, whenever we went to the grocery store, stocking the community fridge, you know, buying a bunch of perishable food and putting it in the community fridge. I didn’t think that it was going to help, and it really helped.
And looking left and right, and seeing who in your community is already doing work that you care about and getting involved in that particular way can be a really helpful first step.
Oh yeah. I think for people who really engage, it becomes way more than their first step. It actually leads to a deeper radicalization.
If you put that same energy into local politics and you got your mayor out of office and got someone new and exciting in office, you’d actually feel a huge difference, because it would be more immediate and you’d also be able to see on the ground.
So I think it gives people more inspiration when they’re able to have local wins and then they can turn around and be like, wait, this isn’t all gloom and doom. Like, we are able to really build the world we want to live in. If I could just leave with a quote: on the note of inspiration, Arundhati Roy said, “Another world is not only possible. She’s on her way. On a quiet day. I can hear her breathing.”
And I love that quote because it reminds us that it is not inherent, and it is not inevitable, that the world is going to be shitty and difficult and challenging. We’ve survived more challenging things in the past. We will continue to survive the challenging moments that we’re in. And if we think of the world in that personification way, like, she’s on her way. Like, she’s literally in the Lyft. We’re just waiting for her to send the ETA. Let’s just prepare for her arrival. When this other world gets here, let’s be ready.
And if everyone acted like that and spoke to their family members and their colleagues and their neighbors in that way and organized locally in that way, by the time she got here, we’d realized she arrived because we had prepared for her, not the other way around.