We are pressed on every side, but we are not crushed
Note from CHN Executive Director Deborah Weinstein: Kisha Bird is Director of Youth Policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). CHN has long benefited from Kisha’s expertise across many issues important to youth, from employment to supports for young people aging out of foster care to juvenile justice to racial inequities. When I read Kisha’s piece below, I asked every CHN staff person to read it. It is moving and powerful, and we are privileged to be able to share it with you. This piece is cross-posted with the author’s permission.
It’s 2:45 Sunday morning. I’ve been talking to my brother and sister-in-love all night about #Karengonewild, the protests and uprisings, our first marches as kids in Philly, and another #@%&*^ % murder of a Black man — Rayshard Brooks — by the police in our second home of Atlanta. We are recounting the daily microagressions we’ve become conditioned to navigating in our personal and professional lives, how we go through life picking and choosing our battles to protect ourselves and keep our jobs, and how we keep our children safe. Our conversation is raw as we relive the countless moments of invisibility and disrespect, from childhood to the present. We laugh at all the reckonings the Karens and Roberts are having, for they are finally being exposed. We are hurt because my brother and sister can’t allow my nephew to celebrate his high school graduation like countless other kids this month — go joy riding with friends around the neighborhood, hang out, chill at a party — because it’s not safe for young black men in their multi-racial neighborhood after dark. It all takes a toll. We are frustrated, we are tired, we are fired up, we are plotting, we are hurt, we are resolved, we are… we are defiant, we are prepared.
I’ve got a lump in my throat and my heart is pounding. This is an all too familiar feeling.
It feels like 1st or 2nd grade at Rhawnhurst Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia when I was bussed one hour each way as part of Philadelphia’s desegregation program in the 1980s. First and second grade are pretty much a blur to me. I do remember two things: white girls teasing us for staying at school for free lunch instead of walking home for lunch, like they did; and peeing on myself in class because I was too afraid to ask to go to the bathroom. And no one asked me if I was okay.
It feels like sitting on 55th Street in Philly watching the smoke fill in the air on May 13th — my mother’s birthday. I was too young to know all the details of what happened on Osage Avenue in 1985, but old enough to know the police bombed a street in my neighborhood, houses were on fire, and Black people were inside those houses.
I’ve got a lump in my throat and my heart is pounding.
It feels like being a rising senior at one of the most prestigious HBCUs and being asked at your summer internship at the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania, “do you know how to use a computer?” And being told, “Be careful with that equipment.” See this was an internship for all hospital employees but only children of doctors and senior administrators were in the program. It feels like your supervisor asking what your mother does at the hospital. She didn’t know how I got into the program, the other students were white. My mother was not a doctor nor in hospital administration, she was, however, a fierce advocate for her child.
It feels like being a Spelman student, sitting in my office at work, hearing the lawyer and paralegal I report to through the open door, laughing at my hair, my dress, my school. I cried about it to my Granny, quit the next week but I did not confront them.
It feels like seeing a picture of my great-great grandmother’s owner for the first time or hearing stories from my Mom-Mom about growing up in North Carolina — picking tobacco before and after school as a child. It also feels like my mom bussing her butt to work — sometimes two jobs — to support my brother and me, and my not having $800 to register for my final semester of undergrad.
It feels like graduate school classmates using North Philly repeatedly as their example of “dysfunction” — I can still hear the tone, the words “so, take your crack-addicted mother living in North Philly…” You put up with it for months until you have an outburst and ask — have they ever been? You tell them how resilient the community is — your people are. You break down drug usage in this country and give them a history lesson, all for these future social workers and “do-gooders” to just look at you with blank stares.
I’ve got a lump in my throat and my heart is pounding.
It feels like being so proud about graduating with a double masters that you treat yourself to something special at Nordstrom. But you get followed all around, and then you go to purchase the dress, shoes, and jewelry, and the sales clerk tells you how expensive these things are — where is your ID? Yes, my name is Kisha. My ZIP code is 19132. I have braids and big earrings. I also work full-time and attend school just 10 minutes away at Bryn Mawr. But that doesn’t matter.
It feels like being a young adult with your mom and the car breaks down. It probably just needs a jump, but you are on Philadelphia’s Mainline — a bastion of wealth and whiteness. You ask soccer moms and dads repeatedly for help in the McDonald’s parking lot. No one helps. They look at you with disgust. Alas, one Good Samaritan seems to surface, walking toward us — his wife tells him no and he turns away.
I’ve got a lump in my throat and my heart is pounding.
It feels like being pulled over in Cobb County or Fulton County… they use a megaphone and bright lights — putting the fear of God in you, your heart is pounding. You want to tell them you got turned around and didn’t mean to go down a one-way street. There’s no time. They are yelling for you to put your hand on the wheel, roll down the window, and turn the car off at the same time. What do you do? I am scared.
It feels like visiting my brother in jail and coming to the horrific realization that this may be the best place for him since maybe he will be able to get the mental health treatment he needs. There aren’t enough residential treatment centers in the state. He isn’t competent enough to stand trial, and there are considerable legal questions about his charges. But he is locked up and imprisoned because he is sick, and in America there is no other place for him to go.
It feels like a white male colleague calling you out in the middle of a meeting about young people of color because there are no young white men in the meeting. Your director then runs after him, seemingly to protect his feelings — then that same person reviews your paper and takes it upon himself to comment on sections of the paper that aren’t even relevant to him and are not his expertise writes “actually more white people are killed by the police” and puts links of articles in the comment section. It feels like tears from white people when colleagues and partners are confronted about their microagressions. It feels like having to constantly confront the pervasive white privilege that is baked into the federal public policy establishment. Tiring.
It feels like mourning Eric Garner, The Emanuel Nine, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, George Floyd — insert the name of another sister, brother, son, daughter, friend. It feels like reading about Sandra Bland, closing my office door, and crying all morning, going to the restroom, putting cold water on my face, joining a meeting and pretending I was OK. I am tired.
The pain Black people are feeling — that I am feeling — is not about one incidence of police violence and murder or even the highly visible state-violence we’ve witnessed over the past decade. It is not about one Amy Cooper or Starbucks incident. It is layers and layers of connected events that dehumanize Black people from public lynchings to the discrimination and microaggessions that happen in school, at work, while shopping, and while seeking help. It is quite literally death by a thousand cuts. Racism is killing us.
Is it possible for America to make amends to my ancestors and the 37 million of us here today? America wields its power to oppress Black people (and all people of color) through systems, institutions, laws and policies. It also sanctions this power through individuals. So to destroy white supremacy, we must uproot it and work on all these fronts.
In a recent Dream Defenders Sunday School, Dr. Angela Davis called for historical consciousness. She suggested we are addressing problems that should have been addressed 150 years ago, and that’s why there are calls for reforms over and over again. You can’t add humane practices to an institution that is inherently racist. You must root it out. If the question is “How do we avoid being trapped on a treadmill of reform?” The answer must be abolition — it is the radical alternative. The etymological meaning of radical is root. Thus, being radical in our approaches means we must get at the root of oppressive systems. Being radical allows us to dream of new possibilities. We don’t need to rely on existing institutions — law enforcement, jails, prisons- to flourish.
Housing instead of the police. Schools instead of the police. Mental health services instead of the police. Jobs instead of the police.
Reflecting here on Dr. Davis’s words and writings and my own advocacy work, I know that our analysis must be as complex as the issues and conditions in which we find ourselves. Our advocacy must be intersectional and must be rooted in eradicating systems of power. We must be committed to the destruction of racist and patriarchal policies while simultaneously being rooted in the reconstruction of healing-centered polices and justice. This work is not for the faint of heart. This work will turn the current public policy establishment on its head because it challenges our default positions, the way we validate expertise in our profession, and the strategies and recommendations we’ve come to deem acceptable and “winnable” over the last 50 years.
These last few weeks, I’ve been asked by many in my field- policy and youth-development advocates and providers-what should we be doing? How can we support young people right now? What policies should we prioritize? Who should we partner with?
I am convinced, as I have been for the last 15-plus years, that the work of public policy advocates like me only chips away at structural racism. We may tear down a tree limb with a new program or new institutional policy, but it will grow back. I’ve had this constant internal struggle throughout my career. As Kwame Toure would say, am I, “poverty pimping” and complicit in my communities’ oppression? Unfortunately, yes.
To get at the root, we must embark on the work of truth and reconciliation. And on our journey there, we must do a few simple things.
• Follow, trust, and invest in the leadership of Black people, Black-led organizations, and Black-led movements. This doesn’t mean developing contrived partnerships, it means listening and amplifying. As Dave Chappelle recently said, “these streets will speak for themselves.”
• Listen to Black and Brown youth. Flip the script on who gets to lead and make space for them in policymaking spaces in Washington, D.C. and states and communities across the nation. Fund young people and invest in their leadership, social capital, organizations and movements; and be in relationship and community with them. Convene conversations about policy, budget, and investments with folks that are the real experts.
• Be ambitious and unapologetic in our policy ideas, understanding that a focus on public policy is just one of many tools needed to uproot white supremacy and systems of oppression. And it can’t be scaffolding upon existing oppressive and exclusionary frameworks.
• Get out of the way. I am concerned that national policy organizations like CLASP will set up an environment of false choices focused on reform and incrementalism rather than radical imagination to construct something new that young people and Black activists are demanding.
Getting off the Treadmill of Reform: Visioning Healing-Centered Liberation Policy
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, August 28th 1963
It’s funny how a global movement can free you from yourself and the reformist thinking that has had you boxed you in for decades. Thank you.
Dr. Davis posed another question on Sunday: “How do we avoid being trapped on a treadmill of reform?”, and I would add, “How do we shift our language toward liberation policy?” Liberation policy requires a power shift, which we are witnessing in real time, right now. It requires and demands new decision-making structures. It also demands that we start from the beginning, for example, with the reconciliation for land theft and oppressive policies inflicted on Indigenous/Native communities, and that we acknowledge failed and abandoned polices, like the Reconstruction Acts.
We must advance a radical, imaginative approach to reparations. Reparations shouldn’t be a static, transactional process. Reparations must consider the transatlantic slave trade, chattel slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, lynching, and a host of systematic policies that have economically persecuted and disenfranchised Black people. This includes addressing redlining, employment discrimination, mass incarceration, along with direct financial payment and constructing new policies that recognize historical harms and address ongoing discrimination.
The Movement for Black Lives’ demand to defund the police is fundamental. To keep us safe and alive, we must tear down the entire law enforcement apparatus. This moment calls for abolition. Divesting, defunding, decarceration, etc. are all steps to get there. Abolition won’t happen overnight, (especially if we want an inclusive and open policy and budget development process) but we need to start building a new vision of community investment that doesn’t rely on the current system. We must follow the lead of activists in communities, who’ve been doing the work of organizing and building community-led infrastructure to dismantle the police state in their communities and schools and build healthy and thriving Black and Brown communities. The role of national organizations is to listen, amplify and get out of the way.
End the slavery “loophole.” I have not been in a meeting with young people and justice advocates where the slavery “loophole” hasn’t been raised as essential to ensuring the safety of Black lives and as indispensable to dismantling mass incarceration. While the 13th Amendment formally ended slavery, it includes a clause that’s been exploited to dehumanize and over-incarcerate Black people. It reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” For people trapped in the criminal legal system and their families and communities, slavery and involuntary servitude remain very real. Mass incarceration is enabled by this loophole. As Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the continuation of Jim Crow-like policies pours salt on open wounds.
Confront economic violence in Black communities and move beyond traditional jobs and workforce development programming. We must do the hard work to address the economic violence that Black people have been subject to since the first ship of enslaved Africans arrived on these shores in 1619. What does that look like? It is not a simple revamp to the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, a summer jobs program, or reinvesting a couple of hundred million dollars from police budgets. Policy advocates must think beyond what is and demand what should be. This can and should consider a range of ideas including universal basic income, a national large-scale, subsidized jobs program, a jobs guarantee, federal-state economic commissions established in Black Belt and other regions of the county, access to capital for business development, including grants and interest-free loans, debt-free college and student loan forgiveness, livable wages, workers’ rights, and paid family and medical leave. At the same time, we must ensure that we bake into these policies and investments accountability for inclusive, community policy and program design and implementation led by Black communities to ensure these communities that have been economically marginalized will benefit from the policy and investment.
Design and fund healing-centered policies. For decades, community leaders and advocates have been calling for alternatives to law enforcement that address mental health issues and crises. And in recent weeks, there has been a louder chorus of people calling for investments in mental health services, alongside divestment and defunding the police. Black people and communities of color can tell you from personal and historical experience that, the existence of mental health services, especially as constituted in our country, does not mean healing. We can’t simply redirect investments to an existing health system steeped in historical and structural racism. Healing-centered policies will require a deep and honest interrogation of the origins of mental health and medical models in this country; public acknowledgement and redress for the decades of deceit and intentional injury the medical health system has inflicted onto Black people; and funding models of wellness steeped in cultural and restorative practice.
I’ve got a lump in my throat and my heart is pounding.
It feels like resistance. It feels like Blackness. It feels like FIRE! It feels like God-ordained strength passed down to me by my ancestors. It feels like reading Charles Styles’ will that bequeathed to his son my grandmother’s grandmother, Amanda Styles, along with her parents and siblings as property. It feels like seeing how much this country — my country — thought my great-great-great grandmother Louisa Anderson was worth — $450, according to her bill of sale. It feels like reading an account of her grandson’s lynching in Brooks County, Georgia in 1913. It feels like endurance and strength. It feels like protesting against apartheid on Market Street with my father as a little girl. It feels like dancing at Freedom Theater with Ms. Pat and Ms. Leslie. It feels like being at AFCOM (AFRICAN Community Organized Movement), an organization my father co-founded, and singing with my brother and my cousins, “I woke up this morning with my mind, stayed on Freedom.” It feels like reading my auntie’s dissertation on the oppression syndrome, talking with my Godmom about community building, my brother about wealth-building, or Gramps about one of my papers and liberation theology. It feels like learning from my grandmothers and my mother and growing with my sisterfriends, my hometeam — my tribe. I’ve got a lump in my throat and my heart is pounding. It feels like my ancestors, pushing me, comforting me, loving me, and whispering to me, “Stand tall. What the enemy meant for evil, God will use for good. Bear Witness.”
The views shared in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CLASP.