Alicia Garza: Black Lives Matter Proves that ‘New Leaders Are Possible’

“We did not start Black Lives Matter as a hashtag. Hashtags are not movements.” - Alicia Garza


When Alicia Garza came to our offices recently to speak to our staff, she was speaking as someone who had multiple connections with our foundation. She serves as the special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance — a grantee since 2014 — and previously served as executive director of another grantee, the California-based organization People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER – the organization merged this year with Causa Justa :: Just Cause).

But she holds a special role as one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, the movement which has transformed the national dialogue about race, violence, and justice, and which Politico recently described as a “three-word civil rights movement.”

“We did not start Black Lives Matter as a hashtag. Hashtags are not movements.” – Alicia Garza

Black Lives Matter (BLM) began in 2013 in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, a decision which triggered outrage and protests around the country. Garza noted that, even though the phrase “Black Lives Matter” was taken from a Facebook post, Black Lives Matter was intended to be a movement from the start and not simply a social media phenomenon or a hashtag. “We did not start Black Lives Matter as a hashtag. Hashtags are not movements.” She added that for organizations and organizers, social media should be seen more as a vehicle than a destination. To that end, BLM was conceived in part as an experiment, Garza explained: “can we connect people online to take action together offline?”

“Black Lives Matter” quickly became a rallying cry for protesters across the country. Garza noted that over the past decade, there had been a growing outcry against police brutality and injustice in a number of cases, including the deaths of Renisha McBride in Detroit, Oscar Grant in Oakland, and Jordan Davis in Florida, as well as injustices such as the jailing of Marissa Alexander for defending herself from an abuser, the arrest and conviction of CeCe McDonald for what she described as defending herself from a hate crime,  and the Jena 6 case that saw six black teenagers who were charged and convicted as adults for an attack on a white student. “Black Lives Matter” became the umbrella under which many issues could be brought together. “In each of these cases, ‘Black Lives Matter’ is used to make sense of what’s happening. These are not isolated incidents,” Garza said. “There is, in fact, a pattern of anti-black racism playing out through all of these cases. On top of that, [there are] questions about gender, sexuality, domestic violence, and the role of the state in protecting survivors of violence.”

A pivotal moment for the Black Lives Matter movement came in 2014, in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown, a teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. Once again, protesters used “Black Lives Matter” to come together, to express outrage over the killing, and to demand change. The Ferguson protests — along with the aggressive response by law enforcement and government officials —  captured nationwide attention and brought the issue of police violence to a new level. Recognizing that the organizers on the ground needed support, BLM organized what Garza called a 21st century “Freedom Ride.” Over ten days, 500 activists self-organized and raised their own funds to travel to Ferguson to support the on-the-ground protests, to build relationships with local organizers, and to bring tips and tactics for organizing back to their home communities.

As a movement, Black Lives Matter presents a structure that is notably different from previous models. BLM is a social movement as well as a network of 26 chapters (including international chapters in Germany and Toronto, Canada.) The term “leaderless” has been used to describe BLM: Garza, along with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, are identified as founders, but in contrast to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, there is no single central leader on the order of a Dr. Martin Luther King. Garza prefers to use the term “leader-full” to describe BLM: there are many people working within the movement and using the moniker “Black Lives Matter” to organize their communities. “New leaders are possible,” noted Garcia. “Everyday people – a Black single mother, a Black transgender woman, a Black immigrant can do things to change the way that our country is going, and can be empowered to provide vision, guidance, and other forms of leadership.”

“New leaders are possible. Everyday people – a Black single mother, a Black transgender woman, a Black immigrant can do things to change the way that our country is going.”

At the heart of Black Lives Matter is the goal of rallying around issues that are important to Black people and communities. The movement also focuses intentionally on organizing efforts led by Black people and directed toward Black communities. Garza explained her view that, while the progressive community had a strong interest in building multiracial alliances and alliances of solidarity, it was important for the Black community to organize itself and to articulate its own vision about what was needed for the community in order to participate fully in these coalitions.

“Black Lives Matter” has been used in hundreds of protests around the country, and the movement has changed the landscape for talking about justice issues. Garza noted that it was protest – notably the takeover of the Florida state capital that was led by MCF grantee Dream Defenders – that led to the eventual filing of charges against George Zimmerman for Trayvon Martin’s death. Over 40 new criminal justice laws have been passed because of the movement’s constant pressure. “Black Lives Matter” has even affected the electoral landscape – Democratic presidential candidates were asked a question about “Black Lives Matter” in a recent debate. (Note: in October, the BLM network called for an entire debate focusing on the needs of the Black community and ways that the presidential candidates would “ensure that Black lives matter.”)

Garza spent a few minutes addressing the ways in which the philanthropic community could support the Black Lives Matter movement and other new-model organizations that have arisen. She stressed the need for “flexible dollars” – general support grants that would allow organizations to be flexible and nimble. (Marguerite Casey Foundation has given general operating support grants since its inception.) She highlighted the work of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, Novo Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, which recently changed its grantmaking guidelines to focus intensively on racial justice. The Hill-Snowdon Foundation has created a special fund called the Making Black Lives Matter Initiative, to focus on funding Black-led organizations and building power for Black communities.

She also, however, cautioned philanthropy against only focusing on communities when they come into in the spotlight.  She notes that the struggles of low-income people, particularly people of color, were still ongoing in Ferguson and the St. Louis region; business groups in St. Louis just successfully convinced a judge to strike down a minimum wage law “that would improve the quality of life for many people, specifically Black folks.” Garza called upon philanthropic institutions to continue to support long-term investment in communities and long-term power building “as the cameras leave these communities.”

As a final note, she also cautioned foundations about being too focused on the formalization of BLM’s work — or the work of other new model organizations — as a potential barrier to funding. She noted that her organization had been asked numerous times for documents such as strategic plans, business plans, and theories of change. “Those things are important in certain contexts, but is less important to me that philanthropy understands [BLM’s] theory of change,” Garza said, “and more important that philanthropy sees the actual impact that we’re having and supports the way that we’re doing our work.”

In other words, Garza said, “We are not trying to build corporations out of social movements. We are trying to give oxygen to the flames that those social movements are sparking.”

We are deeply grateful to Alicia Garza for taking time out of her busy schedule to share her wisdom with our staff. Learn more about her work:

Black Lives Matter

National Domestic Workers Alliance