Then and now, how far we’ve come and where we need to go.
In the United States, there is a prolonged history of many groups trying to gain mobility and comfort to the same degree as land-owning, white men. This history is so long that the fight for humanization and equality started with the colonization of Africa, Asia, and the Americas in the late 15th century — long before the United States had been conceptualized.
It was not until 1954 with the beginning of the Civil Rights Era when the U.S. began to acknowledge and initiate steps towards dismantling the institutionalized harm dating back nearly 4 1/2 centuries. The social movements happening during the 13-year period from 1954-1967 were prolific. They inspired some of the most iconic visionaries in the United States to rally against racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment.
Nearly 60 years later, 2023 has been filled with setbacks for civil rights across the country. The Supreme Court overturned the critical precedents of Roe v. Wade and Regents of the University of California v. Bakke set precedent for race-conscious admissions programs known as affirmative action. The list continues for LGBTQ+ folks, immigrants, disabled people, and anyone facing economic pressure.
With so much to fear, it is easy to lose hope, but there are still people fighting to end institutionalized hate in our country. Today’s social movements are working toward the same overarching agenda since colonization: liberation. Technology has played a great role in unveiling the struggles of many groups.
Technology has also played a great role in undermining democracy and creating a polarized atmosphere filled with distrust. The intensity with which all social issues have been polarized has contributed to an unprecedented loss of community. To movement leaders, the lack of community separates today’s movements from the movements of the past.
Hasira “H-Soul” Ashemu is an Afro-Indigenous person from northeast Denver. His passions for healing have manifested in his work as an author, coach, and speaker. It is through healing and justice that the Righteous Rage Institute for healing and social justice was founded to guide members through his lifelong experiences.
To Ashemu, the movement is not tied to one specific time or period. Instead, it is linked to the 500-year history of enslavement and institutionalized racism of Black people in the United States. He recounts the term “Maafa,” a Swahili word meant to represent all those who have been lost since the beginning of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. “When we talk about movements, the history of resistance started at the very outset,” said Ashemu.
He went on to explain that the history of resistance can be traced back from the slave rebellions of the Caribbean and its influence on the fight for abolition in the Civil War. This continues through the Niagara Movement, the Reconstruction Era, the Civil Rights Era, the Black Power Era, and into current movements like Black Lives Matter.
“Many of those that are involved inside of movements today, like Black Lives Matter movement, failed to connect their movements first of all to other people of color movements, the LGBTQ movement, and the Chicano movement. Where in the ‘60s that was done very well. The Black Panther Party did an amazing job of connecting all these movements together. It’s become more fractured now. The further we move away from that time, the energy is still there, just the contextualization and understanding of how and what is needed in order to put forward a successful movement [is not].”
H-Soul elaborated, “The way I see it is in this point and history, at this juncture, is the need to make sure that we are heavily into coalition building. In order to coalition build, you have to contextualize. In order to contextualize, you have to tell the history.”
The coalition building Ashemu is referring to is often tied to grassroots organizing which focuses on local-level awareness efforts to build social, political, and economic power. Grassroots efforts are by the people and can exist independently or as a larger part of an organization, party, or governing body.
I have worked as an organizer on a variety of grassroots efforts. The process may sound easy, but coalition building is extremely difficult. It involves a lot of emotional and physical energy to have tough conversations with people of all different backgrounds, and that is if you even get someone to talk to you. The pressures associated with the work tear you down, but it remains an effective method to build political power by the people. Most importantly grassroots organizing gets people talking in the community to foster growth and learn through the experiences of our neighbors.
Colorado House District 27 Representative Brianna Titone broke down the importance of grassroots methods as a legislator. It is imperative she treats her votes as a real-world force affecting the lives of individuals residing not just in District 27 but around the state.
“For an elected official, I think it’s very important for someone to actually go out of their way to learn about someone who is different because they represent everyone who is different. They have a variety of people in their district. They don’t represent just one person who is like them. It is incumbent upon themselves to learn about who their constituents are,” Titone shared.
Representatives are the bridge between the people and government. Meeting constituents where they are paints a clear picture to address and advocate for the electors’ needs.
Representative Titone knows it is impossible to personally know everyone she represents but finds hearing the experiences of her constituents essential to building trust in her district consisting of 88,000 people. Trust comes from the actions of learning as community is built. For instance, being vulnerable and taking criticism if you get something wrong or accidentally offend someone.
It is not expected that a person knows everything, but if a mistake occurs, using the ability to correct your actions to prevent any similar issues from happening offers a route to an ongoing conversation. This is of particular importance to elected officials because a disenfranchised voter with little hope will not place their faith in the governmental institutions taking their needs into account.
“When I ran for office, I didn’t put my identity [forward] as something that I wanted people to vote for. What I was really trying to do was [build] trust, that willingness to listen, and to understand people’s point of view. It’s more important for me to understand why that person thinks that way. I can get them to understand what their position is and why they feel a certain way and get them to soften their understanding. There’s a path forward,” explained Titone.
She also points to the importance of media as an important tool to expose people to new identities that offers an alternative way to engage in conversations.
Inventions like the radio made the media more accessible and provided a faster means of communication. The television helped sway elections, and access to smartphones has spurred momentous mobilization of people. The emergence of both of these mass mediums coincided with the social movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Radio and television helped reveal the horrors of the Vietnam War as well as connect social movements across the nation.
Katrina Miller is the owner of Blackat Video Productions. She uses video and film to start conversations on social issues. In Miller’s 2022 documentary film “This is [Not] Who We Are,” she creates space for Boulderites to talk about the city’s history of anti-Black racism.
The documentary challenges the ideological expectations of Boulder by telling the city’s history and examining the story of Zayd Atkinson. Atkinson, a Naropa student, was profiled by a Boulder police pfficer outside his place of residence while at work. It led to a tense encounter where the officer pulled out his firearm.
Highlighting Atkinson’s story showcased the impact a lack of relationship building can have in communities. The hostile officer did not believe Atkinson belonged. He was seen as an outsider, and it resulted in a terrifying situation with the police all too common for many Black people.
The documentary contextualizes the relationship between local history, current residents’ realities, and the current state of the movement. It calls attention to the racism experienced by people of color in Boulder. Miller’s film acts as a gateway for a broader conversation to discuss these persisting issues.
Opening a path to have deeper conversation on oppression can be contentious for many people, but it remains true that Boulder has a racist history and present. Movements must navigate through a web of social expectations to make the conversations productive and appealing for engagement.
Miller stated, “Fostering that conversation. People have been trying to break the code on that for a very long time. We know of past leaders, like Dr. King — and even in my eye more modern people like Colin Kaepernick. When he did a protest that was more silent and just more of a demonstration, look how hard he was come down on. How are we supposed to do this? Maybe we need to make our voices louder. We need to march in the streets. Either way it was criminalized, no matter which way we try to express our trauma and our hurt from how we’ve been treated in police brutality in this country.”
The defensive nature of people from a more-privileged social class — that instinct to recoil — is an obstacle and frustration for current members of diversity movements because it ignores the current realities of historically underserved communities. Allies are not exempt from this fragility and run the risk of falling into the “savior” mentality, perpetuating the idea of helplessness onto marginalized groups.
Even oppressed groups can engage in harm because of the intersectional identities of any given person. The term is often misused but was first conceptualized in 1989 by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the relationship between race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics.
Dr. Reiland Rabaka is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and manages to break down what this looks like in practice for “liberal” cities like Boulder. According to critical race theory and African American studies, places with an overabundance of white people have the ability to hold liberal ideologies surrounding sex and gender while simultaneously holding more conservative views when evaluating race and class.
“We need to push people to define what they mean by their liberal positions if they’re not including race in a very culturally homogenous environment like Boulder. We learned from the Black women’s liberation movement when they pointed out that somebody could be a feminist and a racist. The fact of the matter is somebody could stand up for gender justice but be complacent or silent with racial justice.”
As the founder and director of CU’s Center for African & African American Studies, or CAAAS, Dr. Rabaka creates space to bridge the gap between the CU campus and Boulder’s community at large. Academic departments, like CAAAS, use university resources to access the untold or forgotten histories of Black Americans connecting all our lived experiences post the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. This remains true for other marginalized groups using education to build deeper understanding of their communities.
“This center grows out of my class on the Black Lives Matter movement. We garnered over 1,700 signatures. My students started a petition for this class, and I want to point out to you the fact that we got 1,700 signatures at that time, we only had 800 Black students. It shows you it’s not just a Black thing. Afro-American studies isn’t just for African Americans. It’s for anybody that wants to learn about the history of American culture. As an African-American Studies professor and as an American, it’s important for non-African-American folk to acknowledge that for 250 years, we lived in a society that said we were subhuman. When you acknowledge our humanity, that in and of itself helps begin repairing a particular kind of relation America has with African Americans,” Dr. Rabaka shared.
Fortunately, some local governments have used these conversation starters as opportunities to foster real conversation on the history and oppression of marginalized people. The town of Erie hired its first diversity, equity, and inclusion manager, Alberto De Los Rios.
De Los Rios took the position in 2021 with an interest in providing lasting change for the town as the area continues to grow in population. The department’s process of instituting change utilizes a three-tier approach to normalize, organize, and operationalize.
The process was created by Government Allies on Race and Equity, a community of civil servants dedicated to equity. Most of the population is still in the normalization stage of the process. For De Los Rios and his team, this is important because it is the stage to become aware and engage with the longevity of the work.
Through this framework, De Los Rios and his team have managed to start tackling equity issues in Erie’s Comprehensive Plan and Transportation Mobility Plan. Additionally, there is an ADA Self-Evaluation to undergo a multi-year effort making the whole town accessible. Unfortunately DEI work still received some pushback from local government officials however.
De Los Rios explains, “I just want to support people. I want people to really understand the importance of this and the passion of this, and I want to be there with resources. I want to be a team player.”
Being a team player is difficult in a society that highly values rugged individualism. The act of learning, educating, and connecting with people about their experiences is intentionally made difficult. Collectivism and unity are confronted with barriers in every direction for contemporary social movements. Education in any form can combat the narratives built to separate experiences of oppressed people.
Ultimately, since learning about Black, Brown, and Indigenous history often happens outside the classroom, it is white middle-class America that will suffer most from the removal and suppression of courses like AP African-American studies.
“When you start damaging those pieces of history, it’s going to impact middle-class white America more than any other group. It is more detrimental to that group because, as statistics will show you and tell you, most Afro-Indigenous people are not receiving — and haven’t been receiving — a proper education for years and years anyway. So who’s really being injured by this most? Black and Indigenous people who learn about their history don’t do so through the school system. We pick it up from our homes through the oral history that is still relevant in our community, whether it be through song and hip-hop or through art, etc., etc.”
H-Soul expanded on why banning the history of others only hurts yourself. “The highest number of users of the public education system are white middle-class Americans. So what’s at stake when white middle-class America is mis-educated about their own history? What are the implications? All it does is set them up for failure.”
“We can understand why is the system mis-educating and what’s at stake from mis-educating this group of people. It allows the fascist forces to reduce the middle class. From that perspective, that’s really a white issue. That’s not to say that Black and Indigenous people are not impacted by it, but our movements are where we’re educated,” voiced H-Soul.