“The work of civic and political engagement isn’t just about voting; it is what boys and men of color are doing to change the systems that harm them, make their lives challenging, or have the power to take their lives away.” – David Turner
The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and many more at the hands of law enforcement can create the feeling of groundhog day. We have all been here before.
But, this time, I feel a new sense of hope that this movement can bring about and sustain lasting transformation in our communities. This summer of uprising in defense of Black lives is different. We are wiser now. We learned critical lessons from the 2014 emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and are swifter in how we engage in local organizing, leading the national conversation and most importantly, listening to our young leaders.
I’ve dedicated myself to supporting other young people to be able to lead; I myself got involved young, because I saw what was happening in my community. I grew up in Inglewood, California, but first, my family and I lived all over the United States. Among other things, moving around and attending 15 schools before graduating meant I saw the difference between being in a school with majority white kids, compared to schools with mainly kids of color. In schools in communities of color, we had no field trips, and computers were nowhere in sight.
In Inglewood, I saw how systemic racism and violence played a role in shaping the Black experience. Even though there were real issues, there also were real leaders who showed up for me and my community. Neighbors who were in gangs were also the ones who helped my mom get groceries, played basketball with us and warned us to stay in school. Our barber, Mr. Ron, gave free haircuts to the local kids. Neighborhood grocery stores donated to the basketball team.
That community and support instilled a rich sense of pride in me of where I’m from, who I am and my identity as a Black man. I wanted to lead my community, too, and I supported organizing with Black Lives Matter both in the Bay Area, while doing my coursework at Berkeley, and in Los Angeles. I witnessed the power of organizing during Occupy and in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin; it pushed me to focus on movement building and supporting the leadership and achievement of African American males.
I got involved in the Brothers Sons Selves (BSS) Coalition while working at the Social Justice Learning Institute. In 2018, I took the reigns as the coalition manager. BSS is a coalition of nine community based organizations of boys and men of color who work across political spectrums and institutions, from law enforcement to organizations that are anti-capitalist and pro-abolition.
At the end of the day, we’re all invested in building the leadership of Black youth and other boys and men of color. We often talk about what systems do to boys and men of color, but we don’t talk about the impact young men and boys have on the system. The work of civic and political engagement isn’t just about voting; it is about what boys and men of color are doing to transform systems that harm them, make their lives challenging or have the power to rob them of their lives.
When you engage public systems and entities about what’s happening in your lives and communities, that’s when true civic engagement can take place. We give our young men the tools to do that. Our primary objective is to cultivate the leadership of young men of color to lead campaigns on their own behalf.
Our young people participate in the LA County Civilian Oversight Commission, make sense of the issues that impact them, craft narratives to make change and mobilize their friends and community to be a part of this movement. Their advocacy comes from research, leadership development and a theory of change that is rooted in what they have seen and lived through.
Youth and their communities are experts in their own experience. Young men are still trying to make sense of the world, and often aren’t listened to as they learn and try to share their perspectives with others. We have to ask our young people and understand, how does it feel to watch your loved one be killed by police, then have public officials enforce social distancing in your community? Can we expect you to have trust in the police or public institutions?
At BSS, we surveyed 3,300 young people across LA County and learned about young people’s experience in their schools and with law enforcement. We uncovered 128 cases of youth harmed by law enforcement and targeted because of racism, with no action taken in response. We presented this data to the Civilian Oversight Commission, speaking to why it’s important to have accountability and strong policies to protect communities, and how that would transform the daily life of our youth.
This moment of uprising is important because we’re building a movement that will last for the long-haul and make real gains for our communities. We now recognize and are calling out the political economy around Black death – the jail budget, police funding and the carceral state – and how it harms us.
This time, we are calling explicitly for divestment from that system. And we’re following the leadership of Black youth and other youth of color who are fighting for removing police from schools across California. Most recently, we pulled together a coalition of over 50 organizations to defund LAUSD police by $25 million. Working in partnership with Students Deserve and BLM Los Angeles, we mobilized thousands of people, collected over 17,000 petitions, gave hundreds of people the platform to issue public comment, and drove the narrative home by emphasizing that our youth want police-free schools. Through the skills I learned in the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color Data Fellowship, I was also able to create a visualized data platform for the People’s Budget LA coalition to demonstrate what redefining public safety truly means.
When we cultivate young people to become leaders, we make it possible for them to fight for solutions that will benefit them as well as the next generation. I hope that means building toward a future when Black youth and other youth of color can live in communities and attend schools where they have a real chance at thriving and achieving their potential as they grow into adulthood.
That’s when we’ll know we’ve done our job.
David Turner is a manager at the Brothers Sons Selves Coalition and a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley.