“Less than a decade ago it was controversial to say Black Lives Matter. I remember when we weren’t having substantive conversations about anti-Black racism or state violence,” says Alicia Garza, who helped launch the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in 2013. Now, BLM signs dot suburban lawns and the rallying cry she created dons billboards and entire city blocks.
While she’s been dedicated to the racial justice movement for years, her work has taken on a new level of prominence in the last 12 months, since she debuted at number 32 on last year’s Queer 50. Last year’s list was published just as millions joined the protests across the country, calls to defund the police gained mainstream attention, and companies faced increased pressure to address racial inequities.
For Garza, whose book The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart was published in October 2020, this moment does feel different. But she also acknowledges that there are challenges moving “from symbol to substance.” Of the critiques to defund the police, Garza references the criticism Black Lives Matter received for years. “If we don’t say what we mean and mean what we say, what are we actually fighting for?” she asks. “I don’t think any of this stuff is confusing. I think what we’re confused by is how we feel about it.” She points to the past struggles for desegregation and interracial marriage.
As for the private sector’s role in change, Garza (who founded her company, Black Futures Lab, a policy, advocacy, and leadership training fellowship, in 2018), is equally unsparing. Of the boom in companies seeking diversity, equity, and inclusion consultants, she says, “I have built a team where there are no contradictions between the work that we do out in the world and the work that we do together . . . folks who come from a range of backgrounds and experiences, and it makes our work better. And we didn’t need a consultant to tell us how to do that. It just required us to pay attention.”
For companies not as attuned as Garza’s, she urges a top-down approach of looking critically at the C-Suite. “The majority of companies in this country are run by and designed by people who reflect the dominant culture in society. So of course there are going to be blind spots. You’ve got to start at the top and work your way down. Who leads your company? Are the Black people in your company assigned roles of diversity officer? Do you have diversity in power in your company? That’s really where the rubber hits the road.”
So what role does corporate activism play? “It’s not useful to make empty statements with no action,” she says. Garza advises that companies not make these calculations in a silo. “Chances are that there are people in your company who are waiting for you to act—many of whom are being impacted by these very issues that you may be hesitant to address. Action can look like moving resources to communities that are being impacted, lobbying action, [and] supporting organizations that are doing the critical work to change the world that we live in.”
Her advocacy work extends to labor organizing as well. She’s the director of strategy and partnerships at the National Domestic Workers Alliance where she leads We Dream In Black, a project that aims to strengthen and expand membership of Black domestic workers and amplify their contributions to the broader domestic-worker movement.
For Garza, identity isn’t an afterthought when it comes to business decisions; it’s the driving force. “As a Black, queer woman, everything is impacted by who I am in the world,” she says. “I want my team to be the kind of organization that does it differently. So often folks are marginalized in all the spaces that we’re in. We are a part of the fabric of the society. We’re always trying to think about what voices aren’t being heard.”
WATCH: Activist Alicia Garza on politics, queer rights, and the future of America