Happy Black History/Futures/Liberation Month, folks! This is Marc Mazique, Operations Manager for SJF, offering up this perspective on our recently adopted organizational value of Black Liberation. This is the second in a series of blog posts we’ll be publishing over the next several months, providing reflections on each new value and how we understand it in the context of our work. As SJF begins 2023, we recognize that adopting this value and creating a new multi-year Strategic Plan aligned with its principles are only the beginning of our work towards advancing Black Liberation. More specifically, we are building on and deepening efforts we began in 2022: learning from and exchanging with our grantees and community; transforming our organizational practices and culture; and expanding our capacity and commitment to resourcing change work that centers creating liberatory possibilities for Black folks.
I am offering this perspective based on my lived experience as a Black queer man who has been impacted by white supremacy and anti-Black racism all my life. I also offer it as an SJF staff member who has both witnessed and participated in SJF’s own internal struggles to more clearly define and move towards Black Liberation over the last few years; these struggles have resulted in both failures and successes. Finally, I offer it as a member of the workgroup who developed these new organizational values through a participatory staff process lasting from Spring 2021 to Fall 2022. I specifically wish to acknowledge former SJF staff member Shardé Nabors, whose labor and thinking greatly shaped the development of this new organizational value and SJF’s emerging analysis around it. I also wish to acknowledge the contributions of both current and former Black SJF staff members and numerous other writers and artists — some referenced in the resources/sources below — in deepening both my and SJF’s evolving understandings of Blackness and Black Liberation.
This multiplicity of voices around Blackness point towards what seems to me a fundamental and essential truth: any vision of Black Liberation has to be expansive and dynamic enough that it can encompass the diversity of Black people’s lived experiences and struggles. This means rejecting definitions of Blackness that reduce all Black people down to a singular, homogenous community, whose dreams of liberation center solely (or even primarily) around their racial identity. Instead, an authentic Black Liberation analysis must recognize that Black folks live at the intersection of several dimensions of identity and experience (including gender, class, and [dis]ability, among others), and that their experiences are not thus just shaped by the negative and destructive impact of white supremacy/anti-Black racism, but other oppressions as well. Any vision of Black Liberation that doesn’t make space for conversations and actual struggle towards ending these other forms of oppression will leave some Black folks behind. This is why the practice of moving the voices of Black folks affected by other oppressions to the center of such conversations and work is critical, even within entirely Black spaces. Such voices ensure that the expansiveness of Black experience is present in any and all discussions and dreamings around what a liberated world for all Black people would look like.
As I’ve thought, learned, and felt my way towards my understanding of Black Liberation over the past several years, another major insight has deepened for me: Black Liberation is not simply based in opposing and ending white supremacy or anti-Black racism, but is also about making space for Black people to inhabit the full scope of our humanity, on our own terms. In other words, it’s not about fighting to gain equality with white folks, but questioning the very legitimacy of systems that provide white people more social power and freedom than non-white folks, and working to disrupt those systems. White supremacy and anti-Black racism are rooted in the denial of Black humanity, maintaining Black folks as the eternal “other,” and the destruction of Black communities, lives, and bodies across multiple dimensions of experience (including the physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual). Ending and moving beyond white supremacy requires an unapologetic assertion of Blackness — in all its diversity and complexity — as affirmative and valuable in itself, outside of any relationship to whiteness. This is, again, another refusal to reduce Blackness down to a single experience — even one as central as the pain and trauma of oppression — instead making space for fuller expressions of Black experiences, including Black joy, love, and creativity.
Self-determination and agency are essential to Liberation for oppressed folks. Under white supremacy, Black people have been systematically denied access to all kinds of resources (material wealth, knowledge, culture, individual and collective health and safety, etc.), which directly impacts our capacity to not just survive, but thrive and flourish — in other words, to lead liberated lives on our own terms. As noted above, other forms of oppression frequently operate alongside and in combination with white supremacy, leading to further denial of resources and agency to many Black folks. Black Liberation thus requires work to not just disrupt the historical and present-day systems that reinforce these inequities, but also to intentionally resource Black people so they can build more social power and alternatives to these unjust systems.
Which brings me back to SJF’s adoption of Black Liberation as a value. SJF’s mission is resourcing transformative, liberatory work by grassroots community organizations throughout our five-state region of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana; this centers around funding and supporting efforts to build collective power towards creating change. If we understand that Black Liberation is the root of collective liberation (as noted in our value statement), it follows that we must commit to resourcing groups that are fighting to make liberation for Black folks a reality.
In full transparency, the struggle toward building a more expansive, intersectional vision of Black Liberation like that I’ve described above has been central to SJF’s internal issues over the past few years. We’ve struggled to reconcile visions of Black Liberation across differing lived experiences and perspectives, in efforts to clarify and define the organization’s role in advancing it both externally (through funding and organizing work, and in our collaborations with partners and co-conspirators) and internally (for staff and board members). We’ve also had discussions around how dominant nonprofit practices and policies reinforce inequitable, harmful work environments for Black folks, and wrestled with how to develop more equity-centered alternatives and an organizational culture centering wellness and collective care. All these efforts are part of an ongoing learning process to better understand what we can do in our role as a funding organization to realize possibilities for Black Liberation.
From my perspective, I think that as we are striving to be more intentional around our resourcing of Black Liberation work, we are working to balance audacity with humility. This audacity pushes us to challenge ourselves (and others) to explore new ways of thinking about and doing our work, so we can create more transformative relationships with our grantees, enabling them to have more transformative relationships with our larger community. It also drives us to push other funding organizations to more critically examine their own position in a philanthropic environment still invested in norms aligned with white supremacy and anti-Black racism, and how they can forge their own path. The humility is rooted in the clear understanding that we still have so much more to learn, and that we must continue to expand our knowledge and capacity to dream. This requires an openness to listening to and being guided by the perspectives and voices of Black folks, so that our understanding of Black Liberation remains expansive. We must also practice self-accountability, regularly examining our systems and practices, and evaluating whether they are creating new possibilities or barriers for Black Liberation through our work.
As we developed SJF’s new organizational values, a crucial consideration was for them to provide guiding principles that spoke to and strengthened each other. As I see it, Black Liberation grounds and provides a lens through which all the other values can be more fully understood.
Our commitment to the values of Abundance, and Equity & Accessibility are based in a rejection of the ways in which capitalism, ableism, and white supremacy have worked (and continue to work) to deny resources and agency to the many for the benefit of a few (rich folks, white folks, the non-disabled). Collective Power affirms the importance of organizing individuals and communities to build alternative power bases to resist and dismantle oppressive systems, such as white supremacy. It points towards the importance of solidarity across oppressions, and the presence of other struggles alongside and within Black Liberation (including against misogyny, transantagonism/transmisogyny, ableism, and other forms of oppression). Transformation is based in a vision of disruptive, radical imagination and change, essential to dreaming of and working towards a more liberated world. Accountability requires a commitment to minimizing harm, remaining open to critique and dissenting or alternate perspectives, and a willingness to attempt repair when we fail. Decolonization calls us to deepen our understanding and work around the struggles of Indigenous peoples both locally and worldwide; in a Black Liberation context, this also means elevating Black Indigeneity as part of the expansive scope of Blackness.
I’m excited to see SJF working to clarify how we can support and realize Black Liberation through the work we resource, and the work we do that makes that resourcing possible. We definitely have more learning to do, and will certainly make mistakes. But my hope is that our understanding of Black Liberation and Blackness as expansive and evolving — alongside the guiding principles embodied in our other values — will push us to be bold, but also intentional and accountable. This means not just seeking out and creating opportunities for grantees, partners, co-conspirators, and community members to call us in towards better alignment with this value, but following through when critiques and feedback is offered to us. Adopting this value is just the beginning; now we must embody it in the work we do, towards making its aspirations into reality.
(I wish to intentionally name that this list is by no means exhaustive. Thanks to AORTA for making me aware of some of these resources as part of their own marking of Black History/Futures Month.)