By now you've likely seen the Dream Defenders on MSNBC with Harry Belafonte, leading teach-ins with Jesse Jackson and being profiled on EBONY.com just this week (but you read that already, right?)
We recently sat down with Dream Defenders Executive Director Phillip Agnew to learn more about their strategies and future plans for changing the world.
EBONY: How did Gabriel Pendas, Ahmad Abuznaid, and you come up with the name Dream Defenders?
Phillip Agnew: Well, it’s kind of a funny story behind the name. When we first had our conference call after we decided to be a part of the movement to get George Zimmerman arrested, there were about 180 people on the call and they were people from all over the country. Toward the end of the call we started talking about the march and the things we wanted to do. One of the ladies said, “You guys seem to be a younger group and I’m a little bit older. I really want you guys to push and move and know that you have my support. And to be honest, you all are like dream defenders to me.” That’s where we got our name. We don’t know who the lady was and she hasn’t come forward to say who she is, but that’s how we got our name.
EBONY: The same things plaguing your hometown Chicago resonate around the country for many people of color. The lack of educational funding, endless cycle of violence, and disproportionate prison sentences to name just a few. How do you envision the Dream Defenders tackling these issues?
PA: We’re based on a few principles. One is relational organizing. That means talking to people and meeting them where they are, not with the goal of getting them to do what you want, but finding out what they want and figuring out how you can get it together. There was a line that the SCLC used in their packets they put out in the 1960s and it read, “We want to capture the hearts and minds and the imagination of the youth.” I would hope at some point, if we’re lucky enough, to have the opportunity to do that in a way that moves them away from looking to music, sports, movies, and television as a means of feeling better about themselves, but can look toward building a movement that is powerful. So – they can make it feel cool to them and make it acceptable to say, “I want to change my community and the world.” We have to give young people the tools to be successful. They have to be able to look to something that’s an inspiration and moves them to act. We don’t know what that is yet, but we’re going to keep moving and lead by example.
EBONY: It took a groundswell of support and activism from young people in the early days of the Civil Rights movement to become the heartbeat for it. Do you see any parallels between your movement and theirs? If so, what are the parallels?
PA: We would never dare compare ourselves to them. I wanted to say that first. I don’t want it to come off like we could do what they did. They were going into the south knowing they were going to be hit with a bat or a pipe or a fist. That’s a level of bravery that we all should have. To answer your question though, I think they were made and built in an environment that prepared them for that fight. And I believe the young people we work with here and the young people that are moving around the country are built and prepared for this fight that is ours. We’re the only people who can do it. And they were the only people who could do it. I like to say that America is a house that’s in constant need for repairs. Every few decades, there’s a big movement and massive repairs are done to the house.
EBONY: What are some of the strategies you’ve taken from other young organizations from the Civil Rights movement and implemented them into your own successful strategies?
PA: SNCC was a coordinating committee and they were behind the scenes. We have a slightly different model. We’ve been trying to build a college-based model of students and young people. We’ve only been around for a year. So our goal is to be able to train young people in the community. Since we came from Florida colleges, it was a natural thing for us. The overall blueprint that SNCC, SCLC, and the NAACP in those times used for training up young people and then creating conflict is something we’re using. You’ve got to create conflict. There’s really no way around it. Civil disobedience and non-violent direct action is a part of our value system. You can’t fight fire with fire. We should know that by now. Fire can only be quenched by water. We’ve got to create a dichotomy for those people who aren’t on our side and for those who are to very clearly see the hypocrisy in the world and to also see our power and figure out what we can do to combat it. I think that’s the closest thing we can say about SNCC, SCLC, NAACP, and The Nation of Islam to our movement. They created conflict and out of conflict results are born.
EBONY: Tell me your feelings about gaining the support of such iconic luminaries such as Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder, and members of the hip-hop community.
PA: It’s been surreal. I can’t believe it. Talib Kweli called me yesterday and we talked for 45 minutes. I don’t know how to process that right now. I’m being honest. I don’t think I’ll ever be in the position to think Q-Tip leaving me a voicemail is normal. We’re in place now that I don’t want to say we’re chosen, but we’ve stumbled onto this opportunity. And I want to make sure we make the most of it. I want to make sure I’m not selfish with this opportunity. I want other people to feel this feeling that I’m feeling right now and how we’re feeling inside this statehouse.
EBONY: How do you plan to expand your organization’s methodology to other state universities and communities in the future?
PA: Intelligently, but as slow as we can. But what’s more important, being effective or expanding? It’s not my decision at all. We have a democratic organization. We have leaders on each campus and then as a staff, we get together and vote on various things pertaining to the organization. We’re going to grow in an intelligent way, but I don’t know how slow that process is going to be. There are other young people doing work across the country too. If we can be allies with them on other things, then that’s what we’re going to do. If there’s nothing there, then we should try to build. That should be the duty for us all. It’s going to be a case by case thing. We don’t have this massive take over plan with a map. If we feel it’s right for us and we feel we can make a difference, then we’re going to do it. We’re for everybody. What we’re trying to build is a beloved community. We believe that we’re going to win and that’s the only reason we’re here. We believe there’s a better world and we can present an image of it. The next generation of young people is determined to inherit a better America and world that they were given. All we want is everything that America promised us. And we’re willing to fight peacefully with love to get it.
Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @CWmsWrites.