The Freedom Side – a collective of young leaders comprised of members of the Dream Defenders, United We Dream, Young People’s Project and nearly two-dozen other organizations at the center of this generation’s racial justice movement – have used the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer to mobilize, inform, train, and sustain the next generation of change. Steadfast in their directive towards civic engagement, these young leaders look to face the conversations and advance the action surrounding the criminalization of youth, educational disparity, economic stabilization, and facilitating the critical participation of young people in the democratic process of these United States of America.
We spoke to three such agents of change during the Freedom Summer’s 50th Anniversary and Youth Congress, held recently in Jackson, about their roles in this era of action, the misconceptions and mishandling of youth apathy, and the ties that now — and forever will — bind the souls that have impacted the ways we experience freedom in this world. Be sure to check out our first profile with Albert Sykes here.
With over 10 years of experience in managing racial justice, feminist, and youth leadership movements across the United States, Charlene Carruthers acts as the first National Coordinator of the Black Youth Project 100 – a group of 100 of the most influential young activists from across the country – activating as a think tank for mobilization strategies for communities of color. From her native Chicago, the political organizer and writer spoke to us about her decision to return to the city and how she manages to pivot the focuses of many individuals while keeping a unified agenda in 2014.
EBONY: What is your viewpoint like now having come full circle back to the Chicago of today?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: I’ve been dealing with racial justice, gender justice and immigrant rights work as an organizer and activist for about 10 years now. I am originally from the Southside and, after living in New York and D.C., wanted to return mainly due to what has continued to happen here. I had some very early experiences with myself and my parents that influence me today, most notably, the trips we made to the public aid offices and witnessing how case workers treated folks like my mother. Fast forward years later and there are over 50 schools being closed, a teacher’s strike, and plays in the media portraying violence in Chicago that isn’t necessarily accurate. I came back to apply what I was doing nationally as an organizer here on the grounds I call home. The BYP 100 and the Black Youth Project were both founded by Dr. Cathy Cohen here at the University of Chicago. For me, it is an opportunity to pull together all the organizations I have been a part of, both on the ground as a traditional grassroots organizer utilize my experience in the online and digital world. I am passionate about helping young people become organizers and play key roles in transforming their own communities.
EBONY: What is the single most motivating and inspiring method you have seen used in mobilizing youth today?
CC: We know that African American youth were the largest demographic of young voters in 2008, again in 2012, and the midterm elections in 2010 as well. Young Black people just don’t always believe that the political process and those who are supposed to represent us are actually going to hear out or do the things that WE believe need to be done in our communities. For me, there is a particular consciousness that those who are elected to represent us have to have. They have to be held accountable for what they do and don’t do to further the health, safety, and advancement of our communities. There are so many methods we employ in the Black Youth Project, but I believe that genuine engagement and concern are the most powerful tools you could have.
EBONY: What is the BYP 100’s approach to youth engagement and what has been a singular galvanizing moment?
CC: The BYP 100 actually emerged out of a galvanizing moment. We first convened a year ago outside of Chicago the same weekend as the George Zimmerman verdict. The meeting was planned a year in advance, so it was totally a coincidence. Cathy Cohen gathered 100 of us from wherever we were in the country or world. We weren’t surprised by the verdict but, for us, it was another example of how Black life is valued in this country. Out of that moment of deep trauma and pain, we came out with a strategy of how we wanted to move forward. We are rooted in expressing that Black life matters. I see that also in the youth immigrant movement with the deportation of family members and classmates. The separation of communities acts as a moment that galvanizes people in a different way than a piece of legislation can. These aren’t new traumas. There have been young Black people killed before. There have been folks from immigrant families and communities deported before. At this moment in time, however, these issues have been illuminated and talked about via new media in ways that they haven’t yet in our lifetime. They are not only happening now in greater amounts, but are also becoming newsworthy fixtures in our collective consciousness.
EBONY: How did that consciousness transition into the creation of a Freedom Side and the 50 Year Anniversary of Freedom Summer?
CC: Last year was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. 30 members of BYP came from around the country to DC. from groups such as the Dream Defenders, United We Dream, The Advancement Project, and The Alliance for Educational Justice. A great amount of energy coming into the day. When we stepped back, though, we realized it was just another rally and not necessarily an articulation of an agenda to move forward. Two young people were denied [the time] to speak – Sophia Campos and Phillip Agnew – further displaying how the leadership of young people has been devalued. That sparked several conversations that weekend. One of our youngest members, who was 18 at the time, looked at the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and thought it would be interesting to explore the possibilities surrounding that. That birthed the Freedom Side. The name comes from a song that we were taught by [artist] Jazz Hudson the first weekend the BYP 100 convened, and it is an articulation that spoke to us needing to be, regardless of what is going on in the world, on the side of freedom.
Freedom, to me personally, is rooted in Black liberation that centers a feminist perspective. For the collective, it is about our liberation being tied to one another. The liberation of Black people, domestically and abroad, is tied to the liberation of Latinos, is tied to the liberation of Asians. As they were 50 years ago, strategies have to be executed in a way that is affirmative and has a clear identity with clear politics. The Freedom Side is different in that leadership and issues are approached with an intersection of balances. The struggles as individuals and groups are complex and, as such, our demands are just as multilayered.
EBONY: How many organizations are represented today?
CC: I would say over 30 organizations are represented.
EBONY: Is it a challenge keeping that many factions focused on a common agenda —in terms of human resources, financial resources, and strategy?
CC: We actually need more organizations to come to the table to realize our mission of freedom! Nothing that involves coordinating grassroots organizations from across the country is easy. If this was 50 years ago, our challenges might have been different, but we are still human beings with limited resources that work way more than normal people should or have the capacity to. Still, our table needs to be bigger, not smaller.
EBONY: What else does the BYP 100 have planned for this summer?
CC: BYP 100 recently launched a campaign for reducing the criminalization of Black youth. We will have a national call for video submissions from young people who want to share how they have been criminalized by the police called Criminalized Lives. On the ground we are developing street teams in Chicago on the South and West Sides, as well as in DC to share “know your rights” information and make sure young folks are equipped with information to protect themselves. New media has been very useful for us though. People get a lot of information every day via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram. New media allows us and the people we touch to spread messages broadly that amplify the traditional work we do and speak to folks in such interesting ways.