#BLM movement leader says ‘dignity and survival’ at heart of activism


Alicia Garza thought she missed out on a time where Black people fought to overcome white supremacy.

“I grew up learning about the last period of civil rights, the Freedom Riders, the lunch counter sit-ins, the Black Power movement, but when I looked around, I saw no remnants of what had once been,” Garza said. “I vowed to work hard to make it re-emerge.”

In 2013, when George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi co-created #BlackLivesMatter, which birthed the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation and a global movement dedicated to combatting white supremacy.

In a virtual panel discussion on April 1, hosted by Pitt Law’s Office of Equity and Inclusive Excellence, Garza told Pitt Law students she was determined to “interrupt that which is unconscionable and to make a new way, forge a new path, leaving behind the limited options that have been placed in front of us.” 

During the inaugural event for Pitt Law’s Achieving Excellence Speaker Series, Garza discussed how her work as an activist, organizer and political strategist began and gave Pitt Law students advice for organizing protest movements. 

Garza also talked about her new book, “The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart,” which also served as the title of the event.

Garza, the strategy partnerships director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, also co-founded Supermajority, an organization that provides resources for women activists.

She said that even though she wasn’t sure how to reignite a movement dedicated to combatting white supremacy, she knew that she wanted people, like her mother, to be free.

“I knew that I wanted to be free,” Garza said. “And somewhere along the way, I vowed to live my life in such a way that I could be the most-free version of myself. But I never imagined that I would see it in my lifetime. I just believed, I knew that I believed that Black people deserve to be powerful in every area of our lives.”

The years since the founding of the organization have been “shaped by the audacity of Black people to be free, to have lives that are filled with dignity, to have our lives respected and valued beyond what we can produce for others,” Garza said.

“And we know that Black communities are indeed powerful,” Garza said. “It is Black communities that have shown this country what it is made of and what it can be if it, too, dares to be free. It is Black communities that have endured, and Black communities that have persevered because of and in spite of all of the barriers that have been placed in our path.”

Garza said “freedom” meant many things to her. 

“I wanted to be free because I was tired of seeing my mother perform gymnastic feats just to stay slightly above the waterline,” Garza said. “I was tired of being told I needed to serve men, tired of being told to cross my legs and tired of being told that I should try but probably wouldn’t make it. I was tired of being told that whiteness was freedom.”

Garza added that she learned the most important lessons in community organizing from her mother.

“At the heart of it all is dignity and survival,” Garza said. She added that she spent much of her life sitting at kitchen tables and on porches discussing freedom dreams with other Black people.

“We tell each other the things that we are afraid to say out loud, that maybe the way things are set up aren’t the way things have to be,” Garza said. “That what we are doing now isn’t what we imagined we would be doing. That we know things were set up this way for us to fail, and then blame ourselves for the failure. 

“That is the entry point to power, admitting to ourselves and each other, that even though it seems daunting, even though the road is long, even though we might die while pursuing it, and we may be killed for daring to do so, that freedom is our birthright.”

After Garza spoke, students and attendees asked her more about the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement and what advice she had for aspiring organizers.

Garza said that while the organization is young, the fight for freedom has been around for centuries since the first Black people were brought to the U.S. as enslaved people.

And the phrase Black Lives Matter was born from a Facebook post that went viral. Garza said she didn’t think her post would have such an impact.

“You know something is a movement when people take ownership of it,” Garza said. “It’s far, far beyond us now. And I’m proud to live in, like the tiniest piece of something so big and so incredible.”

Veronica Vivero-Condon, a first-year law student, asked Garza for advice on how to ease tensions between Latinx and Black communities and bring together and fight for causes of interest to both communities.

Garza said her best advice is to “dive into the differences,” even though people have the urge to point out similarities between groups of people.

“And the problem with that is that will work for a little bit, while we’re all together because people in groups like to play nice with each other, right?” Garza said. “But as soon as something happens, or as soon as they leave that group, they’re going back to their other habits.

“So much of it has to do with the fact that we’re uncomfortable talking about difference. We just are. And the problem isn’t the difference. The problem is how people make sense of why that difference exists, and why it matters and what we can do about it.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.


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