Black Futures in the Golden State: A chat with key leaders of a new statewide Black power building network

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When California took to the streets in the middle of a pandemic to protect Black lives, many of us Black folks were cautiously optimistic. The fear was that our moment of grief would be reduced to a talking point–a month of memes and hashtags and nothing more.

James Woodson and Kevin Cosney, two Black organizers, want these mass mobilizations against anti-Black racism to influence concrete policy and legislative changes in California. They want commitment to a pro-Black policy agenda, one that addresses how decades of disinvestment and systemic brutality have produced a state that is less affordable, safe, welcoming, and affirming of Black lives and futures. Working in close partnership with Anthony Thigpenn, the President of California Calls, both Kevin and James lead the policy, advocacy, and organizing strategy for the CA Black Census and Redistricting Hub. They are also key leaders in a collective effort to evolve the work of the CA Black Hub by launching a new CA Black Power Network, which will be a coalition working to end structural racism in California. James will serve as the Executive Director and Kevin will be the Associate Director of Programs.

Check out our interview with these two leaders to learn more about the strategy and inspiration driving this work.

Q: What is your story? Specifically, what moments in your life inspired you to be an organizer?

James: Two words come to mind: service and sacrifice. I come from a family of civic servants–firefighters, health workers, social workers. So I was always driven by a sense of service and sacrifice. I worked on the Obama campaign doing local and regional organizing and then went to law school to help me process information quicker and think more strategically. I was always trying to figure out: How could I make myself a better tool to be used against the system we were fighting? 

Kevin: I grew up in Simi Valley. It’s a white conservative community, home to the Ronald Reagan library and the Rodney King trial. I experienced a lot of racism, from hand-to-hand violence from white supremacists to microaggressions. This pushed me to interrogate racial dynamics in this country. Anger and pain over racism brought me to the work, but love for my people keeps me working collectively with my community to make change.

Q: What inspired you all to help launch and lead the CA Black Hub?

James: Like Kevin said, organizing is an act of love. Whether I’m organizing in Baltimore or Newark or Los Angeles, it’s about a love for my people, for Black people. This was also the impetus behind the African American Civic Engagement Project, a 3-year California Calls project where Kevin and I worked to build capacity with 12 Black-led and serving organizations in key areas throughout the State. Those groups identified census and redistricting as key battles in the years to come and in many ways laid the groundwork for the CA Black Census and Redistricting Hub.

Q: Where do you see the biggest challenges and opportunities for building Black power through policy and political action?

James: This work is not easy. Black folks are facing forced migration, and with that, erasure and displacement. Finding and connecting our people to organizations and groups on the ground will be a challenge. We also know Black folks have to fight on multiple levels: state, county, city, school board, etc. And we have been given limited resources to wage these fights, so we have tough choices to make in terms of where to prioritize our efforts to have maximum impact.

Kevin: There are certainly opportunities to impact key issues disproportionately affecting Black communities: criminal justice reforms where there has been momentum and movement, and where we can’t let off the gas. There are other places where we need to play catch up, like around Black access to quality education, Black maternal health and infant mortality, our housing crisis, and the fact that Black folks are 7% of the state population and yet 40% of the unhoused and 29% of those incarcerated. Addressing these issues that disproportionately affect Black folks will lift all boats in CA. This is why we need to build and sustain the energy that caused so many of us to protest in the streets during a pandemic. We need to channel the energy in the streets into changes to legislation and policy.

Q: I’m not a policy wonk or politico–I’m just a person who wants to understand why redistricting matters to my Black community. What do you say to me? 

James: At the state level, a group of 14 people will get together and review data, analyze maps, hear public testimony and then decide where new political boundaries will be for the next ten years. Similar processes will exist for local areas as well (city, county, and school board). These decisions are technical, but also have very real consequences for Black Californians. Redistricting will shape who represents us, what policies are passed, and how we advocate for change. Our biggest concern is ensuring that lines don’t get drawn in a way that splits our communities, contributes to further erasure of Black people, and denies our ability to build power and elect our representatives.

Kevin: Our redistricting work is being led by a coalition of 30 Black-led and Black-serving community organizations. This work is also supported by technical partners and advisors at UCLA’s Black Policy Project, USC’s Equity Regional Institute, and the Advancement and Project-CA. UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute will lead the research, demography and line drawing. We are doing this work on behalf of our Black community, but we’re also partnering with groups who are representing Latinx, Asian and Indigenous communities (like AAAJ, MALDEF, and NALEO) to work toward unity in this process. We believe that centering Blackness ultimately means centering equity in our housing, criminal justice, healthcare, and education systems–and that’s good for all people. 

Q: What do you hope the commission will do and will not do? 

James: My fear is that the commission may think: “Oh, Black folks are diminishing in numbers so their political voice and power should be diminished as well” without understanding the context in which those diminishing numbers happened. They happened largely out of Black erasure and anti-Black policies that made California a harder place to thrive for Black people. My hope is that the commission will seize the opportunity to truly include the Black community–with its rich, diverse history–in the fabric of California’s political landscape. They should also recognize that our Black community has often borne the brunt of the state’s greatest inequities over the past several decades. Repairing these inequities will enable California to live up to its ideals of being a Golden state for all.

Kevin: At the Black Hub, we are guided by these values: community empowerment, justice and fairness, equity and belonging, unity, and collaboration. Our hope is that these values are honored by all our redistricting commissions as well and that they remain open to hearing from the community. So far, we’ve found the commission to be very open and interested in learning and engaging. 

Q: How will the work of building Black power continue beyond redistricting? What will Pro-Black communities, policies, and politics look like in 2030?

Kevin: Our work stems from projects and efforts that we were leading over the last few years and was, in many ways, an outgrowth of the Movement 4 Black Lives, which was work I was involved with in its infancy. I wanted to marry my work with the Movement 4 Black Lives and my work with California Calls, which is about turning voter and civic engagement into structural change. Over the last two years, we grew from twelve to thirty organizations and kept hearing a desire among our coalition to continue focusing on improving structural and policy conditions that affect the everyday lives of Black folks in California. Today, we are looking at structural and legislative opportunities with criminal justice, healthcare, housing, and education systems. We will continue focusing on community organizing, voter engagement, and we want to add strategic communications and narrative work to shift the public consciousness around the root cause of these issues. 

James: We realize that our work needs to extend beyond the census and redistricting process. We see big opportunities to ensure that decisions happening in Sacramento are connected to and incorporate Black voices on the ground; to amplify and support the work of Black-led and serving organizations that are often put in a position where they are trying to address the biggest needs in our state with limited resources, capacity, and space for collaboration. This organization will focus on addressing the inequities leading to Black erasure and suffering in CA. We know racism is perfected on Black folks but is outsourced to other communities that suffer from similar indignities and injustices. This summer, we saw police violence unleashed on all races, including white folks, and this month we saw the targeted killing of Asian women. Centering Blackness is a direct attack on white supremacy, which is an institution that oppresses all people. This is why our work is unapologetically pro-Black and also good for everyone.

Q: Where do you find joy and hope in this work?

James: As I look out at society and think about things like Covid-19 and policing, one of the root causes is this problem of individualism over collectivism. But what has always united the Black diaspora is this belief in relationships and community. It’s how we survived slavery and colonization. It’s what sustains our families and community. It’s what sustains me individually–my kids, my wife, my colleagues in this work.

Kevin: Like James, I find the most joy in working and building with our people. Despite the pain and struggles that Black folk face and survive, there is so much creativity, resourcefulness, humor, and love in our communities and at the core of our work. I am hopeful because, not only have we learned to live, laugh, and love against all odds, but we are building a generation of new leaders and making monumental changes in policies and public discourse that will make a better world for my kids and the generations to come.