Ai-jen & Alicia | Conversation Transcript


DIRECTOR: Ai-Jen, will you tell us Alicia’s story?


AI-JEN: Sure.
AI-JEN: So when I first met you, you were in your early twenties? Mid twenties?


ALICIA: Early.
AI-JEN: Early twenties.
ALICIA: Yeah, yeah homie.


AI-JEN: And you were basically, you were running an entire organizing project. And you were organizing in the context of a multi-racial organization that was building the domestic worker project. And you very quickly became the director of that organization. So from the beginning, you were leading. And it's always been clear to me that you have just an incredible instinct for what’s going to break through. You know you’ve been hashtagging all kind of stuff for a really long time. And when Black Lives Matter showed up, and you named it. You not only named a moment but named a movement. And it's been beautiful watching it grow ever since.


ALICIA: My turn. Ai-Jen, you had your roots in labor organizing. And then built a project inside of another organization that was focused on building the power of domestic workers. I believe when I met you what I heard about you was that you were an incredible organizer building a project of Caribbean domestic workers and y’alls tag line was, “Tell them, slavery is done.” And I was like “Oh, what’s good right now?” And I would see you all in actions and marches, and it was just so powerful. There was just a vibrancy to the organizing that I think was really a beacon for all of us. Especially those of us who were in these models that I think were really, um, they felt cold. And the work that you all were doing was just like light heat that we were all so attracted to it.  Like “what are they doing to make this so vibrant and amazing?”


So not only did you build a domestic worker organizing project from scratch, but then you brought together all of the other domestic worker organizing projects into a powerful national alliance that is growing by leaps and bounds every single day. But then you were like, “So, also talking about domestic work, we have this issue. Which is that our nation is aging rapidly and we have all of these people who are entering into elderhood without the care that they need, and what are we going to do about it?” So you also run a powerful organization called Caring Across Generations. That is really aiming to shift the dialogue around the care needs that this country has. And is an incredible opportunity to provide a model for a new economy that really centers and values care not just as work but as a human right. How are we going to take care of each other? Care being at the foundation of everything that we do, everyday.


AI-JEN: Wow, that sounds pretty good.
ALICIA: Oh yeah? You like that?
AI-JEN: I don’t know about all of that, but I love you.
ALICIA: It’s the truth! It’s the truth. You better ask around.


AI-JEN: Maybe we could start back with how you started doing social change work. ‘Cause actually we’ve known each other for a long time but I don’t think I know how you started.
ALICIA: I started when I was really young actually. I did not come up in a political family, but I did come up with this ethos of underdog. My mom was a single mom when she had me and she was raising me with her twin brother. And so she talked to me a lot about-


AI-JEN: You have a twin uncle?
ALICIA: Yeah, totally. Which means I'm going to have twins, which is a whole other thing. We’ll come back around to that.


She talked to me a lot about decisions and choices, I think she was at that period of her life where she was like “I have this child I wasn’t expecting to have, and had I had different information I may have made different choices about what was possible for me.” So that really got me into reproductive justice advocacy work. That was the time when there was a big abstinence only conversation happening nationwide, lots of conversations about family values and comprehensive sex health education versus abstinence only.  And I got really involved in my community around pushing for comprehensive sex health, sex education.  And there was also a big debate-


AI-JEN: -How old were you?
ALICIA: I was eleven.


AI-JEN: Wow.


ALICIA: I know. And there was this huge conversation happening in my school district about whether or not to have condoms available in school nurses offices. And the community I grew up in was fairly liberal so it was surprising to me that it was this big back and forth.  So I started doing work around that when I was in middle school.
AI-JEN: Wow.
ALICIA: And continued to do that work all the way through college. And then got politicized through being in ethnic studies classes.


I remember I was working for Planned Parenthood in a student organization. And we were doing lots of statewide advocacy. And I started to get some additional background in terms of the intersections of race and class and the reproductive justice movement. And I also got involved in student organizing that’s where I met Alex Tom who is now the director of Chinese Progressive Association. He and I met, he was organizing justice for janitors campaign, and he organized me.
AI-JEN: Wow.
ALICIA: I know. So it’s Alex’s fault.


AI-JEN: Wow.
ALICIA: Totally.


AI-JEN: I didn’t know you guys went back like that.
ALICIA: Yeah we go way back.
AI-JEN: That’s amazing.


ALICIA: This is back when Alex had a long ponytail.
AI-JEN: What?


AI-JEN:I need to make fun of him.
ALICIA: And he was organizing black and brown folks, killing the game.


AI-JEN: Can you say more about that time when you were looking at the, when you started to understand how the associatives intersect of race and class, and the ability of women to make choices.


ALICIA: I grew up in Marin County, which is, it's predominantly white but there’s a very large service class that is also very present in Marin. You know, it's this very wealthy area with lots of communities that live in the shadows. When I started to learn about some of the background behind the reproductive justice movement I was learning about how there were almost two movements that were moving in parallel form. And one was really speaking to and catering to the needs of middle class white women. And also had it's roots, while it was really trying to focus on fighting for women’s equality, and fighting for access of women to be able to make decisions over our own lives.  It was also very much rooted in a very racialized and classed ideology. Meaning that there were lots of threads of eugenics kind of running threw that movement. Where it was like I’m for birth control because I don’t want undesirable populations to reproduce.


I remember when I was working with the student group, I guess Planned Parenthood, at that time, they celebrated Margaret Sanger day. Margaret Sanger is considered to be the mother of the birth control pill and also the movement around birth control and access. And I watched this documentary about how she was a huge champion for women’s rights and also had gotten entangled in the eugenics movement. So part of how she was able to fund the production of the birth control pill was money from her husband, who was a big player in the eugenics movement. And I remember feeling so incredibly angry. Not just at the history of it, but also feeling like wow, I didn’t know that there were these kind of currents underneath these kind of pathways for women to have more choices. And I didn’t know that it was only intended for some women initially and what does that mean about this movement that I am apart of? I had this whole feeling of, I don’t know, like I had been tricked or something. Like nobody told me that and I would never advocate for something like that.


And certainly time had passed and lots of women of color had come in and helped to not just navigate that dynamic, but also to say this is unacceptable. But what was also really true for me at that time was, I started to see all of the other ways in which that showed up. Not just in that particular segment of our movement but all throughout movements for social justice and social change. So that’s when I got really committed to thinking about, “How do we organize from an intersectional framework that takes into account and also makes central the experiences of women of color and poor women and immigrant women? Not as an aside, and not as an add-on, but as really central to the strategy of how we’re going to change the world."


AI-JEN: Right. It reminds me of the story of how in a lot of ways the original exclusion of our work force, of the domestic work force, from basic protections was in the context of this growing labor movement in the United States in the 1930s that had gotten to a place of power to be able to create legislation that really established the fundamentals of our social contract. And in many ways there were huge victories that were codified at that time under Roosevelt. The national labor relations act that create our trade union model, the fair labor standards act that gives us minimum wage and overtime protections. And the fact that that happened with this kind of dark secret of racial exclusion where, and we talk about this all the time, where southern members of congress basically cut a deal and said, “If we’re going to sign on to these provisions we are going to have to exclude farmworkers and domestic workers,” who were black workers at the time. So I think it makes sense that in some ways your history and trajectory, like we’ve been learning this lesson over and over again. When we look at history, when we look at how changes happen, when we look at the patterns of democracy, there’s this way in which we make these gains but we have not actually made them in a holistic way. And the challenge I think of our generations is to figure out how those gains happen in a fully inclusive, whole holistic - our whole person-politics theme - in a much more holistic and inclusive way for the 21st century. And this is the moment of opportunity, I think, to do that. And there’s more and more of a demand for it I think thanks to all of the movements we’ve been apart of and beyond.


ALICIA: There’s two parts to that. So there’s one piece of it which is the folks who are pushed out of our movements really need to be leading the strategy for how we bring this whole country together in a way that benefits all of us. And then there’s a piece of it that I think is more complicated, which is how do we navigate a politic landscape where those dynamics keep happening? The dynamics around gains being won on our backs rather than with us together side by side, and then us fighting both to make sure we are included, not in a symbolic or representational way, and having to make really strategic decisions about how we move in a political context that is not favorable to us and has not been for awhile. So that’s something that I'm thinking about a lot, like how do we challenge those dynamics knowing what they bring? Especially in today’s context where it's like the one percent is winning, corporations are winning, they’re consolidating, they are moving their agenda across the country. They have control of state houses and school boards, and parks and recs and all of those things. But we have the vision. And we have I think a lot more clarity then we’ve ever had about what kind of world we want to see and what we think it will take to get there. And we still have to interact and negotiate with those forces knowing that we’re not going to get everything we want right now. So how do we do that in a way that keeps our folks in the front guiding the strategy, guiding the vision, while also being clear about the compromises and choices that we have to make along the way to keep getting farther.


AI-JEN: Yeah, it almost feels that we’re in this in-between phase of some space in-between the old and the new. Where it is the old economy, the old silos, the old structures, the old policies and culture that is the Leave It To Beaver kind of thing.




There is that old that is in many ways still defining our systems and our structures and even some aspects of our culture, although that’s slowly starting to move.
ALICIA: It’s slowly shifting.
AI-JEN: And cultures actually way ahead of our institutions in some ways. But there’s this grey space, or this in-between space that we’re in, this liminal space where the new is very much in formation. Which feels like both a space of a ton of possibility and creativity but also a lot of disorientation and fragmentation and confusion and also pain.  And so that’s I think part of what feels really hard about like you’re asking a lot of questions because I think there’s just so many questions.




We have actually no idea what the new will look like. And what we have are our principals and then lessons from the past and then vision, which I think is hard to hold when so much is uncertain.


ALICIA: That’s right. Well, uncertain and so much is very much in motion. I mean, when I think about what I consider to be “the other side” I'm like oh y’all are on it. You are figuring out, you have all kinds of disagreements but you’re still figuring out, “How do we keep moving across this chest board?” Even if we don’t agree, we’re ultimately aligned on where we are trying to go.  And I think for us one of the big challenges is navigating that liminal space between the old and the new while also grappling with the shifts that are happening and will happen in terms of power.


I guess my question for you would be, how do you think about leadership in this moment? Given that so much is in transition between what was and what will be, what kind of leadership do you think is needed now given our conditions? And then maybe some examples of where you see that happening?


AI-JEN: Well I learn a lot about leadership from our members, from our domestic workers. They sometimes talk about how they have their lives as working women, often times single moms, working poor, living in poor communities, taking underfunded public transportation, their schools are underfunded public schools, they have very much a reality of what it feels like to be a working poor person in this country. And then they go to work everyday in somebody else’s class reality.  Somebody else’s reality of, often times, not always but often times it's at the other end of the economic spectrum. So the distance between what they live with at home and then the homes they go to to work in terms of those realities and those choices, it's very stark and clear to the workers that we work with.


They have this really clear and sharp understanding of inequality and injustice. And they're often times spending their days and nights caring for their employer’s children and not having anyone to care for theirs. So there’s just these very deeply emotional and painful kind of painfully rooted understanding of inequality. And yet there job is to really provide care and quality services for the people they work for.  And in many ways their job is to uphold the dignity of the elders that they care for, nurture the children, really care for the homes of the people they work for. And you can’t really do that job well without some level of human connection and real caring. A sense of an ability to connect to the humanity of the people you work for and with. So they're able to hold both this very sharp understanding of inequality and what is wrong alongside this very deep capacity to feel compassion, empathy, and human connection even under very adverse circumstances.


So I feel like that combination is very hard to hold together but is actually what is required of us in this moment. So clarity about what’s wrong and also boundless empathy and compassion. And then a really I think complex understanding of power. I think as people who are trained as organizers or who’ve been doing organizing for a long, long time we very much think in terms of power. And I think working with constituencies who have so little structural or systemic power has forced us to be kind of creative about how we understand power, how it operates. For domestic workers in particular, being so isolated in the work place and also systematically excluded from protections, and then culturally excluded from recognition for their work and dignity, having to think about how this group builds power requires a different level of sophistication about power that I actually think is where our entire generation of leadership needs to go. Is actually thinking about power not just in terms of political power, but also in terms of disruptive power. The ability to throw a wrench in the status quo to dramatize what’s wrong and create urgency. Narrative power, the ability to tell the story about why things are the way that they are in the world on our terms. Increasingly contending for the story of who we are as a country and who we’re becoming. So all of those things, but I think never losing sight that power is still operating. And that we have to democratize power in this world, otherwise we’ll never get to the kind of inclusion that we need in the new, in the new world. And I think that all of that is stuff that I’ve learned from working with domestic workers. In terms of leadership and what’s required of us. What do you think about this question?


ALICIA: You know I feel that part of what’s needed in this moment in regards to leadership is also an ability to be really bold. So it feels like what’s characterized politics of the last decade has not been bold. It’s very much been about how do we keep a grasp on what is. And I think being generous I think that that is a very normal reaction to big change, which is like-


AI-JEN: Hold on to what you got.
ALICIA: Hold on tight!


ALICIA: Exactly. And let’s just keep doing what we know over and over again. I think what actually is needed right now is the courage to say, “Here’s what’s politically possible and we can go beyond that.” That what’s politically possible is actually in our hands. It's not just about trying to figure out how to get closer to what’s already existing, but how to break through and try new things. Experiment, and innovate, and it's okay to sound crazy because it gets the imagination flowing in a way that we’re going to get farther then we would if we’re only thinking about how to move with input that already exists.


So to give an example, you talked about disruptive power and I think these last few years has been really characterized by disruption.


AI-JEN: That’s right.
ALICIA: And we know disruption in and of itself is not a strategy to build power. It has to be alongside a bunch of other mechanisms that we use.  But certainly I think that what disruptive action has done over the last few years has encouraged people and created political space for people to be bold.  And so even though we might not have our highest aspiration, we’ve gotten a lot farther than we would have just operating in the realm of what’s politically possible. So when I think about Saint Louis and Ferguson, when I think about even in Oakland when Oscar Grant was murdered, if it wasn’t for the disruptive power that folks exercised over the span of a year, there wouldn’t have been the same outcomes. I just deeply feel that without the last three years of what’s been happening across the country in terms of an upsurge in the black freedom movement, where people are saying we need to be thinking whether or not policing is even necessary, policing in this form. Which actually wasn’t so much a conversation five years ago.


AI-JEN: Not at all. Like, far from it.
ALICIA: Right? They’d be like, “You’re nuts, what do you mean?”
AI-JEN: “What are you talking about?” Exactly.


ALICIA: But then you get the space to articulate, well here’s what we think we mean. And lets try it, right? Lets try looking at ways that communities can better govern themselves. And lets also reshape and reimagine what is the role of police, and policing. And lets go back to the kind of core values that we’re trying to bring into being.  And lets see if the current situation matches, which we know it doesn’t, than there seems to be a lot of room for experimentation. I think the other example that I would give is we ran a whole strategy around trying to get additional debates for black communities to engage really deeply with presidential candidates around what would be there agenda for black liberation, for black freedom. And while we didn’t win that demand, I think what it did was open up a lot of conversations. Inside a very stale way of working that created a catalyst for people to say, “Oh wow, we need bold action across the board.” It created room for platforms that I don’t think we really hear or see. It created space for black intellectuals, black activists. It created space for black institutional actors to call for more whereas for the last decade they’ve been calling for the same old thing. So that feels really exciting to me. And a kind of core tenant of what we need right now. I think we saw sprinkles of it with Obama’s campaign. I think people want, in a moment where it feels like the status quo is not only not working but it's extremely detrimental to our survival, I think that what most people crave is bold ideas.
AI-JEN: Right, I agree.
ALICIA: Like something that is out of the box. Like, “Okay well we haven’t tried that I'm ready to go that route because all of these other things we are doing are just not working.


AI-JEN: The number of people who are actually satisfied with the status quo is so, so small.
ALICIA: That’s true.
AI-JEN: People want-
ALICIA and AI-JEN: Something new.


AI-JEN: And what that is looks different for so many people, or what they would prioritize looks different. But I think there is that shared understanding that the status quo isn’t working.
ALICIA: That’s right, that’s right.


AI-JEN: So I hear you saying that part of what we need in terms of leadership is, that our role is really about expanding the realm of what’s possible. And what’s deemed as politically viable, what’s deemed as politically possible. I absolutely agree with that. I actually heard somebody speak at a conference this weekend that said, “We’ve never won more by asking for less.
ALICIA: Seems so simple, right?


But I think that that bold action has been apart of our organizing models for a long time, and I think it's how we came together even initially.  Was because we were trying to think about, “How do we take it to the next level?”


So I guess the other question that is just rattling around for me is, it seems like, let me say it differently. One of our experiences has been that often times when people think about social change they think about policy. There’s a long tradition of that in terms of the last period of civil rights, it's how people describe what the ultimate outcome was. We got the Voting Rights Act, you know all of these landmark pieces of legislation that then changed peoples world. But I think in our experience it's actually quite different, that there’s a whole realm of things that need to happen, including figuring out how you ready the ground for change and then what that looks like in terms of an agreement about how people are going to be together, which is how I understand policy. So what would you say is the relationship between policy change and culture change? Can you have one without the other? Is policy change ultimately what we’re trying to get to, or is there something bigger than that?


AI-JEN: I used to think that the end-all be-all was policy change, because it felt the most systemic. It felt like if you wanted impact and really the ability to affect people’s lives at scale, that you had to go through policy. And I think what I’ve realized over time is that policies can be passed and also reversed. And ultimately that lasting social change is the kind of change that gets embodied by people. And that embodied change is both emotional and spiritual and physical in terms of changes in behavior. And it's not until you get there, that you actually start to have that kind of lasting impact on the world. That is what I think we’re looking for over here.


And I think there’s really recent wonderful examples of how the two can interact. How policy change and culture change can interact. And I think a lot about the LGBT movement for example as one. Where there was a combination of really smart, local organizing, civic engagement, policy campaigns, and also statewide policy campaigns. And at the same time this real fight to change the popular culture narrative about what it means to love who you chose, and the freedom to love and marry. That narrative change happened through a range of strategies and tactics that were all what some set of our people might call soft. But actually having stories like Glee and Will and Grace and the ability to - I think it’s about how you create a new normal. And the shift that happens in the popular imagination when the actual story of who we are, what love looks like, what family looks like, what community looks like, gets democratized and actually more real.


So I think there’s a ton that can happen through really trying to democratize our popular cultural narratives. And in some ways that’s I think what will be a leading edge of social change strategies. Because so much of what we take-in in terms of norms and beliefs and our understanding of the world happens through story. And what we watch on TV and on screens. And it actually gives me a lot of hope because the realm of story is so much more expansive than the realm of policy. Policy change is called all kinds of things, “Sausage Making,” you know all of that. And it's true. Just the fact that to win something as basic as a Bill of Rights for domestic workers took seven years and so much hard work and organizing and deal making and protests and everything. And culture change takes time too but at least story taps into this emotional life of humans that is much more expansive. And I actually think it's our responsibility as people who have the values that we have to really contend for that emotional space. And it's really unruly, it’s really unpredictable, and that’s part of what you get with expansion. Storytellers and creators are not at all hindered by the party politics of any sort, they’re actually much more interested in how to tell a good story. And I think that’s a space of a lot of potential for us, because there are so many good stories to be told and a really different story to be told about who we are as a country. That’s exciting.
ALICIA: I agree.


Some folks in our movement devalue culture change, I think at the expense of us being successful. Stories are so critical to building a movement beyond issues. So I think in our work, even in the interplay and interaction between Black Lives Matter and Domestic Workers there’s many different ways in which part of what’s been able to flourish is a new narrative about how our experience, multiple experiences as people, necessitate us being together and fighting together. So lots of our work has been shaped by the different experiences that black folks have throughout the diaspora. And that that is actually what connects us more than sameness.  The complexity of our stories is what ultimately lights the path for where we’re trying to go. So when we are able to talk about blackness in this country as being so expansive, both sharing a set of experiences but also all the experiences that we have that are really different. So for example, a lot of people don’t think about black folks as immigrants. We get kind of erased from this broader conversation around; what would it mean to create a more equitable policy for movement and migration? We talk a lot about how black folks are both criminalized for being black and black folks are criminalized for lacking documentation. And when those things come together, what’s the impact?


But not just focusing on the bad things, but also focusing on the power that’s inherit in connecting us. At BLM we talk a lot about how important it is that all of us is able to show up.  And to be able to connect with people based on who we are in our entirety and not just “Hey, I’m in this room because of this one experience.” It's like, “No actually I'm in this room because of the life that I'm living.” Which includes, I think as you mentioned earlier, my home life, my community life, my work life. And what are the threads and themes that kind of cut threw all of that.


I also think that part of what we grapple with is wanting to tell a new story about who we are and where we’re headed. So one of the interactions or maybe I want to say interventions that we consistently have to make is about being at the table versus setting the agenda. And so much of the story that we tell about what we’re fighting for is about being at the table. We want representation. We want to see black faces at this table. But I think what we’ve learned is that that story doesn’t get us very far. That actually the story that we want to tell is a story that talks about setting the agenda for what’s next. We want to tell a story about how the experiences of black folks are shaping the 21st century. We also want to tell a story about the power of everyday people to make incredible change. We want to intervene in the stories around superheroes and we want to make sure that everybody sees themself as a superhero in the making. And that it doesn’t take anything extraordinary to be a superhero except the courage to try something new. And I think we also want to tell a story that is about not just our pain, but also our resilience and what our vision and creativity has brought to this country over and over again. If it wasn’t for the courage and the vision of black folks what would be the state of our democracy? If it wasn’t for the courage and vision of black folks what would be the state of our economy? We talk about domestic worker organizing, and the courageous black women like Dorothy Bolden.


AI-JEN: Mhm, I was just thinking about her.
ALICIA: Who really were like, “What do you mean? We need to be organized, we are not going to be organized around anybody else’s agenda. We’re not going to be narrowly focused. We are going to be engaged. We are going to be the protagonists of our own story. We’re going to disciplined and dedicated enough to take ourselves seriously and take our powers and our abilities seriously. And we are going to change the world.” That was the narrative she told to thousands of domestic workers.
AI-JEN: Yeah, fifty thousand.
ALICIA: You know what I'm saying.
AI-JEN: Then the signed up!
ALICIA: Then they signed up. And they signed up to be active. They signed up to help other women be actively engaged in a movement for social change. They signed up to challenge detrimental agendas. And because of that they were a real force for change and it was very much about how they shifted the story about what was possible for domestic workers. And whether or not domestic workers could be protagonists in their own stories.


AI-JEN: Right, I mean you want to talk about disruption. For a lot of people the idea that domestic workers should organize and be leaders is in and of itself a disruption, right? Disruptive. And I love what you’re saying about how it's through the specificity of stories that you can actually get to the universals. And the story then becomes, the more specific and whole, the more inclusive it can be. It's a little counterintuitive but it's actually so true.


I also heard you saying and sort of naming some of the basic tenants of organizing. Which is about every person a change maker, every person a leader. As organizers we think about the power of every person coming through collectives, but it also strikes me as this being a moment where we need powerful individuals in the context of powerful collectives. So how do you think about those two things together?


ALICIA: Part of where we’re trying to go is some kind of balance between people who deeply understand and see things that a lot of us don’t see and the wisdom and power that exists in collectives who are trying to generate solutions together. I do feel that part of what we’re facing right now as a movement is a real dissatisfaction with how leadership has functioned. And also a real dissatisfaction with being left out of the decisions that impact our lives. So part of what we do is to not do that thing that I think sometimes happens with people who are dissatisfied with leadership where it's like, “There’s no leaders.”




Which is really not true. Everybody exercises leadership in some form or fashion whether you call it that or not. So I think that there’s a real way in which because we devalue individual leadership, we err towards whatever the group wants. And sometimes what the group wants isn’t actually going to get us to where we want to go and where we need to be.


And in our attempt to envision everyone as a leader, which everyone has the capacity and potential, we fail to name roles. So what you probably don’t want me leading around are things that require bureaucracy, right? I'm really bad at that kind of thing. It's just not my skill. You know, it's not my best contribution. So that’s probably not a place where you want me exercising leadership. But what I do do really well is connect people. I just revel in the ability to bring people who need to be brought together, together. And then to figure out, “Okay, what are we generating here?” But if there’s an ethos around leadership, that is almost afraid of the potential power that exists in that role of being a connector, than we miss huge opportunities to get farther.


AI-JEN: I also don’t think we prepare leaders for the very real challenges of leading. And in some ways you’re taking responsibility for the collective in a different way. And certainly everyone can start to make those choices and grow into that role but there’s a very different role that leaders play in taking responsibility for the whole.  And that also leaves you vulnerable in different ways and I don’t know how or whether we prepare people well enough for that. And it's more than just courage. Often times people take a courageous step and then there’s a lot of blow back that we’re not ready for and then that creates the context for-


ALICIA: All kinds of things.
AI-JEN: All kinds of other stuff, bad things. So there’s a thing where if you don’t name roles and leadership then there’s no way you’ll get to that level of preparation and support so that people can actually sustain and grow in leadership. So you have to be clear, you can be leaderful and continue to create the context for everyone to connect to their own agency in more and more powerful ways. But to say that everyone is a leader all the time, is a little bit disingenuous. And at the same time to just say this person is going to lead and we’ll just follow is also not helpful and not the direction we need to go. Especially if what we’re looking for is an engaged democracy where people are really owning and making democracy work, which is what is required in this moment.


ALICIA: I agree with that. You know, for BLM we often get described as leaderless. And it’s something that we really bristle at.




AI-JEN: I'm bristling.
ALICIA: Yeah that’s not true at all. We have many leaders. And leaders at different levels of leadership. There’s leadership in our network that is really helping to set and ground the political vision for what we’re fighting for. There’s leadership in our network that is really about skill share and making sure that we all have the tools we need to be successful in the work that we’re doing. And then there’s leadership in our network that aims to resolve conflicts, which is like-
AI-JEN: Huge.
ALICIA: Huge and totally normal amongst groups of people trying to do stuff together.
AI-JEN:Among groups of people, period.


ALICIA: There’s a way that we fetishize not having leaders, as if that’s a good thing. And I think what people are really trying to respond to is abusive power, which is different than leadership. And in some ways those things have gotten really intertwined. So for us what we say is we’re not leaderless, we’re full of leaders. There are leadership roles being played all the time, and they’re different. Just because we see all of us as having leadership capacity and potential, there are some of us who exercise different levels of leadership inside of our network. And we try to be mindful about how power operates within that. But I think part of what we need to be considering as a movement if we’re going to win is what kind of power do we want? And what will it look like when we exercise power? In some ways I fear that we’re afraid of power, afraid of our own tendencies around power. If we were to take power today, would it look a lot different than what’s been happening over the last couple of decades? Who’s to say? Which is why you need new models of accountability that both recognize peoples roles and their talents. What they bring to a democracy, what they bring to a group. And then you also need clarity around, “How do we want to be in relationship to each other?” given the different roles that people are playing.


AI-JEN: I do think that on some basic level it comes down to, “How do we treat each other, and how do we value each and every human being for what they uniquely bring to the world and to this democracy?” And have a democracy that works in such a way that people feel human, and recognized, and valued. Which is so basic, and yet so difficult.
ALICIA: It is, it is.


AI-JEN: Our friend Heather McGhee who leads Demos often says that this country is the most ambitious experiment in democracy in the world. Because you have this crazy context of first nations, indigenous people who have been here and almost completely displaced. You have people who were brought here as slaves, in a transatlantic slave trade. And then you have multiple generations and iterations of immigration from all over the world. And then you tell everyone that we’re one.




It's kind of bananas if you think about it that way.
ALICIA: It is bananas.


AI-JEN: So to think about the story you tell where everyone belongs, everyone has agency, everyone is valued; it's not simple.
ALICIA: No, it's not. It's not simple.
AI-JEN: So in some ways that actually  makes me feel better that we haven’t gotten it right cause I'm like, “Oh, this is actually really hard.”
ALICIA: It is hard. It's really hard work.


AI-JEN: But I think we’ve learned a lot over the years about what are the elements that can help it work better and definitely everyone feeling connected to their own agency and leadership potential is one of those things.
ALICIA: I think that’s right. And so speaking of being connected to your own agency and leadership potential, I know that you and I came up in a space where even though we have these values around equity and inclusion and democracy, cooperation, and even though we are trying to shift the dynamics of people with multiple experiences being pushed to the margins when they really should be at the center of driving whatever change we are trying to win. Leadership as a woman of color looks really differently. I know that one of the dynamics that we’re constantly having to face, is we’re fighting for this different world while also facing the challenges of that world in our leadership. What does that look like for you? How have you been navigating that? What are the challenges that you face?


AI-JEN: That’s a great question. Well first I think it just took me a really long time to say or even begin to identify as a leader.
ALICIA: Say more about that.
AI-JEN: I think for me, I just wanted to kind of put my head down and do the work. And there were all of these leaders I was supporting, but that I myself couldn’t really imagine myself or call myself a leader. And I think that that has to do with everything we’ve internalized about what a leader looks like, where they come from, how they lead. So I think for me, who’s by nature a little bit more of an introvert and definitely more comfortable in the background supporting other people, to embrace this idea that I was a leader was a huge leap over many, many years. And then I think the way that I lead is not, I’ve never been, you know, activists-


Activist leaders are really great on the mic, great with a bullhorn, great in the streets, I’ve actually never been that kind of leader either. The mic horrifies me, I’ve never been a good chant leader, nobody wants me to lead a chant ever.  But I'm great at working security or marshaling for a march. I’ll be great with the tactical plan but not great as the police negotiator.
ALICIA: Yeah, I get it. I totally get it.
AI-JEN: So overall there were certain roles that I felt more comfortable in, that were also not the roles associated with leadership. And a lot of what I realized over time is that that’s a particular form of public leadership that I was learning to be more comfortable with over time. And then there’s this expectation of, you know, I still go into rooms in Washington where when I show up people ask me whose intern I am. Even though I'm 42 and I’ve been doing this work for twenty years. Or there’s this expectation of the visionary leader, the strategic leader, and when people have an image of who that is in their minds it’s often not an image of you or I.
ALICIA: It ain’t us.


AI-JEN: And so I think it's both for me become important to really own and like, in the Shonda Rhimes way, stand in the sun. Own that we have to, it's our job to democratize what leadership looks like. What about for you?


ALICIA: It's intense, it's really intense. I think through my organizing life I’ve been developed by men. I’ve always been really conscious of how different our leadership-
(a tear falls from Ai-Jen’s eye)


AI-JEN: I'm sorry. I got a little.
ALICIA: Don’t be sorry, no. We’re there.


Yeah. I’ve always been really conscious of how different our leadership is. And the way that I would describe kind of my early leadership development was almost like having the empathy and the care beaten out of you.


AI-JEN: Yeah.


ALICIA: And I just remember being told that my emotions did not have a place in strategic conversations. Or the ways in which I was told, “You have to be more clear.” And I was like, “I feel really clear. I feel really clear about what I want, I feel really clear about what needs to happen.”
AI-JEN:And I'm really clear it's complicated.
ALICIA: Right, and it's not clarity, it's that we have different styles and we’re bringing different things to the table. And it took me years to be comfortable in my own brand of leadership. Not brand like branding but like my own version of the way that I lead. And it also took me years to undo things that I had learned that actually kept me from being connected to people.
AI-JEN: And your own power.
ALICIA: I was told there wasn’t space for that.


ALICIA: And so given that, I'm so excited about this period because when I look around I'm like, “Oh that’s something that’s dying too, that’s going out of style.”
AI-JEN: So true.
ALICIA: And it's no longer considered hippy dippy to really connect with the ways in which, some of the ways we have been taught to do this work have actually taught us to disconnect us from ourselves. Again because we had to move in the spaces of what is politically possible rather than bringing to it what we know moves our people. Like moving people’s hearts, encouraging people to talk about their experiences so that part of what gets opened up is not only a vision for what’s possible but a real seeing of yourself in that possibility. Like, “I can participate in helping make this be different.”


And just to say one of the things I really appreciate about your leadership, that care and real attention to, “We are going to build your version of leadership because we deserve to be here,” makes the domestic Workers Alliance unlike any other, I think, any other movement work that I’ve ever done. Where you can be you and be powerful. And when I look around rooms when we’re on staff retreats I'm like, “This is amazing.” It's like mostly women of color, there’s even some men of color trying to get it right.” They’re feeling amazing because they’re like, “I’ve never been in rooms like this.” And to see women of color as strategists, to see women of color as leaders, as innovators, as enforcers, is amazing. And it's not women of color acting like men. It's women of color being ourselves and bringing everything that we have to bare on shaping a new movement. It's so necessary.


(laughter and tears)
Mmm. How you doin’? I know, it's a lot.
AI-JEN: It's a lot. I think you’re right that the old way is dying.


When we called our fifth anniversary event “Leading with Love” I was like, “Ooh how is this going to go?” And a lot of people reached out to us and were like, “This is it. This is what we’re missing.” So I think you’re right. Thanks for saying it.
ALICIA: It’s the truth, I was just telling somebody that the other day.
AI-JEN: And you’re leading with love too.
ALICIA: Lord have mercy.
AI-JEN: You’re leading with love and a tremendous amount of courage.
ALICIA: Trying. Working really hard at it everyday.


AI-JEN: How do you sustain in it?
ALICIA: I think I’ve gotten comfortable in not knowing and being okay with that. I mean there’s so much. We get expected to do everything, and know everything. In some ways we’ve become the hope for what’s been broken for forty years at least. So there’s all this stuff that gets placed on us. Everybody wants everything from us. They’re like, “Why do you not have this clear, strategic plan?” We’re like, “’Cause we’re trying to fix what’s been undone for the last forty years while also trying to figure out how we get ourselves out of this mess that folk created.” Then challenging the same stuff.Even now, it's 2016. When you talk about Black Lives Matter where people look is for the male charismatic leader. 


AI-JEN: I know.
ALICIA: We’re still doing that in 2016.
AI-JEN: Even though the three co-founders are all women.
ALICIA: You know. We’re still doing that. And I see, all over the place, I see panels and discussions about Black Lives Matter and I’m like, “Oh it's all men. That’s so interesting.”


And there’s this trope that male leadership is endangered.
AI-JEN: Really?
ALICIA: Oh, totally. Oh my gosh. So that response is what I have all the time.


AI-JEN: Wow.
ALICIA: I’m like really? Endangered?  I think there’s actually a lot of it and has been for generations. And now that more women, more women of color are moving to the forefront, then all of a sudden there’s a problem that has to be fixed. So that’s been really interesting.


AI-JEN: That’s also the old scare city narrative of, “If there’s more leaders here, then less there.” The kind of zero sum ethic around power and transformation which is actually not, it can’t be the new way.


ALICIA:And it's a response to traditional forms of power being moved out of the way. It's almost like, I use this metaphor a lot where I say that there are some components of our movement that are like wounded animals. And if you’ve ever seen an animal that is hurt, when you try to help it, it lashes out at you because it's scared. It’s like, “Don’t touch me, I got this.” And I feel like that’s a lot of what I see. Where to me part of the answer for where we have to be able to go is to make sure that the right people are in the right positions. And so the way that I sustain it and navigate it is by being open to what feels right in my gut about where we need to go and how we need to get there. And sometimes that’s about compromise and engagement and sometimes it's a cutting off of, “We’re not doing this anymore.”
AI-JEN: Sometimes you’ve got to say no.
ALICIA: And sometimes you have to establish power.


I was just recently in a room and there was a young man who decided that he wanted to kind of take over the conversation. And I had to be like, “That’s not what we’re doing right now.” And that’s not what we are taught as women. Even in 2016 we’re not taught that that’s okay. And there’s a way in which our leadership is not valued in the sense of being strategists. Part of how I navigate that in this period and sustain that is by having a really good team. A really, really good team and being really clear about what time it is. Being super clear. Like if we know that the old is slowly dying away and there’s room for a new to emerge, then that means that this period is just going to be a lot of uncomfortable interactions. And it also means that just like this is a moment to be bold in terms of our solutions and our vision, it's also a moment to be bold in claiming our space. Because otherwise the new that’s emerging could actually look a lot like the old.


AI-JEN: Totally. Well I was just thinking how some of the most amazing moments of leadership that I’ve witnessed have been moments when leaders have been able to hold pain, the wounded. And being able to figure out how to approach the wounded animal from a place of actually creating the context for that person to move through pain in some kind of way. And I actually think women of color, we just haven’t had a choice, we actually know how to do that. So I think it's actually practical. It's not just the right thing that there are more women of color leading, but it's actually a practical skill set that is particularly needed in this moment in history.


ALICIA: Isn’t it interesting how we have to listen to what’s underneath all the time? Like that’s actually a safety strategy for women, and for women of color in particular. But that when we apply that to a context of organizing, that it can unlock a lot of possibilities.
AI-JEN: That’s right.
AI-Jen: Mm I like that.
ALICIA: Somebody write that down.