For Black History Month, we honor and celebrate the fabulous black feminists and wonderful womanists who continue to build the feminist movement and bend the arc of history toward justice. Today’s Fantastic Black Feminist is Angela Peoples-Angela currently works as the Executive Director of GetEQUAL, a national grassroots collective of LGBTQIA people and allies working to ensure LGBTQIA liberation. Our Spring 2017 intern, Lila Scher, conducted the interview.
Can you tell me a little more about your background and how you got started in your field?
I’m originally from Michigan, my parents both work in education and they always really instilled in my siblings the idea that, yes there is racism and classism and sexism, but with a good education you can change your situation. That idea really drove me for much of my activism and political career. I spent six years working in college access and affordability and organizing students around college access. I spent a lot of time working to make college more accessible and affordable, especially for LGBT people and Black people, and people that I really identified with. Then I worked for the US Student Association, I worked for civil associations. And then I spent some time organizing locally in Washington D.C. with the LGBT Democrat group to try to bring more young folks and young energy into the democratic party in D.C.. There are so many people here who are very political, but don’t feel very connected to the party here because there’s a very intentional attempt to keep us out. At any rate, in 2014 I was working at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau doing more work on student loans and student debt policy for young consumers, and then leading up to around the time that Michael Brown was killed, there was the decision to not acquit George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin. And then shortly after that, there was a string of suicides and homicides of trans youth, and a lot of people were taking to the streets and raising alarms about these issues. I really felt like, I had been trained as an organizer, my skills and talents need to be doing work that was more disruptive to the status quo that was making it hard for this idea that my parents had always told me was true. If you can get an education you can change your stars, but the truth is that Trayvon had an education. Michael Brown had an education. There are forces in our society that make it so that no matter how hard folks like me work, the system is just not for us. So I took a leap to join GetEQUAL as a co-director because I knew that GetEQUAL was one of the only places across different movements that I thought was actually leading the charge on holding everyone accountable, no matter what your political affiliation was, and also doing that in a way that was building power for folks who are left at the margins.
What’s an average day like in your position within GetEQUAL?
Honestly I spend a lot of my time trying to do fundraising, and that’s sort of the role of a director in general. I spend a lot of time trying to connect with grassroots funders, or foundations that are interested in, and committed to, funding the kind of work that we do, trying to build relationships with them to help resource the work. A lot of what I do is supporting the field organizers that we are working with in Georgia, Arkansas, and North Carolina. One of our organizational commitments is to support queer and trans folks that are organizing in rural spaces, places that are traditionally under resourced by our movements, so I spend my days trying to be in touch with, partner with, and support the folks that are organizing in those areas and also building relationships with other organizations across the movement that share our values. We work really closely with folks that are working to stop detention and deportation, folks in the movement for Black lives, to hold police accountable, as well as to really center and value Black lives in our country and trying to make sure that those conversations have the support and the attention and energy from queer and trans folks that are already organizing and seeing where we can bridge that gap and amplify a more intersectional vision.
Why do you think it’s necessary for organizations to exist specifically for certain identities, such as queer people of color, like GetEQUAL?
I should say that GetEQUAL isn’t specifically for people of color. We are an organization of LGBTQ people and allies that recognizes that centering the liberation of black folks, undocumented folks, and differently-abled people, is central and crucial to the liberation of queer and trans people. We recognize that the systems of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy are interconnected, and we know that people of color, especially black folks, often experience the impact of these systems disproportionately to others. So while we’re not specifically for people of color, we do recognize that in order for all of us to gain freedom, we need to organize from a place that centers the experiences that are confronted and the challenges of those that are most deeply impacted, which is often people of color.
What’s your favorite part about what you do?
I don’t have one favorite part. I think that being able to take direct action and support people who are taking direct action, whether that’s doing civil disobedience, whether it’s going to a march and blocking the streets, whether it’s going to an office, you know a university office or a senator’s office to sort of shut that down, watching people going through that experience and feeling empowered, just by knowing that their presence, their body, their voice, can change the day – to day, can disrupt the status quo. Watching people have that experience and feeling that empowerment is one of my favorite parts. I think also, some of the more challenging parts that are also very rewarding, is having conversations with folks when we’re talking about race and privilege and power in our movements. Because these are the kind of things that for so long we’ve been told to sweep under the rug, or to not make a big deal about, to not be divisive, to just let it go for the good of the order, and time and time again we see that the good of the order means the good of mostly white folks, or folks of privilege. So even though it’s difficult, challenging, frustrating, and honestly, emotionally draining, to have conversations with people that are in our movements confronting them about their power, about their privilege, is also really rewarding, i think because those are the conversations that need to happen in order for us to move forward and not repeat the same mistakes of generations.
What do you think this new administration and the actions they’re taking so rapidly means for organizations such as yours and the work that you’re doing?
One of the things I think it means is that we need to work smarter, and harder, and we need to work together in a way that is not shrinking to the least common denominator. Right after the election there was a lot of conversation about how these “white working class voters” turned away from progressive politics because of all these identity politics, and how that’s why we need to talk about the economy, and talk about jobs, and not talk about how race and gender play into the economy and jobs… and I think that that is a huge mistake. It’s a strategic error, it’s a moral error, and I think that any attempt to try and move towards the center in order to broaden the coalition to these “white working class voters” is the exact opposite of what we need to be doing. I think we need to be working together around issues where the stakes are shared, and also on issues where the stakes are aligned but it’s not clear. One example is around immigration and policing and enforcement. The same issues and the same policies that keep black, brown, and queer youth in the juvenile system and in the justice system are the same systems that make undocumented students fearful of going to school, or of leaving their parents at home. Those are issues where there is a lot of shared stake and we need to align our movements around those. I think that organizations like GetEQUAL need to continue to be loud and vocal and unapologetic with our demands of our “allies” and those who are on our side, to listen to our voices and to not try to ‘lead through us’. Get behind those who are most deeply impacted, get behind Black trans women, get behind undocumented mothers, get behind the queer youth, the gender-nonconforming folks that are leading the way on causes with their identities and their experience in order to understand what changes we need to make to be stronger and to be bolder, not just to be bigger.
What advice do you have for those who are looking to get started in political organizing and activism?
I would say to really start building locally. I think that there are a ton of wins to be had if we go to our city councils, if we go to our mayors, if we go to our school boards, our state legislature. There’s a lot of progress that can be made to push back – whether it’s literally with policies, or figuratively, with statements, and getting different leaders to come out in opposition to things the Trump administration is doing. There’s a lot of work to be had in organizing locally and that local organizing will most certainly have an impact on the national climate. And then I want to also say that there’s an instinct on a lot of people’s parts to start something new – like me and my friends we’re ready to organize, we’re gonna start a group. And that’s amazing, that’s great, but there’s also a reality that there may have been another group of friends that had that same inclination a year ago, or six months ago, and they may be aligned with your ideas and your identities, and may already be building something that’s really powerful or could be more powerful with your folks aligning themselves with them. Definitely don’t be afraid to start something new, especially if there isn’t a space for you in your community, but also challenge yourself to see where there might be alignment with other spaces or places that already exist and are already building. We need more folks, we need more spaces, we need more energy, but we also need to do it connected and coordinated and aligned. GetEQUAL is committed to helping folks find organizations in their community, whether they’re part of the GetEQUAL family or part of the larger LGBTQ liberation movement, or even from just a progressive movement that includes economic justices, climate justices, reproductive justice, black lives. I think that we are committed to getting folks connected to places and spaces in their communities that do exist, and if they don’t helping them start something that could be strategic and impactful.
Tell me a little bit about the photo of you from the Women’s March that went viral.
The Women’s March – well I wasn’t gonna go initially, and I sort of decided last minute, after watching all the inauguration spectacle happening. I decided to go, mostly to hopefully see some inspiration, to see young folks, children with their signs and their families, and older folks. And I will say that it was good to see so many people in D.C. coming to push back against what feels like a takeover of what is now my home, by people who don’t want me here and don’t want me to exist. It was nice to have those folks in town. So I went to the march, but I also wanted to carry a sign, because there’s a reality that it felt a lot like the folks that were coming to the march had a energy – or there seemed to be an energy of self-congratulations, like “look at how many of us are mobilizing and we’re really gonna push back and isn’t that great?” and I thought, well actually… There are certainly people very closely associated with women at the march, if not some of the women at the march, frankly, who voted for Donald Trump. And I think that, there is a need for some real clear and critical conversation, and thinking, from especially white women, about this idea that they are so outraged by Trump, but they weren’t outraged enough to organize their families, their sisters, their aunts, their cousins, their grandmas, their coworkers, their children’s friends moms, you know? These are people who see them every single day. And that’s not to say that I’m not necessarily interacting with those folks as well, but the truth is that 53% – over half – of white women voted for Trump, and that means that some of the women who were at the march have a very close relationship with people who thought that Trump was the right decision to make. And that’s the conversation that white folks and white women especially need to be aware of and need to discuss. The reason I carried that sign and the reason that I’m so glad that it went viral is that, the truth is, sure, most of the women at the march didn’t vote for Donald Trump, and it isn’t necessarily their fault that the other women voted for Donald Trump, but we also need to complicate this idea of what it means to resist in this moment. Resisting isn’t just going to our different corners and saying “I believe this and they believe that” – then we’re just only talking to ourselves. No, resisting needs to be not just resisting the administration, but resisting the ideology and the biases and the lies that are at the root of how someone like Donald Trump could rise to the level of being President Of The United States. Resisting isn’t just calling to oppose Betsy DeVos, resistance isn’t just showing up to the rallies for climate and LGBT and for women. Resisting is also leaning into those conversations when someone says something racist, or says something homophobic, or transphobic. Leaning into those conversations and asking people why they feel that way so those hateful and toxic ideologies don’t swell and grow into the ballot box which brought us to where we are today. Because the truth is that the policies, the Muslim ban, the denying of abortion care internationally, all of those are policies that the republicans have been pushing for decades and that some of the democrats have been supporting as well, so yes Donald Trump is the worst of the worst, he’s a demagogue – but at the same time, these issues don’t go away if Trump goes away. They didn’t start with him and they won’t go away if he goes away. It’s important for all of us, but especially for the white women who were at the march and feel so emboldened now to resist, to do so in a way that has lasting impact and is sustainable, and isn’t just about this election cycle.
Shifting gears a little bit, who are some people – dead or alive, famous or not – that you look up to?
I think the great thing is that I have a lot of people in my life who are my peers that I look up to. I look up to leaders like Carmen Berkley and Charlene Carruthers and Marisa Franco, there are so many folks, like Isa Noyola, these are folks that I look to for inspiration, for support, and also to see what it looks like to do this work and to commit yourself to pushing for change in whatever way that looks like, in every aspect and element of your life. There’s a big push, especially for women leaders, to do this work in a way that kills you, that takes so much life out of you, and I feel really blessed to know people, both personally and just in relationships curated via the movement, people who are trying to figure out how to be whole human beings and also continue to live a life that is a service to change and to organizing to the community. So those are some of the folks that I look up to.
Do you have a favorite moment in Black history? I’m thinking particularly about those moments that tend to get glossed over by mainstream media.
I don’t know if it’s a particular moment, but I think there are a lot of groupings, clubs, societies, organizations, within the Black community – whether it’s the churches, or fraternities or sororities, even just smaller groups. I think that the formation of those movements and the impact that they had, not in necessarily changing policy, or winning political victories, but the role that they play in keeping the community together, the role that they play in creating what is now this so rich and beautiful black culture. Like the groups that came out of the Harlem Renaissance, the Divine Nine sororities, organizations like Jack and Jill, all of these organizations have complicated histories, and there’s certainly lots of critiques to lend to them for the role that they are playing now in this moment, even the NAACP. But I think there is something that needs to be said about how Black folks have been organizing and coming together for our own self-determination for decades, for centuries. And that kind of organization and the beauty and culture that stems from it does get overlooked. I even think that it gets devalued by the Black community because maybe we take it for granted or like I said, they have complicated histories. But at the end of the day, they are who we are and we are those groups and organizations and the list could go on. But those organizations, those groupings, I think are really key to how Blackness has come to be what it is today in this country and those are some of the things I think are worth celebrating and remembering and also learning from the mistakes and the lessons that they can teach us so that we are building our groups in a way that is in their legacy, but is stronger.
We here at Feminist Campus extend many thanks to Angela for sharing her story and her work with us for Black Herstory Month! Keep checking back for more in the series this month!