Alicia Garza is a queer, civil rights activist who has spent much of the last decade battling state-sanctioned racism in the form of police brutality and working to create brighter futures for Black Americans everywhere. At 39, Garza, a longtime organizer who previously advocated for workers’ rights with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, co-founded Black Lives Matter in 2013 in response to the acquittal of former Florida police officer George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Now, the hashtag that became a movement has taken center stage in today’s cultural landscape and birthed the expansive Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of over 50 organizations representing thousands of Black people nationally, placing Garza at the front of a turning point for social justice activism.
Months ahead of the presidential election, Garza, who lives and works in Oakland, California, is now focusing on translating the power she helped organize in the streets into Black power at the polls. Her goal is to increase politicians’ understanding of and engagement with real Black issues by educating them on policies that Black voters care about through her organization, Black Futures Lab. The lab has conducted projects, like the Black Census Project, to hear and learn directly from Black Americans across the country, while her initiative Black to the Ballot aims to register 10,000 new Black voters. She spoke with MTV News about her sweeping new vision to empower young, Black voters in time for the November election.
MTV News: How did you make the jump from co-founding Black Lives Matter to working in Black voter engagement?
Alicia Garza: To be honest, 2016 was our last major election cycle and it was a big whirlwind. At the time, I was helping to lead the global Black Lives Matter network. We were going back and forth about whether or not we should endorse a candidate, trying to get candidates to even say “Black lives matter,” pushing back against candidates who were saying things like “all lives matter.” It was a lot, and then at the end of the day, what I came to understand very clearly was that Black voter engagement needed more attention, but not from the perspective that we so often see it.
Often during election cycles, Black communities get lectured a lot about why we should vote without telling the truth about what's at stake for our communities. It makes sense that this is not a process that we all always feel good about. And frankly, we are also making sure that we're approaching Black voter engagement not from a symbolic perspective, but from a substantive one.
MTV News: What do you mean by substantive?
Garza: Well, I can't tell you how many plates of fried chicken I have seen in election cycles ever since I started to vote. I think candidates feel like they have to connect to our communities culturally and they do so in ways that are often really driven by stereotypes. Besides the fact that's racist, the other problem is, ultimately, that symbolism gets in the way of the substantive conversations that candidates need to be having with our communities.
They come bearing soul food, but they don't come bearing agendas for what kinds of policies they are willing to advance in order to change the conditions of our lives. And then, frankly, they come demanding concerts and celebrity appearances, but again, they don't come demanding that substantive change happens for Black communities. So that's what we're up to.
MTV News: What are some of the substantive topics and issues that young, Black voters are looking for?
Garza: It ranges. We did the largest survey of Black people in America in 155 years. It's called the Black Census Project, and you would think that because of the conversations that are happening right now in this country — and also because of the disproportionate way in which Black communities are hyper-criminalized and incarcerated — that the number-one issue that we care about is criminal justice reform. We found that it's actually not, though it is an issue that we are deeply connected to. The issue that keeps us awake at night is low wages that are not enough to support a family.
Next to that, it's the lack of access to affordable and quality health care. Next to that, it's the lack of access to affordable and quality housing. They impact everyone, but there are specific and unique barriers that keep Black communities from being able to access these things, and one of those specific barriers is racism. So when we talk about expanding the middle class, we have to remember that the gap between Black wealth and white wealth is vast.
I can also tell you that people said they had never been asked what they experienced or what they want for their futures, but isn't that the entire point of running for office? You want to listen to your potential constituency and hear what they're experiencing every day, and then you also want to know how they want those problems solved so that you can be the best representative for those communities. That gap between what is actually happening in elections and what should be happening in elections is exactly what we're trying to bridge at the Black Futures Lab and the Black to the Future Action Fund.
MTV News: Tell us about Black to the Ballot. Is that a project of Black Futures Lab?
Garza: It is. It’s our way of helping to support and build the capacity of Black-led grassroots organizations across the country to be powerful in politics. We've done two things with the Black to the Ballot: One, we've designed a Black agenda that clearly outlines the issues that we heard most often in our Black Census survey; and it provides tangible, actionable solutions to address those challenges.
MTV News: I imagine organizing a movement that had its heart in the streets like Black Lives Matter is different from organizing politically. What's the most interesting thing you've found between those experiences?
Garza: People who are out on the streets are there because they have ideas about what this country should look like and how it should be run. What I think is really fascinating is that people who are protesting are also designing policy. That's something that we're up to at the Black to the Future Action Fund. We just launched our Black to the Future Public Policy Institute where, just next week, we will announce 40 fellows who we will train to design, win, and implement policy across the country.
MTV News: Do you think that we can see the same level of young, Black voter engagement that we did back when Obama was running for office?
Garza: It’s going to depend upon a few things, [like] deep investments in Black infrastructure and organizations that are connected to Black, young people. It’s going to depend on making sure that the issues that young people care about are front and center in this election cycle. One thing I do know is that young people in this country, they're not with the agenda that is dividing us.
I will say, though, that one of the things that's going to be really, really important is a candidate that will not only listen to young people, but a candidate that will elevate young people's voices and activate young people on their own behalf to make sure that everybody shows up at the polls.
MTV News: There is a generational divide in Black support for Democratic candidate Joe Biden. A lot of older Black voters prefer Biden whereas a lot of younger Black voters skew progressive like most of our generation. Do you think that's going to be an issue in November?
Garza: I do. I think that the choice that young people are making right now is not between Trump or Biden. It’s whether to vote or not to vote, and so that is why it's so important to have a substantive agenda that actually addresses the issues that we care about, but that also advances real solutions to the challenges that we face every day.
MTV News: What's the number-one thing you would love to see the Democratic party do to reach out to young, Black voters before November?
Garza: I would like them to reach out to young, Black voters! I want them to invest way more resources and build infrastructure in Black communities so that our communities are engaged and empowered to take this country back.
MTV News: What's it been like for you to see Black Lives Matter expand into every corner of the world over the last couple of years?
Garza: It's really humbling. Patrisse [Cullors], Opal [Tometi], and I started a hashtag and an organization in 2013 that went global. We helped to also pull together an ecosystem that was much broader than the organization that we founded, and that ecosystem is called the Movement for Black Lives and it is taking the world by storm. So I can say that I feel hopeful and I feel humbled to be the smallest piece of such incredible and enormous change.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.