Building and Belonging Black

August 16, 2021 Phillip Agnew

The life of an organizer is all about questions.  To me, it seems far more about questions, than answers sometimes.  Yes, of course, there is what seems like an all-consuming pursuit of answers.  But when I sit back and think, my list of questions far outnumbers the amount of answers I’ve accumulated.  At least for now.  To boot, each question answered reveals dozens more in its place.

Over the last year, I have been helping to co-found Black Men Build. We are bringing Black men together to transform ourselves, heal and build our communities, and work in concert as a political force for Black liberation.

Building an organization is hard work. You are birthing a living, breathing organism: it moves, it acts and reacts, it consumes, it digests, it loves, it can be lazy or active, it can unleash or stifle creativity.  It can do all these things and more.

The first few years of building an organization are not unlike the formative years of a child: you (and your team, always a team) are teaching this organization how to move, what is good for it and not good for it, how to speak, how to walk, etc.  And, you have to be intentional about your values and culture. If you build something with the same values as the world around you, you will never undo the harmful systems you’re fighting against.

This is the most fun, and the most tiring, time of all. The organization is dependent on you and your team for all of its core functions.  If you are not dutiful, loving, detail oriented,  or focused your organization will surely die, or become far less developed than you hope.

In this phase, the organization also keeps you up at night.  It must be fed, and nurtured and the night time seems–for me–to be the time for hard questions; the ones you avoid during the hustle of the day.  The ones that make you wonder if you’re up to the task, the ones you need elders for, the ones that seem too big, the ones that make you wanna quit.

Here are four of my big questions, plus a few reflections on them, related to our work at Black Men Build:

  • Why should Movement Organizations have Members? Come as you are, grow as you go is our organizing mantra at Black Men Build. It has grace and accountability built into it. It’s about going on a journey together. Accountability is one reason why membership matters. Membership gives us practice at accountability and vulnerability, and experience with shared power and democracy. Another reason is that we want to have and exert political power, and that comes in the form of organized people. But, we are thinking a lot about what membership looks like and how we care for our membership, how we make it about true, rather than superficial, belonging.
  • What’s the point of starting an organization when everyone follows celebrities? Celebrity individualism says that famous, popular, “blue check” people make movements, win justice, and win campaigns, and that is dangerous. Individuals and small groups will not achieve liberation. But, we know that we are up against a celebrity culture, and that we will have work to do to define and nurture a different kind of leadership.
  • Are Organizations pointless in the time of social media? We have moved from vinyl, to 8 track, to tapes, to CDs, to MP3s, to streaming. But, demand for vinyl is skyrocketing. People still want the feeling of touching something, holding it, hearing the cracks in the music. As much as we have new tech, I believe that the future of movement building is the past of movement building. That belief is built into how we are bringing people together and creating space. But, the pandemic presents additional challenges. For, example, how do you keep an organization alive and a membership connected through Zoom?
  • Can hurt people build an organization that heals? The way Black masculinity has been taught to us is woefully insufficient. It is killing us. It makes us hurt people. That’s why we have to transform what it means to be a man or to be masculine, so that we are not an impediment to Black liberation through white notions of masculinity and patriarchy we have absorbed.  Most people are driven by need and desire to belong, and that can lead us to do both negative and positive things. We want to be together. We want connection with other people. Even now, I am having to interrogate my interior world and examine the ways that I mislead and am not trusting or trustworthy. It is a painful experience.  It aches all over, to know and to feel the weight of a life lived with lies and manipulation.  Still, what is coming from that is a desire to connect more deeply with the people in my life and to belong more deeply and to ask what that takes, which I am finding is honesty, vulnerability, and intimacy. I am around other Black men who are desiring that, and also asking how they need to change. I do think that healing is possible and necessary, but it is not easy. Recently, we released a publication called “Wartime.” In those pages you will see men questioning ourselves, articles by Black women, articles about colorism and misogyny, and how to protect ourselves. We are using it as an opportunity to talk about Black men’s questions, doubts, and opportunities.

These questions and more will be at the center of the dialogues we will be having during my time as Organizer in Residence at Frontline. I hope that you’ll join us.