Accountability, Growth, and Inspiration in the BLM Movement
We recently spoke with two Civic Hall Ambassadors, Tysha Vulcain-Murrell (she/her) and Asher Novek (he/him), about the Movement for Black Lives, what accountability looks like, and who's inspiring them. Civic Hall Ambassadors support our member community by serving as a connector for resources, networks, and skills. Tysha Vulcain-Murrell is a former education administrator at NYU. Asher Novek is a civic tech community organizer, storyteller, and producer.
Watch the full interview here (video snippets below):
Fiona: Tell us who you are and what energizes you.
Tysha: I’m really excited I have this opportunity to talk with you. I think it’s great to put a face to names and start to build this community. My name is Tysha Vulcain-Murrell. What energizes me is helping others and that comes in different capacities. It’s anything from getting my students connected to resources they need, or getting my cohort members at Civic Hall connected and networking with individuals they may be able to work with. And it goes beyond that. It means being a friendly face. We never know what someone’s dealing with in their day or life. Spreading positivity and joy really brings me happiness and keeps me energized, both personally and professionally.
Asher: I have been involved in local politics for close to 12 years now, which is scary to think about. The drive has always been two things: 1) connecting people. I remember a conversation I had with Micah [Sifry, Civic Hall co-founder] where we discussed the role of the organizer being to get the right people in the room. It’s not my job to drive the conversation but to facilitate it, making sure the people in the room can create space and drive forward the issues that are important to them. And making sure people have the tool sets—technical, knowledge, or social infrastructure—to carry work on their own. I see the purpose of the organizer is to organize themselves out of the job. When I’m no longer needed, I know that I’ve been successful.
Fiona: The context of this conversation has changed in the last few weeks. This year we’ve been reckoning with so many things starting with Covid-19. And more recently, the uprising of a Movement for Black Lives. How are you both experiencing this uprising? What are the things you’re doing, or not doing, to help you move through this moment?
Tysha: That’s a tricky question. My involvement with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement shifts. Initially I was feeling upset, so when I first started going to protests it was a way for me to yell and chant and get my frustrations out of myself and into the ether. As I’ve had time to reflect on the movement, I’ve been able to be more intentional about what my activism looks like. As a Black woman, I feel responsible to show up because this movement is for me, my family, siblings, aunts and uncles, etc. So my involvement almost feels like a requirement and that can sometimes feel like a burden, but also inspiring.
NYC has been amazing; we’re 20+ days strong with protests every day, I’ve never been to this many protests in such a short amount of time! That inspires me. I’m seeing our allies show up in different ways. I’m seeing POCs showing up in different ways. I’m seeing ways in which more Black people are coming out to protest. For me, it’s a mix of: How am I showing up to protest, what’s the energy I’m bringing? What are the ways I’m using social media to educate others and share information, for those who may not be able to go out and protest? What organizations am I donating to?
I’ve defined myself as an activist since I was 18 years old so this feels normal in ways. Recently I took my little brothers to their first protest. They’re 17, 14, and 12 years old. That was such an experience! At 12, I had never been to a protest. It’s great to watch the youth get involved with the organizers. It has been inspiring. It also reminds me that the same way I, as an adult [am] making sure to take care of myself, I want to make sure that they have that space to decompress and just be kids, play video games, and not worry too much. So my involvement with the movement shifts and changes. At the core, I believe Black lives matter, it’s not an argument, debate, or politics. It’s a fact. This movement is a part of me and I feel proud and inspired that so many people are finally getting it and trying to do the work to make sure people understand.
Asher: First, I need to always make sure that everything I’m doing is centered in the fact that I’m a white, cis-gendered male. The very first thing I try to push with my white friends and how we approach anti-racist work is that that needs to be the first thing we’re aware of. I want to appreciate, Tysha, the tension that you bring up around wanting to be in the streets but also feeling a burden or requirement to do so. I live in an incredibly white part of Brooklyn, the organizing I’ve been doing for 10 years happens to with the people that I live around and find myself organizing with.
Anti-Blackness and fascism have been around before Trump. I think there’s an important role in speaking to white people about how they / we show up, how we are allies. Most recently, it’s been in the little but important things, like “don’t just text all your Black friends and ask how they are.” Do the work to understand what emotional burden and emotional labor is, and understanding that these are difficult conversations and this is often the starting point. It’s not enough to say “we’ll endorse all Black candidates,” that’s not actually power-building. We have to work with organizations, listen to ones that are led by BIPOC in the communities that they live, and take the approach of listening and following instead of telling or posing.
This can be difficult because white people are born into the world where we are right, and therefore we get to move our beliefs forward. I’ve recently thought a lot about the concept of “right and wrong” as inherently based in white supremacy, because it assumes that there is a “right” and it’s based in the fact that white people have historically always defined that. We need to get away from this idea that there is a “correct” and “incorrect” way to do things; the world lives in between. It’s not our job to determine whether something is ‘right’ because it implies there is a “wrong,” which, spoiler alert, always disenfranchises non-white people.
Asher also offers this list of resources for white people to dig into.
Fiona: From hearing your experiences and living my own, I’m reminded that we all have a role to play in this moment. That role depends on our backgrounds, identities, skills, communities, emotional capacities. What calls to action / reflection / healing do you want to offer?
Tysha: My biggest call to action is to be intentional. Are you showing up to protest because 20,000 people are going and you don’t want to be the one who didn’t show up? Are you posting in social media because you’ve actually read through the resources or you liked the graphic and it seemed cool to share? Performative activism is easy, especially when we’re all virtual, but it’s harmful and can be hurtful to the movement. So being intentional about conversations you’re engaging in, [be intentional] about taking care of your mental and emotional self. If you’re completely drained, you won’t be able to fight the fight, and this is and has always been a long fight. For newer allies, we’re happy to have more people supporting and joining the Black Lives Matter revolution, but please realize that this didn’t start with George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, this started hundreds of years ago. Learn the history. Trayvon Martin’s name and case are well known, but what about Aiyana Jones who was a 7 year old Black girl who was killed by the police? Take the time to learn the history of systematic impacts of police brutality and anti-Black racism that’s the stem of America. This is far more than just the last month, this is American history.
For Black and POC folks, please make sure to take care of ourselves because social media is great for information and mobilization, but it can be draining to wake up everyday and see people that look like you continuously being attacked and murdered. Take time to log off and read a book just for fun, that’s ok even right now.
Asher: I think it’s really important for white people to talk to white people, and also to consider privilege to privilege. I’ve been seeing recently this “contest of oppression,” like “I have a disability therefore I understand the Black experience,” or “I’m a white woman so I understand the black experience.” It’s not a contest. This is work we all have to do, so understand where the privilege starts. There are a lot of smaller things that are important to get into the habit of, like buying things from local Black businesses is an easy one. Just Google ‘Black owned shop masks‘ and you’ll find dozens of them. Getting more familiar with Black and Indigenous art and thoughts: music, books, poetry, etc.
This isn’t new: Oppression has been around before this country and it’s what we’re founded in, so there’s always been resistance against it. Start conversations with inner circles of friends. There are lots of resources on how to have conversations with family, or how white parents can talk to their kids about race. Even with friends with whom you’re really aligned, conversations are still important. It doesn’t have to be a dedicated sit-down session, book club-style gathering, you can just be intentional—to raise up Tysha’s suggestion—if you’re having a zoom happy hour with friends, it can come up in conversation. “What’s going on at work / your business? Is your office recognizing Juneteenth as a day off? Are they donating to organizations?” And finally, pay attention to local organizing and politics. There are state elections happening right now, there’s a lot of state legislation that needs to be addressed in 2021, almost the entire city council is term limited out, so candidates—and letters of accountability of them—will begin to emerge as the 2021 elections ramp up.
Tysha: I want to add that it’s important to remember that growth is bound to happen if we take time to be reflective. I’ve been an activist for many years, but recently I’ve been intentionally asking myself “how am I showing up for Black trans lives?” What conversations am I engaging in? What can I do to be better for the cause? Sometimes when we reflect on ourselves and what our activism looks like, it can be a hard reality to learn that I may have failed these people or have not been showing up. Realistically it’s bound to happen but take that as a learning opportunity to be a better ally, advocate, and activist.
Tysha shares this Guide to Allyship with great resources on how to take on struggles of oppression as your own, and this Support Black People guide with organizations that folks may consider donating to.
Fiona: Who’s inspiring you these days?
Tysha: Nupol Kiazolu is a 20-year old, Black activist. She’s an organizer, a leader in the community and has been an activist since she was 12 years old. It’s been inspiring to watch the way her activism has grown over time. Recently she led a protest in NYC that 15-20,000 people showed up to. It’s so powerful to see this young, full-time student, Black woman really taking the lead fighting for something she believes in. She’s very intentional and purposeful. Recently she was interviewed by Anderson Cooper, and profiled by CNN and teenVogue. She’s so young and impactful! She inspired me to be a better activist myself.
Asher: The first person who comes to mind is a good friend of mine. She’s an activist in Brooklyn whom I’ve been working with for a long time. She’s a very powerful Black woman who consistently shows up in white spaces to make sure that the Black female experience is heard. It’s easy for white people to gather and talk about politics and candidates, but she challenges us every time she enters a space, whether a meeting or email thread: in how we’re making decisions or how we’re having conversations. Her consistency in showing up is testament to her devotion to ensure that dismantling white supremacy happens in small rooms of 10 people as well as on the systemic scale. She’s also really fun!
Asher’s friend would like us to learn about Politicize My Death, a pledge campaign started by a group of citizens who are sick and tired of gun violence.
You can follow Tysha and her work on LinkedIn.
You can follow Asher and his work on Twitter.