Blavity sat down with Charlene Carruthers, the national director of BYP100. Carruthers is a black, queer feminist community organizer and writer with more than 12 years of experience in racial justice, feminist and youth leadership development movement work.

Blavity: Tell us about yourself, your history with organizing and why you decided to join BYP100

Charlene Carruthers: I was born and raised on the Southside of Chicago, in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. Which was, when I was growing up, [a] mostly Mexican American and Mexican immigrant neighborhood. My family was one of the few black families that lived in the neighborhood, if not the only black family at that time, so from a very early age my parents emphasized two things. One, we had to get a good education and two, that we should respect people no matter who they were.


However, the reality around us and the context in which we lived was counter to what my parents were pushing. It was growing up here that taught me what power over folks lives could look like, and what power over black folks lives specifically looked like. So I carry those understandings with me in the organizing work that I do. I’ve been an activist and an organizer now for over 12 years and have had the opportunity to organize across communities and across issues ranging from immigrant rights to reproductive justice, general civil rights and racial justice issues as well.


In 2013 I was a participant and on a small planning committee and I met Cathy Cohen shortly after I moved back home. I was living in NYC at the time and I realized that [I’d] never organized in the place I grew up in and it was necessary for me to learn the landscape here in Chicago. So I met Cathy Cohen, the founder of the Black Youth Project, after a group of young black folks here said that they wanted to have a national convening. She had the resources for it and hosted a convention of 100 black activists from across the country. We were then tasked with thinking about black liberation work beyond electoral politics, especially in the aftermath of the election of the first black president.


That Saturday night we were going to have a social event and that’s when we learned of the George Zimmerman verdict. I do believe very firmly that had we not been gathered that particular weekend, BYP100 would not exist — not the way it exists today or at all perhaps. I came into this convening not with the intention of starting an organization, but I was with other people who made a decision in the moment to do something collectively moving forward.


B: One of my favorite parts about BYP100 is that you make holistic energy a central part to your organizing. Talk to us more about why using a love and culture-centered approach is necessary.

CC: Our core value comes out of how we started. There was a lot of singing, a lot of chanting, particularly by folks who work and live out in Oakland. Really using holistic energy is a broader manifestation of who we are as black people. No matter where we are in the world, black folks celebrate through song, through raising our voices, through creativity, its an opportunity for us to channel our energy and to build ourselves up not just as individuals, but as a collective. Every movement has their song. For us, it is absolutely crucial. We are whole people. We are not just people who care about campaigns and issues. We are folks with history,, with traumas with ideas, I think that value in our work and how it shows up allows us to embody ourselves as whole human beings.

B: A part of your mission that I really appreciate is where it states “members must be committed to building a black politic in a black queer, feminist/womanist positive space.” What are your thoughts on how imperative this is to black liberation?

 CC: Fannie Lou Hamer once said “nobody is free until everybody is free.” I carry that with me in everything that I do. In our organization, we push ourselves to actually embody that. To put up or show up in the work that we do. As much as it sounds great, it is difficult to put into practice. We oftentimes fall short. Our values are aspirational and it requires us to work at it and practice. We cannot do the work of black liberation that leaves out our people. Developing a habit that is based in radical inclusivity and one that follows in a legacy of black feminist and black queer organizing that existed before many of us were even alive is essential to us doing work that’s meaningful.

The #NOLA chapter of #BYP100 just finished a #FundBlackFutures action in front of the courthouse for the #FightFor15 National #DayOfAction. We’re currently marching to NOPD headquarters then to Sheriff Gusmans office to let them know our message – we want larger investment in economic opportunities for New Orleans, not in our policing and incarceration. People who have been criminalized and incarcerated face some of the largest barriers to accessing jobs with living wages. As the incarceration capital of the world and a city which sees large revenues from tourism, New Orleans stands at the intersection of mass criminalization and economic disinvestment in the local community. Join us at 5:30pm at Congo Square for our last action of the day with #FightFor15 and allies as we demand a living wage for New Orleanians as well as a divestment from policing and incarceration as strategies to make our communities safer

A photo posted by BYP 100 (@byp100) on

B: Tell us more about the Agenda to Build Black Futures and why Economic Justice is a major staple of your mission?

CC: We don’t separate economic justice from racial justice. Neither is possible without the other. We know that while policing institutions continue to receive resources to fund their pensions, our people are also not receiving the resources needed to have quality public schools, good jobs, and comprehensive healthcare. And so we found ourselves at a place where we were getting involved with the Fight for 15 and we were clear that we needed to play a role in expanding the conversation of what was at stake in this movement.


So we initiated what ended up being a yearlong process of developing our economic justice policy platform, the Agenda to Build Black Futures. It didn’t even have a name until we had an action to shut down the opening of the international Chief of Police Conference that was held in October of 2015. There were 14,000 chief of police and their staffers from around the world, and BYP100, along with other local organizations, led a mass direct action and civil disobedience that involved more than 100 ppl and resulted in more than 60 arrests that day. That was the first time we articulated very clearly that we wanted to defund the police and divest in policing and invest in black futures, and that’s where the agenda to build black futures came from. It crystalized once we were in a direct action space and required us to figure out very simply what it is that we want and how we were going to get there. And one way to get there is to by defunding and divesting from policing institutions in America and investing in black communities.


A photo posted by BYP 100 (@byp100) on

B: How do you and members of BYP100 stay dedicated and motivated to work toward justice?

 CC: This is a long protractive struggle that we’re engaged in. We’re not the first to do it and we’re not the last to engage in this work. For me and other folks, we see that not just our lives, but the lives of the people we love are on the line and that we have a level of responsibility and a level of commitment to do something about it. I can’t speak for everyone and why they do the work and continue to do the work, but what i’ve seen is that there’s a deep love for a black folks, and belief that something else is possible and that we can play a role in making that something else a reality for our folks.


For some folks, including myself, organizing is a process of self-care. It allows me to have a place where the rage that I feel and the anger that I feel to not be held in community but be channelled into work that moves us forward. This doesn’t mean that we don’t get depressed, it doesn’t mean that we don’t live with anxiety. I have lived with both at different moments, and it doesn’t mean that we’re always 100% “lets do this,” but for many of us, we come back to it because it’s our commitment to ourselves.

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