Lisa Sullivan’s Vision of the Future

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Movement [building] as mothering is a powerful and a punishing thing.
—Makani Themba on the death of Lisa Sullivan

Lisa Sullivan, as she did with so many, reached out to me. It was 1997, and I’d just written a Village Voice article taking the NAACP to task for its seeming inability to devise a post-civil rights agenda. Lisa called—full of kudos and that wicked giggle—and asked, “You like to write on social justice issues?” It felt more like a statement of fact than a question. I hadn’t yet come to that awareness myself; I was simply using my talent for writing and interest in politics to address the community concerns that increasingly consumed me. But since she had mentioned it, I realized that I did and answered, “Yes,” thankful for a name for this work.

Identifying young people and holding their talents up to the light so that they are evident even to them was one of Lisa’s best gifts—her genius even. Hers was a rare style of mentoring. She created spaces and opportunities so that young people with social justice missions could flex their talents and develop leadership skills. A case in point: before long, I had an invitation to serve as historian for Local Initiative, Support, Training, and Education Network (LISTEN), charged with documenting the start-up of this new nonprofit organization that Lisa founded in October 1998.

LISTEN, she explained, was to be a new kind of social change organization that sought to organize—rather than simply serve—poor, urban youth. Its development was in direct response to the perceived ineffectiveness of traditional community development corporations, which incorporated—some might say co-opted—social change work as the political movements of the 1960s and 1970s faded. After the civil rights movement, activists found themselves working in CDCs, and social change increasingly resembled social work. The “safety net” of services prevented people from falling through the cracks, but it also precluded them from accessing power to change their conditions. Lisa hoped LISTEN would “identify youth with a social justice mission in the nonprofit sector,” and then support these activists in their efforts to engage poor, urban youth—the hip hop generation—in building the skills and relationships that could move political agendas on their own behalf.

Many have noted that the model of engaging youth in community organizing as a way to build leadership was one that Lisa perfected at the Children’s Defense Fund, where she founded the Black Student Leadership Network (BSLN). BSLN, a community service organization for African American college students, trained more than 650 youth organizers from 1991 to 1996. Just a brief look at the national youth organizing landscape today reveals that some of the country’s most dynamic youth leaders got their start at BSLN. Others point to Lisa’s even earlier work in New Haven, Connecticut, where, as a Yale graduate student and advisor to the local NAACP youth council, she helped organize the growing youth base, especially among women of color, to elect that city’s first black mayor, John Daniels. Still others note that much of her thinking gelled while a consultant to Rockefeller’s Next Generation Leadership fellowship. But in interviewing Lisa as LISTEN’s historian I learned that the real model for LISTEN—a free space where young people could come for encouragement, resources, and guidance—was her parents’ humble Takoma Park home in Washington, D.C.

In the late 70s and 80s, when their neighbors moved to the suburbs, Lisa’s parents, South Carolinian natives with a strong commitment to black progress and self-determination, stayed, even as the neighborhood declined from solidly middle-class, to working-class, to working poor. “We were like a constant,” Lisa told me that summer in 1999 as she reflected on her early influences. “Everybody came to our house to use the encyclopedias, to talk to my mother about financial aid when they were ready to send their kids to college. Our house has always, in our neighborhood, been a source for people who were looking for upward mobility with their kids.”

Mentoring ran in the family, as did a tradition of activism and institution building. It was a point of great family pride, Lisa told me, that she, her parents’ first child, was born in D.C.’s “Old Freedman’s Hospital, a symbol of black progress and self-determination because it was the black hospital with the black doctors.” One of her great-grandfathers donated the land for the first black school in Clarendon County, South Carolina. Another grandfather, William White, as principal of the local high school and secretary for the local NAACP chapter, refused to turn over to the State Board of Education the names of black teachers who were association members. “He was risking his family’s security as an educated middle-class black man in the South in the 40s to say ‘no’ to white supremacy. And he paid a high personal cost.”  Blacklisted, her grandfather was unable to find work as an educator in South Carolina for the rest of his life.

Lisa knew first-hand the personal sacrifice so many everyday black people had endured for the collective interest of black America. This family legacy and knowledge instilled in her a sense of commitment to and personal investment in black institutions. She was committed not only to work with them but also to challenge them to be worthy of the legacy that many had sacrificed so much for. Of her lifelong support of the NAACP, Lisa said, “I feel compelled to continue the legacy of working with the association, and then from that position of being an insider to launch my critiques” of the traditional civil rights establishment.

Ever politically savvy, she also understood that, “to build a movement, you need institutions” with a solid base and local leadership, Lisa told me this past summer, during the last interview I did with her. Fittingly, it was for a cover story1 in The Crisis, the NAACP’s in-house magazine. An article critiquing traditional black leadership, epitomized by the NAACP, had kindled our relationship. An article about 21st century black leadership and youth organizing, with Lisa on the cover representing the voice of the future, brought it full circle.

Lisa often said that we have had a generation stuck in romanticizing social justice work, seduced by the notion that movement building and social change are simply about rallies, marches, and charismatic leaders grabbing the mike to carry the cause. “They are substituting their events that capture attention and increase name recognition for constituency,” she said, “and that’s not constituency. That’s market, not membership. I think this generation of leadership is completely confused by that. Too many are working to broadcast messages when they need to go to a neighborhood and establish relationships with real people and real places.”  A visionary with a pragmatic streak, Lisa understood that movement building is about creating the institutions that will provide the infrastructure to support on-the-ground organizing.

Rather than political theater, “turning the tide is about practical politics,” she said in The Crisis. “If we’re talking about a living wage, education, where people live, where they work, then those are mainstream policy issues and if we’re going to affect them we have to affect them at the level of mainstream, pragmatic politics.”

If anyone understood politics, it was Lisa. She majored in political science at Clark University, where she studied with Atlanta University professor Adolph Reed, Jr., and later followed him to Yale University, where she got her master’s. The upset mayoral victory in New Haven came from her uncanny ability to predict trends and be ahead of the curve. The 1980 census showed that the fastest growing segment of the New Haven populace was young women; Lisa knew these were the uncommitted voters and the ones who could be cultivated to win that election. Similar savvy made her conclude that, “The next organizing strategy for urban youth is returning to local level elected political engagement as a way to get folks energized, to build organizations on the ground in cities, and to address the programmatic agenda that needs to happen.”
Building institutions and bases—in effect, movement—is “hard, even painful work,” she wrote in “Trial by Fire.”2 She’d accomplished more in 40 years than many do with twice the time. It took a toll. But as the best leaders do, Lisa left a clear vision about how to create change in the 21st century with a vibrant institution, LISTEN, equipped to continue the work. Her great personal sacrifice for the common goal of black progress and self-determination should inspire us to engage this vision—grapple with it, push it and make it a reality.

1. Ards, Angela. 2001. “Waking from the Dream: Youth Organizing and the Future of Black Leadership.” The Crisis, July/August.
2. Sullivan, Lisa. 2001. “Trial by Fire: Nonprofit Startups Feel the Heat.” Board Member, March. (www.lisn.org/food/food_trialbyfire.htm).
3. LISTEN’s Web site: (www.lisn.org).

Angela Ards came by her social justice mission of advocacy journalism quite organically—following passion. She is thankful to mentors like Lisa Sullivan who helped her hone her craft and thinking and, yes, political savvy—without killing her sense of idealism or justice—to give her writing and her life more meaning.