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 sa