Kendra Hicks, Director of Radical Philanthropy at Resist, convened and hosted Justice is Essential, a three-part series. The first conversation, “Organizing for the New World,” between Joshua Allen and Barbara Smith took place on November 17, 2020. In this excerpt, they discuss protest, safety, and what it means to be “queer” or “out” today as compared to 50 years ago.
Joshua Allen: The issues that we’re facing today are not just economic issues of the shutdown and are not just issues of police brutality. It is a construction of a society that is hellbent on exploiting and extracting resources from poor and working-class communities, maintaining a system of control and domination through violence—and terror, really. Viewing that video of George Floyd was a form of terror, right, to keep us in line and just keep us in place. And so, a lot of the work that I started to do in response to that experience of personally being arrested, and experiencing a curfew in my own city, which I love very much, was to try to support other young people who wanted to get up and take action, particularly young queer and trans people.
So, being arrested—and I was held in a men’s cell in Queens, actually, when I was held there—being arrested as a queer and trans person, especially as a visibly gender nonconforming or nonbinary person, is not a fun thing to do, you know? Because not only are you afraid of what’s going to happen with the police officers, but in the back of your mind, you’re thinking, “Well, what are these other people who are in the cell with me going to think about me? How are they going to treat me? How are they going to refer to me?”
And of course, I’m interested to hear what you have to say about this, Barbara. For so long on movements for justice, queer and trans people have not been listened to. We have not been allowed to be leaders, we have not been allowed to have voices and platforms. And so, what I wanted to do after that experience was…it really inspired me to take up more space, you know? To not only try to resource, connect, educate, and activate around other people, but around the piece of representation—not like, neoliberal representation—but like, seriously, we need to see ourselves and see our power. We need to see ourselves out in open space. We need to see ourselves out, dressed in ways that affirm us and taking up space in spots of leadership. And so that was a big part of the organizing that I was trying to do this summer, trying to get resources, support, education, and activation to other young queer and trans people who have been integral to our movements for social justice for decades—for centuries, really, in this country—so that maybe this time, we don’t see the same communities getting left behind.
Kendra Hicks: Thank you, Joshua. And, Barbara, I just wanted to give you a moment. I know that Joshua invited some more comments from you about how queer people have been able, or not able to show up in organizing spaces. So, I wanted to invite some thoughts from you.
Barbara Smith: Well, I think that that thing of “being out,” you know, when I came out in the mid-1970s, which was a few years after Stonewall, that was kind of the defining concept: Were you out, or were you in the closet? What you said, Josh, about visibility and taking up space, I’ve had that experience. Because now, you know, it’s cute to be queer, at least to some people. There are queer Black women, what we used to call lesbians—I’m still a lesbian, actually—anyway, that, you know, have big careers. They’re very visible in popular culture and mainstream culture, media. And I know that our trans sisters, some of them are actors and have big platforms—again, in mainstream media—and they’re also freedom fighters, which I love, as well as the people who are not living that life, and who are doing the work on the street.
But as I said, that concept of taking up space and being visible, that’s what the Pride parades were about. And let me tell you, being in a Pride parade—before corporate police takeovers of Pride parades, thank you—but being in grassroots community Pride parades…in Boston, actually; I’m thinking about Kendra, who lives in Boston still. On the streets of Boston in the mid- to late 1970s, that took a lot of courage to be out there. And it was so exhilarating.
Now, going to jail, that’s a whole other level. And I can’t say anything except for thank you for having that level of bravery and courage. That takes a lot of courage, and a lot of us have ended up in jail or prison and incarcerated and have been treated horrifically as a result, particularly if we are trans.
Kendra Hicks: Thank you so much for sharing, both of you. I think one of the things that we’re seeing is that as movements become more prominent, you can see the shifts that they make throughout the decades, right? Visibility in the mid- to late 1970s meant something really different than it means now, and therefore, it kind of redefines the level of courage that people have to exert in order to be visible and the things that you have to do to continue pushing the envelope. And so, I’m really grateful for both of you for sharing the transformative work that you’re doing. You’re not only anchoring us in our history, but you’re also helping us to create more possibilities for the collective futures in ways that are really familiar, but also, in new ways that we’ve never been able to see before.
Kendra Hicks is a first-generation negra from the Dominican Republic, a mother, and an installation artist from Roxbury, MA. Anchored by a commitment to bring the margins to the center, Kendra supports organizations in building the culture, structures, and strategies necessary to interrogate white supremacy’s impact on their work. In her current role as the Director of Radical Philanthropy at the Resist Foundation, Kendra is using her head, heart, and hands to explore how foundations, as a part of the nonprofit industrial complex, can be more accountable, emergent, and responsive, pushing them to use their imaginations and expand beyond the realms of possibility toward liberation. Kendra Hicks is running for Boston City Council, District 6.
Barbara Smith and her colleagues in the Combahee River Collective are credited with originating the term “identity politics,” defining it as an inclusive political analysis for contesting the interlocking oppressions of race, gender, class and sexuality. Now widely referred to as “intersectionality,” this analytical approach has shaped scholarship, teaching, and progressive activism. Barbara’s work has been a source of guidance and inspiration to individuals and movements committed to battling both external and internal oppression.
Joshua Allen is a black transfeminine organizer and abolitionist whose work revolves around issues of race, gender, and policing. Their work of coordinating direct actions, movement building and analyzing the intersections of race and gender have been featured in major news outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, BBC, and ABC. Joshua has been invited to workshop, keynote, and organize at universities, conferences and within movements in countries across the world.