Reflections on PCN from E. Bomani Johnson

From with the opening video, to Sarah Jones’ artistically masterful monologue in the closing plenary, and everything in between, Policy Link’s Equity Summit 2015 crafted a beautiful mosaic of a core liberation principle, We Are One.

In late - 2014, I was following the Live Tweet of an event focused on improving life outcomes for Black men and boys, and how that kind of work is a critical component of the broader social justice movement. As the posts were flying through cyberspace - paraphrasing the remarks of the discussants and praising the movement level energy pulsing from this and other social justice work happening globally - someone asked, “What should be the theme song for this movement?” My immediate, almost instinctive response was We Are One by Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. On the surface it may appear to be a love song speaking to the need for a couple to get over their mess so that they can have a better relationship. However, as an activist and lover of my people, I have long thought about the subtle messages songs, and other works of art, have for the global struggle (no “s” needed to make “struggle” plural) for liberation, justice and peace. Believing that unity is one of the most important principles of a nation, and that love is the most powerful force in our world, I understand the messages of We Are One to be at once a proclamation of our love for one another; the need for us to get over our own crap and get to work; a formula for the ultimate victory in our struggle for liberation; and a pathway to articulating the collective vision for the kind of justice and peace that will right this world (I know, that’s a lot to get out of a slow jam).  

The panel of the Summit’s Closing Plenary: Building a Multiracial, Multigenerational Equity Movement was a powerful example of We Are One in action. The panel featured many of my professional sheroes and heroes, so hearing about their experiences would have been enough to satisfy me. But what happened was far beyond my initial expectations. Not only were there representatives from different races and different generations, but almost every difference (with the exception of physical ability) that makes the United States the most diverse country on the planet was on the stage. The panelists’ professional affiliations and accomplishments also represented a broad diversity of experiences and philosophies. Instead of self-promoting their philosophies and the focus of their work, which could have potentially devolved into a public “fight” to be seen as the most oppressed, most critical, or even the most urgent thing on which to focus, something else happened.

There was a sharing amongst the moderator and the discussants that took the now-seemingly cliché notion of “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” off the blog posts titles, Facebook cover photos, and out of the campaign rhetoric for aspiring elected officials, and placed it in the faces of the 3,000 organizers, activists, funders, practitioners and officials gathered at the Summit, and the thousands more who watched the live stream of the session. A molding of the collective contributions of those present to the global struggle began with the moderator, Dr. Robert Ross of The California Endowment, declaring that his generation, the civil rights generation, has had at best “a mixed record” in running their leg of the race for liberation. From this point, you could almost see the tension released from the shoulders of the younger panelists - We the Protestor’s, DeRay McKesson; Carmen Perez of The Gathering for Justice; and Linda Sarsour of the Arab American Association of New York. At the same time, the heads of the more senior panelists – Nick Tilsen of Thunder Valley CDC; Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children’s Zone; Mary Kay Henry of SEIU and Stewart Kwoh of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – raised. Both groups were now prepared to listen and to share.

The sentiment illustrated in this moment was best summarized with Tilsen’s sharing of how the Lakota Nation views the relationships between its generations. Tilsen explained that he, like all other Lakota, is responsible for seven generations - the three that preceded him, the three generations that will follow him, and himself, representing the seventh generation. Ironically there were seven panelists, seated in a row and Tilsen was seated in the very middle. Tilsen also bridged, in terms of age, the older and young generations on the panel, being the only 40-something on the stage. The very practical need to view the numerous battles against injustice happening around the world as one struggle, was delivered via Geoffrey Canada’s statement, “We are a movement of movements because we are fighting the same people. There is no white supremacist that hates Black people and loves Native Americans.” 

A belief in the interconnectedness of people and the many struggles against injustice in the world has been a quiet, but prominent guide in the way I worked throughout my career, and lived my life. Over the past three years, this belief has been at the forefront of my mind, and I have consciously worked to be a connector of people representing communities, organizations, philanthropies, corporations, governments and other entities that impact the lives of the oppressed. In many ways, my philosophy and view of our world is well summarized in Policy Link’s Equity Manifesto,

It begins by joining together, believing in the potency of inclusion, and building from a common bond. It begins by joining together, believing in the potency of inclusion, and building from a common bond.

It embraces complexity as cause for collaboration, accepting that our fates are inextricable.

It recognizes local leaders as national leaders, nurturing the wisdom and creativity within every community as essential to solving the nation’s problems.

It demands honesty and forthrightness, calling out racism and oppression, both overt and systemic.

It strives for the power to realize our goals while summoning the grace to sustain them.

It requires that we understand the past, without being trapped in it; embrace the present, without being constrained by it; and look to the future, guided by the hopes and courage of those who have fought before and beside us.

This is equity: just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. Unlocking the promise of the nation by unleashing the promise in us all.

I am so grateful for the opportunity attending Equity Summit 2015 as a member of EPIP’s PCN Delegation has provided. Not only did I meet great people, and get to spend a few days in sunny California :), but the energy and renewal that came from learning and sharing valuable lessons with 3,000 of the most brilliant and committed people working for our collective liberation will be with me for the rest of my life. Indeed, We Are One!

|E. Bomani Johnson