This talk was originally presented at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) 2022 National Conference, which took place in Chicago, Illinois, May 16–18, 2022.
At GEO’s 2022 National Conference, hosted in partnership with Forefront, grantmakers and other practitioners had the opportunity to come together in Chicago, Illinois, to explore challenges and uncover solutions with fellow grantmakers who are leaning into transformational change in order to create a just, connected, and inclusive society where we can all thrive. The conference program included Short Talks—engaging, 20-minute, keynote-style presentations that challenge current philanthropic culture and practice and inspire participants to think about the topic, their work, and/or their lives differently.
Tanya Watkins: Can y’all hear me? Yeah. OK, y’all ready to hear some bad words? Yeah. OK. You said you were. Good afternoon. Good afternoon. We in Chicago. Good afternoon. Good afternoon. My name is Tanya Watkins, and I’m the executive director of Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, also known as SOUL. See? And its sister C4 organization, SOUL In Action.
SOUL is a radical, Black-led and Black-centered faith-based organization, working at the intersection of racial and economic justice in Chicago Southland. If you come across someone who happens to be familiar with SOUL and you ask them, what does SOUL do, they might say, “Oh, yeah, that’s that organization that goes out there and fights with the police.” Or, “That’s that organization that stood outside the Chicago Board of Trade and fought with the banks and the billionaires.” Or, “Those are those people that are always fighting to #FreeThemAll and defund the county jails.” They might look at me and say, “Hey! Ain’t you that loud girl that’s always fighting with the mayor and got dragged out of City Hall in handcuffs?” And I’d be like, you’re not wrong. Even when my kid was little and they were trying to describe what I do to their teacher, they were like, “My mom fights mean white people.” Imagine having to explain that at report-card pickup.
But that word, “fight.” That word was in every speech that I gave in direct actions. It’s been my go-to word to rile people up at every meeting. Hell, it even felt like I was fighting for funding. “Fight” had not only become synonymous with my organization, but it had begun to encapsulate my very personhood. I started to believe that the only way I could survive in this world, particularly as a Black woman and especially in this work, was to thicken my skin, build my brigades, and just resist. My reality as a so-called movement builder was to be in perpetual struggle with everything. I mean, that’s really what folks would like you to believe, right? The words we’ve been called, the words I’ve been called—a thug, a terrorist, a BLM Soros-funded gang member. And for the record, I don’t even know George Soros. I have never seen this man, and he has never given me a check. But in the eyes of the public—and oftentimes philanthropy—movement builders like me exist solely for the battleground, if we even exist at all. Loudspeakers in hand, risking our safety on the frontlines of marches and direct actions, our value intricately wrapped up in the number of bodies we turn out, how much noise we make, how many sound bites the press picks up, the number of legislators we unelect or run screaming out of office, or the pieces of bad policy we fight back.
There’s that word again—fight. We’re expected to tirelessly collect human beings living within the very vulnerable communities we claim we want to liberate, train them, and build their resiliency to stand on the frontlines and fight with us. We play through this cycle over and over again as we burn out, as we burn them out, while funders either tire and move on to the next hot movement issue or cry for us to give them more bodies and more spectacle. Their most important question always being, “So, how many people did you get on the bus to the state capital?” All while people that look like me are literally fucking dying. And for a long time, y’all, I bought into that. I spent every hour of every day searching for more bodies to get on those buses or to turn out at the next big protest, struggling to piecemeal my organizational budget $10,000 grant at a time, chasing issue after issue, perpetually responding to Black death and Black trauma, all while being Black and traumatized my [own] damn self. I literally fought so much that I think that I completely lost sight of what I was fighting for. There was no forest beyond the trees. And it felt like the only trees I could ever see were always on fire.
But in 2016, I had an experience that would drastically change how I approach this work and how I saw myself in the movement. You see, early that year, I would get an introduction to this brilliant organizer by the name of Charlene Sinclair. Charlene was absolutely captivating, this beautiful, larger-than-life sister who unapologetically just took up space. Every word that came from her lips danced through the air like butterflies. And you just wanted to catch each one and just hang on to it. Her very presence was just so damn powerful—so powerful that you didn’t realize until after she had left the room that she couldn’t have been more than five-foot two-inches tall. And in that first meeting, what was most interesting about Charlene Sinclair to me was that this absolutely brilliant woman thought that frontline organizer Tanya Watkins was worth investing in. In that very same first meeting, Charlene invited me to a gathering of Black and Brown women in Los Angeles, California. Now, at first, I refused because our budget at the time did not include a line item for traveling to Los Angeles, California, or any place else for that matter. Charlene looked at me and she said, “I didn’t ask you what you had money for. I asked you if you’ll be there.” And when a Black woman looks at you with such a divine certainty in her eyes, I suggest you agree to do whatever it is that she’s telling your ass to do.
So, on September 2016, thanks to Charlene, this frontline organizer had a round trip ticket to LA. I remember practicing my words on the plane. I was determined to show these strangers, organizers from across the country, who I’m sure were doing amazing things, that I was worthy of being in that room. I was scrambling to be able to talk fluently about every win and brag about how many marches we had done, and how many people we had turned out, and how we had just ousted a racist prosecutor in Cook County, leading to the election of our first Black woman state’s attorney. I had, like—oh, yes, give it up, give it up. So, I had, like, six hours to figure out how to pretend like I was a real organizer, y’all. Even though I didn’t have the organizational budget, I felt I needed to prove it. When I got to Los Angeles, I got an Uber to the address that Charlene had given us in the itinerary. After about 15 minutes, we pull up to this beautiful hotel. Walking in, I felt like I did not belong in this place. If this convening was taking place in this hotel, Charlene had picked the wrong bitch.
This was not me. I glanced at the itinerary for the second time and realized that this was the hotel that I would be staying in. And the order for the remainder of the day was rest. I was like, rest? The fuck is that?
Organizers like me don’t get to sleep. The next day, Charlene would bring us all together. I arrived at this colorfully painted building that just looked like a piece of art. As I walked towards the doors, I could smell burning sage and feel the beating of African drums beneath my feet. I was greeted at the door by these two beautiful sisters in flowing dresses and head wraps who just embraced me and invited me in. It honestly made me hesitate. I was uncomfortable. I don’t think I was prepared for what it felt like just to be affirmed. I couldn’t even remember the last time that my body had been touched as an organizer in a way that wasn’t violent or dismissive. We actually spent that first day singing songs and talking about who we were as human beings outside of organizing. They actually didn’t care that we had just kicked out Anita Alvarez. They didn’t care about the hundreds of people we had marched down to city hall.
Talking about my personhood, my own humanity, was actually frustrating. Organizing and marching and protesting had become my identity. It was who I was. I was like, when are we going to talk about the work? When do we get to the part where we talk about the fight? And Charlene looked at me and she said, “Baby, this is the work. We know that you have done amazing shit and led hundreds of people in Chicago. But we want to hear about who you are and where you are leading them to.” No one had ever asked me that. Being stripped of the numbers, the turnout goals, the policy battles that have been handed to, me was terrifying. And now I was supposed to talk about a vision that I never had time or space or breath to even realize. Most of my organizing career, I was out there literally throwing my body at the police. Here I am, away from Chicago, in a room full of loving strangers—warm and fed and rested and terrified of my own inability to dream. This is the undue burden that we have put on movement leaders for far too long. We love to quote MLK (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) in this work. But for most of us on the front lines of movement, we never have time to have a dream.
You see, that wasn’t what philanthropy was investing in, directly impacted Black folks like me to have dreams. They were instead pumping resources into big policy houses, think tanks, academia, nonprofits secretly fueled by government officials. Those were the people funded to imagine a new world for me. Those were the people who decided what issues folks on the ground should be working on. Those were the people who were trusted to tell us what was possible. But baby, God bless Charlene Sinclair because she was sparking the revolutionary brilliance within us. What she realized was that those closest to the problem were not only closest to the solution, but were the best architects for a society where everyone is served. She fought to invest in the inventiveness of the people who bore the greatest brunt of the failures of American capitalism. She did this by not only reconnecting us with our own humanity and forcing us to contend with big-picture questions about the world as it should be, but by providing us resourced spaces to imagine and dream. I can’t tell you how important that space was because Black dreams, for some reason, are a threat. The ugly truth that we run away from about Dr. King’s legacy was the fact that a Black man had the audacity to dream. And that is what ultimately got him killed. At that time, he was considered radical because he imagined a world where Black people could be safe.
So, over the next few years, Charlene would continue to fight for those spaces, much to the chagrin of the funders—stealing organizers off the ground, even if only for a few days, to talk about building a world beyond incremental policy shifts and issue campaigns. She wasn’t just making us better organizers, but she was building leaders armed with a greater understanding of the society we are fighting for. Because of her, I grew to know myself as an abolitionist in the present-day sense, not solely fighting back against police or reactively activating in response to state-sanctioned violence, but constructing and designing a world where we no longer need police, prison cages, or violent, punitive punishment in order to be safe. But just as Charlene was helping folks like me challenge what was possible, philanthropy, which is largely centrist—I said what I said—seemed to be working just as hard trying to convince directly impacted organizers that a new world was impossible.
Despite the lack of support from national funders, a few foundations here in Chicago got it. Some of those people are probably in this space with y’all today. Many former organizers themselves, just about all who are women, and many who are women of color, they were stirring up bold ideas in philanthropy. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give honor to people like Jane Kimondo at the Crossroads Fund; Angelique Powers, formerly of the Field Foundation; Carmen Prieto formerly with Wieboldt; Michelle Morales of the Woods Fund—[applause]—Leslie Ramyk with the Conant Family Foundation; and Heather Parish with the Albert Pick Jr. Fund, who was also the reason why I get to be in here saying all these curse words with y’all today. She… blame Heather. She invited me.
Bold women, who are intently listening, giving frontline organizers voice within their respective organizations, and using their influence to give them citywide and even nationwide platforms, challenging us to dig deeper, and funding spaces for community members to be in conversation and dream with us. Okay. So, I only get, like, 20 minutes with y’all today. And I felt like I’ve already talked too much. I’ve sucked up all the air in the room. I know I’ve got to get to the point. Here it is: There are billions of dollars floating around the philanthropic pool of justice. So why does it feel like we’re still losing? How is it possible that with all we know about the decades upon decades of harmful and racist policing that we can sit in our homes and watch a man being choked to death on TV by the cops? How in the hell can we be sitting in the middle of a pandemic that is literally killing our loved ones and still be debating the need for affordable health care? How is it possible that in the year 2022, we are still fighting to prove that Congress doesn’t have the right to police our uteruses and strip us of the agency of our own bodies? How can we accept living in a country where armed white nationalists are considered patriots, while non-violent Black activists are considered terrorists?
Maybe it’s because we’re allowing the people that literally want to kill us to dictate our every move and keep us on the defensive because we don’t value making our own spaces to dream. They are unapologetically co-conspiring to design the world that they want to live in. And the only resources that we get are to constantly push back. Are we investing in spaces where the most impacted people have time and place to reimagine new systems that work for all of us? Or are we funding in endless cycles with the intent of keeping the most vulnerable folks perpetually in struggle? Are we growing and investing in our own leaders that reflect our values? Are we making demands that are bold enough to get us closer to the world we actually want to live in? Are we willing to imagine a world where we actually no longer need philanthropy or nonprofits—[applause]—because we just have justice, and safety, and equity? Are you funding abundantly, long term, for actual liberation? Are you helping to create resource spaces for Black folks to dream, design, and build radical futures for themselves, where we all don’t just survive, but we actually thrive? I’m not sure. I don’t know. But because of Charlene, I am dedicated to building beautiful imagination spaces for my people to dream because I know that they deserve opportunities to visualize a future beyond the fight. I’m no longer afraid of SOUL being called radical because if [the word] “radical” means building a world that I’m not afraid to raise my child in, then by all means, call me radical.
Do we still get out there and march and hit the streets? Hell, yeah. All day. The only difference between us now and us then is that, when we march now, we can see the liberated future that we’re leading our people to. So, the question I leave you with today is: Are you bold enough and radical enough to come with us? Thank you.