How This Activist Is Building Change From A Black, Queer, Feminist Lens

Photographed by Paul Octavious.
Charlene Carruthers has spent her adult life fighting for equality. As the national director for Black Youth Project 100 and a board member for black reproductive justice organization SisterSong, she helps lead a collective of black millennial activists who are dedicated to creating change in America. The BYP100 recently released its Agenda to Build Black Futures, a multilevel project addressing issues of economic justice and racial equality in a campaign for structural change to improve the lives of every black American. "It's the culmination of over a year of work from young black people, articulating what we think should be done," Carruthers said of the project. The Agenda covers issues as varied as reparations, access to health care for transgender youth, and finding solutions to the displacement of communities through gentrification. "If we're going to be serious about racial justice, we also have to know that economic justice is racial justice. You can't talk about one without talking about the other." Refinery29 spoke with Carruthers on her experiences leading youth activism and why it's so crucial to incorporate an intersectional approach to identity when discussing equality. "We do all of our work from what we call the black queer feminism lens," she described BYP100's approach to activism. "Which essentially means that we intentionally work to center the most marginalized people in our work." "In doing so, it's a more liberatory project and a much more radical project."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is it important to bring a specifically youth perspective to issues of race and equality? "When we talk about systems of oppression, young black people are disproportionately impacted. Be it by education, or the system of mass incarceration, healthcare disparities, all of those things disproportionately impact young black people. So in order to address these problems, people who are directly impacted have to be involved in the solution-making and reorganizing. "There's so much power in young people creating something for themselves, but particularly young black people creating something for themselves to serve as a vehicle for the collective liberation of all black people. It allows us to run campaigns around issues of ending police violence, campaigns on economic justice, and what those two things look like in broader systems of state violence. That can be work from fully decriminalizing marijuana to calling for the firing of the police officer who killed Rekia Boyd to securing a living wage through the Fight for 15. That's what this platform allows us to do." BYP100 works from what you call a "black queer feminist lens." Why is considering intersectionality so important when discussing issues of race and equality? "Intersectionality has its roots in the black feminist movement. In the historic Combahee River Collective statement, they looked at interlocking oppression and recognized that black women didn't exist in this world just as black, or just as women, or just as lesbians, or just as poor people, or as workers, but all of those things. All of our identities and experiences reflect the kind of systemic oppressions that impact our lives. And so it's important. Black people are whole people; we don't come to this work in pieces, and if we're going to have any type of solution that is actually meaningful, we have to include all of who we are. "If we tell incomplete stories about what's at stake and what the problem is, we will have incomplete solutions. It's not about perfection. It's about commitment to seeing people as their full selves and the systems of oppression that impact them. If you are a black person living in this world, you are being impacted by multiple systems of oppression that intersect, and they impact your overall existence."
Photographed by Paul Octavious.
Tell us about your own personal journey toward activism. "I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and my family would be best described as 'working class.' We were impacted by systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, absolutely classism, all together. And that impacted the way that I was treated, the way my parents were treated, and the way we experienced life. "I first got involved in activism working with students. The first rally I ever went to was for the DREAM Act. I found out on campus that there were young people who were unable to attend college because of their immigration status. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, in a predominantly Mexican-American and Mexican immigrant neighborhood. Hearing that took me back to where I grew up, and made me think about the kids that were in my neighborhood. I felt that it was wrong, because I knew of the barriers that I had in coming to college. I couldn't afford to go to school, my parents couldn't afford to pay for me to go. I couldn't even afford books every semester. "I just thought it was completely unconscionable that in a country where we have unprecedented wealth and resources, that simply because of where someone was born, no matter where they grew up, they didn't have access to the same types of opportunities as particularly as privileged wealthy white students had. So I went to the rally and I remember speaking, and I don't even remember what I said, but I went because I knew something was wrong. That's a marker of how I get involved in lots of things — because something opened my eyes to something I know is not okay. "I was one of the attendees at the convening of 100 young black activists from across the country, which became BYP100. Coming out of that weekend, we took a number of steps to start a base-building organization. It took place the same weekend as the George Zimmerman verdict." That the convening and the verdict happened so close together seems remarkable. Why is it the right time for issues of racial equality to be brought to the center stage of political discourse? "The time is always right for the issues that impact black people to be at the forefront. Before the founding of this country, black folks had been dehumanized, exploited, and severely oppressed. America has a responsibility to actually be able to reconcile, to pay reparations, to transform itself for the sake of the violence that they've committed generation after generation against black people. And so the time is always right."
Photographed by Paul Octavious.

Of the issues in the Agenda to Build Black Futures, would you say that there's one issue that stands out to you as most important?
"I would start with reparations. And the way we approach it is to demand reparations for chattel slavery, for the Jim Crow era, for the current system mass incarceration, and economic depression and segregation, as it's impacted our community. "Reparations include financial reparations but also free college tuition for all black students. It includes full access to health care and mental health services. It means resources for folks who are part of families and communities that have been ravaged by policing and hyper-surveillance. "It's first having measurable things. What would it mean to forgive all student debt and for college tuition for all black people in this country? What would it mean for something like, what black folks were largely shut out of, like the GI Bill? What would that mean for something comparable to happen in the black community? Where generation after generation, folks have been displaced from their homes across the country. What would it mean for us to actually have access to land? So it's really big. But the first step is the United States government actually committing to it, or studying it, or whatever it looks like, and starting the process." What advice do you have for people who see injustice and want to get involved? "I believe the first thing you do is educate yourself on the thing that you want to take action on. And then you go find other people who want to do something too, who care about the same thing you care about. There are so many great things that are happening, and people don't have to only connect face-to-face. There's also ways for folks to connect with each other digitally. "It's about really investigating what's going on around you, and seeing how you can get involved in those things first. And if it doesn't exist, then finding a collective of people to create it with."

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