This installment is an interview with Brittany Hughes, the Regional Organizer for Missouri Faith Voices – Columbia. Responses were provided during a one-on-one radio interview, and this transcription was reviewed and approved by the interviewee prior to publication.
We’re both organizers but not a lot of people know what that means. How do you make sense of your work to people who are not familiar with what you do?
At the core of it, [organizing is] formation and development of people. Above all it is, “What are the ways through which we can empower folks to make changes in their own communities without having to wait for a system to do the work that you want to see?” There’s also the policy piece. In doing system change work, you actually have to engage the system. You can’t always be solely outside of it. Organizing is the duality of that, or holding both of those at the same time. How do you work in a system, but also help grow and develop people in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re selling them to the system.
How do you keep people engaged in issues that lack publicity?
One thing that I’m learning and one part of the work that feels most exciting to me is just really sitting down with my people and figuring out what makes them tick, what does their heart beat for, and then what are the spaces that we can speak to those things even when they are not always sexy. Budget stuff is kind of boring. No one wants to talk about a city budget. It’s about trying to get people to buy into a long game. Sometimes it’s about doing what we have to do to get to the things we want to do. That’s kind of been my philosophy as of late.
How did you get into organizing?
It wasn’t something that was super strategic or something I was aiming for. Actually, I grew up wanting to be a writer. My mom wrote when I was growing up, and I’m a super big reader. I thought the best way for me to use the talents that I had was to write about the experiences of Black folks. In some ways there was always an underlying theme, this idea of how do I physically and tangibly reach out and touch people? Or how am I elbow deep in my community?
For me, the death of Trayvon Martin was huge. I was 20 in 2013 when the verdict came down and there was something that I experienced that I think was like an inner switch in me that got ramped up to another level. The way that I saw Black and brown folks processing that news and the conversations that we were having in our communities, and the way white folks were experiencing it was totally different. There’s a level of self-preservation almost. If I’m going to move around this world and actually live and be old enough to have a kid of my own then there’s some things that white folks need to know. It felt like it was my space to use the relationships that I had to work through that and explore it with folks. Anti-racism work is how I came into organizing.
Then when I moved here, Concerned Student 1950 had happened, the death of Mike Brown had happened, and so there were conversations that I was having with women in my church space. I was participating in actions that were going on on-campus. It was really disturbing to me that I could look to the left and to the right of me and see folks that I was in relationship with in the community, but none of those people were people I was in relationship with via the church. My friend and I used this curriculum that she had stumbled upon to do a pilot group with about eight or 10 of our homies. Every week for a year, we came together, five Black women, five white women, and just talked about race, culture, and identity, and the ways in which we had experienced the world. We wrestled with what that meant in a general sense, and within the context of Christianity. Particularly wanting to have a theology that was outside of the white Western male, Eurocentric faith. If we’re 100 about what Christianity is, Jesus was a brown dude who chose to die via state sanctioned violence. There’s nothing that speaks more to my experience as a Black woman moving around America. That realization really changed the way I thought about the world, the responsibility of the church, what it means to love your neighbor, the way you see yourself through your faith tradition. Wanting to mobilize and organize folks out of that framework turned into an opportunity to do that with Missouri Faith Voices.
What has been the biggest difference between being an unpaid organizer and being paid for your organizing work?
I get up every day and get paid to do the thing that I love, and loved enough to do for free. It was never really a thought in my mind to get paid to do this work, because it’s work I feel I need to be in to be free and to be alive. The thing that has been the most freeing for me is that I can dedicate my time to this and only this because I’m not working another job. Before I had to figure out when I could get together and do those things but now there aren’t barriers because doing what I want to do counts as work hours.
Everyone has ideas about how easy or hard a job is going to be before they start. What is something that surprised you about organizing full time?
The ebb and flows hit a lot different than I thought that they would. The nature of what we do means that we’ll probably have job security forever. In other jobs you have more or less a season that feels slower than others. Then you have seasons where things feel like they’re going. But because of the political climate and the way the world is set up there isn’t really rest in that way. The challenge is in figuring out how to balance my time, and figuring out the ways I feel comfortable saying no. What are the things in my schedule that I’ve built in that feed my soul so I can get up every day and do this because it’s not always fun? How do I manage time when things are going to be ramped up for six months? What am I doing to give myself a bit of reprieve in those moments? Part of my self-care practice has been not reading the news when I’m not working, and hitting do not disturb on my email.
What are some things that make your work frustrating?
I’m thinking two things: (1) The nature of progress and how long things take and (2) How messy movement spaces are sometimes. I think that folks are under the impression that because we do justice work all the time, our spaces look like what we’re fighting for and that’s not necessarily the case. We still get patriarchy, there’s still white supremacy, the marginalization of folks based on sexuality and gender preferences, disabilities, or even language considerations.
What are some things that make your work the most fulfilling/rewarding?
There’s a baseline of insanity that organizers probably have. I don’t know who chooses to do this for life. There are some of us who do choose this. By and large what keeps me in the work, and why I get up every morning, is because I love Black folks too much to not. We’re just dope people. To think about our time here in the Americas, these 400 years, to be a small part of this history in moving us toward freedom feels very powerful.
Also, relationships. I’m a very relational person. The people I get to be in community with in this work are people that I love and want to stay in relationship with and grind it out with. Because when we win, to be able to celebrate together, that’s joy. It’s a feeling that’s addictive and something I really like.
How have your experiences as a Black woman helped you build your organizing practices?
I’m of the belief that if we get to where we want to be as a country, and we become something different than what we’ve been historically…that means we actually have to center the people being most affected in the work. I think Black women is one of those primary blocks of folks who we should be inviting into the work. My experience as a Black woman who had a single mother, grew up with a brother and a sister who were younger than me, and seeing the struggles and the sacrifices she made to be sure that we’re good, even when that sometimes meant denying herself of things. That sacrificial nature that she embodies is something that I’ve carried with me, just thinking about what it looks like to put yourself on the line for the greater good? We benefit from having really dope Black women doing this work and who have authored the blueprints. The Ella Bakers, the Fannie Lou Hamers, the Assata Shakurs, and the Angela Davis’ of the world are people I look up to and hope that I’ve been able to learn a little bit from each of them in this work, and hopefully have the longevity because burnout is real. Being conscious of Black women’s contributions in this work have shaped my work, being able to lean on familial experiences. I have a very matriarchal family and do there’s a little bit from everyone that I take. There’s a humor and softness that my grandma embodied. One of my favorite aunts was the kind of person where her leadership was very evident, but she didn’t have to be loud about it. One of the coolest things about her was her quiet leadership, which is something I hope I do right and honor. There’s some characteristics I bring to the work by being a Black woman influenced by other Black women. There’s also this view of being at the bottom and being able to see things from a different vantage point because I’ve had an experience that looks very different than what white folks have. When you live the pain, you can see some solutions out of it.
In what ways would you like to see support for you and your work improve?
The finances is a big one in order for us to do this work and to do it well, and be able to pay folks.
What advice would you give to others who may be considering becoming an organizer?
If your self-interest and skin in the game for this work is to have fame and notoriety, this probably ain’t the work for you. I like to see everybody get out of this world relatively unscathed. It’s unavoidable to get out of here without a little bit of trauma, but if you can avoid some of it, do so. Do a gut check to ask, “why do you want to do this?” and, “what are you committed to and who are you committed to?” There’s also this idea of if you’re okay with the sacrifices of doing this work. I’ve been lucky enough to have a salary that takes care of basic needs and I can take care of emergencies, and I’ve been able to buy some nice things and do some nice things but those are basic rights folks should have anyway. I always crack the joke that, “when I make my first million in organizing…” but that’s not why we do it, right?
Brittany Hughes is the regional organizer for Columbia’s chapter of the grassroots organizing group Missouri Faith Voices. Originally from Aliceville, Alabama, Brittany spent most of her school age years in St. Louis, Missouri. Her passion for this work is derived from her love of Black folks and the desire to see the collective liberation of Black, indigenous, and people of color not only in America but globally. When she isn’t working, Brittany enjoys a good book, cooking, music, and grabbing drinks with friends.