The titles and roles of activists may differ, but a good activist can be spotted by their passion and dedication to their work. Most of us choose our paths of activism based on the impact we want to have or life sort of decides for us by placing us in social locations where the only path that makes sense is one of resistance. High levels of recognition are typically reserved for men, the wealthy, or those who have been doing this for so long that their fame is an accumulated fame. This blog series is not a remedy to this situation, but rather designed as a way to highlight activists and their justice work through brief interviews.
This installment is an interview with Diane Burkholder, community organizer and social movement consultant. Responses were provided during a one-on-one phone interview, and this write-up was reviewed and approved by the interviewee prior to publication.
How do you identify yourself as an activist and organizer?
I mostly identify myself as a community organizer. I try to stay away from “activist” because it’s a title people assert on each other, but you can be an activist doing many different things. I’m always mindful of how titles create a hierarchy, so I try to stay away from that. I’m also grappling with the term consultant. In grassroots organizing, I see my role connecting communities, building power, and providing spaces for marginalized folks because we feel lonely and our challenges and feelings are not often validated.
Which of your personal characteristics have helped you the most in this work?
There are two things for me: One is, I’ve lived in different parts of the country which has enabled me to live in some very different communities. I spent part of my life in South Dakota, which is a Northern plain state that is also in the Midwest. It’s predominantly white and Indigenous. The Black population is less than 3 percent (1 percent when I was growing up) in the entire state. I lived in California, which is a state that carries a popular narrative of being liberal land, but really it’s a mix of different communities. I’ve lived in Kansas City since 2011, which means I’ve lived and been able to connect with folks across the country. It’s how I’ve been able to promote the narrative of the Midwest when I travel to other parts of the country.
The other thing is that I’ve moved and am able to move between identities. Folks don’t know where to put me just based off looking at me, so they always try to put me in groups, but that gives me opportunities to push conversations with those groups or with them directly. I’m biracial-Black or a mixed-race Black woman, but sometimes I’m seen as a Black woman … sometimes as a Latina (as though Black folks aren’t also Latinx). I currently identify as queer (even though I haven’t always) and pansexual, so I’m always thinking about what that means in movement work. I’m also an atheist, which makes me contemplate how to have conversations about faith without leaving out non-religious people. I’m also in my thirties (a Xennial), so not quite young, but not older, which makes me try to connect elders and younger folk within movement spaces. Older movement leaders tend to group folks in their 30s as young, but there’s two generations behind us.
Now that the concept of intersectionality has become more popular, it is often said that movements must be intersectional. What does that mean to you?
The term intersectionality has been watered down. It’s become the new catch phrase, and has also been co-opted by non-Black women. It was designed for and by Black women – though it can apply to and inform the work of other marginalized communities. It is moving toward not having significance because people throw it on a lot of their work without understanding the history behind it. Some movements must take the lead and listen to the most marginalized within communities. It’s also important for leaders to understand that folks in communities who don’t have access to nonprofit structures should have just as much power. People don’t have to be tied to a nonprofit job to create change in a community. We have been shown through history that when we leave people out of various stages of programming and community efforts, things will lose their true meaning, and the focus on who initiatives are really for will also be lost.
What has been your most memorable action, and why?
The one that stands out the most is the action we did with One Struggle KC for the two-year marker of Mike Brown’s death. We did an action on State Line/85th, which is located in an upper middle class neighborhood. This is my memorable action despite the 90+ degree heat that we were walking in. I expected to get more pushback than we did, but we had many folks hop out of their cars to join us and cheer us on. When we blocked the intersection, many folks stopped and spoke out in support of those participating in the action. It was also a very public display of how police showed their true colors. Spectators had a little bit more of an awakening of how police treat our communities.
As a resident of Kansas City, Mo., what similarities do you see between the issues you fight against and the issues other folks are fighting throughout the country?
We’re fighting white supremacy! We share similarities regardless of what is labeled a red or blue state. Those involved in social justice work are trying to figure out how to mobilize when there’s so much work to be done. We all are trying to figure out how national policies trickle down to local policies. We’re trying to work on things in our own backyards.
What are a couple of things that make your work the most frustrating?
European Americans are now suddenly waking up to the realities that so many people have been facing, and are starting to feel a little bit of the pressure themselves. I’m frustrated by folks who are quick to leave when they don’t see immediate change, and they do it in unhealthy ways. I see it as tied to the ego, which is tied to social justice work, and pettiness, and gatekeeping. In instances I’ve seen, folks who were collaborating with our community suddenly disappeared when they were challenged, and didn’t show back up. In many instances ego is fragile and people will take a step back and not come back. I’m also frustrated by Black/brown folks who gain access to power and whiteness but suddenly stop organizing their people or turn on the very people who helped them in the first place. I blame capitalism. It brings out the worst in people.
What are a couple of things that make your work the most fulfilling/rewarding?
I’ve been seeing it more recently that folks of color are trusting their guts more and creating spaces for and by them. I’ve seen folks in groups and in-person struggle with but eventually articulate why they can’t bring their white friends or partners into certain spaces, but with these discussions I see relief and affirmation that its ok to have spaces for you and your people. People of color have always been told and pressured to share our space with those who oppress us, but people are seeing the importance of creating a healthy distance from those who are not supporting and uplifting us. I’ve seen this occur in a range of spaces, from conferences to mom groups. We don’t have to be a part of the mainstream because it doesn’t fulfill us most of the time.
I like connecting folks across communities and seeing them build new supportive relationships that makes me feel hopeful. That sounds cheesy, but it reminds me why I do the work I do. At the end of the day, everything can feel very overwhelming. It fills me to know that when I’m feeling challenged, I can reach out for support and know somebody is there. When you have that support, the work doesn’t feel so overwhelming. It feels good to be doing work that honors the connections that we need.
Diane Burkholder is a cisgender, queer, mixed race, Black feminist community organizer. She’s a non-profit professional with more than 15 years experience in building the capacity of grassroots organizations and social service agencies. Diane is the founder and lead consultant for The DB Approach, providing anti-oppression and social justice facilitation, coaching and training. She’s a co-founder of One-Struggle KC, a coalition of Kansas City activists seeking to connect the struggles of oppressed Black communities, locally and globally and co-moderates the Kansas City Freethinkers of Color, Kansas City Mixed Roots and Brown Voices/Brown Pulse for QTPOCs in Kansas City. She also serves on the Council of Elders for Uzazi Village which strives to center Black and brown families in maternal and infant health.