Posted on March 6, 2015
Kira Shepherd is the executive director at The Black Institute. Prior to becoming the Executive Director, Kira served as the Director of Campaigns and Organizing for TBI. In this role, she led the organization’s immigrant rights, low-wage worker and economic justice work. Before coming to TBI, Kira was a Campaign Manager at ColorOfChange.org, where she worked on the organization’s American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) national campaign. Kira’s work with the ALEC campaign exposed ALEC’s involvement in the passing of discriminatory voter ID laws and led to over 50 corporate funders ending their financial support of ALEC.
Kira also worked at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Pubic Policy Center where she managed a city-wide youth advocacy project that was instituted in every public high school in Philadelphia. During this time she co-founded the Anti-Displacement Solidarity Committee (ADSC), a volunteer organization built by women of color who worked to combat government-forced displacement via eminent domain abuse, as well as steep rises in property taxes. Kira has also worked for Families for Freedom, a human rights organization by and for families facing and fighting deportation, and Make the Road New York, the largest member-led economic justice group in New York.
Kira graduated from Rutgers University School of Law, Newark with a Juris Doctorate degree.
Kevin Ryan: How did you first get involved in organizing work?
Kira Shepherd: I learned about the politics of gentrification, and its psychological and economic impact on the poor, as a first-time organizer in Philadelphia in the early 2000s. At the time, Mayor Street of Philadelphia started the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. The project unleashed a series of land use and development tactics such as eminent domain abuses, license and inspection foreclosures aggressively targeting low-income gentrifying neighborhoods, and unfair tax abatements benefiting wealthy developers. It was the continuation of decades of government policies that treated poor people, and especially poor Blacks, as if they were an impediment to development. I was drawn to this conflict because of its impact on Blacks and because of my own particular journey.
During this time, a friend and social justice activist enlisted my help to start the Anti-Displacement Solidarity Committee, an all-volunteer organization formed by women of color to address the problems caused by Mayor Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. Working together, we helped residents across the city mobilize and wage campaigns for fair inclusionary zoning laws, property tax reforms, and legislation that protected people living in gentrifying communities. Some of our efforts succeeded, many failed, partly because it was hard to get those who weren’t impacted by these policies to care enough to act.
Since then, I’ve relocated to New York, where virtually everyone complains about affordable housing and gentrification and wants to see something done about it. Even those who weren’t impacted by gentrification years ago, the middle class, are now feeling new economic strain. So now that those higher up in America’s economic caste system are starting to feel the injustice faced by those at the bottom, notably, poor Blacks — perhaps the opportunity to fight for strong policy changes will open up.
KR: What were the most important factors for building your interest and skill as an organizer?
KS: My upbringing made me want to become an activist and work toward racial justice. My dad was a scholar of the civil rights movement, a political scientist, and an activist who dedicated his life to the Black freedom struggle. After he unexpectedly died when I was twelve, I immersed myself in the subject of racial justice by reading his articles and papers, and the books that lined our walls at home. My grandmother was a maid who cared for a middle-class white family in New Jersey. She would often come home late, angry over how she had been treated. She raised four children, including my mother, in the 1950s, in a poor and majority Black neighborhood where most families were traumatized by the forces of poverty, white supremacy, and systemic racism. My mother’s internalized feelings of inferiority, coupled with an environment of poverty and violence, fostered a negative atmosphere in our household that has impacted both of us to this day.
Driven by these experiences, I developed both a visceral and intellectual inclination towards racial justice, and have been working in the field since graduating from college and law school. When the first opportunity for me to work as an organizer and help vulnerable residents in Philadelphia arose through the Anti-Displacement Solidarity Committee, I quickly embraced social activism. To this day, I am an organizer directly involved with the people most affected by racial injustice, partnered with those working to fight it, including clergy, NYCHA residents, and other communities I work with at The Black Institute. I’ve proudly followed in my father’s footsteps, and have fought against the same problems that he studied and opposed.
KR: Think about one of the successful organizing campaigns that you worked on. What were the key factors in building that campaign?
KS: In 2012, The Black Institute partnered with United New York and New York Communities for Change on a new campaign for fast food workers in New York City. The Institute’s role was to organize clergy in support of higher pay and better treatment for workers, so that clergy could bring a moral voice to the issue and mobilize their congregants. The campaign’s success was born out of the workers’ stories and struggles.
I spoke to many clergy members with congregants living below the poverty line who empathized with the workers’ plight. Before the campaign, many folks mistakenly believed that fast food workers were high school students working for lunch money and new sneakers. However, our campaign dispelled this myth by sharing the stories of a large majority of fast food workers – adults with families forced to live off of government subsidies because of egregiously low wages and subjected to inhumane treatment by their employers.
The fast food campaign has since blossomed into an international movement, directed by the national organization Fast Food Forward. The campaign has garnered national attention leading to minimum wage increases in several states, as well as the President raising wages for employees of government contractors.
KR: The Black Institute is focused on leadership development as one of its key strategies. What is your process for building community leadership?
KS: The Institute builds community leadership by selecting issues identified by our constituents and then working closely with local communities to help them develop their own campaign plans and goals. This requires a lot of time, education, listening, and frank dialogue – but at the end of the day the work pays off because trust is built and commitments are solidified. Our constituents feel ownership over these plans and outcomes, and gain the skills needed to sustain this work and organize their community along the way. We have used this process with great success in campaigns focused on Black immigrants, public housing residents, and clergy.
In addition, The Black Institute will be launching an introductory weekend leadership development course this year entitled People, Power, Policy and Politics, and a full eight-week course will be offered in 2016. The training, geared at Blacks because of the specific leadership needs on our community, will train students in becoming effective community leaders, organizers, political strategists, and directors of non-profits. I’m personally excited about the course because it will incorporate many of the lessons I have learned from our President and my mentor Bertha Lewis. Ms. Lewis is one of the most effective organizers and political strategist of our time, and I love the fact that she will be passing on her 30-plus years of experience and knowledge to Blacks entering our field.
KR: Tell me about the campaigns that The Black Institute is currently involved?
KS: The Black Institute has four areas of focus, education, environment, economic justice, and immigration. Over the last two years, our work has principally revolved around the latter two. On the economic development front, we have fought to keep the notoriously anti-worker corporation Walmart out of New York City and helped Cablevision workers fight for better pay and proper treatment. As a key member of the WalMart Free NYC Coalition, we have worked to expose WalMart’s role in the weakening of Black local economy and the income disparity growing nationwide. The Black Institute has also assisted Cablevision workers since the start of their organizing campaign in 2012. The majority Black workers, are fighting for fair wages, better working conditions, and decent benefits at a company where the CEO’s $28 million compensation is 600 times the average worker’s salary. Through the use of rallies, targeted actions, lobby visits, online petitions, and other tactics, the Institute has earned great success in both campaigns: successfully keeping WalMart out of NYC, and pressuring Cablevision to concede to some of its workers’ demands.
The Black Institute will also be unveiling a report and campaign on Minority Women Business Entrepreneurs (MWBEs) this year. The campaign will make public the obstacles faced by these businesses, including discrimination, funding and certification issues, and aim to strengthen MWBEs through targeted policies and legislation.
The Institute has advocated for the needs of Black immigrants since our inception. Through our All Faces, All Races forum series, we have sought to better integrate Black and other marginalized immigrant groups into society through public dialogue highlighting the obstacles faced by these groups and offering solutions for moving forward. And we have worked in coalition with other immigrant rights groups to lobby for policies and legislation enabling undocumented immigrants to work and stay with their families without the constant fear of deportation.
Lastly, we plan to work with Clergy in Staten Island to create an ongoing police accountability project in support of alternative policing efforts. Our strategy will focus on addressing police harassment in Staten Island, where very few Black-led groups have engaged in base-building connected to fair policing, or in developing community infrastructure needed to bring stories of harassment to the policy debate. On the North Shore of Staten Island, police harassment complaints have grown by 59% since 2011, and an astonishing seven of the city’s top 10 most-sued officers in 2014 are stationed in North Shore precincts. Our campaign will rely on the Black Institute’s broad network of allies and our relationships in Staten Island to highlight these abuses and accelerate the citywide campaign for police reform.
KR: You were recently appointed as the executive director of The Black Institute? How will you apply the things you have learned as an organizer to your new role?
KS: First, I learned the importance of listening to others, having a clear vision of how I wanted a campaign or project to move forward, and inspiring others to see my vision or create their own – the same qualities I continued to apply in my role as executive director.
As a first-time organizer in Philadelphia, I quickly learned the value of studying current events and history through a revolutionary lens. I find this even more valuable today as an executive director pushing for reforms and policy changes that opponents dismiss as radical or progressive. When studying history, you realize that policies which seemed radical in the past are non-controversial today. It’s important to be courageously blunt about the changes needed to make things right today.
And lastly, organizing is about letting go of your ego or feeling of vanity. This work is not about me, it’s about the overall mission of The Black Institute, which is to build wealth and power in the Black community and shape public discourse from a Black perspective.
KR: There has been a lot of direct action and organizing work that has taken place across the country since the grand jury verdicts in Ferguson and New York. How can Black communities effectively address the continuing loss of lives at the hands of police?
KS: The forces contributing to unjust police killings in our community are many and massive. They include the economic disenfranchisement of Blacks, police policies targeting our communities, systemic and societal racism, and unconscious biases. We must be brutally honest about the enormous task ahead of us, and if we don’t ask the right questions, we won’t find the right answers.
Local and national strategies must continue to be developed and led by those most impacted. In New York, activists are pushing for reforms including an end to broken windows policing, the mandatory appointment of a special prosecutor for police killings, and legislation requiring police to identify themselves to citizens. All of these policies are critical, and together they will help us move forward. Black communities across the city and nation must unite and fight for the reforms they feel will best protect them, as well as create alternative methods to traditional policing to protect their communities. We must continue to work towards reforming the outdated local, state, and national laws and policies written at a time when the needs of Black communities were typically ignored and rarely valued. Black communities across the nation must unite and hold a national conference on police accountability. Here, best local practices can by exchanged and powerful coalitions formed.
KR: What can we do to increase and sustain Black-led organizing work in the future?
KS: We must continue to promote and create platforms such as this one (Balm in Gilead), where the need for Black-led organizing is addressed and unpacked. Foundations must prioritize funding for Black-led organizations and offer long-term commitments instead of temporary grants. In a city like New York, where Blacks make up over a quarter of the population, the funding of Black-led organizations should better reflect the population’s size and scale. Black folks need to contribute to Black-led organizing groups, both financially and through volunteerism, because waiting for others with deeper pockets to do so has not gotten us very far. We need to work towards actively creating the change that communities desperately need.