Balm in Gilead: Anthonine Pierre
October 23, 2014
October 23, 2014
Anthonine is a community builder who brings people together with purpose. She believes through rebuilding personal bonds, we can find solutions to make the world a more politically just place. Her day job is being the Lead Community Organizer at the Brooklyn Movement Center (BMC), a community organizing group based in Central Brooklyn. She is currently driving social change through BMC’s education, anti-street harassment, food justice and citizen journalism work.
Anthonine is a lifelong citizen of Brooklyn, a foodie, and an enthusiasm enthusiast. When she’s not working at BMC, she’s usually looking for the Wiz with her friends the Lion, the Tin Man & the Scarecrow.
Kevin Ryan: How did you first get involved in organizing work?
Anthonine Pierre: Formally, in a high school club at Brooklyn Tech called “Progressive Students Awareness.” We met weekly to discuss current affairs from a radical political perspective, put together school-wide events, and organized students to go to rallies and talks outside of school. It was a great time to think critically about challenging political power structures and to also challenge the media outlets that shaped our ideas about power.
KR: In high school, many of us focus on academic, sports, or art clubs. Why did you originally get involved in Progressive Students Awareness?
AP: I went to a meeting of a Black students group that was held after the “not guilty” verdict was delivered in the Amadou Diallo case. Four cops shot an unarmed man 41 times and I was furious that justice was not served in the courts. I met the advisor for PSA there and he told me they needed more outspoken students to join the club and work for social justice issues. I was sold.
KR: Were you able to engage your fellow students in the club?
AP: I was! I got a lot of my close friends involved as well other students in the school. We were a small group (15-20 students), but we were able to get more students involved in rallies and larger events.
>KR: How did you develop your organizing skills?
AP: Did? I’m still developing them! I will say that I’ve had a lot of peer and mentors who have set strong examples for me and also promoted my own personal growth. I feel that experience is the number one way any organizer learns, and I’m looking forward to setting examples for other organizers one day too.
KR: It’s great to hear that you’re still developing your skills. What are some of the most important skills for an organizer to develop?
AP: Being strategic, resourceful and flexible have served me best in my career. It always makes sense to have a plan and to work with purpose. But when the something not accounted for in the plan happens, having the relationships and creativity to solve problems in a pinch will take you far.
KR: How did you find out about Brooklyn Movement Center?
AP: A friend of mine told me about this “great work” that was being done in Central Brooklyn by some “really good folks,” and I was excited to hear about the organizing work Brooklyn Movement Center (BMC) was talking about. A few months later I saw a job posting and the rest is history.
KR: Why is organizing work in Central Brooklyn so important to you?
AP: I’ve grown up in these neighborhoods, in family and friends’ homes, and in libraries and churches. I can’t imagine a community I could be more invested in building power with and for.
KR: During your time as the lead organizer at Brooklyn Movement Center, what strategies did you develop to build new Black leaders?
AP: It’s been important for us to build an organization that puts forth a vision of community that Black people can buy into. From the issues we work on to the language we use, it’s important for us to communicate that this is an organization that welcomes Black people not only as members, but as leaders and trailblazers. Beyond getting Black people in the door, we’ve had to get messy and uncomfortable and have the conversations about power and privilege that are often swept under the rug. If classism and racism comes up in an anti-street harassment working group meeting, we’ve got to deal with it and let our members know that we’re invested in the change that comes through formal campaigns, but also the change that comes from transforming interpersonal relationships.
KR: Talk about the transforming interpersonal relationships. How do you do that at BMC?
AP: Transforming interpersonal relationships really comes down to transforming ourselves and how we are destructive with language and assumptions. So we’ve got get to the root of how power and privilege shows up for us and then how we externalize them.
KR: What is your long term vision for building Black-led organizing work in Brooklyn?
AP: Well, I’d love to see more of it, of course! I would like to see Black-led organizing groups taking up more space in citywide coalitions. There are a ton of Black-led organizing groups – in immigrant communities, in churches, in block associations – that are disconnected from policy campaigns affecting the lives of the people they represent. We often turn to these kinds of groups when it’s time to do a public education campaign; it’s important to get them involved in the fight too.
KR: Why do you think that these organizations are not involved in policy campaigns?
AP: Getting involved in policy campaigns is usually not the primary purpose of the group, even if the policy issues affect the constituency. Members of Haitian church in Flatbush may be disproportionately affected by NYC agencies’ collaborations with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but the parishioners are there to worship. Opportunities for direct-action organizing can be easily overlooked if they’re not built into the purpose of the group.
KR: There are a number of conversations that have been happening around the country about the decline in Black-led organizing work. What do you think has led to this perception?
AP: Some measure of the truth. Since the 2008 economic downtown, scores of organizing groups and foundations who funded them have had to shut their doors or downsize. Black-led organizing groups have not been immune to this wave, though I will say that it has not tempered the formation of new organizing initiatives. What grabs the big headlines are often the closing of decades-old organizations, not the establishment of innovative but small new efforts.
KR: What can we do to increase and sustain Black-led organizing work in the future?
AP: Celebrating Black leadership is something that happens on a citywide or national stage, but it’s not always built into the ways we interact with the people nurturing our local communities. And when it is, there are a small number of people being lauded, year after year. It is important that we get away from deifying a few voices and raise up the many leaders who move local work forward.
We also need to nurture communities of Black organizers, by rebuilding the systems for mentorship, advancement, and self-care that will propel individuals but also our community as a whole.