Balm in Gilead: DeAngelo Bester
December 12, 2014
December 12, 2014
DeAngelo has worked as both a community and labor organizer for over 10 years. He has led local, state, and national organizing campaigns that advanced racial justice around issues such as educational equity, preservation and expansion of affordable housing, re-entry, and increasing access to living wage jobs for Black workers.
In 2012, DeAngelo left his job with National People’s Action (NPA) after nearly six years to start the Workers Center For Racial Justice (WCRJ) where he serves as Executive Director and Senior Strategist. In 2014, under his leadership, WCRJ achieved a major victory by getting statewide Ban the Box legislation passed and signed into law in Illinios that covers both public and private sector employers.
Kevin Ryan: How did you first get involved in organizing work?
DeAngelo Bester: I was actually recruited to do an organizing internship for several months through the AFL-CIO. I got the opportunity to help organize hospital workers in the Chicago area to try to form a union. It was a great experience where I really learned the nuts and bolts of union organizing.
After my internship I started working for an organization on the west side of Chicago doing grassroots community organizing. It was there that I fell in love with the craft of organizing and knew it was something I wanted to do for the long haul.
KR: What were the most important factors for building your interest and skill as an organizer?
DB:Having the chance to work at a small grassroots organization really helped with both. I got the opportunity to identify, recruit, and develop my own set of leaders. Every strategy and tactic used on our campaigns, I was able to help shape in collaboration with my leaders. I had a central role in the planning and execution of every direct action and/or negotiation with targets. And this was all within the first year and a half. I don’t think I would have gotten that same level of experience so quickly had I stayed with labor. Working at a small grassroots group, I was thrown into the deep end on day one.
I would also add that the opportunity to work with my people (Black folks) really helped solidify my interest in the craft. I think I have the skills and motivation to organize any group of people, around any set of issues, no matter the geography. But there was just something about organizing people going through the same struggles I was going through that really made me fall in love with the job during those early years.
KR: Think about one of the successful organizing campaigns that you worked on. What were the key factors in building that campaign?
DB: This year our organization helped get Ban the Box legislation passed in Illinois that covers both public and private sector employers. For us, one of the keys to running a successful campaign was having a dedicated group of leaders. About two-thirds of our leaders have a criminal record, and they’re the ones who pushed for us to take up this fight and led the effort. They canvassed, phone banked, organized and facilitated public meetings, shared their stories, met with legislators throughout the state, led direct actions, you name it. For a small grassroots organization like ours, having leaders that can do most of the heavy lifting is essential.
Another factor in the success of the Ban the Box campaign was the fact that we were open to working with the “enemy.” Instead of spending our time meeting with legislators that represented our base and were already on our side, our strategy was to try to move conservative legislators to support Ban the Box. Our leaders met with legislators who represented White, rural conservative districts, hours away from where the majority of our members lived, shared their stories, and convinced the legislators that banning the box was not just a Black issue, but something that could benefit millions throughout the state. The result was four out of the five Republicans we met with voted for Ban the Box, along with every conservative Democrat.
KR: In your role as the co-executive director for the Worker Center for Racial Justice in Chicago, you organize with Black workers and their families on campaigns such as Dignity of Work. How do you develop Black leaders to take on this work?
DB: Our leadership development process is still a work in progress, but it starts out with identifying and recruiting marginalized Black workers to the organization. We then try to provide political education for people to raise their consciousness. That can take on many forms, from having people attend one of our movie nights with a politically relevant movie, to attending a direct action, to attending a Know Your Rights trainings around wage theft, workplace health and safety and discrimination. From there we invite people to attend a strategy meeting around one of our campaigns, and it is in these meetings that people really get an understanding of what we do and how they can get more involved. Once people start participating in strategy meetings, they begin to take ownership of the work and the organization.
But no matter how smart our leadership development process is, if we weren’t organizing around issues that Black folks truly cared about then it wouldn’t matter. The fact that our work is centered at the intersection of labor and criminalization, and we frame it as two interconnected systems, makes us very appealing to most Black folks. So our issues and campaigns play as large a role in getting Black folks involved as our leadership development process.
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?
DB: Because Black folks are largely ignored by the Left as a whole, except when we’re needed to show up on election day. The major fights on the left over the past few years, healthcare, immigration and income inequality, have either tokenized us or ignored us all together. Since we didn’t have large roles in these efforts, outside of someone from the NAACP, Urban League, or some other random Black pastor speaking at a press conference or rally, assumptions were made that we weren’t organizing. There has been plenty of Black organizing happening around the country, it’s just focused on issues that weren’t a priority for many on the Left at the time. That’s starting to change a little now. Thanks to Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, and the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Black-led organizations doing work on incarceration, police accountability and criminalization are getting some well-deserved attention.
Another reason for the perception that Black-led organizing is in the decline is that many of us are small organizations, with very little capacity , and therefore don’t show up on people’s radar screen. Many Black-led organizations have little to no paid staff, and only have the capacity to focus on the programmatic work and not things like infrastructure and communications. I’m very proud of the work we did on the Ban the Box campaign here. The Governor recognized our efforts and invited us to speak at the bill signing ceremony, but aside from our leaders, supporters and close allies, no one knows about what we did. As the Executive Director I have to take full responsibility for both not doing a better job at communicating and for not getting us the capacity we need.
KR: What can we do to increase and sustain Black-led organizing work in the future?
DB: Inadequate funding has a lot to do with it. In the three years I’ve been running this organization, I realized that we don’t need a $5 million budget in order to have a major impact in this state. But we do need a budget adequate enough to hire the necessary staff, run transformative racial justice campaigns, and be active participants in coalitions and alliances that align with our values, politics and vision.
I’m fully aware of the difficulties in providing adequate funding to Black-led organizing efforts. We talk extensively about how there is a very high level of implicit bias in this country towards Black people, especially Black males. And obviously philanthropy is no different. I think it’s easy to say that you want Black males to succeed, and even to help design programs to help them succeed. But it’s a whole other thing to put a six-figure check in the hands of a Black male, who has his own thoughts and ideas about how to help his people succeed. And if that Black male isn’t formally educated, has a criminal background, and doesn’t speak the Queen’s English, forget about it. I guess the most I can hope for is that philanthropy begins to wrestle with its own implicit bias towards Blacks, especially Black people that don’t come from a privileged background, and one day see its way to clear to adequately fund our work.
KR: What are your thoughts about the grand jury verdicts in Ferguson and New York? How can Black communities address the continuing loss of lives at the hands of police?
DB: I was saddened of course, but unfortunately not surprised by the decision from either grand jury to not indict those officers. Like with the acquittal of George Zimmerman last year, the criminal justice system did exactly what it was supposed to do. The criminal justice system, I would argue, is the most racially biased system in our society. The grand jury’s decision to not indict reaffirmed the dominant belief that lives of Black people, especially Black males, is not that important. The deeply entrenched implicit bias towards Black people, that is present on the Right, Left and Center, has created this culture where an unarmed Black man can be murdered by the police, and there be no repercussions. I am deeply, deeply troubled by what has transpired over the past couple weeks, and have lost what little faith I had in our justice system. And believe we are all to blame for allowing a culture that dehumanizes Black people to survive and flourish.