Balm in Gilead: Black Organizers Series
September 28, 2015
This year, we are continuing to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by looking forward. What do Black leaders have to say about where we stand today? In this series, these leaders talk with Program Director Kevin Ryan about how they developed as community organizers, and share their ideas for building a deeper, stronger Black organizing infrastructure.
Marcus F. Walton is the chief operating officer for ABFE, where he works to build and reinforce its infrastructure to execute the mission of promoting effective and responsive philanthropy in Black communities. As director of programs, he was responsible for the overall conceptualization and administration of programming that organizes knowledge and strategies to address issues relevant to the field of philanthropy; convening key philanthropic leaders to address structural barriers that produce inequity and disproportionately impact black communities, and providing support networks for Black and ethnically diverse philanthropic professionals.
Prior to ABFE, Marcus served as program officer of community-responsive grantmaking with the Cleveland Foundation and sr. program officer with Neighborhood Progress, Inc. where he supported the empowerment of individuals and families residing throughout his native city of Cleveland and the Northeast Ohio region. A long-time student of leadership development and personal transformation, Marcus is a co-founder of the Consortium of Coaches of Color, principal of the African-American Coaching Agenda, and serves as an ontological coach to further realize his personal empowerment objectives. Marcus and his wife, Kelley, and their eight year old son, Coleman, returned to New York City in 2007. His wife is an executive with Moet Hennessey USA.
Kevin Ryan: How did you first get involved in organizing work?
Marcus Walton: I first learned about organizing as a college student in Georgia. I was in a graduate program for public administration and growing weary of spending several years in the classroom as an undergraduate with little to show for it in terms of meaningful experience. In my final semester, I took a leadership class that exposed me to what seemed like 100 industry leaders who introduced innovation into their sectors of choice, using vision, commitment, and specialized competencies. This emboldened me. Shortly thereafter, I made up my mind to leave Georgia for New York City, which represented at the time the most innovative arena for cutting edge nonprofit practice. My goal was to perfect my own brand of leadership in service of Black communities. The first job I saw online that met my criteria for leadership development, creativity, and empowerment was the role I ultimately secured to be a community organizer in the Highbridge section of the Bronx.
KR: Prior to college, did you have any experience that you look back on as making an impact on your social justice consciousness?
MW: The game-changer for me was after I got to college and began to view my “idyllic” circumstances with a critical lens. By that time, the 1990s, which predate the rise of social media and the internet, drugs had been introduced into Black, ethnic, and low-income urban and rural enclaves across the US; disinvestment in the nation’s urban core was in full swing; entire generations of laborers in steel and auto manufacturing were being laid off; the backlash of affirmative action was palpable; and Black consciousness was proliferating the radio and cable TV airwaves in the form of hip-hop and videos. KRS ONE, Public Enemy, and Tupac introduced me to Malcolm X, The Black Panther Party, and Ancient African Civilizations at the same time that I learned about the widespread violence and other impacts crack was having on practically every Black and Brown family I had encountered. Something about the correlation of events just wasn’t right. It felt intentional, orchestrated, systemic… nothing like a coincidence or random act of ignorance!
KR: What were the most important factors for building your interest and skill as an organizer?
MW: As an organizer in Highbridge, we participated in a collaborative to address various living conditions within the community, including district 9 schools. The collaborative offered various trainings with other organizers via specialized national conferences and programs. As a result of my desire to support the local community, as well as others that were suffering from similar conditions, I learned organizing history, strategy, and approaches, including how to conduct and use a power analysis, from a variety of legendary organizers and training groups in Chicago, Detroit, New York, and California. Once I understood that structural barriers were at the root of certain social conditions plaguing Black and poor communities, I was motivated to learn as much as I could.
KR: Think about one of the successful organizing campaigns that you worked on. What were the key factors in building that campaign?
MW: Once, I worked on a campaign to address deplorable conditions within a couple of buildings in the community. The tenant abuses on behalf of landlords were myriad – from mold and rat infestation to unsecured entryways and lead paint. Once we organized a couple of tenant meetings and researched the city records, we learned that one landlord owned several of the questionable properties in the neighborhood. His infractions were consistent across properties. When we shared updates with our colleagues in the collaborative, we learned that this same individual owned several buildings in the communities within which they organized. Together, we developed a comprehensive campaign that involved the threat of litigation. In this case, community residents, working in conjunction with local nonprofits, public officials, and community organizers (who themselves worked collaboratively) proved too much for the derelict landlord.
KR: Since working as a community organizer you have worked in philanthropy. How has your organizing experience helped you with your work at the Cleveland Foundation and the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE)?
MW: I believe that my experience as an organizer provided me with a conceptual framework for analyzing the dynamics that tend to generate disparities and conditions of marginalization and exclusion within various communities. By researching how power tends to flow within and between various types of systems, organizing has trained me to be intentional about developing strategies that leverage relationships and build allies in a manner that is more likely to produce mutually favorable results. As a result, my first inclination is to “organize” the philanthropic sector, which entails identifying win-win propositions, educating ourselves and others on key issues (especially, historical context and unintended consequences), and engaging my colleagues in trouble-shooting or strategy development efforts that incorporate stakeholders on multiple levels, including the community, nonprofit, private, and public sectors. As well, the top/down and bottom/up ethos of community organizing is such that I naturally think in terms of collective action and mutuality. In this way, my process is intentional to convert opponents in one context into allies in another.
KR: One of the Association of Black Foundation Executives strategies this year is to promote the importance of supporting Black-led organizing work. How will ABFE engage its members in this process?
MW: As a membership association, ABFE represents a network of networks organized to improve life outcomes for Black communities. Therefore, promoting the importance of supporting Black-led organizing work entails engaging ABFE members with specific messages and strategies for identifying who is doing promising work and determining the amounts and types of investments needed to produce satisfactory results.
Specifically, ABFE has developed a communication strategy that accomplishes this goal, as illustrated through the ‘ABFE Makes A Point’ blog – http://www.abfemakesapoint.org/. Additionally, we have allotted space on our racial equity webinar calendar to spotlight the work of colleagues engaged in this work. Lastly, we have designed ABFE’s annual conference as a space to advocate on behalf of Black led-organizing efforts as an investment strategy by hearing directly from organizers and their philanthropic partners.
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?
MW: In my opinion, Black communities can address murder and violence at the hands of police by engaging in cross-cutting organizing campaigns both locally and nationally. The complex dynamics of policing and Black communities requires acknowledging original intent and past abuses; intentionally humanizing law breakers; establishing equitable policies for any infractions; and considering reforms that re-connect people to each other and their respective community-serving entities in ways that reinforce trust, encourage mutual support, and build community. PAL programs were effective strategies in the recent past. However, deep budget cuts and shifting priorities destabilized these critical safety nets and left communities vulnerable to the subsequent infiltration of illicit drugs into neighborhoods, thereby eroding critical social and human capital, and further driving individuals into isolation.
In my view, the policing problem is structural in nature, yet reinforced through personally mediated acts of aggression and conditions stemming from internalized racism (i.e. self-defeating behavioral patterns). As a result, any set of strategies must be comprehensive enough to address each area. For example, the realities of a “prison industrial complex” must be balanced with a vision for community-building. In this case, deep education is needed to understand the policies governing policing in the US. Additionally, police practices must be reviewed to identify and eliminate actions that antagonize or dehumanize those who break laws, replacing them with protocols that encourage interaction between residents and officers in ways that preserve dignity and build community.
KR: What can we do to increase and sustain Black-led organizing work in the future?
MW: In my opinion, it would be interesting for ex and current organizers to gather around a set of broad national goals first, then, to localize them and provide updates to the whole, bi-annually. In addition, we could continue to approach the work within our respective industry sectors using an organizing framework, wherever applicable. For example, what would it be like for groups of organizers from the 70s, 80s, and 90s to convene and exchange notes? Coordinating ourselves around a particular set of goals might support the efforts of current organizing efforts. Initiating more projects such as “Balm in Gilead” is a step in the right direction.