Jackie Byers

I imagine every region, every city and every state would have powerful, visionary Black organizations made up of the most marginalized, impacted and clear-headed grassroots leaders. No matter what the issue is, I imagine Black organizing as a force so powerful we don’t have to beg for things like childcare and voting rights.”

Leading Edge Vision: 

Jackie’s vision is to inspire radical change through grass-roots organizing, telling the story of Black organizing that led to historic victories and a national reckoning around the role of police in schools and communities.

What is your vision for your community? For California?

No matter what the issue is, I imagine a multi-racial movement in this country that forces national leadership to be accountable beyond election years. A force so powerful we don’t have to beg for things like childcare and voting rights. I imagine that this multi-racial movement would be led by an organized Black working class agenda.

My vision is that we could heal, agitate, and inspire by telling the story of organizing through the voices of organizers – not by portraying organizing as  a moment in history, but rather an opportunity to be part of the  long continuum of national and international struggles for justice and liberation. Organizing has been a part of our history for as long as oppression has existed. I would like to see more people decide to become organizers again. Organizers who believe in the power of people, who are rooted in political discipline and have the courage to envision a freedom that is bigger than what they have seen in their lifetimes.

Can you share a story, either personal or from a directly impacted person, that exemplifies the problem you are trying to solve?

There are so many stories of fighting and winning – not just winning campaigns but the building of power and dignity, rebuilding a belief in our own communities and our own interdependence – but many of  those stories are not told. When I picture what I want, what I hope for and what I spent most of my life working towards, I imagine every region, every city and every state would have powerful, visionary Black organizations made up of the most marginalized, impacted and clear-headed grassroots leaders.

I’m interested in storytelling and creating visible spaces for the power of community organizing, particularly Black organizing, and the role that Black organizing has played in addressing and confronting the long-standing systems of criminalization in our community, including policing. When I think about the ‘why’, it is rooted in the impact of systems on our communities. The ‘how’ is bringing countless stories of folks behind the scenes that are making social change happen. In the 25 years that I’ve been organizing, I have  witnessed so many people who were impacted by various systems – education, juvenile justice or policing –  and had to face their own fears, insecurities and the very systems that impacted them to collectively come together and change things, not just for their own selves, but for generations to come. There are folks who think they can’t change anything, and who were fed stories that made it seem like something was wrong with them. Or they are fed a very romanticized individualized story of someone coming and magically making things happen. They don’t hear stories about people like them who were able to create change. When we tell our stories, we can ignite people to continue to do the work.

The work of moving the consciousness of this country will be left to us.  When the president lifts his hands in resignation around police reform, we remember our Black and brown family shot to death with hands in the air. We have to keep telling our story. We have to keep saying their names.  We have to keep organizing.  Organizing is relentless until justice is achieved.

What progress have you seen thus far in your work?

As I was transitioning from the Black Organizing Project, an organization that I was a founder of, I was able to reflect on the fact that we not only built an organization that focused on community organizing, but worked on a successful 10 year campaign to get police out of schools. I was able to see us through the win of removing police from schools. We were able to push for a new way of looking at safety that abolishes not only police but also policing culture by innovating a model of participation that will uphold these standards long term.  Through ups and downs, I’ve seen progress through community organizing, particularly nuances that are often not told, and a lot of struggle that ultimately amounted to things we were able to learn. Hopefully, by highlighting our story as well as the stories of other organizers it can be useful to other people who are in similar struggles.

What remains to be done?

I have seen successes and struggles of organizing, as well as difficulty of telling the story of organizing and getting people across the field to understand the role community organizing plays in social change. When I think about what’s in front of us, I want to create a way to talk about the organizing we’ve seen here in Oakland, and be able to create a through-line to stories across the country and internationally. For example, if you look at the summer of George Floyd’s murder, people thought that the movement for racial justice was a spontaneous moment, when in fact it was decade of organizing for racial justice that led to that. If you look at where we are now, where are those same people and organizations that came together? I am curious about what happened to some of the cities that disbanded or defunded police departments but faced backlash.? Where are things in our country? There was a push to normalize things that were marginalized, but there is now a lot of retraction. I want to shine a light on how community and grassroots organizers are meeting the moment and innovating, and understand what supports they need. Ultimately, I want to  understand how we can achieve longevity for our movements.

What barriers have you faced, or continue to face, in achieving your vision of change?

Whenever you’re organizing around issues that were built on a history of white supremacy that make up the fabric of our country, you’re always up against opposition whose interest is to uphold the systems that benefit them. When I became an organizer, the first thing that I – and many folks of color – had to understand was that the reason we are in the situation we’re in was not by accident, but by design. There’s nothing wrong with us or our families. There’s a whole system of people that is keeping us where it wants us to be.

We also need to believe that individuals and their communities have the power and ability to change the systems, policies and practices that have been in place for a lifetime. That’s the hard work, particularly as folks are often doing it while being in the middle of surviving. Yet, that’s how change happens – in the middle of all that struggle, people decide that they won’t stop until things are transformed.

Finally, and unfortunately, when you’re trying to do the necessary work, and having to overcome your own physical and spiritual challenges, you’re also the least resourced. The closer you are to that work, the more likely it is that people will dismiss you, think that real change happens somewhere else, or that your ideas are too radical. Facing internal and external contradictions has at times been my greatest adversary.

How will the Leading Edge Fund fellowship help? 

It’s an opportunity to have the space to be reflective, and be with other people who I respect, and can learn from. I’m excited for the opportunity to take a breath and hopefully create something that can be useful to other people – something that’s not just in my head, but can be shared. I also appreciate the commitment to individual leadership development as the investment is usually in other people and organizations, and this is an opportunity to invest in us [as leaders].

Who needs to hear your story and what is your call to action for them?

The first group are organizers. I would love for the people in Oakland to see themselves in the stories we produce, and be reminded of what they were able to accomplish. And I hope that organizers in the field find these lessons and stories helpful for their work.

The next group is our allies in Oakland and across the country  that helped move the needle. I want people  to know  what radical solidarity can look like.  By being honest about our struggles to build those authentic alliances I hope that it inspires people to do that movement building work beneath the surface.

Finally, for philanthropy to understand the significance of grassroots organizing, and put all their bets on those who are taking on the goliath-like fights that seem impossible.