Malkia Devich Cyril

Founding and former Executive Director and Senior Fellow at MediaJustice

Location: Oakland, CA


“The project is about giving activists and movement organizations what we need to catalyze grief for change.”

Leading Edge Vision:

Malkia’s vision is to create a Radical Loss Movement, mobilizing California’s bereaved Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other communities of color to build a radical practice of grief that can fuel transformative grievance and governance to replace racialized policies and practices that punish and disenfranchise BIPOC grief.

What is your vision for your community? For California?

The Radical Loss Movement envisions a time when American and global governance, economy and civil society no longer disenfranchise Black grief or criminalize Black grievance. They are no longer fueled by the disproportionate and racialized deaths of Black communities and communities of color due to the brutal force or benign neglect of the State. My vision doesn’t simply seek transformation of the disproportionate deaths of Black people from all causes, but also of the systemic and racialized character of death fueled by white supremacy, and related hierarchies. In order to achieve this impossibly large long-term vision, another vision must be realized: U.S. movements for racial justice across region, sector and issue must integrate grief infused analysis and approaches to movement building.

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

Right now, the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a tidal wave of loss. Both on an individual and collective level, we are crushed under the weight of unacknowledged grief. At the same time, as that tidal wave threatens to crush those who lost people, the movement has a mandate to transform the causes of those losses. In the five years before the current pandemic hit, I’d lost my wife and many family members. In that time two things happened simultaneously: my grief was metabolized through focused community building, and sparking my courage to expand my capacity to take action. When grief is radicalized by social movements, it can support strategies for liberation and change. But, when it is disenfranchised, it can become a barrier to activism and leadership.

For the millions of people, particularly activists, who are experiencing disenfranchised loss in this period, grief can be either a catalyst or a barrier for change. The project is about giving activists and movement organizations what we need to catalyze grief for change, and remove the practices and policies that make grief a hindrance to social movements, particularly for Black communities and communities of color.

What progress have you seen thus far in your work? What more remains to be done?

Political projects or movements that link grief to governance represent a relatively new area of work, but they build off of organizing principles that have guided the movement for the last 100 years – principles of belonging, dignity and safety. More and more, academics and activists are connecting the dots on how grief and democracy are connected, and why grief must be acknowledged as a clear landscape for struggle. Grief has always been a catalyst for change. Now, the Radical Loss Project will mobilize the grievers into action.

The focus of my work is to transform the conditions for mourning in public schools, prisons and popular movements, and catalyze that grief as a tool for change. I will conduct action research, community building, narrative strategies and advocacy to organize bereaved students who have been left alone as a result of this pandemic; examine how prisons continue to contribute to mortality for people of color and Black people in particular; and how movements can supercharge our capacity for transformative change by radicalizing grief.

There are policy changes like extending bereavement leave, expanding the dedicated space for mourning for incarcerated people and their families, and improving the compassionate release program so people can live to enjoy the last months and years they have.

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

We are living through a crisis of collective and racialized grief, made unprecedented by the visible police violence against Black communities, the scale of the movement for Black lives (now considered the largest protest movement in American history), the COVID-19 pandemic (the second most deadly pandemic in global history), the climate crisis, and by the speed of 21st century digital communications (unprecedented in the history of the world).

There is an overwhelming intensity of mortality right now, and the disenfranchisement of Black and brown grief. Black people have a 24 percent higher mortality than whites in the 30 largest U.S. cities and suffered on average 74,000 more deaths a year than white people from 2016 –  2018. At the same time, Black, Indigenous Peoples and people of color are still expected to be productive and deal with our grief despite our losses. And then, if there is a protest or uprising as a result of our grief, these things are criminalized, with government policy and institutional practices continuing to stand in the way of change.

How will the Leading Edge Fund fellowship help? 

This fellowship will give me an opportunity to conduct and synthesize research around public schools, prisons and movements, and produce content that is missing from public debate. Some of it is happening, but it is very rare that there is a connection made with social movements or as something that shapes policy and practice. I want to offer an analysis and a remedy.

I also see this as an opportunity to build partnerships with organizations, schools and folks who are serving incarcerated people and their families in the Bay Area and California. I am excited to engage with organizations that might not be connected to certain parts of our movement, and potentially building public art pieces, or “Sacred Sites” in the Bay Area, where we can go and honor our dead.

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

California public officials who need to understand that there are laws and policies that need to change, and not only acknowledge grief, but dispel its negative impact. Grief is any reaction to loss, not just sorrow. It can also be a form of joy if we make room for it, and if people are allowed to do so. Our state officials need to understand that this is not a personal problem, but a political problem that needs a political answer.

Another audience is activists who may or may not have lost people. It is not a helpful choice to leave who we are at the door when we go to work. This is the opposite of what we suggest when we think about the route to liberation. Let’s ask ourselves how we bring our grief with us. We don’t need to aspire to false happiness that’s not true joy. True joy comes with a measure of sorrow. We need to deepen our authenticity for one another, and have a framing and curriculum to do this.

And finally, Black, Indigenous and other bereaved communities of color need to come out of the shadows. We’ve been forced into the background of this country for far too long. We need to come out and proclaim our grief and proclaim our losses. In a time of deep alienation, it can give us courage. My call to action to them is to step out of the shadows, step forward and claim our grief and walk with it as a political measure, practice and personal.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

All of my work is dedicated to my mother, Janet Cyril, and my wife, Alana Devich Cyril. These two women were the joys of my life. I do it all for them.