I took three things away from Patrisse Collors and Richard Edmond Vargas: community, intersectionality, and allyship. Community as both support system and a tool, intersectionality as a theory, and allyship as not an identity, but an active choice. In such an isolated, majority white, bubble, these are all things that we need to think about if we are to truly call ourselves activists.
Before we get into the content, I’ll do a quick intro of the speakers. Patrisse Collors is the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network and co-creator of the hashtag. She is also the founder of Dignity and Power Now and a senior fellow at MomsRising. She is also the author of “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir”. Richard Edmond Vargas is the co-founder of Initiate Justice and the founder of Success Stories, which was the subject of the documentary “The Feminist on Cellblock Y”. He raps and produces music through his label Question Culture. Now, on to the event.
The night began Keith Osajima, professor and director of Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of Redlands, acknowledging that the ground you are on right now was originally that of the Serrano and Cahuilla people. He asked us to remember the pain and suffering that the original inhabitants of this land were put through by oppressors, namely the government. I ask you do to the same as you go through your day. If you aren’t in Redlands, here is an interactive map so you know whose land you are on. Pain was a theme echoed by both Collors and Vargas throughout the night. This pain spread from when Vargas was chokeslammed by a LAPD school officer at the age of 14 to the daily exhaustion felt by both of them every day.
The night was split into three distinct sections: time for both Collors and Vargas to talk, a conversation between the two, and a question and answer session with the crowd. I’ll walk you through it (mostly) chronologically.
Vargas set the stage of community starting in his high school years. The depth and importance of his relationship with Collors was highlighted here as well, further emphasized the idea that community is at the root of all change. Collors, 21 at the time, came into his science class to talk about the school to prison pipeline. This is the statistic young black men have a higher chance of going to prison than they have of going to college. This message struck home with Vargas, but didn’t prevent systemic issues from affecting his life. By 16 he had joined a gang. By 19 he was convicted of 7 counts of robbing, 2 counts of kidnapping, and one count of assault with a deadly weapon. This adds up to a total of 150 years to life. Just for helping friends rob two RiteAids. How, you might ask, is he talking at a college after getting out of prison only three months ago? The answer: community. The community of organizers that Collors had gotten Vargas involved with raised $10,000 dollars to hire a lawyer. That lawyer got Vargas’s sentence down to 10 years. At this point, the crowd was snapping. They were getting inspired. I was getting inspired. Vargas went on to talk about the other ways in which community helped him when he was in prison. One of his first projects, Success Stories, was only possible because of the community he was surrounded with. He dropped his first album in prison, again thanks to his community of support. Initiate Justice, his project in collaboration with his wife Tania, was a product of community in and outside of prison. In his words, “Punishment did not change my heart. It was the love of my community that changed my heart”.
Patrisse Collors spoke more to the state of our greater community. Its one characterized by 500 years of white supremacy, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Trolls are in every level of a society, and there is a method to their actions. They want to wear down, disorganize and disorient opposition and activism. Her question to the group was this: How are we upending legacy of white supremacy? The answer again was community. Just as Vargas had, Collors put tremendous importance on the ways individual relationships are built. After all, our government is a reflection of ourselves. She spoke to the exhaustion that many organizers feel in the face of constant opposition, but left us with words of hope. “On the days I feel like I have fought as much as i can…it’s the love I have that 45 (Trump) can’t take away from me.”
The two speakers then moved into a discussion. It centered mostly around the white heterosexist patriarchy that was inherent to everything. Vargas relied heavily on his community organizer training when he was in prison to start Success Stories and teach those around him about the effects of patriarchy. There were questions of safety. Collors pointed out that Vargas didn’t present as the stereotypical man, pointing out the Hello Kitty socks that he wore even when he was in gangs. He often lacked of allies. His advice to those of us trying to organize was to connect with the people we are trying to organize. Using the example of the patriarchy, talk about a time when patriarchal standards made you feel like you had to act a certain way or talk about how the patriarchy hurts you in your daily life. Again, it’s all about community and the ways in which we interact with each other.
We then moved to a question and answer session. Honestly, I was too moved and captivated to be taking intense notes at this point, so I’ll talk more thematically. Returning to the question of safety, both Collors and Vargas brought up the fact that most organizing work is done by queer women of color. They get none of the credit. Marsha P Johnson was erased by media representations of Stonewall. The network of women working for civil rights was erased by the respectability of MLK. Patrisse Collors was erased by George Soros (in case you were wondering he didn’t start Black Lives Matter). This comes from ideas of safety. This was brought up in response to a number of questions asked by U of R students. We are a majority white campus. We have so much privilege just in being here. It is our duty to use it. Collors recommended looking at an organization called SURJ. We have to use our privilege to challenge others with the same privilege. If we don’t do that, our allyship is meaningless. After all, ally is a choice, not an identity. The burden does not, and should not rest on those most oppressed.
With the message of community, intersectionality, and duty of allyship driven home, our time ran out. We closed the night with a call and response. I’ll close this piece with two quotes that I’d like you to consider.
“The beloved community is not at the end. It’s right now”- Richard Edmond Vargas
“We don’t need an individual savior. The community is the savior” – Patrisee Collors
As always, stay educated and stay safe. I linked the organizations so please please go look at all the incredible work they are doing. Buy the book, watch the documentary, listen to the music, get involved!
Every good wish,