In a Monday night panel discussion, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza and national co-chair of the 2017 Women’s March Carmen Perez spoke on activism, policy reform and civil rights. Garza and Perez focused on personal experiences making grassroots policy change, the importance of intersectionality in social movements and the ineffectiveness of criminalization.
The speakers emphasized that policy change and social reform go hand-in-hand.
“We have to think about policy change and culture change as a dialectic,” Garza said, elaborating that if a culture is not ready to accept and support new policy, the policy change can be rendered obsolete. She said that policy should be understood as a way to legislate solutions and ought to be designed by those who are most affected by those solutions.
“That’s what a real democracy is … It’s about people being involved in designing what their lives look like,” Garza said.
The event was moderated by Jeff Chang, executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts, and organized by Stanford in Government (SIG) and co-sponsors Stanford Women in Politics, Stanford Speakers Bureau, the Black Student Union, MEChA de Stanford, Stanford National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Clayman Institute for Gender Research.
Member of the SIG special events team Elena Crespo ’20 opened the discussion with an introduction of the two panelists. She praised Garza for her work in “spurring everyday people to stand together to transform society into a world where black lives matter once and for all,” and Perez for “promoting peace through civil and human rights.”
Perez shared that personal experiences with injustice growing up inspired her to become an activist committed to restorative justice and criminal justice reform. She said that it was her sister’s murder and her relationship with her brother, who was “in and out of the system” during Perez’s childhood, that impelled her to make a change in her community. Perez was particularly moved by her father’s response to the district attorney asking if her family wanted to press charges after her sister’s death — Perez’s father refused, saying, “I can’t take another mother’s child away,” she recalled.
From then on, Perez has worked to improve the lives of “those who were impacted by incarceration, understanding that no mother’s child should be taken away.” In addition, Perez quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., saying that “‘A threat to one is a threat to all.’ I don’t have to be personally impacted in order for me to feel a personal responsibility to my community.”
Garza spoke about the personal experiences that inspired her to become “an organizer and not just an individual activist who was mad about a bunch of stuff.”
Garza said she has been an activist and organizer since her first campaign at the age of 12, when she rallied for Bay Area schools to carry contraception in nurse’s offices. Since her first initiative, she said, she has realized that the freedom of choice is a privilege and has rededicated her activist work to improving racial and gender justice in the U.S.
“There is a race, gender and class component to … having a choice,” Garza said. “Choices are often reserved for people who have access to choice, and choices are often denied to people who are deemed unworthy of having choice.”
Change is incremental, she said.
“How do we do better each day?” asked Perez.
“What inspires me to do this work every day is knowing that we can do so much better than we are doing right now,” Garza added. “Right now, I have a lot of concerns about where this world is heading, and what gets me up every day is the possibility of finding a new pathway toward a different kind of world where everybody belongs, and when I go to sleep at night, I ask myself, ‘How close did we get?’”
Chang asked about the importance of intersectionality in women’s rights, racial equality and criminal justice reform.
Garza said that she thinks activists today tend to misuse the word and talk about it in ways that are “harmful.” Rather than describing diversity or representation, Garza said intersectionality should be used to understand “where we fit in a framework of power.”
“Intersectionality is not about identity politics in a two-dimensional way,” Garza added. “Intersectionality is a way of understanding how power operates on us based on our experiences, based on how we show up in the world and based on the identities that are prescribed to us.”
Garza believes common misunderstanding of the word leads to the false idea that intersectionality is a competition over which group is the most oppressed.
“It’s not oppression Olympics,” Garza said. “It’s about how we build movements that … bring together as many people as possible … and have that shape our strategies.”
Perez said that intersectionality played a crucial role in organizing the Women’s March. Perez also shared that an awareness of intersectionality serves as an entry point for many groups of women to be involved in the path to gender equality, since “as women, we are not monolithic. Multiple issues impact our lives.”
Chang asked Garza and Perez to comment on the criminalization of young people and particularly young people of color, which Chang said was a central issue in many social movements today.
Garza agreed, adding that she believes in the importance of affording every member of society dignity. “People are people, not problems,” she said.
She added that she does not view criminalization as the solution to justice reform.
“All [criminalization] does is keep us fearful of each other, fearful of ourselves, and separates [us] in ways that doesn’t actually get us to where we want to be.”
Reflecting on her career in activism thus far, Perez said she has seen the fruits of her labor manifest in the improvement of her family’s condition.
“Within my whole family we’ve been able to break the cycle of violence, abuse, poverty and frustration, and if we could do it in my family, then I believe it’s possible to do it in the community,” she said.
Sarah Goodman ’20, a member of SIG’s diversity and outreach team, said that she was excited to put Garza and Perez in conversation because of the common ground they share in building intersectional movements.
Goodman also emphasized that cooperation between SIG and their co-sponsors made the event possible.
“SIG looks at policy from the policymaker’s perspective a lot,” Goodman added. “And this was an opportunity to look at policy change from a different angle, from an angle of stakeholders and through a partnership with other groups on campus … They represented what they did in a very effective and authentic way, and it was a conversation we haven’t hosted in the past. It was great to get a new perspective, and I think we did that well here.”
Contact Alex Tsai at aotsai ‘at’ stanford.edu.