July 28, 2020

Black Lives Matter co-founder reminds us there’s more than one way to be an activist

From protests to art, Patrisse Cullors shares how creating change comes in many different forms.

Patrisse Cullors organized her first protest when she was 17. After experiencing homophobic harassment at a local park, she gathered seven friends to protest in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles. That event was a preview for much bigger things to come.

As the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network and founder of the Reform L.A. Jails campaign, Cullors has been a lifelong activist.

This past fall, Cullors spoke at the The Renewal Summit Los Angeles, an event hosted by The Atlantic and made possible by Allstate. She spoke with journalist Todd Purdum about her roots as an activist and what she’s learned as a founding member of a global activist movement.

"I don’t really see the difference between art and organizing. ... Art does the same thing. It pushes us to feel and think about things in different ways."

As activists take to the streets this summer to protest police brutality and racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, we thought it would be a perfect time to re-share Cullors’ message about the power of organizing.

“Part of what we’ve recognized in the last six and a half years is grassroots organizing is critical to making change and that we need to have a multi-pronged strategy,” Cullors said, highlighting that some BLM leaders have focused on running for elected office while others have addressed issues of property ownership.

Cullors founded the Black Lives Matter movement alongside Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi in response to the pattern of vigilante and police violence they saw happening across the country. The movement coalesced online following the trial of George Zimmerman. Since then, the movement gathered steam quickly on social media.

“I think the beauty of Black Lives Matter and its movement is that it was always a movement that was about an evolution and never about a stagnant process,” Cullors told Purdum.

In her work with Reform L.A. jails, the campaign was able to stop the construction of two new jails in L.A. county. Cullors, however, noted it’s more important to build something new.

“We have to change systems,” she said. “We can change attitudes all day, but at the end of the day if we’re not changing the systems, then human beings’ lives are at risk.”

More recently Cullors received her MFA from University of Southern California, which she believes is its own form of activism.

“My work is just an extension of the activism I do. I don’t really see the difference between art and organizing,” Cullors said. “Art does the same thing. It pushes us to feel and think about things in different ways.”

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the Deputy Editor of The Renewal Project.
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