As you may have seen on Tuesday, Brandi Grayson has a lot to say, and doesn’t mind saying it. Today we are pleased to offer her answers to six more important questions.
When we put her on our list of the 28 most influential African Americans in Wisconsin, we called her “disrupter of the year.” Her tactics rub some the wrong way, but they do the job — and command attention. Last year, she and other advocates formed Young Gifted and Black, a local organization loosely affiliated with Black Lives Matter.
She’s put racism front and center in every conversation. Inequity and injustice– both personal and systemic — are never far from her mind.
What advice would you give Madison police officers of color who might agree or disagree with you? I know your job is a tough one. You too suffer at the hands of MPD. I know you experience racist jokes, attitudes and unfair treatment. I know that you are trained to respond to us as if we aren’t you. I know the job is hard. I know you try every day to do the right thing and be the best you can be. And I know that it’s hella important for you to feed your family. I also know that if you took a stand against the injustices you witness on your job and outside of work, you would lose your job. I know.
You must never forget who you are. You are me, no matter what uniform you have on or what perceived power you think you have. You know what I’m talking about. Never forget where we’ve come from. Never forget how police came to be. Don’t allow yourself to become that which you feared all your life. I know not everyone can be an activist on the front line. But you can use your discretion to support our efforts to close the gap in arrest rates. By arresting fewer of our children; by being more than just the officer that our children interact with in uniform and guns during politicized community engagement events. We need each other no matter what side we stand on (or think we stand on). Our side is always the same whether we like it, accept it or are conscious of it—we have already been placed together on the “other” side.
Which motivates you more: doubters or supporters? Doubters are my motivator. I’ve been told all my life what I couldn’t do by people who said they loved me. My mom told me I couldn’t obtain a college degree at the age of 30 because I had children. I couldn’t go back — how would I take care of my children? I did it anyways. My grandmother told me when I was 7 that I wouldn’t amount to anything. That I would be just like my mother—Nothing!
The leaders in Madison told me that YGB was using the wrong tactics, and that folks would not listen unless we are and were willing to play the game—which wasn’t true then and isn’t true now. Exes told me that I wouldn’t make it without them. I not only made it—I excelled.
My church family told me I was too young to be a mom, and I would be a terrible mom, and my daughter would end up another statistic because of the choices I made as a young child. That was a lie. Both of my children are amazing young women. They have endured the flames with me and have never behaved in ways or partaken in activities that would endanger their future—except for being Black.
All my life I was told my dreams and hopes were impossible—yet each time I created my own reality, and walked in what I believed to be the true, and the results have always been in my favor.
Doubters give me fuel. They motivate me to prove them wrong. Supporters let me know that I’m not alone and that my tears, my sweat and many sleepless nights do not go unnoticed, and they are indeed making a difference.
It took me a while to figure out how to get around the emotions and hurt in relations to negativity, doubters and lack of support.
I found a quote, and I read it every time I experience hurt as a result of doubters and negativity:
If everyone is a product of this society, who will say the things that need to be said, and do the things that need to be done, without compromise? Truth will never start out popular in a world more concerned with marketability then righteousness. It will initially suffer ridicule and even violence yet ultimately it is undeniable. All of humanity is living in a dream world, but suffering real consequences. — Lauryn Hill
What three leaders in Madison under 50 have impressed you the most? Great question. Most folks I look up to are over 50 such as Milele, Gloria Ladson-Billings and Amelia Royko Maurer. They are women who get things done and refuse to accept “no” as the final answer. They each have coached me and loved me in their own ways, and they have all made it OK for me to be me. They have never attempted to change me or make me conform. They have always encouraged and modeled what a hero looks like.
Names of leaders under 50…. I would say Kabuag Vaj and M Adams of Freedom Inc. I’ve learned so much from them about Movement Science, Radical Thinking, Feminism, working in systems and the importance of working outside of systems. I’ve learned from them how to hear my own voice and take pride in it. They have modeled for me what inclusion really looks like. They’ve challenged me, taught me, loved me and accepted me. Their dedication to their work, their knowledge and their wisdom surpasses most folks I know. I have to also give Corinda Rainey Moore love for her amazing leadership. She’s not one to be on the front line, but nevertheless she works hard to make sure black women’s voices are heard and listened to. Immediately upon meeting her I knew she was authentic. I knew she didn’t have an ulterior motive. I knew she really cared about the plight of black people and was willing to fight the good fight in the name of justice.
What’s the biggest stumbling block in Madison to turning the corner on our racial disparities? People who have been in positions of power for decades and are not willing to admit that they got something wrong. So they keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Some folks even hold positions in Equity and Inclusion, and they identify themselves as being culturally competent, but are unaware of their own biases that lead to policies, practices and changes that negatively and disproportionately impact black people in Madison. Folks who have created policies that have led and/or contributed to racial disparities are unable to say, “this isn’t working.” Instead, they give excuses and ask for more money.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “ I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in this stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen Councilor or the KKK, but the white liberal, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
Think about it. We have more than 4,400 nonprofit organizations in Madison. Yet, Madison is the worst place in America for me to live? How is it that we have so many do-gooders, yet disparity rates continue to climb? How is it that so many organizations and systems have missions that are rooted in equity and social justice, but they don’t have any black employees? If they do, those black employees are workers; they’re not part of the executive team, the decision makers. And moreover, how is it that an organization whose mission is to end homelessness and close the education gap, or a community center that serves black children, is controlled by an all-white board of directors?
How can they see and/or articulate black folk’s experiences? They can’t, but they do.
Am I saying no nonprofit in Madison is serving its clients? No, that is not what I’m saying.
Am I saying that an all-white board of directors are more likely than a diverse board to enact policies that impact black people negatively? Yes.
I am saying that in Madison, with all of our desires and intent to do right by those who are most impacted, we rarely take the time to look at things through the lens of impact — from the perspective of those we serve, or are supposed to serve. However, what we do well is gain support for programs and initiatives by marketing them to those who are funding them. We aren’t as good at creating programs and initiatives that empower people and build people.
Funders need to be able to measure outcomes. Based on my experience, empowerment, confidence and mental shifts are deemed unmeasurable.
However, in order for our people to get out of the system, we must first remove the system from within them. That doesn’t align with funders’ needs, and thus change doesn’t happen. Folks are recycled from one program to another, while organizations reward each other and honor each other for their work–but fail to ask clients if the programs are actually working.
The issue in Madison is that people think because they support the plight of Black people, or because they’re married to a black person, or because they have a black child or they’ve worked with “this” population for decades they are capable and educated enough to speak on the behalf of black people. And they do. And they fail miserably and they end up contributing to Madison being the worst place in the country for me to live.
In addition, systems that “serve the poor” are rooted in competition. For example the Tenant Resource Center lost $90,000 in the county budget. The $90,000 was given to Community Action Coalition. How is it that two of the biggest resource providers for poor families have to compete for funding? But we can add funding to the County’s Budget to fund political fluff, like a new department of Equity and Inclusion in Dane County. Huh? So, let’s fund more things that don’t work and underfund things that do?
The problem in Madison is folks are too busy pretending to be pioneers for change that they don’t have time to actually be it. Maybe the racial disparities are due to politics and allegiances, or maybe it’s due to folks doing the same thing over and over again, and each time expecting a different result. While saying, “we’re doing everything we can do to tackle this problem,” they’re actually doing everything they think they should do, rather than what communities of color are saying they need. Give the community control over the police, free the 350, invest in black-led initiatives and programming — and start listening. Listening and taking action would change the entire of fabric of Madison. Maybe that’s why folks are scared to change.
What are your top three priorities at this point in your life? My Family, Personal Development and Entrepreneurship.
Give us 5 tangible things the Madison Metropolitan School District can do to deal with the education gap for kids of color. We have to remember, as Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote in his recent award-winning article on reparations, “America was built on the preferential treatment of white people — 395 years of it. Vaguely endorsing a cuddly, feel-good diversity does very little to redress this.”
Discrimination is anchored so deep into our DNA and public institutions we don’t see it. It’s normal. It’s been normalized.
1.) We need to go to folks who are most impacted and ask them what needs to be done? What can be done? What can we do differently? And do it!!!
Take the body camera debate for example—YGB said, prior to the Madison Police Department investing $30,000 in community forums, that black and brown people did not feel safe with additional surveillance in their communities. After the information from the forums was tallied, it was indisputable, black and brown people don’t want body cameras in their communities.
How did white liberals respond? “They don’t know what they need. Body cameras are the solution to accountability. In addition, what about my thoughts? My thoughts and needs are important too and I say yes to body cameras.”
It’s the idea that when someone has a knife to someone else’s neck and the person holding the knife asks, “what can I do to make this more comfortable?” And the response is “remove your knife from my throat,” and their response is, “it isn’t bothering me.” As if our opinions or evaluations of our oppression and the tools and resources required to survive said oppression don’t hold any weight compared to those who are white who don’t suffer at the hands of white oppression.
So if MMSD asks the questions, they should be ready to respond by trusting what black and brown people say in terms of what they need in order to be successful. Not to listen is to enforce the idea of white superiority, the idea that white folks know what is best for black folks.
Current rules, policies and contracts are decided by middle class white people. Poor parents of color do not sit in our legislature, school boards or union negotiating committees. Thus, middle class children thrive. Is it deliberate? No. But pragmatically speaking that’s how the system works and that is why racial disparities continue to grow.
2.) Offer classes from a black framework — black stories, black history. Math classes, science classes.
What we must understand is public schools are rooted in the preferential treatment of white people, which includes all curricula. What black children learn about themselves in school is that they were slaves, they were brought to America to be civilized, they still need civilizing. They learn about white inventors and philosophers, and a white perspective on science and understandings of the universe. They don’t see or hear about themselves in school. What does that tell them about themselves?
They are not taught who they were before slavery, during slavery or after. They’re not taught of their greatness, of our stories of perseverance, of creativity, of spirituality; our history, our truths. A great teacher once said, “how can we know where we are going if we don’t know where we’ve come from?” All cultural competence is built on the shoulders of prior generations.
MMSD must work to rewrite the narrative that is sold to our children via western curriculum. It’s a hard pill to swallow, I know. But I can only offer truth. Our children, my children are dying a slow death.
3.) Allow and make room for black-only spaces.
How are our children going to heal, when they’re not given the space or opportunity to do so? What happened to the AHANA prom? What happened to support groups for black students only? Why can’t they talk about their needs without white supervision or approval?
4.) Invest in the students. Bring back the classes that were removed when middle class white parents demanded Advanced Placement classes, but resources weren’t added.
5.) Hire black teachers. My children always excelled when they had black teachers. So did I. Don’t hire one or two. Hire 100. Work to change policies that negatively affect black teachers disproportionately.