The following post originally appears on EBONY, and was written by Ugi Ugwuomo. It’s original title is, “Charlene Carruthers of the Black Youth Project on Liberation.”
By: Ugi Ugwuomo
The Freedom Side – a collective of young leaders comprised of members of the Dream Defenders, United We Dream, Young People’s Project and nearly two-dozen other organizations at the center of this generation’s racial justice movement – have used the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer to mobilize, inform, train, and sustain the next generation of change. Steadfast in their directive towards civic engagement, these young leaders look to face the conversations and advance the action surrounding the criminalization of youth, educational disparity, economic stabilization, and facilitating the critical participation of young people in the democratic process of these United States of America.
We spoke to three such agents of change during the Freedom Summer’s 50th Anniversary and Youth Congress, held recently in Jackson, about their roles in this era of action, the misconceptions and mishandling of youth apathy, and the ties that now — and forever will — bind the souls that have impacted the ways we experience freedom in this world. Be sure to check out our first profile with Albert Sykes here.
With over 10 years of experience in managing racial justice, feminist, and youth leadership movements across the United States, Charlene Carruthers acts as the first National Coordinator of the Black Youth Project 100 – a group of 100 of the most influential young activists from across the country – activating as a think tank for mobilization strategies for communities of color. From her native Chicago, the political organizer and writer spoke to us about her decision to return to the city and how she manages to pivot the focuses of many individuals while keeping a unified agenda in 2014.
EBONY: What is your viewpoint like now having come full circle back to the Chicago of today?
CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: I’ve been dealing with racial justice, gender justice and immigrant rights work as an organizer and activist for about 10 years now. I am originally from the Southside and, after living in New York and D.C., wanted to return mainly due to what has continued to happen here. I had some very early experiences with myself and my parents that influence me today, most notably, the trips we made to the public aid offices and witnessing how case workers treated folks like my mother. Fast forward years later and there are over 50 schools being closed, a teacher’s strike, and plays in the media portraying violence in Chicago that isn’t necessarily accurate. I came back to apply what I was doing nationally as an organizer here on the grounds I call home. The BYP 100 and the Black Youth Project were both founded by Dr. Cathy Cohen here at the University of Chicago. For me, it is an opportunity to pull together all the organizations I have been a part of, both on the ground as a traditional grassroots organizer utilize my experience in the online and digital world. I am passionate about helping young people become organizers and play key roles in transforming their own communities.
EBONY: What is the single most motivating and inspiring method you have seen used in mobilizing youth today?
CC: We know that African American youth were the largest demographic of young voters in 2008, again in 2012, and the midterm elections in 2010 as well. Young Black people just don’t always believe that the political process and those who are supposed to represent us are actually going to hear out or do the things that WE believe need to be done in our communities. For me, there is a particular consciousness that those who are elected to represent us have to have. They have to be held accountable for what they do and don’t do to further the health, safety, and advancement of our communities. There are so many methods we employ in the Black Youth Project, but I believe that genuine engagement and concern are the most powerful tools you could have.
EBONY: What is the BYP 100’s approach to youth engagement and what has been a singular galvanizing moment?
CC: The BYP 100 actually emerged out of a galvanizing moment. We first convened a year ago outside of Chicago the same weekend as the George Zimmerman verdict. The meeting was planned a year in advance, so it was totally a coincidence. Cathy Cohen gathered 100 of us from wherever we were in the country or world. We weren’t surprised by the verdict but, for us, it was another example of how Black life is valued in this country. Out of that moment of deep trauma and pain, we came out with a strategy of how we wanted to move forward. We are rooted in expressing that Black life matters. I see that also in the youth immigrant movement with the deportation of family members and classmates. The separation of communities acts as a moment that galvanizes people in a different way than a piece of legislation can. These aren’t new traumas. There have been young Black people killed before. There have been folks from immigrant families and communities deported before. At this moment in time, however, these issues have been illuminated and talked about via new media in ways that they haven’t yet in our lifetime. They are not only happening now in greater amounts, but are also becoming newsworthy fixtures in our collective consciousness.
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