An Organizer Learns to Love

Written by Tammy Johnson

February 11, 2014

And so we came to that moment that was and still is inevitable. There I sat in a packed Sacramento conference room, at a state budget coalition meeting of issue and service groups. The lobbyists had stated in no uncertain terms that legislators, even our so-called allies, would not fund healthcare for undocumented adult immigrants, but maybe their children stood a chance of receiving services. A heated debate about the compromise divided the room. Hoping to create a bit of space for fresh thinking I offered that perhaps this was an opportune time to revisit our goals and principles before deciding on a course of action. To this, a leading voice of the coalition snapped, “Principles? We are all progressives here. Let’s not waste time. We know what our principles are!”

Did we? I wasn’t so sure.

The struggle in the room that day reminded me of a bible verse that used to hang on my office wall. I had hung it to remind myself what was at stake in our battles with the conservative right. But on that day, Ephesian 6:12 felt like a challenge from within.

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Now I’m a few decades away from the Sunday school devotional scripture readings that made dichotomies of angels and devils. It’s never that simple. But I could see then and I see now the value of putting one’s beliefs in action, especially when the going gets tough. In this instance we were in danger of leaving behind what really mattered. This wasn’t about passing a bill. Budgets are moral documents, statements of about who and what matters in our society. This was about serving our whole community and demanding that no one would be treated as disposable commodity.

Right now many of us are focused on learning the newest tools of social media, the best way to brand personalities and how to develop a video script that goes viral. That’s important work. But as we put the pieces of our strategy together, can we pause and talk about what’s behind all of that? How are our actions shaping the lives that we are living today, projecting what we really believe and laying the foundation for what is to come? I ask myself these questions as I glance at my daily to-do list, prepare for a meeting or write a blog.

But when the powers that be corner us and say, “Your right hand or your left?” what do we rely on for strength and guidance?

What do we believe in at that moment?

Liberation? In the ‘90s when I was organizing Living Wage campaigns in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the first thing people on the street would ask me was, “How much are they paying you?” I worked for a union-backed community group that believed in providing decent wages and benefits, so I could proudly say yes, I made a living wage. The question taught me a valuable lesson about setting standards for my work in the movement. I had no chance in hell of freeing my community from the structures that held us down if I couldn’t even free myself. And how I defined that freedom had everything to do with how I lived and how I worked for justice.

The idea that liberation starts with self has rooted itself in my present racial equity work with artists. For example, I had the honor of working with Naka Dance Theater and Eastside Arts Alliance on the The Anastasio Project, a multi-disciplinary public performance work that investigated the issues of race, state brutality, and Mexican border violence. Prior to rehearsals, I worked with dancers to help them understand the role of structural racism in racial profiling and explore ways of reclaiming community and self-identity as part of the storytelling process. Through their exploration the piece became not just about the violence visited on them by the criminal justice system, but also about how they as young men of color define themselves and live their lives.

Compassion? While watching the movie about the great South African freedom fighter Mandela recently, I was reminded about the importance of compassion. Mandela was an incredible human being. And since he was human he was by definition flawed. What matters are not the flaws but what we make of them. Having compassion for the complexities of human fragilities does not mean that we don’t hold each other accountable. To the contrary, it charges us not to react, but respond with wisdom and grace.

Embracing our complexities allows us to pursue solutions that speak to the heart of the issues that we care about. One great example of this is the growing Restorative Justice movement that is challenging public school discipline policies that target Black, brown, disabled and LGBTQ youth. I would argue that the new US Department of Justice guidelines that address discrimination in school discipline was achieved partly because students, teachers, organizers, and others have put forth this proactive alternative model. Those who were fighting to end Zero Tolerance policies in schools didn’t just say no to the regressive policy, they offered something to say yes to. Restorative Justice begins with an understanding that these youth need a transformative process and a supportive community. Restorative Justice doesn’t label young people as bad or good, but instead fundamentally alters the context of their education, creating a space that says “Yes, you belong here.”

Beauty? We don’t talk a lot about beauty during our strategic planning meetings. We should.

I define beauty as releasing the binaries and engaging the complexities. Author bell hooks talks about challenging binaries in this way:

One of the ways that you can work for freedom is to change your mind and to move away from the space of binaries, of simplistic either, ors, both, ands. And to be able to look at the picture that offers us complexity.

And therein lies the beauty. Hidden within those complexities are the answers, the freedom that we have been striving for, the beloved community that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of. Embracing this complexity can change lives and bring communities together. When my dance partner Etang Inyang and I created the Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image program we stepped forward with knowledge about the impact of colonization, Westernization, sexism, and commodification of what we know as bellydance. The social and politically charged history of the dance provides rich substance for a curriculum about media resistance and self-definition, as well as a connection to the struggle of women and girls in Egypt. That complexity gives meaning to the movement and beauty to the dance.

We can also see beauty in the work of poet and illustrator Julio Salgado who challenges audiences to take on the whole of what he and his communities represent: queer, undocumented, talented, from every corner of the globe. His multi-layered images explode the boxes created by stereotypes and expose the shortsightedness of cookie-cutter policies.

Justice? “Justice,” says filmmaker Shakti Butler, “is about respect. It is love in action.”

I get that.

For instance, I love dancing. I love it so much that there came a time that I knew that I had to fundamentally change my life in order to do it justice. My entire life was overhauled, from changing careers to spending more time studying dance’s cultural roots, forms and master teachers.

This dedication to justice exists in our movement today. “Moral Mondays,” sponsored by the North Carolina NAACP and local churches, are a dedication to justice. Thousands of people protest and hundreds have been arrested at the state capitol in Raleigh. They seek to ensure that cuts to public education, lack of gun control laws, threats to voting rights, and the growing list of legislative wrongs done to their communities do not go uncontested. It’s love in action, and we need more of it.

Love? “But the greatest of all of these is love,” says First Corinthians 13:13. What does it mean to lead with love? I ask myself that question whenever I recall that Sacramento coalition meeting.

Maybe I asked the wrong question that day.

Maybe instead of asking the group to talk about their values, I should have just stated mine.

I could have talked about how I love my community and that I hoped that they did too. I could have said that real love means that we do no harm, that we preserve the dignity of the community and that we value every single human being in it.

Maybe I should have talked about love. But love is courageous and that day I was not.

So these days I’m learning how to stop throwing punches and leaving with the last word. I’m learning to stand on principle and stay.

I’m learning to love in a whole different way.

Feature photo:, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Tammy Johnson

Tammy Johnson is very clear. Her life’s purpose is to be a happy Black woman. Some days that shows up as a shimmy in the middle of a workshop on racial equity, and on others it is simply a pause for breath. Johnson is a dancer, producer, culture keeper, writer, equity consultant and godmother extraordinaire. Her kinfolk in Tennessee taught her early on how to be a love-warrior as they fought for their right to just be as Black people. Later as a community organizer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Johnson directed living wage, welfare rights, public education and election campaigns. She has partnered with World Trust and Art / Work Practice, and spent a decade at Race Forward advancing racial justice at as a national organizer, trainer, writer, policy analyst and public speaker. Johnson co-produced the television special Colorlines: Race and Economic Recovery with LinkTV, and has written for the Christian Science Monitor, The Huffington Post, and As an independent consultant she has successfully brought somatics and artistic wisdom to the fore with groups like The Laundry Mat Project and the Young Women’s Freedom Center. The Oakland, California based Johnson stays true to her path by embracing work moves us all closer to world of justice and healing, and most importantly, work that gives her joy. Visit her website at

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