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BYP100's Charlene Carruthers on being Black, feminist and queer
by Imani Rupert-Gordon

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Despite the fact that, in Chicago, Charlene Carruthers and I are neighbors, the only time we can find to have this conversation is with 800 miles between us, which perfectly sums up Carruthers' schedule recently.

As her whirlwind book tour for her popular and unbelievably timely book Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements takes her all over the country, trying to find time to talk to the author and activist has become a bit of a challenge. Settling in for a conversation—her on a rainy morning in New York City, this writer holding it down in Chicago—it was actually very pleasing at how difficult it is to talk to a friend, and what that means for the impact this book is already having.

Windy City Times: How did you know that you were ready to write this book? How did you know that right now that you had something to offer the community?

Charlene Carruthers: I knew it was the time because I was right in the thick of organizing in one of the most vibrant movements we've had in decades in this country. Being a part of that I just knew that there was a lot that I needed to say to make some interventions [about] what I saw wasn't going well or what could be better or sharper. I really wanted to honor a number of the innovations that we've made, innovations we've made in BYP100 [Black Youth Project 100], innovations we've made in the broader Movement for Black Lives and it just felt like there was a lot that was being put out there about our work and a lot of it wasn't coming from us. I wanted to add to the growing chorus of people who were articulating the theory behind our work, the practice of our work in my own words. And so, I just felt like it was time. I didn't ask for permission. No one said 'you can go out and write this book now.' It was a choice. I knew, I felt in my gut that it was time to do it. I knew I was going to be moving into the next phase of my own life and as I did that I wanted to [use] Unapologetic as a way for me to both personally reconcile with the past and set the tone and foundation for what I do moving forward.

WCT: The book contains so much about your work from BYP100—what you've learned, mistakes you've made, what you gotten right, and what's going to inspire you and really inform your future. What is it going to be like for you to step away from BYP100?

CC: In so many ways I've begun transitioning out of this role and the book has allowed me to give myself space and other people to give me space to focus on this part of the work. It's difficult. I've been going through a whole grieving process. It's going to be redeveloping a new political identity because this has been so closely connected to my political identity for the past five years, five years that felt like 10 given the pace that we've been moving in. It's going to be different because I've never closely aligned myself with an organization the way that I've closely aligned myself with this one publically, so it's going to be an adjustment. It's also going to be an adjustment for other people who are used to looking to me for answers and I'm not the person and I'm going to redirect them [and say] 'I'm not the one. These are the people you need to talk to and to respect their leadership.'

WCT: So lastly about BYP100, what's next for them?

CC: Well BYP100 just went through about a nine-month process of developing our strategic plan and that was all member-driven. It's called The Freedom Forecast and we have three pillars: Organizational Capacity, Community Building and Black Political Agenda. [We're] really focusing on increasing our membership base and also engaging in politics in a way that we continue to move forward issues and not focus on candidates. And then third, deeper community building with organizations in the places that we are geographically grounded in. We have two new co-directors, Janae Bonsu and D'atra Jackson. Those two young women are going to lead our organization into the next five years. They are dynamic, disciplined and committed to this. I'm excited about all that is to come for them and the organization with them in leadership.

WCT: In your book you dedicated an entire chapter to Chicago's importance in radical Black activism. In the Chicago model [a chapter in your book] you talk about movements that shape our present movements, movements that you weren't present for, movements that you helped determine the strategy. What do you think that Chicago in particular has to teach us as organizers and activists or as aspiring organizers and activists?

CC: There's so many things to learn from Chicago. Some of that includes, what does it mean to organize in a city that the majority are actually Black and Brown folks? And people in elected office are often times Black and Brown folks. And don't always act in our best interest. So how do you actually contend with representative politics that don't necessarily result in transformation for our people? I think the other thing to learn from Chicago is what it means to double down for a campaign that takes over a decade to win, or decades to win and that people come and go, there's various entry points for people, so much changes, evolves, and to be in something for the long haul. And then, I think also to learn from Chicago is the value of cultural organizing and that we don't do anything without there being an element of culture no matter where that culture emerges from and so many different groups of people in Chicago. And I guess fourthly, people can learn from Chicago what it means to have a local movement that is both national and global in scope. Nationally connected and globally connected.

WCT: You spend time in the book discussing movement work and the importance of the Black queer feminist lens specifically as a praxis and you still cite instances of misogyny and sexual assault showing up in movement work as well. Can you share your thoughts on restorative and transformative justice and the responsibility of movement collectives to take part in these practices?

CC: Restorative justice and transformative justice are the hot topic. What I think many people miss for so many reasons, because I think the intentions are generally good, but so many people miss the amount of time and resources it takes to actually do the work in this way because it doesn't cost us any money to call the police. It doesn't cost us any money, personal money necessarily to ignore an issue, at least we may not think of it that way. At the same time, for us to actually deal with something, it takes time, it takes money, and it takes skill and so much of what it takes to do restorative and transformative justice work is just not easy. It requires us to bend and flex ourselves in ways that many of us have never bent or flexed ourselves before. And so it's hard and I don't want people to think for one moment that this is the easy route. This is the route it takes us unlearning everything that most of us have been taught about how to deal with conflict, violence and harm and it's no simple feat. That's the biggest thing for me. Secondly is that if people want to, which I think people can and they should commit to this kind of work is that they literally have to make a commitment for the long haul and choose to invest resources in that work.

WCT: So what's next for you?

CC: Well there's two things. The first is, I want to start a training center for organizers and general leadership development and that's going to really focus on meeting some of the capacity needs that our movement has because we've been in a moment where we haven't had nearly as many spaces as we need to develop our leaders because our organizations don't have the capacity to do all that. We are expected to both organize everyday and provide all the trainings that are necessary for people to be effective and that's beyond the scope of what most organizations can do at the scale that we need to do it at, and so I want to help meet that capacity need. The second thing that I want to focus on is really my passion and my joy for food and cooking and I want to do my work and communicate with people about my values about the communities I'm connected to through food. I just enjoy doing that and I want to reach a much broader audience of people with something that I love and I just know good food and I want to take that to a different level because I do believe that people can be politicized over plates and over food in ways they won't necessarily be politicized by reading my book because they won't ever read it but, they'll maybe watch a show about food.

WCT: Is there anything else that you'd like us to know?

CC: I think it's really important to know how important it is for white folks to read this book and to follow the leadership of radical Black feminists. And to emphasize that this is a book for them to read and to also to take note and get more curious about following leadership of Black LGBTQ folks who are radical Black feminists.

Women & Children First will host the book launch celebration for Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements Tuesday, Sept. 25, 7 p.m. For this event, Carruthers will be joined by Barbara Ransby and Janae Bonsu for a panel discussion. This event will be held at the Logan Arts Center, 915 E. 60th St. Attendees who purchase a book with their ticket will pick up the book at the event. All ticket holders are invited to the official book release after-party. See

Imani Rupert-Gordon is executive director of Affinity Community Services, based on Chicago's South Side.

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