You Know Who Rules? is Broadly's December interview series highlighting women and non-binary people who accomplished incredible things during the dumpster fire of a year that was 2017.
When unarmed teenager Mike Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014, Brittany Packnett found herself in Ferguson, Missouri, protesting racist police brutality alongside other concerned citizens. Since then, she's worked tirelessly to bring awareness to this cause, co-founding the police reform campaign Campaign Zero in 2015 and traveling the country to meet, teach, and learn from communities of color. Packnett is also the vice president of national community alliances for Teach for America, creating the organization's first equity agenda.
This year, Packnett decided not to let her work and passion for social justice lead to a melancholic and sad existence. Instead, she put pen to paper and let her feelings of love, power, and joy out in an essay series called Falling in Love.
Broadly spoke with the writer and organizer about love and loudly declaring your intentions instead of responding from a place of sadness.
BROADLY: What are you most proud of accomplishing in 2017?
BRITTANY PACKNETT: I wrote a lot more in 2017 and am proud of everything that I wrote, but I specifically did a blog series for Amy Polar’s Smart Girls called "Falling in Love." It was all about being an empowered woman of color, understanding how to own and see my power in the social and political landscape of today.
This intersection of the political and personal is squarely where I live and work. I see so many people attempting to do important justice work without having examined how all of these systems and structures affect them. Without that self-exploration, I feel like we’ll never be fully effective. As much as we are creating a just world, we need to be empowered individuals.
I’m really proud of that series and found people were incredibly responsive to it. I found I was more writing it for myself and my own freedom and think that people respected that level of transparency and honesty. My hope was that it would engage people, that it would teach people something, that it would help people consider just how much the political and the personal intersect in ways that they didn’t previously think of.
Writing all of that down was a really pivotal step for me in living my purpose and being unashamed.
That sentiment is so important. People try to separate the political with the business and the personal, but it’s people who run the world.
That’s right. And a lot of the writing I was doing this year was in response to these police shootings—it was in response to injustice. I appreciate the opportunity to write those things, but this series was on my own terms.
It was about triumph. It was about power and love. It’s about women, women of color, people of color, and being unafraid to do what you just said to connect the dots for people between how the political affects each of us so personally.
It felt really good to not be writing in response of sadness but to be declaring my own intentions and writing my own narrative proactively.
From your work creating Teach for America's first equity agenda to founding Campaign Zero, how has this year’s political climate affected the work you’re doing?
I recognize there is a privilege to not just be able to have a job, but to have a job that I love, and to have a job that makes a difference in the communities I care most about. Many people don’t have that same privilege. So, I think that for me—no matter who’s in office, no matter what administration or party is ruling—I know that my purpose and our collective work as communities of color is bigger than that.
I find myself trying to be real about the dangers that people find themselves in, to be very thoughtful about how we move and work in concert with our communities instead of doing work to our communities. But ultimately, I try to elevate our work beyond the moment because no matter what year it is, no matter who’s in office, marginalized people are still experiencing their marginalization.
We have an obligation to ourselves and to our communities to be bigger than the moment. I believe that’s how I—and my team and all of the incredible partners we get to work with in my formal job at TFA, as well as in my activism work—that’s the way I think we all try to operate because our liberation is bound up with one another and it will take all of our work over the long haul to bring it to fruition… It’s hard to not feel the emotional pain and weight of this every single day. And there are some days I do. I let myself be human and I let myself feel it and I keep moving forward. I’m inspired by so many people who move even further and faster than I do. Those are the people that I learn from. Those are the people I’m inspired by. Those are the people that give me hope.
It’s young people who keep walking into our classrooms every day. It's activists who keep coming into the streets every day. It’s parents who love on their kids every day. These folks are continuing to push forward no matter the circumstances, so I feel like if they can, I can.
This is also something I really discovered and one of the fun things I did this year is that I taught myself how to design. I launched some shirts and launched a new site called Build Love and Power.
With Build Love and Power, you’re giving all of your proceeds to black women-owned organizations. Looking at where it is now, what do you hope for its future?
Love and Power is still becoming.
I didn’t want to tie myself to this very millennial notion that everything has to be perfectly branded and ready to launch on day one. The concept of Love and Power is something that I didn’t want to wait on. I didn’t want perfect to be the enemy of good. And I didn’t want to sit on the power of that concept just because I didn’t have my business pitch perfectly together.
In the very millennial way I found myself signing a lot of my Twitter threads with the heart and fist emoji’s. In my head, I was signing things "love and power" when I signed them that way. And I had never heard those things put together before, but I was reading one of Dr. King’s speeches, and he talked about this concept of love and power. I had never see it before and it was as if God had just put this passage right in front of me.
What he was saying was exactly what I had been feeling but was unable to articulate it until that point. He talked about love on its own being anemic, and power on its own being reckless, but the two forces together are what’s needed to change the world and that the function of power is to create justice and correct everything that stands in the way of love. I found that so succinct and compelling, and true to my motivation for justice work.
I’m doing this because I love myself and our people and our ideals enough to make the sacrifice.
If we are not thoughtful of how we let love inform power, if we don’t operate that way, the wins we have will be temporary, the progress we make will be flimsy. Instead, if we operate with consistent love and power, I think that we can create change that is lasting and fully equitable, create social movements that don’t keep leaving the most marginalized behind, and create a world where I want to raise my future children in.
I ultimately want to give people a place to explore challenging, nuanced concepts in a safe and brave space, where people who are doing this work every day can come engage with one another as they develop their thoughts and work and community.
What are you looking forward to in 2018?
There are a lot of things on deck. I’m doing a lot more writing and hoping to have some things come forward in 2018 and 2019 that will continue to give voice to what "Falling in Love" did. I’m also hoping to amplify the voices of black woman and women of color in many ways.
I’m laser-focused on the 2018 midterms in my own personal time, and really harnessing the kind of black political power we saw displayed in Alabama and other places into some triumphs in 2018, and into real systems for accountability. We’re getting better at electing the type of people we believe we want on the front end, but we have to do more to hold those people accountable on the back end once they become elected.
I’m continuing to do work with Campaign Zero and Stay Woke. We have a partnership with Rock the Vote right now where we’re trying to get a little over 200,000 Floridians to sign a petition to create a ballot measure to restore voting rights for formally incarcerated individuals. Florida is going to be an important battleground state in 2018 and 2020. Even beyond that, this is about people’s humanity and their right as citizens. If people have paid their debt to society that our current system requires them to pay, they should be able to live fully and freely as citizens once again. We’re hoping that Florida can be a model to other states to reinstate those rights.
In my full-time work, education justice work never slows down because there are students in classrooms every day that need us and acquire our affirmation and support and high expectations. We will continue to partner with communities in developing a large and diverse group of teachers who do exactly that in the classroom every day—teachers that affirm, and hold high standards, who provide rigorous instruction, and create critically conscious learning environments for young people of all backgrounds.