“Be optimistic.” With Sheri Davis & Jason Hartman

I have to be optimistic that our country can be better because it is what sustains me in my work, but I don’t know if what I am fighting for will happen in my lifetime. It took more than 400 years to get to this moment of multiracial reckoning, particularly as it relates to anti-Black […]

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I have to be optimistic that our country can be better because it is what sustains me in my work, but I don’t know if what I am fighting for will happen in my lifetime. It took more than 400 years to get to this moment of multiracial reckoning, particularly as it relates to anti-Black racism. However, as the tagline for World Social Forum states, I firmly believe that “another world is possible; another U.S. is necessary.”

As part of our series about 5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheri Davis.

Davis is the Senior Program Director for WILL Empower at the Rutgers Center for Innovation in Worker Organization (CIWO). WILL Empower is a bold and ambitious new initiative to identify, nurture, train, and convene a new generation of women labor leaders. It is jointly housed at Rutgers University and Georgetown University.

Davis previously served as the Director for the Westside Communities Alliance in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Tech. An interdisciplinary scholar-activist, Davis completed her doctorate in American Studies in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University. She also holds a M.A. in Women’s Studies from The Ohio State University and B.A. in Psychology and Political Science from Spelman College.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Sheri! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

My name is Sheri Davis and I use she/her pronouns. I grew up in dual households in Black working class suburbs just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I am the daughter of a non-union administrative assistant and a union auto worker. I am the granddaughter of domestic workers. I attended Black public schools until the 8th grade. Then I was bussed to the northern part of my county to attend a wealthy, predominately white, public school.

I grew up in a city with a Black mayor and under the dark cloud of Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered Children. My racial justice activism began in high school when I was nearly expelled for distributing copies of an article about police brutality and Rodney King. The principal said I was “inciting a riot,” but my activism was a survival mechanism crafted at the intersection of the L.A. uprisings, Anita Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing, and the early stages of defunding public schools.

I was the first Black student government president and co-captain of the drill team, and one of the few Black students in honors classes. I grabbed my diploma and ran to Spelman College.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Words of Fire by Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall opened my eyes to the depth and breadth of Black women’s intellectual and political thought. During my senior year of college, I took my first ever women’s studies course at Spelman. This bulky $20 paperback is filled with a world of Black women feminist thinkers who shaped every era, every discipline, every social and economic justice movement from suffrage to the founding of NOW. It highlights Pauli Murray, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, June Jordan, and Black women’s use of the essay as activism. This herstory of Black women’s writing and activism in the United States gave me lineage of great Black thinkers — an intellectual place where I belonged.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.

That quote is from Audre Lorde’s speech, “Learning from the 60’s,” delivered on Malcolm X Weekend at Harvard University in 1982. I use it to open trainings related to inclusion and intersectionality. The challenge that Black women often face is the requirement to be on the “race team” or the “gender team,” even though the either/or erases our experiences in the process. At the same time, Black women also know that, without a race and/or gender lens, our lives are invisible at best. Audre Lorde taught me to value difference; that it is necessary to see complexity and the way oppressive structures of inequality harm everyone — even the perpetrators. She taught me to show up fully and not hide any part of myself for the comfort of others, to work towards a just and reparative framework that includes those who are usually invisible and reaches those most in need.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is a practice. I learned this from Brigette Rouson’s facilitation and adrienne marie brown’s Emergent Strategy. It’s not just about who you are, but what you do in the critical moments when leadership is needed. A good example is the role union educators (predominately women) played as the nation faced a growing health crisis. Before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, the union leaders demanded school closures and offered city administrators detailed plans for protecting and feeding impoverished families, particularly in Communities of Color. They had not experienced this before, yet they used their networks to share ideas and they took the necessary actions to protect their students, families, and workers. This is leadership!

In life we come across many people, some who inspire us, some who change us and some who make us better people. Is there a person or people who have helped you get to where you are today? Can you share a story?

Dr. Brittney Cooper, Valarie Long, and Dr. Jacqueline Jones Royster

New York Times Bestselling author Dr. Brittney Cooper has been a peer mentor to me for nearly a decade. She helped me to find my voice and to write. She encouraged me to write my way through struggles and confusion and to write myself, Blackgirl stories, and my way of doing activism into existence.

Executive Vice President of SEIU, Valarie Long, showed me how to develop leaders and provided the pathway for me to develop my own leadership style. She taught me how to listen to my members and leaders, to get to the crux of workplaces issues, to take strategic action with Black and Brown workers for significant impact. I not only learned to recognize and nurture the leadership of others, but also the value of grounding myself and not imitating other people’s leadership style.

The first Black dean of a college at Georgia Tech, Dr. Jacqueline Jones Royster was the first person to recruit me for a leadership position as the Director of the Westside Communities Alliance. In this role, I learned when to take risks and how to read political dynamics when speaking on behalf of an organization. She provided a model for courageous leadership that centered on Black women’s activism practices and was rooted in a care-ethic. Doing university-community partnership work, I witnessed first-hand how countless Black women community leaders in Atlanta have our hearts broken and our communities undermined, but the lessons they learn and what they do next is the real magic.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a series of unprecedented crises. So many of us see the news and ask how we can help. We’d love to talk about the steps that each of us can take to help heal our county, in our own way. Which particular crisis would you like to discuss with us today? Why does that resonate with you so much?

As a Black woman, I don’t feel that I have the option to choose one crisis over another. Many Black women are sitting at the intersection of triple pandemics: COVID-19’s impact on Black communities; racism and state violence; and surging unemployment that disproportionately impacts women and Communities of Color.

This is likely a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

We live in a society where the small percentage of people with cultural, financial, and systemic power value individualism and private ownership over having a social safety net and healthy families. A society that values people over profit is viewed as radical. When the public good housing, health, schools, etc. and the public sector jobs that should support and lift everyone up are decimated, and an unprecedented crisis happens, we don’t have the infrastructure or the inclusive culture to care for all of our people.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience either working on this cause or your experience being impacted by it? Can you share a story with us?

My partner’s mother was just released after 10 weeks in the hospital where she nearly died from complications related to COVID-19. I am raising a Black teenage son with a Black male partner, so police brutality and unjust incarceration are always at the forefront of my mind. My mother has been unemployed since the onset of the stay-at-home order.

In my role as co-director of WILL Empower (Women Innovating Labor Leadership) at the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization (CIWO) in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, I support women leaders nationwide who are on the frontlines of worker justice and voting rights struggles. So often when the ship is sinking, leadership roles that have been traditionally held by white males are more open to women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) candidates. In these moments of transition, it is necessary to ensure that leaders who may be new or the “first ever” woman or POC in the role have what they need to not only “serve,” but to lead in the ways that they know make sense for the moment.

In my work, I seek to provide women leaders with a network of peers, coaching support, and curated space to process their challenges so that they can bring all of their experiences forward in the service of their own leadership. I believe that when we lead “outside of the box” and with the support of a badass leadership crew that we, women, can achieve quality accessible health care, racial justice, and worker justice that protects and uplift all of our families, including my own.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

  1. Actively unlearn the sanitized American history and narrative that have been distributed as a way of under-educating the populace.
  2. Support worker justice organizations and employer regulations that seek to lift the economic floor. Recognize that racism and sexism are built into the foundation of the American economy and that discrimination exists to exclude and depress wages for everyone.
  3. White people must acknowledge the truth of how white supremacy and state violence function to keep everyone in their established place based on racial and other constructed hierarchies.
  4. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color must contend with our distinct histories and the differentiated impact of racist policies on each community. We must build alignment across culture in ways that are not filtered through a whiteness lens, so that we can develop lasting remedies to longstanding trauma and injuries.
  5. Recognize that positionality informs each of our experiences and that Black women have specific experiences at the intersection of race, sex, and class-based oppressions, having existed legally and culturally as the antithesis of an “American.” We have been fighting to be seen as fully human in every arena since we arrived on these shores.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but what can we do to make these ideas a reality? What specific steps can you suggest to make these ideas actually happen? Are there things that the community can do to help you promote these ideas?

  1. Relearn U.S. history through race-conscious and gender-conscious lenses, and employ consciousness-raising circles to build this muscle with friends, family, and communities. Then take anti-racist action locally to make all places safe for Black people and all People of Color. Google reading lists.
  2. Reject large companies, like Amazon, which resist workers’ rights to organize and to protect themselves. They also employ surveillance technology to advance unjust policing of Black and Brown communities.
  3. Study the habits of white supremacy culture for the purpose of working to dismantle racism in yourself, your homes, your schools, your communities, your workplaces, your religious and spiritual spaces, and your legislative bodies. It is not enough to diversify every arena if white supremacy is not extracted from our leadership and our practices.
  4. Trust Black women.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

I have to be optimistic that our country can be better because it is what sustains me in my work, but I don’t know if what I am fighting for will happen in my lifetime. It took more than 400 years to get to this moment of multiracial reckoning, particularly as it relates to anti-Black racism. However, as the tagline for World Social Forum states, I firmly believe that “another world is possible; another U.S. is necessary.”

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

In the words of the great Audre Lorde, “Your silence will not protect you. It never has and it never will…. Transform silence into language and action.” We need your voices and your leadership to imagine and create a more just world.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Viola Davis. She has taken risks on every media platform available and provided a representation of Black women who own their image. She has also recently taken the risk of being shunned by Hollywood for her reflection on her involvement with the film “The Help,” which to many Black folks felt like a setback. I admire her courage and vulnerability and her willingness to stand in her truth.

How can our readers follow you online?

Facebook: @WomenLeadLabor

Twitter: @WomenLeadLabor

Website: willempower.org

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