Some of Charlene Carruthers’ strongest memories from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago are of visiting the public aid office with her mother. Caseworkers spoke condescendingly from a desk so high it was difficult to see over. The desk reinforced the feeling of being talked down to.
“I just remember as a child being very conscious of the differences when it came to class and race and even gender,” she said. “But I didn’t have those words at the time.”
Years later, Carruthers entered Illinois Wesleyan University as a pre-med student, hoping to become a surgeon. It took a trip to South Africa at the end of her freshman year, where she saw the lingering realities of apartheid, for her to realize she wanted to become more politically involved.
Today, Carruthers, 29, is national coordinator for BYP 100, an activist organization that grew out of the Black Youth Project and aims to give young African Americans a political voice. Originally 100 black activists ages 18 to 35, the group now has almost 200 members across the country, with chapters in Chicago, Oakland, Washington, D.C. and New York City.
The organization is currently focusing on ending the criminalization of black youth, which is reflected in racial profiling and wrongful arrests. Carruthers was recently in Ferguson, Mo., for four days, connecting with local youth leaders and supporting the protests against the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth shot by a police officer.
The Chicago Reporter sat down with Carruthers to talk about BYP 100 and organizing black youth.
What are your goals for BYP 100?
I want to see us win on decriminalization of marijuana. I want to see us win on repealing crimes of youth, where young people can be arrested for things that adults are not arrested for. I want to see the Department of Justice exercising their full range of powers over local police departments when it comes to police abuse, police brutality, things of that nature. I also want to see local law enforcement demilitarized.
Those are some policy things. And we need to be a permanent organization with a strong base. In the next five years, it’d be great to have a strong base of 1,000 dues-paying members who are all a part of a process of transforming our communities.
You’re very active on social media. How do you use it in your work? How has social media become more important in activism?
At its core, social media has the ability to amplify our organization and almost any social justice-oriented organization. So we leverage things as simple as having Twitter town halls, and having public conversations around an issue that we’re working on. Social media’s really important for that. We use our Facebook page a lot for political education. We share various articles and original content from our members. One of our members wrote a blog post about Janay Rice, the focus of attention recently when a video surfaced of her husband, professional football player Ray Rice, knocking her out. Being able to do political education and insert analysis that is black, queer and feminist, that’s what social media allows us to do in ways that traditional media doesn’t.
What do you mean when you say you take a queer feminist lens in your work?
For us, it’s tied in with our group-centered leadership approach. We work very hard to make sure our leadership in our organization has gender diversity, and that means people along the gender spectrum. It also has to do with the analysis we bring to the table. So when we talk about mass criminalization, we talk about how it impacts black women and girls, and black LGBTQ folks. And the kind of narrative that we weave around issues is centered in a black queer feminist lens. We strive to do it in our analysis and in our practice.
Why is that lens important?
It’s important because we are really serious about creating freedom and justice for all black people, but all too often black women and girls, black LGBTQ folks, are left on the sidelines. And if we’re going to be serious about liberation we have to include all black people. It’s really that simple. And it’s been my experience that issues of gender justice and LGBT justice have been either secondary or not recognized at all.
What do you think are the biggest obstacles for young black people who want to get involved politically?
I think there’s a lack of investment in community organizing, period, in this country, and specifically black-led community organizing. It’s not apathy, I don’t believe in that. It’s not because young black people don’t care. They do care. They absolutely care. In 2008, 2010, and in 2012, young black people voted at higher rates than any other youth demographic. And that’s one of the most basic indicators for civic engagement. I’m on Twitter, I’m on Facebook; people are talking about social issues all the time. So people care. But we don’t always have the resources or the know-how. There are very few organizations, including us, that train young black folks in political activism. A lot of organizations don’t necessarily see the value in developing young people as political leaders.
Do you see any trends in the interest young black people have in politics? Do you see a growing interest?
If we look as far back, or even earlier, than the civil rights movement, we’re looking at movements that are led by young people. So it’s nothing new. However, there are some key flashpoints that contributed to the growth of BYP 100 — the killing of Trayvon Martin, the killing of Renisha McBride, Marissa Alexander’s case, Mike Brown in Ferguson. There are these cases where young black people have been murdered and black people have been incarcerated — and I don’t want to use the word “unjustly,” because I don’t think incarceration is just, in general — but in a way that does not actually improve our communities or make us any safer. We have our moments of this generation agitating people into political (action) and people are seeing once again the need for black liberation organizing.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.