In the wake of the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, some Americans are finally beginning to face the full extent of systemic racism in our country, many for the first time. According to The Washington Post, protests sparked by George Floyd’s death have been attended by more people than any other nationwide protest in United States history, with marches, vigils, gatherings, and occupations happening in every state and Washington, D.C., including in smaller towns and cities that do not have a history of protest. The protests have also generated more U.S. media coverage than any other display of activism in the last 50 years. The recent amplification of the Black Lives Matter movement has prompted re-evaluations of older police violence cases, re-assessments of police spending by local governments, and spurred discussions about racial inequality across industries, including at Refinery29. Mass numbers of white people and non-Black people of color across America seem to be waking up, educating themselves, and attempting to take steps toward real change. But, let’s not forget, Black people have long been doing this work that some have just now started.
Arisha Michelle Hatch is one of those people. She is vice president, chief of campaigns, and director of the PAC at Color Of Change, a Black civil rights organization that has received a lot of attention over the past month for the concrete actions it provides protestors. In these roles, she leads the organization’s civic engagement, advocacy, digital, and organizing work across a number of racial justice issues. She’s worked on everything from criminal and economic justice reform to corporate accountability to democracy and elections. In a recent conversation with Refinery29, Hatch talked about what it’s like to work as a professional organizer at this moment in the fight for racial justice, shared advice for those looking to switch to a career in activism, and discussed how we can make changes in our own workplaces regardless of our field.
Refinery29: Tell us a little bit about your career. Have you always been in activism? How did you come to work at Color of Change?
Arisha Michelle Hatch: I actually haven’t always been in activism. I didn’t grow up with politics around the dinner table in a lot of ways. I grew up always knowing that I was supposed to be a lawyer, so I did all those things. I went to undergrad at Stanford. I went straight through to law school and just as I was graduating and taking the bar, I became really fascinated by the Barack Obama/Hillary Clinton race in 2008. Just after I took the bar, Obama had already won the primary so I went to volunteer at one of his offices for the first time and never really looked back to corporate law.
After the Obama campaign, I moved into doing a lot of work in California around overturning Prop 8 at this organization called the Courage Campaign. I went to a training, and Rashad Robinson, now president of Color of Change, was there. He had just moved to Color of Change and was talking about the organization. I’d never heard of it before, but I had been doing all this work as a straight ally within the LGBT world so finding out that there was a Black civil rights org that was also doing digital organizing work, I was just like, Oh, that’s where I have to be.
What has been your greatest professional challenge and your greatest professional win?
I’ll start with the win. I think my biggest professional win has been the work that Color of Change PAC has done to elect progressive prosecutors all over this country. We’ve helped to elect more than a dozen, including helping to unseat the prosecutor in St. Louis County who failed to indict the police officer that killed Michael Brown. Bob McCulloch was a 26-year incumbent, had never really had a challenger, was up by 20 points four weeks out from the election, and it was because of the work of so many organizers at Color of Change and so many amazing local organizers at St. Louis Action that we were able to do something that most people thought was impossible years ago.
There have been so many challenges. I can’t even pinpoint one. Color of Change was effectively a startup when I got there, so we’ve had to do a lot of work to grow our infrastructure, to streamline our processes, and to be really clear with our entire staff what our mission is and what we are doing. I think the hardest part has been the growth cycle that we’ve gone through. Every other year, we sort of doubled in size and break every system, so it’s forced us to have to become a lot clearer and a lot stronger at telling our story and training staff to do the type of work that we do.
This often happens over the course of certain people’s careers, but many people seem to be evaluating what their professional work is doing to contribute to progressive changes in our society. That might lead them to consider changing paths to work as professional organizers or in the nonprofit sector. What advice do you have for someone who is considering switching to professional activism?
I think it’s about finding a place that is doing the type of work that you want to be doing. I don’t think that you have to be a professional activist to make real change in the world. Making this decision to move over to this sector is a big one because now something that you’re really passionate about is what you do every single day. It means that you’ll spend more time doing it. You’ll love it and you’ll also hate it a little bit, but hopefully it’s fulfilling for you. My best advice would be to volunteer with organizations to meet the staff, see what they do on a daily basis, really try to get a sense of what their lives are like, and try to build relationships in that place that you want to work.
Do you have suggestions for people who are trying to tackle racial injustices in their own workplaces?
No major corporate change that I have seen has come without inside and outside pressure. Both are so incredibly critical. I think folks have so much power as employees inside spaces to make change because you’re either the decision-maker in a lot of instances, or you have some influence over the decision-maker. The number of different worker protests we’ve seen, from the NFL, to what’s happened Refinery29, to what’s happening at Facebook, all of these things are working in coordination with the external movement that is pushing for change as well.
I really encourage all people in this moment to really look at and have an understanding of their power and the ways in which their daily work impacts the lives of Black people and other marginalized people. Find ways to make changes to that system. It might just be how workers are treated at your place of work, it might be the representations that you’re putting out if you’re a media company, it might be how content is being policed on your platform. There are so many ways to contribute to a world and a culture that values Black people.
Is it challenging to be at the forefront of a movement?
It’s really strange. I got to Color of Change in February of 2012. I had just turned 30, and a few weeks later, I walked in the door super naive about everything. Like, what are we doing here? Are people going to say racist things? How do we do the work? And literally two weeks later, Trayvon Martin was killed. Since then, every year or every other year, there’s been a big moment in our broader movement. It’s forced me to do a lot of work to understand and develop our strategy moving forward, but also, because we’re doing so much rapid response work at times, you have to compartmentalize your feelings. We think of our work at Color of Change as waking up every day and giving our members something to do on behalf of Black people so we really have to be in that solutions-oriented mindset even when there are moments when you just want to get in your bed and cry.
Color of Change is getting a lot of attention as more people are waking up to racial injustices in America. How does that feel?
It is exciting and terrifying. When I got to Color of Change, there were about seven people. We had fewer than a million members. I really felt like I got the opportunity to learn in a private setting and I had the opportunity to make mistakes. Now that there’s so much more visibility and we have so many more opportunities to leverage that, I think I’m in a moment where I am trying to reevaluate what the right opportunities are. What are the new things we can do now that more than 9 million people have taken action in the last three weeks? What different possibilities are opened? I’ve experienced a transformational moment for this country over the past few weeks but also a transformational moment for this organization that I’ve been helping to build over the last eight years.
There are so many organizations that have popped up in these movement moments that haven’t been around for a long time or they don’t the infrastructure that we have or the staff or the budget that we have, and so I think we’re really privileged to be becoming more visible after more than a decade of work and learning in this space.
From your perspective, as someone who works inside an organization that’s making change, how can the public aid you in sustaining these changes?
For us at Color of Change, as we’re trying to build independent Black political power, we think part of doing that is by having a donor base that gives small dollars, if it’s $5 or $20 a month, having thousands and thousands of people that do that over the course of the year can really sustain our movement and allow us to focus on the types of work that are really transformational and are 100% within our broader agenda. So becoming a recurring donor at an institution like Color of Change can be so critical and can change the life of that organization.
Also for Color of Change, just being an active member by regularly signing petitions and by making phone calls to the targets that we’re asking you to call, whether it’s a corporate target or local target, we believe that we can leverage real change through the collective voice of the millions of people that take action. So showing up in that way also continues to keep so many of the conversations that we are in alive.
What are you hoping to see come out of this moment?
I’ll say this, my father recently passed March 9, right before the shelter-in-place orders happened around the pandemic. One of the moments that has struck me most, in the last several weeks, was the video of Gigi Floyd on Stephen Jackson’s shoulder saying ‘My daddy changed the world.” I viewed that as a moment where a six-year-old was trying to make meaning out of her father’s death, just as I too have been trying to make meaning out of my father’s death over the last several months. I just really believe that our responsibility, as organizers and activists and allies in this moment, is to make Gigi’s dream real. I feel like she’s given us a very clear calling. When I think about making Gigi’s dream real, it’s about making sure we’re changing the way that we invest in local policing and the way that we invest in local programs, in a way that would reduce crime but also prevent this sort of situation from happening in the future. I don’t believe a police officer should have shown up to deal with George Floyd that day.
So I’m really excited about the conversation that is happening in local governments all across the country about re-imagining what safety and what law enforcement looks like in our communities because I think it has the potential to really shift a number of the progressive issues that we all work on. Not only does it have the potential to shift over-policing and mass incarceration, but it has a potential to support small businesses and improve healthcare or invest in environmental or climate changes in our local communities. Although this is a movement that is being propelled around a conversation about Black lives mattering, really if Black people win in this situation, I think all progressives win — all boats are lifted for folks. So I’m excited by that potential. I hope that we can see it through.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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