An Interview with Dr. Patricia Parker
by Dr. Patricia Parker
September 27, 2018
This interview with Dr. Patricia Parker, Chair at the Department of Communication, Associate Professor of Organizational Communication Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, and founder of the Ella Baker Women's Center, was conducted and condensed by frank news.
frank: Can you give us a bit of background on yourself. How you ended up where you are now?
Dr. Parker: There are many entry points to that story, but the one I think is most relevant to the work I'm doing now is my family history. I was born in rural Arkansas into a family of 13 children. I'm the youngest of the 13. I was exposed to an older generation that was very much involved in activism. One of my oldest sisters was the first African American students to enter the local liberal arts college that was just a few miles from the segregated town in which my parents and their parents were born and raised.
By the time it was my turn to go to college, that would have been in the late '70's, my sister and seven siblings had forged that path. My oldest sister, Jurlene, and her peers and the civil rights activists at that time had forged that path. That is something that stayed with me. When I went on to get my master's and PhD degrees in communication, I was introduced to some theories including Black feminist theory and other theories about power and anti-racist work.
My personal experience of having witnessed my siblings' activism, having lived a life as a Black woman growing up in the rural south and then living in other places in the United States and around the world, came together for me as a program of study of looking at the intersections of race, gender, and leadership.
I was always interested in organizing processes (perhaps because I was literally born into an in-progress organization that was my family!) and that brought me to critical organizational communication as a field of study within the larger discipline of communication. That solidified my interest in thinking about organizing processes and leadership.
At the time I was getting my PhD, there was a focus in the literature on women in leadership and it was very clear that the women they were talking about were particular women—White, middle class women. My dissertation research was focused on African American women executives who had made it to the top.
This was in the '90's and President Bill Clinton was in the White House; he had three Black women in his Cabinet, which was indicative of the rise of Black women as leaders in these different settings.
I did a study with 15 women across the country who were representative of the women who had made it to the top ranks including the women in the President's Cabinet. They connected their own success, as I did, with the communities they were born into and the influence of the Civil Rights movement and the role models there. That influenced the book that I wrote about African American women executives and thinking about re-envisioning organizational leadership from the perspectives of African American women.
It was a bold thesis, but my thinking was influenced by people like Peter Senge at MIT, and others who were thinking about organizing as a process that takes complexity into account. One argument was that leaders who are able to lead complex systems themselves need to to have the capacity to “see” complexity; they need to have engaged with complexity as a frame of reference.
I thought, well, Black women who are conscious of their route through complex structures, you know, what Patricia Hill Collins refers to as the matrix of domination—patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity, and so forth—Black women, in particular, who have this perspective can add something to this knowledge about how complex systems work and how best to engage and transform them.
That set me on this course of thinking about leaders and leadership and social justice activism as intersecting with that process.
Do you feel that the personal is political?
Dr. Parker: Absolutely. That is a foundation of feminism in general, but in particular after I finished my first book and I had done that historical study of thinking about the traditions of Black women's activism throughout history, I was thinking about precisely what you're asking. How are young women - how are contemporary girls able to make those connections in terms of looking at their personal context and being able to connect that to the larger structural conditions that might be shaping their lives. That's what my current work is and I think that it's absolutely crucial.
Doing that historical analysis was when I got introduced to Ella Baker, the human rights and civil rights activist whose work spanned 50 years starting in the 1930's. She's most well-known for being the advisor and really the catalyst that made SNCC happen, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee that's iconic from the '60's in terms of youth activism.
But it was Ms. Baker's philosophy that when we start to think about social change that we should begin at the site of oppression.
That is, we need to find ways to connect with the knowledge of people who are already living with and through particular articulations of oppressive conditions. Interventions become possible where there is an analysis of how capitalism and racism, and white supremacy, and so forth, are intersecting through people's bodies, in their everyday lives. Ms. Baker said, "If you give people light they will find a way." She also said that, "Strong people don't need strong leaders." Her meaning there was, people are already living through the impacts of capitalism and some of these other oppressions and that as experts, people who are doing scholar activism who have a particular analysis, our job is to work alongside the people who are already fighting it because they have a particular angle or vision. They have a particular knowledge that can be brought to bear in terms of social change initiatives.
My work with girls of color right now is founded on Ms. Baker's principles of what I call “catalytic leadership,” the topic of my next book due out in 2020 by University of California Press. Her approach is often referred to as group-centered leadership that is highly participative, but it is also grounded in a tenacious belief in community power. In Ms. Baker’s philosophy, organizing for social justice means catalyzing community power. My current work is founded on the staunch belief that girls are in the know. They know what's happening in their schools. They see the disparities in school suspensions and access to opportunities. They know what's happening in their communities because they're living it. Through the Ella Baker Women’s Center for Leadership and Community Activism, my students and I work with girls and their allies in communities to create space for girls to see their own power and to do some of the amazing things that they're already doing, but also support them with resources and mentoring.
We employ critical pedagogies grounded in Ms. Baker’s philosophies that allow them to learn about social justice activism and to think about where there are opportunities for change.
The current cohort of leaders developed a project to focus on intergenerational storytelling. They planned and organized a “Girl Power Summit.” They decided that they wanted to have an all- women space for their mothers, their aunts, their grandmothers, their sisters, anybody who's interested in girl power, to come together to talk about their expereinces. To prepare for the summit, we did some of our critical pedagogy work, and the girls worked with arts activist Kayhan Irani to facilitate the gathering of about 30 girls and women in thinking about and telling our stories. They were amazing. These beautiful women, these grandmothers and aunts who talked about when they were teenagers and young women and going through their careers and some of the things that they faced, and this resonated with the stories that the girls were telling in terms of what they face in their classrooms, and some of the sexism that they face, or not being seen. It was just a really powerful convening of intergenerational storytelling. The girls decided that they wanted to expand on the project, so they are preparing to collect stories from women and girls in their neighborhood to do a more extensive action research project.
The personal does matter and it provides a route toward this kind of contextual understanding. This is actually one of the main themes of the book I'm working on right now — mapping these personal routes toward collective consciousness about social justice activism.
I think it's really astute to recognize that the people who you are trying to help are probably capable of helping themselves given resources — especially if you believe in this idea of power within ones own body and mind.
What do you think the younger generation should be focusing on? How can they take the lessons of somebody like Ella Baker and use them in 2018?
Dr. Parker: You know, it's a great question. It's the question of the day, right, because we have such courageous activism happening right now. The Black Lives Matter movement. I was just in conversation with the southern regional director for Black Lives Matter, a young Black woman. I don't know how many people know the three Black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, who created #BlackLivesMatter as a response to anti-Black racism. DeRay McKesson is sort of the face of Black Lives Matter right now, which is another story we can talk about that sort of harkens back to Ms. Baker and Dr. King. By many historical accounts, Ms. Baker was just as influential on the Civil Rights movement as Dr. King. She worked more with the grassroots, he more so at the grass tops. That's an oversimplification and I recognize the great work that Dr. King did, but it sort of gets to this idea of the context of social movements and the erasure of Black women’s labor. There are some things that don't seem to change.
Have you heard of misogynoir?
Dr. Parker: When Leslie Jones, the wonderful comedienne from Saturday Night Live, was viciously attacked on social media in 2016 a lot of celebrities came out to support her and among them was Katy Perry, who used the term misogynoir to explain what was happening. It's misogyny but against black women's bodies in particular. The woman who originally coined the term back in 2008, Moya Bailey, is a queer Black feminist scholar who wanted to describe the particular form of racialized sexism that Black women experience, especially in online media platforms, but also in everyday life. Katy Perry’s reference sort of took it to this other level of visibility. All that to say, there are some things, like misogynoir, that seem to get reinvented in different contexts across space and time.
Misogynoir by any other name is still this sort of act of violence against black women that persists throughout history because white supremacy has persisted.
Black women figure prominently in keeping that narrative alive because it started in the time of enslavement in terms of having to have this violence against black women's bodies in order to justify chattel slavery.
Justifying violence to justify chattel slavery.
With the advent of social media, there is more access... tools for people to connect.
I think that there are some foundational activist strategies that are grounded in anti-racist work that has happened, that are always emerging from indigenous communities. I'm thinking about the history of black women's activism. And indigenous women all over the world. These movements all over the world, really I think connect on a certain level to a fundamental strategy which is to have an analysis of structural power.
We have to start with analysis of how power is inserting itself into our everyday lives. For me, that has to do with these different dominating structures of power. But having that analysis, then we have to have the tactics of educating people about how that's happening in their communities.
When a girl starts to wonder, just asking a question, "Why is it in my school, Black kids are being sent to detention more than White kids?" I mean, it's just a simple question. When she is able to do that kind of research and then starts to ask those questions, that's a structural analysis. So having that structural analysis is important. And then it's a matter of asking what is the point of change? I think this is where we get some sort of divergence because I know that in the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been so much emphasis on direct action which is bold and courageous and in your face. I'm gonna shut it down, right? How does that strategy work over time in terms of change? It takes such an emotional toll to continue to confront these persistent restructuring of state violence.
On one level this gets to the importance of self care in activist work; but it is also about how are the tactics of direct action fitting in with the larger strategy for change? To me, that's the question that all of us have to engage.
This is where I think we have to come to bear, in terms of trying to determine what are the strategies. Where's the point of change? Is it in these direct action tactics, sort of the social media campaigns and so forth, or is there a larger political strategy? I think it's a complex combination of all of these, starting with a structural analysis and then educating people to empower people to be able to see that analysis and then mobilizing people according to particular strategies, whether it's campaigns, voting, direct action. So that's my take.
How do you sustain engagement and energy over time?
Dr. Parker: Well, that's a great question because it speaks to what I was just talking about in terms of what is the overall strategy. I am very clear about what my intervention is in the general project of social justice and social movements.
My intervention, similar to Ms. Baker's, is to open up those spaces for people to see their own power and then trust people then to follow that route towards some kind of collective consciousness. So a personal route to collective consciousness about social justice and democracy.
I think it's the foundation of our democracy — and I'm telling you that I have never in the ten years that I've been doing this work, I have never encountered a girl who wasn't excited about this project. Who wasn't excited about wow, I have a space where someone is going to see me. Someone is going to listen to what I think and what I think is connected to something bigger in the world. But that's the project. That is so important because so much has happened on a structural level that gives the opposite message.
There's so much in schools, in corporations, in universities, even, that say, "We don't need you. You're disposable. You don't count." Just as Ms. Baker said, I'm just doing democracy. Democracy with a little 'd'. Having that belief in the power of people to find a personal route to collective consciousness about democracy.
Nothing against Anthony Robbins, but this is not about finding the giant within. This is about understanding your place in history and in a democracy. It's personal routes toward collective consciousness. I can't repeat that too many times because it is really recognizing how we're connected in this project of social justice and equity.
That to me is how we keep it alive. In that regard, it keeps hope alive. So that's part one. Part two is that it's highly contextual. Part of the project is to reclaim a set of commitments to our democracy. This is where my communication background fuels my work. I understand communication as helping us to really facilitate those conversations about, what are our agreements in this moment, and maybe in this moment in history, but just in terms of thinking about who we are as a country, for example.
As people say, "Let's stay woke." Let's understand what's going on. That's the structural analysis. Then I will fight to stay connected to you in this conversation—especially if we disagree. That's what's in it for me is to know what our commitments are and if I know that you're committed to the same thing that I'm committed to ... and to me those commitments have to do with our values as a democracy. What do we stand for as a free republic? I think we go to that level of commitment. It's also about decolonizing. There are commitments related to dismantling the structures of white supremacy embedded in our institutions, our laws, our policies. So it's a particular kind of commitment. Being tenacious about staying connected with all the people who are in that conversation. People who disagree, who might be radically opposed to each other but find productive ways to keep the conversation going forward.
Do you think there’s a danger now of people feeling like they're participating because it's so easy to like something or share something or post about something? The illusion of activism.
Dr. Parker: Again, I think it has to be highly contextual. With any social action, it's going to be within a particular context. I think people have to be aware of, what is a social media campaign doing in that moment?
You should do the work of making yourself aware of all the complexities that are creating a particular moment. I think education is the key. Having that education about a particular issue. For Ms. Baker, it was always about tilting the power toward the people who are most vulnerable. Not acting unless you are able to get the context from the people who are being impacted by that particular moment.
Her approach to social change was about teaching and learning. So in other words, people should be able to educate themselves and others in terms of how social media might be moving something forward. They should also be teaching and learning about traditional grassroots organizing. There is so much more to learn in terms of actually engaging with people on issues. Being on the ground with people and learning some of the approaches to social movements in terms of doing a direct action but understanding what you're learning about, how that is teaching you to build a particular muscle in social change.
It's really about having a highly contextual understanding of how social change happens.