Seven Years of Growth: BLM’s Co-Founder and Incoming Executive Director Reflects on the Movement

Photo of Patrisse Cullors
Patrisse Cullors
The number seven holds power.

Many of us have heard the adage that the cells of our body are renewed and replaced every seven years. The reality is a little more complex. Some of our cells are replaced rapidly, others emerge in a crisis only to disappear, while others, like those that form our DNA, endure for our lifetime. But the average age of our cells is seven.

As Black Lives Matter celebrates its seventh anniversary, I’m energized by the significance the natural world has vested in the number seven. To know that this inflection point in our movement’s life is preordained in a way by nature, makes me hopeful, assured, and equipped as our good and necessary work persists, grows, and adapts.

For the first time, a majority of Americans — across ethnic and racial lines — have stated their solidarity with and support for Black Lives Matter. Our community has created the largest, most diverse civil and human rights movement in the history of both our country and our world.

But our enormous reach has not lessened our ability to adapt. For example, while the U.S. Postal Service fights for its right to exist, Black Lives Matter has launched several new and necessary programs — including one of the largest voter awareness and voter rights initiatives in American cultural memory. We remain engaged in long term work as well, pursuing landmark civil rights legislation in the BREATHE Act, reimagining public safety without police, and supporting Black artists who stand in solidarity with marginalized communities.

And yet, in the same breath with which I laud our achievements, I must acknowledge the missteps and the hard learned lessons of our movement. To become better, more accountable, and more transparent leaders, We — I– must reflect on and address the repercussions of our mistakes.

To this point, the urgency of Black Lives Matter’s work has dictated our form and function. Often, we have operated in “rapid response” — deploying people and resources to stem, both literally and metaphorically, the bleeding in our communities.

We have paid dearly for it.

We have leapt into the fray with inadequate funds. We have worked off half-drawn blueprints and roadmaps that led to untenable ends. We have exhausted the most self-sacrificing among us without providing adequate time to recover or a fully-realized vision for the long haul.

Much of this was beyond our control. After all, time was of the essence. State-sanctioned violence operates on a callused calendar. It’s counterintuitive to the needs and desires of freedom fighters. It wants us dead, not rested.

Still, I now recognize shortcomings I wish I had seen earlier in our movement’s history.

This July, I assumed the role of Executive Director for the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation — the umbrella organization for our global movement. Many close friends and colleagues affirmed that no one was better-prepared for the job. But when I stepped forward in response to the call of my community and family, there were other voices to overcome.

These voices caused me trepidation initially, as I took up the mantle of our necessary evolution. Even as I reminded myself that Black women in leadership have always faced disproportionate scrutiny, taking on the onus of our successes and failures was a great deal to bear. And while I anticipated much of the pushback and conflict I have faced, I have still had to come to terms, in my own way, with the weight and implications of accepting this amount of responsibility.

Since its inception, Black Lives Matter has been a movement aligned to truth and justice. We have functioned as a decentralized, directly democratic community, activating and allying with fearless leaders. We have reimagined and begun to create a “next normal.” One that values, validates, and recognizes humanity’s interdependency with and reliance upon Black people and our ability to thrive. We have centered voices and people most marginalized by societies and states.

Some days, it helps most to return to the metaphor of cellular regeneration and renewal. To the reminder of what Black Lives Matter’s seven years symbolizes and have taught us. To our history and our accomplishments. To our origin story and the visceral reminders of where we have been.

An apt analogy for this is scar tissue. Some experiences — miscalculations, missteps, mistakes — are never fully replaced. Nor should they be. While other cells continue to grow around these visible markers of a life lived, the cellular makeup of our scars remain as testament to our full humanity and growth–a reminder of our ever-evolving nature. What remains too are the cells that make up our DNA, the core of what we are about. These cells never change.

At the time of this writing, our organization is undergoing a totalizing and unprecedented transition. If asked to summarize the hallmark of Black Lives Matter’s successes to date, I point unhesitatingly to the immense power of our grassroots apparatus. In that vein, an assembly of Black Lives Matter chapters have come together to build Black Lives Matter Grassroots (BLM Grassroots), a space to help the movements’ organizing flourish. BLM Grassroots will house the work of our grassroots organizing moving forward and Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation will remain a fundraising body, amplifier, and action oriented think tank for Black-led organizations. One of my goals as Executive Director of the Global Network Foundation is to ensure BLM Grassroots has the tools and resources it needs to strengthen our movement on-the-ground.

Over the past seven years our vision, imagination, and tireless work have grown from dreams and ideas into an organization that currently powers the largest social movement in history. We are winning.

And as the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation evolves to become the capacity-building hub we need and deserve, I have a clarified vision for the future. A vision of a united family and community transforming our collective pain into joy, and channeling that inexorable joy into positive, permanent change for our elders, our peers, our children, and the generations to come. A vision of Black people everywhere realizing our divinity, wholeness, and birthright.

Scars and all. Always true to our core.

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