Fortification Podcast: Turning Despair Into Hope With Rodney McKenzie of Demos
Hallelujah! The podcast Fortification is back and host Caitlin Breedlove, Vice President of Movement Leadership at Auburn launches Season Two launches with a conversation with Rodney McKenzie, Director of Partnerships at Demos.
Caitlin and Rodney go deep, talking about the role of faith in organizing, how to serve and be accountable to the people you are really meant to serve, how to be bold and speak the truth, and ultimately, how to turn despair into hope and commitment to the future.
Make sure to listen to the entire interview but here are a few quotes from Rodney to get your blood going and your fortification on.
I think that this election has really made me more honest and more clear that what I have always known to be true is the truth. So, how do we tell the truth? We are in a moment of boldness and radicalness, where if I know that I have to talk about particular issues, and we have to be bolder about it. This election has taught us that we have to follow our instincts and our hearts.
This is what I loved about the movement for Black Lives is introducing this idea that we have a leader-full movement. That there is so many leaders. So, if I get to honor that there are all these other leaders, then I am actually more curious about what’s the role I can play to support all this brilliant tapestry of leadership, and then what role do I play in enjoying the benefits of that, and also, though, doing my role, doing my part.
Yes. I feel like I am very lucky. I get to go around the country and be in fellowship with activists who are doing work that is the hardest work. A few weeks ago, I was in New Mexico, sitting in the room with 20 activists in New Mexico who are working around voting rights and their joy, and their bliss in the midst of fights for their lives. I think, it is important to note, their lives did not get hard when Trump got elected. Their lives have been hard even in Obama administration. Seeing even in the midst of that the joy, the hope, the strategy, the questions, the community, it opened me up.
See the entire transcript below and don’t forget to delve into the richness of Fortification: Season I. Now, ready, set, get Fortified.
(This is an unedited version of the podcast – read the whole thing below!)
Caitlin: Rodney, I am so happy to see you my friend!
Rodney: I am so happy to see you! [Laughter]
Caitlin: I am so glad that I get to, like, steal a few moments alone here in New York to talk to you. So, I just want to say why I wanted to talk to you on this podcast, which is that I feel like, in so many roles, I love to watch colleagues and I am like, oh I feel your purpose. Like, in things you do – you’d be doing different things over the years, and I am like, oh but I feel your purpose. I feel that purpose. I think that the people that listen to this podcast are really interested in that. I want to start the primary question that I feel like is a good place to start, which is: how does your faith or spiritual life come into your work? What is the role that it has taken in your work over your life?
Rodney: Faith is actually critical for my organizing work and how I think about my work. As a kid, I always thought and believed in prophecy, in that there is a prophetic call in everyone’s life. I always thought that God had called me to be someone who speaks and who does his organizing work for those who have been considered the least of these. For me, in particular, I think about poor, low-income, black and brown people of color, right? So, for me, doing work with those folks in mind and for those folks, and being accountable to those folks, is God’s call and God’s purpose in my life. So, every job I have ever taken, I have always been thinking that this work is my way of doing what God had called me to be and called me to do.
Caitlin: When I hear that I think about the fact that Donald Trump is president of the United States, and I know that, for me, I kept comparing the feeling I had the morning after I realized Trump was going to be president, which was also the morning after the night that communities in Arizona defeated Sheriff Joe Arpaio. So I had these really complicated feelings and I woke up in the morning and I just felt like all of these layers had just been burned off. Like the layers of my own junk. Like all of the ego or competition or brand, like there was just an organizer left. It was such a profound spiritual and physical experience for me that made me really curious about other organizers that I respect. What feels different for you, or the same, since Trump became president-elect.
Rodney: That is such a great question. I woke up in North Carolina after the election and there was a rawness to how I felt and to my emotions. I think that I was even clearer that to be more honest with myself, with how race has been used over and over again to harm people of color and white people, right? So I was left so clear that if I am not talking about race and class, that I am not doing the work that I am supposed to do. Funny enough, I called my mother and I said, “Mom, my heart is so sad”. My mom said, “Well, the organizations you work for did this.” I said, “What?” She goes, “Well, you are working for people that do not talk about your people.” I was like, “My mother just broke some things down, that I do not think I was ready to hear from her, but she was clear that this was the biproduct of an inability to be honest and an inability to tell the truth and to focus in on communities.” Which made me think about my grandmother.
When I told my grandmother I wanted to do politics, she begged me not to be one of those people. I said, “What people?” She’s like, “The people that come around every four years, and never come back until four years later.” I thought immediately about my grandmother, and I thought immediately about my mother, and it makes me think immediately about these histories and these [00:05:00] stories, and all black women’s leadership, and all these things when I think about organizing, and I think about faith and I think about people. All I have to say, I think that this election has really made me more honest and more clear that what I have always known to be true is the truth. So, how do we tell the truth? We are in a moment of boldness and radicalness, where if I know that I have to talk about particular issues, and we have to be bolder about it. This election has taught us that we have to follow our instincts and our hearts.
Caitlin: I am so feeling your mother’s statement right now because I think that this idea of how do we have the courage to have the conversations. Not only in the personal conversations. I feel like there have been a lot of dialogue in this “conversation” about way down what we are organizing about. What do we need to talk to our daddies about and our cousins about and our different members of our family about, which is one thing? How do we have the courage to have the strategic conversations that I feel like you are talking about.
When we were having lunch earlier, that idea that has been on my heart so much, about grabbing each other’s hands and going like, “I love us, and this strategy has not been good enough or we have not been honest enough, and we have not done what we know we need to do to get us somewhere differently, more urgently, and in a transformative way.” After the election really I was – I had some real feelings of shame and guilt when I thought about moments where I knew that that particular strategy was not going to get us there. I knew that we weren’t talking about race and class in real enough ways. I knew that the strategy wasn’t focused on who it needed to be focused on for us to win, and I let it go. I went along to get along a little bit. I faked some of it until we were going to make it, believing that it was long gain. I didn’t trust my instincts based on my experience. I thought, “Man, would this have been different if we would have been – I would have been – more urgently, lovingly honest, ten years before working in the south, working in these red states, working in places where we were seeing an agenda being dictated by very particular power holders who even meant well, but did not know what some of us knew, which or what strategies just had better shot at getting the communities that we love and a part of in a different place very concretely. So, yes, I feel, in my own perspective, really moved by that.
Rodney: Yes. I feel like that is what I think about so much about my faith, right? I am really turned on by empire criticism as it relates to the biblical text and if Jesus were, say, was fighting against empire, what does that mean? What does it mean that Jesus was resisting Caesar? What does it mean that Jesus was speaking for a class of people that he identified with? Folks who were not able to read, folks who were poor, folks who were in the margins? Like, what does that mean for us as organizers in this day? So, for me, if I take on this idea of this – for me, this brown, black man, who got lynched by the state, because he spoke power and spoke about resisting the power of the state, that is, to me, my spiritual call, then right? So, what if in this moment we have been like the prophets who, have been saying that, “Actually, your victories will lead us to the moment we are in?” Then, now what if we actually say, “We have been saying this. We have been feeling this. Now we will do something different. Now we will turn over the tables – the organizing tables. Now we will turn over anything because we are unwilling to allow, ever again, for our families and our friends, to have the experiences that they are now having, and we are tired, we are done. We will create new tables, we will do whatever it takes. So I feel like this is a moment of – a call moment, like a prophetic moment that we are in, that I take very seriously, and I am humbled by.
Caitlin: I feel it. I have never heard anyone quite use the sentence, [00:10:00] “turning over the organizing tables,” but I think that is exactly what it is. My friends, and I am sure probably our mutual friends, in Minneapolis at the [Kilo] Center were talking to me the other day about empire as a logic, and I resonated with it so much. Because when I think about the quandaries we are in, it isn’t that empire is the end-product right? It is the logic, the design that shot through every piece of how things are done and I have been giving this talk lately that is interesting. Sometimes, I give a talk and I’m like, “Oh, well that resonated with me”, but not others. [Laughter] Sometimes, I give a talk and people like, “I really want to go in on that more,” and the phrase I have been using is saying when I am talking to other white progressives, like, “All right, you all. You can go to an A.A. meeting in any church basement in this town or any town, and the folks sitting on those metal chairs will tell you, “We can’t be the same and do the same and get the results.”
Rodney: That is right.
Caitlin: It is not possible, and that is what I feel like is the danger. It was making me really, really pissed, to be honest. Now I feel like some compassion strategy around it because I am, like, people are retreating to what they know or the friends they know or the organizing that seems familiar, and the more class and race and other privilege that we have, the easier it is to do that, but the work of spiritually being, “Actually, I am not – I am breaking with the addiction of an empire logic. I am leaning into the organizing we do not know,” right? Where there is not one patriarch who is going to save us, or there is not one brand that will rule them all. I always think of that Lord of the Rings, like Sauron, “One to rule them all”.
Rodney: Yes, that’s real. That is good. Yes, yes.
Caitlin: It is not a coalition, you know what I mean?
Rodney: That is right. I love that. I love that so much and I think this why I love just being aware of other faith traditions. The limitation of Christianity, for me, is this thing of knowing that, actually, that there is this empire, we have to challenge it. All of that, but Buddhism teaches me that, actually, it is the practices that changes our experiences and our lives, right? Buddhism teaches us – I feel like it teaches me – that it is more than just thinking about it and praying about it. That I have got to do something, I got to move into something, it is like an action, too. So I think that is the other piece and I love that, right? It is like, our practices shift our consciousness. So our practices have to shift and change to create something new because the victories that we have now – or we’ve had – got us here. So we have to do something radically different in order to create something radically different in our world, and that excites me, what you said. So I want to figure out then, “Well, let us tell the truth. Let us do something different.” That means, for me, I have to not just quote it on Facebook. I have to move in my being and organize differently and challenge some things. A good friend of mine, Charlene St. Clair, who I love, who I think is one of those brilliant organizers ever – I was in a meeting with her recently, where she was challenging us. She was like, “But can we get more than a hundred people to an event?”
Caitlin: That’s right.
Rodney: So then if we can’t, then let us do the work so that we can build out the kind of power that we want. I felt like that is a calling. So what does it mean for us to be bigger and bolder, and what does it mean for me to challenge my addiction to the power structures that have harmed me and that continue to harm me? So, the organizations that I have created false idols to, what does it mean to tear those down? First, in my own mind, that I need them – that we need them – and what are the new structures or the new places that we can create some dynamic possibilities and some dynamic work in.
Caitlin: I love that, and I love that Charlene is asking those kinds of questions.
Caitlin: I think that part about, “Where is the addiction we’ve had to the power structure?” I am loving Adrienne Maree Brown’s new book, Emergent Strategy. I am loving it. If folks who are listening haven’t read it, there is some great stuff to check out. Mostly because her ideas are brilliant, and because I believe she is introducing the ideas of Grace Lee Boggs to a new generation, which is also a critical project. One of the things I love is when she describes the words that she would use for herself when she was an executive director. I can’t remember them directly but they were something like, “overburdened, tired, and special.” [Laughter] I thought, “Oh my God.” I had moments – that was me in moments and I think about transitioning out of not being co-director of an organization I love so much like SONG [00:15:00]. And that SONG means as much, if not more to me, when I am not that leader stuck in that idea or that addiction that I am the lead in some ways, and also watching how things that I so believed were mandates, like queer liberation in our lifetime, to watch someone like Mary Hooks, who is now the co-director of SONG, be like “So Kaila, I actually took that really seriously. Liberation in our lifetime actually needs to look like bailing out black women, attending money-bail. What does emancipation and liberation in our lifetime actually look like? To be like, “Man, you are living an experience that is allowing you to make that happen in ways that are so different from what I have been able to make happen”. It is so powerful. I think the practice has been my salvation. Or my moments of salvation has come because of the practice, not because of cerebral ideas.
Rodney: Yes, that is real and I feel like that is one of the effects of capitalism in that it forces us to believe there are certain kind of structures that are higher -prioritized than or more special than others and all of that. It’s deep and it’s moving for me and my new job at Demos, the director of partnerships, it is like, “What does it mean that I get to support other folks who are leaders? What does it mean –” I feel like this is what I loved about the movement for Black Lives is introducing this idea that we have a leaderfull movement, right?
Caitlin: That is right.
Rodney: That there is so many leaders, right? So, if I get to honor that there are all these other leaders, then I am actually more curious about what’s the role I can play to support all this brilliant tapestry of leadership, and then what role do I play in enjoying the benefits of that, and also, though, doing my role, doing my part.
Caitlin: It’s such a relief, isn’t it?
Caitlin: Like, that idea of a leaderful movement, a constellation with critical connections. It relieves us, I think, from our ego, but also from our burden, our special, special burden individually. I find that that’s what I am watching right now when I ask, “What kind of leadership, what kind of spiritually-rooted leadership do we need for now? What qualities do we need from ourselves and each other?” I wonder if you have thoughts about that. It is something I have been really – I don’t feel like I have a definitive answer, but it is a question I have been asking because my heart, my gut says it’s different than before.
I do not know. Working with a lot of leaders like I do too like here in Auburn, what do you think about that? What qualities of leadership do you think we need now?
Rodney: Yes, I feel like we need folks who are willing to appreciate how interconnected and interdependent we are on each other. I feel like that, to me, is the highest thing – quality that we need. Because I have actually recognized how I need others, and how we need each other. Then right that old-school idea that none of us are free if all of us aren’t free. If we actually take that idea seriously, even in this moment, how that transforms, I think, everything. So I want to be led by people who feel like they also need to be led, right? I remember the story of – I mean that person, so forgive me. I am a preacher boy but like the story of Jesus washing his “followers,” his disciples’ feet. What does that mean, right? It is querying the idea, I think, of what a leader is and who a leader is. I wonder if, actually, the addiction to being burdened doesn’t allow us actually appreciate that we are leading by following, and we’re following by leading, right? It is like this mutuality that we are creating.
So, there are moments when I realize that I have been addicted to being overburdened, which has given me room not to be hurt by what’s happening in our world. So if I actually have time to feel and see, I am actually inspired to do something different and inspired to act in a different way.
Caitlin: I think that is so beautiful when we also think about – I have thought a lot since not running a grass roots organization.
Rodney: [Laughter] Sure.
Caitlin: What makes people want to be a member or something? What makes people want to join a movement now? And realizing how much [00:20:00] – how completely unappealing it is, if you are part of the vast majority of this country that actually has deep political and spiritual feelings about what should happen. How alien, maybe. We can be in our little non-profits, like, we do not have the radical hospitality that a lot of faith communities have, and we are like, “Here is my special club, I am very special in it, and maybe you would want to hang out and be a volunteer for my special club. But I am the president of the club!” [Laughter]
Rodney: Exactly. I am the director. [Laughter] Exactly.
Caitlin: It’s like in the treehouse, and we’re were kids like, “You can come sit in here. Sit in the treehouse, but that’s the treasure. That’s -” right?
Rodney: That is right.
Caitlin: I would not want to sit around in a treehouse like that. Would you?
Rodney: Yes. I wouldn’t and I do not. [Laughter]. That is the real thing, right?
Caitlin: That is the real thing, right.
Rodney: I think that’s what is so exciting to me in growing up in a black church, right? You always knew that the most the special person was not necessarily the preacher. That actually wasn’t the special person necessarily, right? It was, like, who is the mother of the church, and who is that lead usher that hold things down, right? It was like a way for me as a kid growing up realizing that actually, the way that we think of power structures are false. We have to challenge it, because actually for the folks who got things done were not necessarily the one that you always saw, right? So I wonder how that helps us in this moment, in this political moment that we are in, where I think it is time to question the structures that we have always had, and it is an opportunity for us to actually live out some different values, which I think there are organizations – like, I have been – there have been moments where I have been feeling some sort away, and I get a video from BYP100 and it breaks me open. The level of black joy – black queer joy that I see – it is outrageously special and amazing. I think that we can – organizations like BYP100 and SONG, and so many other groups, are challenging the way that we think about leadership and are doing bold, prophetic work. That inspires me. I think that we – all of our organizations – need to look at, and do some soul-searching.
Caitlin: I was going to ask you a final question, and I feel like you answered it. [Laughter] I want to see if you have any other things, and that is, what is giving you hope right now? What’s giving you hope when it comes to making social change?
Rodney: Yes. I feel like I am very lucky. I get to go around the country and be in fellowship with activists who are doing work that is the hardest work. A few weeks ago, I was in New Mexico, sitting in the room with 20 activists in New Mexico who are working around voting rights and their joy, and their bliss in the midst of fights for their lives. I think, it is important to note, their lives did not get hard when Trump got elected. Their lives have been hard even in Obama administration. Seeing even in the midst of that the joy, the hope, the strategy, the questions, the community, it opened me up. Being on the phone with activists from Missouri, like, organizers for Black Struggle, and seeing them choose to go door-to-door, and have conversations with their neighbors in St. Louis, is bold, right? So it’s like, just being aware, and seeing and being a part of a community of radical folks who are doing work that we may never know about – they may never be in The New York Times, they may never be on T.V on C-SPAN or CNN. They may never be, but they are doing the work that will change the lives of people in their community. I feel like that work and seeing those folks and knowing that work is happening, it gives me so much hope in what’s possible.
Caitlin: Thank you so much, Rodney.
Rodney: Thank you!