At the time of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, Brea Baker was only 17. The now 26-year-old racial and gender justice activist recalls the tragedy being a defining moment in how social media served as a catalyst for activism in the United States. Black Lives Matter proliferated on Twitter and the overall digital space, playing a key role in Baker’s coming-of-age. Though she initially pursued a degree in physics while attending Yale, Baker’s growing involvement in activism pushed her to switch her major to political science. As Martin’s murder trial progressed throughout her freshman year, Baker became a lot more conscious, began reading Black studies literature, and started taking policymaking and political journalism courses that would inspire and influence her activism in the future.
Nearly a decade later, Baker has organized within groups like Inspire Justice, Justice League NYC, Justice for Black Girls, COMMUNITYx, and more, to dismantle systemically harmful systems and reimagine a new normal. She’s also a well-known writer, with work focusing on race, gender, and political issues, and frequently published in ELLE, Harper’s Bazaar, and Parade. To refer to Baker as a community activist is an understatement, as she’s found ways to create concrete change in all her lines of work. We spoke with Baker to learn more about the wisdom and practices that have aided activism work and also gain her perspective on the current racial awakening.
Brianna Holt: What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given regarding activist work?
Brea Baker: That the job of a real organizer is to organize themselves out of a job. I think that’s so important because in the social justice space, a lot of times you’ll hear people talking about [insert word]-industrial complex. You can tap that onto a lot of different things, whether that’s prison-industrial complex, military-industrial complex, school-to-prison industrial complex, but basically it’s the idea that we will turn anything into an industry in this country and everything becomes an opportunity to profit and build a brand.
“Being a voice for the voiceless” is such a played-out phrase and also doesn’t actually ask if people are really voiceless.
There’s a lot of danger in that, especially with young activists, in becoming so attached to the parts of activism that are perceived as glamorous — the attention and visibility — that we forget that our goal is to disrupt this system, even if that means that there’s no more need for me to be doing this work in this way. Actually, that’s the goal: that I don’t have to lead forever because other people are inspired and they take up the work and they do it in their own communities. I should never become too attached to the “perks” of being an activist in a way that keeps me from doing this work authentically and ethically. That has become even more of a concern — the motivations for why people get into this work, whether they’re actually centering the people who are actually impacted by these issues and for whom it’s actually life and death, or whether it becomes theory and very abstract. I’m always trying to remember and remain focused on who and what I do this for.
What’s the most overrated piece of conventional wisdom that you would like to debunk?
“Being a voice for the voiceless” is such a played-out phrase and also doesn’t actually ask if people are really voiceless. Or to use Oprah’s quote, “Are they silent or are they silenced?” People think that others are voiceless and frequently say, “Oh, I have to speak up for these people that can’t speak for themselves.” But actually, they’ve been speaking up about things, you just learned about this yesterday, and now you want to use your platform to do it as opposed to just amplifying people, and echoing them. It’s not feeling like you have to speak for them, but giving them opportunities to speak to newer people.
Do you see common rookie mistakes that people make when they first start working or organizing in this space?
Saying that “no one is talking about this issue” when for you to have found out about it, someone had to be talking about it. In reality, why have the people who’ve been talking about this not been listened to? Why has it taken me this long and how can I help them get their message to new people who, like me, would care about this? There are certain people who are always going to be invisibilized and left out. If we don’t interrogate the reason we haven’t heard about this is because only Black women were talking about it and no one’s listening to Black women. That’s the answer, but we miss it by saying, “No one’s talking about this.” We miss the opportunity to say, “Oh my gosh, none of us had been listening to this very specific group that has been screaming this at a brick wall for 10 years and suddenly we’re just now hearing about it.”
During this time of social reckoning and consciousness, the entire summer of listening and learning that we saw happen, have you seen interest in your activism around race, gender, and community grow? And if so, how do you feel that we could have encountered this moment in as robust a manner as we felt it this summer without the Covid crisis, having been the foundation?
Prior to 2020, abolition was not a part of the mainstream conversation, but it was very much a part of the work that I was doing. To have the defund police movement take the main stage, and have people actually talking about their city’s police budget and getting really participatory, was really beautiful to see. I think that was a product of the police brutality that happened independent of Covid. Police are always killing people, but every so often there are one or two incidents that just really take over. I think that would have happened regardless of Covid. It really showed people, wow, in a time where everybody is being told for your own safety and your community’s safety to stay inside, people are out in the streets in numbers we have never seen them in because this is that urgent and this is that important. And why are we doing this again? Didn’t we just fix this problem when we were upset about Trayvon and Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Sandra Bland?
I’m curious to know what your thoughts are on whether this feels like a movement or a moment to you, or both?
I definitely think it’s both, but I don’t think it’s negative per se. I definitely think we’re living in our generation’s civil rights movement. Whether we’re calling that the Black Lives Matter movement, I think it’s also very intersectional where even the climate justice conversations, and the Occupy Wall Street conversations, and the gun violence conversations are very intertwined with the racial justice conversations that were happening.
But I do think there are some points that feel like moments, and that’s natural when you realize that there are so many things wrong with our society. And it’s as if we take turns based on the urgency of being in the spotlight. Right now, Covid response and vaccine rollout are taking a lot of priority, but that’s also a part of the racial justice conversation when we think of which communities are most at risk and which communities are not getting access to the vaccine at the same rates as others.
I don’t think that the advocacy ever goes away, but I do think media attention subsides and that viral attention shifts gears and puts its spotlight on something else. But that is the beauty in creating an infrastructure that can survive all of that. I think that infrastructure is definitely there, and that was built after 2013. When people were first angry about Trayvon Martin, yes, we already had organizations like NAACP and ACLU, but there were a lot of authentic grassroots that came out of that moment that have now remained as global Black Lives Matter chapters.
When George Floyd was killed, it wasn’t that random people got together and said, “Oh my gosh, we need to honor him”; there was already a Black Lives Matter chapter there that had been in solidarity with the people of Ferguson, and New York, and Baltimore, and L.A. that could say we can step up and we can be that because we were doing this work when there hadn’t been a viral moment for us to care about. I think that is what will be the situation this summer, when people are vaccinated and back outside, but none of that organizing and conversation has to go away.