The Right Way To Fight For Social Justice During COVID-19

As researchers of racism, social justice, and health equity, we understand there are plenty of people looking for ways to support their communities during COVID-19. The people suffering the most during the pandemic are those who have been marginalized by oppressive systems in our society. Systems that structure opportunities and disadvantages by race, class, gender, sexuality, and differing abilities. Instead of allowing this, how can we lift up those who are experiencing intense hardships during the pandemic?

We invited Emilio Zapien to help us answer this question. Over the past 9 years he’s organized at the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) in Los Angeles and been their Media & Communications Director, fighting to defund oppressive systems and build up communities.

At YJC, Emilio found an organization directly connected with the communities they serve. The heart and soul of their work centers around providing youth with community space, high school education, leadership development, and peace-building alternatives to policing.

The YJC model centers around empowering impacted people to rise as leaders. This is in contrast to traditional community organizations. These tend to follow a model where impacted individuals expect to walk into a building of experts that will tell them what to do.

The idea behind the self-empowerment model is that black and indigenous people had their own community solutions before colonialism, institutional racism, and prisons. Black and indigenous people have the power already and always have. YJC comes in to provide information, skills training, and resources but does not take agency away from impacted people.

With COVID-19 and the increased attention on issues of systemic racism and police brutality, YJC has seen their fair share of changes and struggles this year. Emilio shares YJC’s top 3 strategies for people to serve their own communities effectively during the pandemic.

1. Follow Movement Leaders Who Have Lived Through The Injustice You’re Fighting

First and foremost, make sure the causes and organizations you support are led by the most impacted people in your community. Far too often, community causes are led by privileged individuals who haven’t been impacted by the disparities they’re fighting against.

Black people have seen a surge of support from white allies this year. While the support is important and appreciated, it can cause frustration, too. Movements or social media activism by non-black people against police violence can feel like bandwagon organizing and white liberalism. These efforts aren’t anyone’s fault or bad, but they could be more effective.

Here’s how:

  • Do more digging to find movements led by people who have been most impacted by the cause. You’ll find organizations in your neighborhood that have already been leading movements on the ground for years.
  • Question your idea of who an expert is. People who work as lawyers and professors are often looked at as social justice experts in our society. They do have expertise, but they aren’t the only ones. Many times, traditional experts have economic and social benefits like a degree, a title, or disposable income that can overshadow and minimize the valuable and essential perspective of those without these privileges. Those who are most impacted are often tokenized and brought into organizations to tell a few stories instead of being included, respected, and honored. This respect and honor includes leading strategy and being compensated. Look instead to find leadership in the immigrant, the heartbroken mother, the incarcerated target of systemic racism who has lived through the injustice you seek to eliminate.

YJC takes this approach. They have young adults serving on the board of directors, organizing team workshops, advocating at county board meetings, and leading their programs.

A lot of people have learned about centering black lives over the past few months. We ask that you apply that mindset to everyone you seek to serve. If you’re fighting for incarcerated people, sexually abused women, or youth in your neighborhood, these are the people who should be leading the movement you choose to follow.

2. Dig Into Organizer Motives, Background, and Connections

Do your research on organizer motives and background before engaging in activism efforts.

Who is taking leadership of an activist event or movement is important. Their experience and their perspective shapes the motives, outcome, and effectiveness of the movement.

Here’s a list of 10 questions you should be asking when considering taking part in a movement or contributing to an organization:

  1. Who’s organizing? Is it an organization or individuals?
  2. Is it led by the people who are most impacted?
  3. What are their politics?
  4. Are they being funded by someone?
  5. Are they connected with elected officials?
  6. Are they coordinating with the police?
  7. Who’s benefiting from these actions? Is it marginalized people or are there other agendas?
  8. How are impacted people benefiting from this organization’s efforts?
  9. For protests and marches, do they have a safety plan in place that takes into consideration the concerns of undocumented people and people of color?
  10. For protests and marches, do they have a plan or infrastructure in place to support people who could be arrested or fined during the movement?

Wondering how you’d find this information? Here are a few ways:

  • Ask them directly. Most organizers have a website with contact information or, if they’re individuals, you can reach out through social media messenger or email.
  • Snoop on their website and social media. Take a moment to do your research and read through their online presence.
  • Follow organizer’s funding sources. Oftentimes you can find major donors on an organization’s website. You can also do a Google search of the organization for press releases and news of major donors.

By digging under the surface and asking questions, you can make sure you’re throwing your support behind movements that put the most impacted people at the center of the cause.

3. Throw Time, Energy, And Resources Into Movements Already Doing The Work In Your Community

In 2020, waves of activism have sprung up all across the country. There are big cases of police murder like George Floyd and Breona Taylor that are important and inspiring huge action. But if you do a little research, you’ll find there are people being murdered by police in your own city that also need attention.

Instead of starting your own movement or contributing to a larger civil rights organization, look into smaller mutual aid organizations in your own backyard. They’re already doing the work and could use your support.

For example, YJC recently received a $10,000 grant for COVID relief support for undocumented people in their area. They set up an online application and got hundreds of submissions in just a few days. Because that $10,000 could only go so far, they’ve been asking others in the community to pitch in. Look for ways to contribute to local causes like this in your own community.

If there’s not already a specific movement in your neighborhood, look to partner with nearby organizations in your county or state. Organizations that have been doing the work can teach you how to recreate the movement for your area and you’ll build a stronger movement by working together.

YJC was approached by organizers in the LA neighborhoods of Hawthorne and South Gate for help on creating defund police campaigns. These neighborhoods had no political infrastructure around defunding campaigns before. YJC has been campaigning to defund police since 2006, collecting data around the subject and creating organizing toolkits.

YJC was able to send Hawthorne and South Gate their FREE L.A. from Police & Prisons Action Resource Kit and collaborate. By working together, the movements complemented each other instead of stepping over each other. Hawthorne and South Gate now have full on campaigns to defund the police led by people of color. They’re campaigning at city council every week, host teach-ins, and hosted a festival around defunding Hawthorne PD.

While all efforts towards justice are good, it’s most effective to join others and ask how to work together. Beware of falling into hero syndrome if you’re a person of privilege and starting your own new movement. An influx of activism is great, but if you’re not careful you could drown out movements already doing good work.

Feel Confident In Your Fight For Justice By Looking Under The Surface

2020 has brought an increase in Black Lives Matter activism motivated by the murders of George Floyd and Breona Taylor. More people than ever are motivated to achieve justice in their communities. To be most effective with your efforts, YJC recommends 3 strategies:

  1. Make sure the most impacted people are leading the movement you follow
  2. Dig into the organizer’s motives and background
  3. Throw your time, energy, and resources behind local movements that are already doing on-the-ground work

By looking under the surface of the movements and organizations you support, you’ll feel confident that your efforts are making a difference in your local community. You’ll avoid hero syndrome, white liberalism, and ineffective performative actions that can come along with a widespread wave of activism. In the long run, you’ll be part of lifting up people who have been formerly brought down by the systems of racism that plague our country.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can serve the Youth Justice Coalition in LA, you can join their movement here. They’re still looking to raise about $35,000 more in COVID relief funds for undocumented people and you can help here. Learn more about ways to take action with YJC here.

The @COVIDRacism Study documents racism, inequity & injustice during the COVID-19 pandemic. Led by UCLA’s @RacialHealthEq & @CDrewU.