'Like our lives depended on it'
5 questions for organizer and racial justice advocate Erin Heaney
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If you read this newsletter, you know how committed I am to exploring how White people can show up in their spheres—from the most intimate to the proximate to the Political—in order to fight racism. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to get involved in racial justice organizing—no matter what your racial identity—but if you’re moving toward something collective, you can be assured you’re probably moving in the right direction. Reading all the books, listening to all the podcasts, watching all the movies, won’t change the material circumstances of life in this country or chip away at the “hierarchy of human value.” That requires collective action.
That’s why I love what Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) is up to. They build, what they call, “people power” in multi-racial communities across the country. Today, they have 200 chapters taking on a range of deeply local projects, as well as a big, ambitious national strategy to fight authoritarianism. I am so grateful they have their eye on the prize. While it is critical that we all continue our inner work, our school work, the work at our places of work, we cannot lose sight of the big fights in front of us and what they mean for the future of this country (not to mention, the whole damn planet). I was excited to get the chance to interview SURJ Executive Director, Erin Heaney, and introduce her to you all…
Courtney Martin: Tell me a bit about your own racial formation.
Erin Heaney: I grew up in a fairly progressive home - my dad was in the union, we voted for Democrats and I identified as a feminist at a young age. I am White and really didn’t begin understanding my own racial identity until I was in my twenties.
I had returned to my hometown of Buffalo and was organizing around environmental and economic justice. I saw over and over again the racism of White people undermine and blow up the coalitions we needed to keep together in order to win. I also was lucky enough to be called in by leaders of color in the movement who helped me realize that even with my progressive politics, I still had internalized white supremacy that was undermining my capacity to build strong relationships across lines of difference.
In response to these two learnings, I went on a much deeper journey into learning about racism, white supremacy and the connections between them and our economic system. I read a lot, attended workshops and connected with other people who were committed to anti-racism and it really transformed how I understood the world, myself and my lane in the movement.
How long have you been leading SURJ and what is your highest hopes for your stewardship of the organization?
This fall will be my 5th year leading SURJ. I found SURJ as a member through our Buffalo chapter in 2015. I’m so proud of how we have grown into an organization that is serious about building power and winning. My dream is that we’ve grown so big, with so many White people in action that it is impossible to block big, bold solutions demanded by movements for racial justice.
You all are very focused on the presidential election in 2024. What are the pros and cons of being so focused on electoral politics?
Movements for racial justice have bold, clear demands that are consistently weakened when we don’t have the governing power to implement them, or are overwhelmed playing defense, like we are right now against DeSantis and the Right’s racist, transphobic, anti-democratic attacks.
White voters, organized by the Right are one of the biggest barriers to winning governing power. Voters of color, and Black voters in particular, are the most reliable base of support for Democrats. After 2016, there was a lot of justified complaining about White voters. At SURJ, we are taking responsibility for organizing White voters. We need to block MAGA Republicans from gaining more power, so we are focused on making a big electoral impact in 2024.
SURJ also organizes year-round and every year because we know that simply electing Democrats isn’t enough to win the change we are fighting for. For example, we’ve been fighting year-round against Cop City in Atlanta, for affordable and safe housing across Kentucky and Tennessee and are running dozens more issue-based campaigns to divest resources from the criminal legal system and invest in life-giving alternatives instead.
I’ve struggled with falling into savior mentality traps in pursuit of racial justice before. How do you coach people out of this mindset?
At SURJ we approach racial justice work from a place of shared stake. Too often, White people show up to racial justice work from a place of wanting to help other people. Our work is to really get in touch with what our stake in racial justice is. I know that fighting for racial justice and against white supremacy can help White people become more grounded, whole human beings who are more capable of seeing the truth and building relationships across lines of difference.
For White people who are struggling economically - the fight for racial justice is literally how we fight back against the racist divide and conquer tactics of the right. When we are clear about our stake, it helps us operate from a more grounded place.
As a woman, I’m clear about my stake in fighting racism. Racism is the most powerful tool the right wing has - and it’s been used to build a base of support for candidates and Supreme Court Justices that led to the Dobbs decision. When we tackle race in White communities, those at the top lose their most powerful tool. I know that fighting racism helps create a better world for all of us.
Who are some of your own models for white anti-racist organizing and leadership - dead or alive?
One of the steadiest models I have for anti-racist organizing and leadership is Anne Braden. Anne Braden was a White woman from Louisville, Kentucky who organized alongside people like Dr. King and Ella Baker. Anne and her husband purchased a home for a Black family in a White community. In response, they faced bomb threats and burning crosses. Anne was part of early efforts to organize for racial justice in white communities across the South and wrote and spoke out about how race was central to every issue of the time. Anne was clear that White people needed to fight racism “like our lives depended on it, because, in fact they do.” Her leadership and mentorship of leaders like Carla Wallace and Pam McMichael, two of SURJ’s co-founders, made our work possible today.
We will donate to, you guessed it, SURJ in honor of Erin’s wisdom. Look up your local chapter and get involved if this feels like a fit for you!