This story is part of a joint series by The Forge and Prism. Read the rest of the series—Organizing, Innovation, and Upheaval—here.
Longtime organizers understand that in order to see progress, they need to be prepared to play the long game. That means talking to the right people, accumulating enough resources, educating the public, and getting their messaging across clearly and directly. Even with all that work, progress can seem slow-moving.
As time passes, and especially now when demonstrations and uprisings are taking place in the middle of a global pandemic, the way people advocate evolves and adapts. Career organizers are accustomed to needing to shift and recalibrate amid legislative setbacks when advocating for important issues. Zakiyah Ansari, the advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education in New York, knows this all too well.
Ansari has been an organizer for two decades, largely advocating for widespread access to a quality and equitable education. Recently, I spoke with Ansari about her experience as an organizer, what gives her hope, how she keeps moving forward when it feels like enough progress isn’t being made, and what she thinks needs to be done to sustain the momentum surrounding the current Movement for Black Lives. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
Carolyn Copeland: We know that organizing and activism go hand in hand. We’re seeing a lot of different forms of activism and organizing right now, but in your mind, what’s the biggest difference between the two?
Zakiyah Ansari: Many people can be activists, but not everyone can be an organizer. [Organizing is] about strategizing long term, as well as short term. When it comes to the longevity part, you need to think about strategy instead of just responding to a moment. A short-term strategy is like, how are we working to support this particular thing? Maybe it’s getting justice for George Floyd or others. The long-term strategy when you’re organizing is to build a consistent base that continues to fight the underlying things that plague the community, like why George Floyd isn’t getting justice in the first place.
Oftentimes, it’s a marathon to get there, not a sprint. Sometimes it’s hard to realize that maybe I won’t get [us to where we want to be] in my lifetime, and that doesn’t always sit well with me, but as an organizer I ask myself, “What experience do I have in this work to pass on to the next generation so that they don’t have to make it up or figure it out themselves?”
Copeland: Let’s talk about the current uprisings. People from all over the world seem invested in this movement in a way they weren’t before. How important is it to you right now for schools, organizations, or companies to voice their support? Do you think these statements of solidarity are hollow?
Ansari: I think right now, we need action. I mean, we’ve seen a lot of people voice support, like when you turn on Netflix or [go to] Amazon and see a little Black Lives Matter sticker. What does that do? When FedEx and other people pull their money from the Washington Redskins or pull their money from other places, that’s action.
We want people to actually acknowledge [how the] United States was impacted by slavery, but I don’t think anybody’s expecting that to happen right now under this administration. You can acknowledge reparations, but can we have a conversation about what that could possibly look like or [bring] change to communities and repair the harm? So I think yeah, acknowledgement is cool, but if we’re not gonna find a way to use action to make change, then it’s just a loud noise right now. And since we don’t know how long we’re going to have this moment, how do we collectively pull together actions to make change?
Copeland: It seems like the way people organize is constantly changing, especially now with the pandemic and the current movement. Can you tell me how you feel the process of organizing has evolved over the years, and name some important things you’ve learned from it?
Ansari: For me, the most powerful part of organizing, especially as someone who didn’t come in as an organizer, has been youth organizing. [I really enjoy] being able to know young people who were in high school and are now either directors of the same organization that they volunteered, [working at] another organization, or are just adults now and are still doing some semblance of this work.
They are next. They are and will be next PTA presidents, they will be the next school board members, they will be the next city councilmembers. That’s the shift that we need. And at the same time, [we need] organizers moving folks and asking folks … “Would you want to run for office?” In the beginning, I don’t remember that being a thing. But even when I meet parents and others I tend to ask that question. I think it’s important for us to do that because if we’ve got to shift, and what happens is that people who change policy, and the people that are in [office]—many of them are not the ones most impacted by this and they feel no allegiance to those most impacted. They feel no obligation to protect those folks. And so I think in regards to organizers, it’s about the work, but [also about] how we propel those folks to the next level of the work.
Copeland: Now I have to ask. Have you considered running for office?
Ansari: I’ve been asked a bunch of times, and there have been times I might have been like, “Huh,” but it really just does last for a short time. I feel like I can do more outside than inside while at the same time using the relationships I have that I built with parent leaders or others. I thought about it, but you know, I don’t necessarily have an interest right now. I never say never, so it could change.
Copeland: What do you think is the key to creating lasting policy changes?
Ansari: I’m really about political education and educating communities so they have a better sense of what policies exist and then strategizing with those very communities to [figure out what] policies we need to exist, and also providing moments that they know who are the people that are responsible for changing those policies. I think all those things can’t live by themselves.
Even when you have a policy that you want like in Florida [with Amendment 4], where however many folks were released [from prison] and got their right to vote again. As soon as that happened, my first question to people who did that work was, “What are you doing to maintain that and make sure that continues to happen?” Because you know the other side is already strategizing about how they can stop these folks from voting. That’s always in my head. The other side is thinking they’ve already got money, they’ve got unlimited untapped resources, and that they are already strategizing about what they can do to change [the] policy. They build on the relationships that they have, whether it’s financial or not. They flex that muscle to make [a] shift. And so I think it’s really important for us to engage with the community on political education about the policies that exist.
Copeland: You’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m sure anyone who has been in this work for that long has had a lot of ups and a lot of downs. How do you stay motivated when the cause you work toward is taking hits?
Ansari: I have moments of depression, but generally [I comfort people] when other people are feeling down about what’s happening. My way through that depression is often to think about solutions and opportunities.
When I turn on the TV right now, I have never in the last 20 years seen as much conversation around inequities in public education as I have in this moment. Not charter schools—public education inequities. On MSNBC, on CNN, in The New York Times—in every newspaper there are multiple articles and op-eds around school reopenings and what that means. And so I see that as a vital opportunity, a huge opportunity to really pounce on that because this conversation is not going to go away, no matter what [school] looks like with remote learning or in-school learning; it’s going to need to be shifted. So that’s another opportunity, and there will be constant opportunities over the next year to two years about education and what it should look like. That is our moment to continue to say, “We’re not new to this struggle, we’re not new to this conversation.”
Copeland: I love that you look at every setback as an opportunity. Were you always able to frame situations this way?
Ansari: That’s how I get out of my funk. I do get in these moments of, “I can’t do this anymore” though. I don’t know if it’s intentional or if my brain just switches to think that way and look at where the opportunities are and what things we can do. When I have a moment of feeling hopeless, I know how it must feel if hundreds or thousands or million parents are feeling the same way. And I’m an empath so that hurts me more and so I’m always like, “Okay, how can I help bring some hope to some other folks who are are thinking and feeling the way I am right now, but don’t have the tools and don’t have the historical context to understand the power of us and the power of we.”