Interview with Ms. Brittany N. Packnett
Brittany N. Packnett was raised in a tradition of social justice in St. Louis, Missouri. Today, Packnett works as an education executive and activist for racial and social equity. She is alumnae of both Washington University in St. Louis and American University and has been an elementary teacher, legislative staffer, education policy advocate, and executive director of Teach For America–St. Louis. Today, she serves as Teach For America’s Vice President of National Community Alliances.
Catalyzed by the death of Michael Brown, Packnett is a Ferguson protester and was honored to serve on President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force and the Ferguson Commission, helping bring protestors’ voices to policy change in the wake of Ferguson. In 2015, she helped launch Campaign Zero, a comprehensive policy platform to end police violence. She has been featured in multiple media outlets including The Washington Post, NPR, the BBC, and Ebony. She has been named one of TIME’s 12 New Faces of Black Leadership, to the Root and Ebony 100 lists, and shares the 2015 Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership with fellow activist alumnus DeRay Mckesson.
Packnett was the keynote speaker for the 2017 Nashville Interdenominational Ministers Alliance Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Celebration. She arranged to speak with The Christian Recorder after the event during a gathering with students at Tennessee State University. We are thankful for the assistance of the Rev. Harold M. Love, Jr. for arranging this interview.
The Christian Recorder: How did you get started in your activist work?
Brittany Packnett: I don’t think I had a choice. My father was a pastor and both he and my mother very clearly ascribed to activism and social justice work as a duty of our faith. My very first protest I was in a stroller. The films that raised me were not Disney movies as much as they were documentaries like Eyes on the Prize by Henry Hampton, films like Roots, and books like the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass. To paraphrase Jay Z, “I didn’t choose this life. This life chose me.” But I’m deeply thankful to have been raised in that tradition and understanding that faith without works was dead.”
TCR: Okay. Now you said you’re a PK (Preacher’s Kid). Which denomination were your parents, out of curiosity?
BP: I’m a double PK and a preacher’s sister. I was raised National Baptist. I still am. My mom is an ordained minister, ordained and licensed, and my brother just is licensed and just graduated from Yale Divinity School last May.
TCR: You were the only one who decided not to accept the “calling.” Why did you decide not to?
BP: I just think it’s a different calling. I think social justice work is my ministry. I do a lot of organizing and activism. I work in education. I simply take the stance that the ministry looks different but it’s rooted in the same thing.
TCR: Tell us about your relationship with Ferguson and what you saw through your eyes being on the ground.
BP: Certainly a lot of grief, frustration, sadness, but also power, a lot of love, and a lot of determination to not only get answers and get justice for Mike Brown but to figure out how we move forward together as a community and create a beloved community that supports and empowers all of us.
TCR: Okay. Now one of the things that you mentioned during your talk was that this was not an accident. Mike Brown was just the spark that lit the fire. Could you talk about that a little bit more?
BP: I think that too much of the American consciousness this was a new phenomenon but being black in America, being raised in the Midwest, having family roots in the south, like so many of us, this was not new to us at all. The kinds of experiences of police violence that many of us have had, I became familiar with as a child. My brother was five. My dad was a grown man driving in a car that they thought wasn’t his and was thrown onto the hood of his car when my brother was just a youngster.
These are not unfamiliar circumstances to us. The realities of race and racism are not new to people of color. Therefore, the manifestations of racism are never a surprise. So not only could Ferguson have happened anywhere, it did. It happened in New York City with Eric Garner. It happened in Texas with Sandra Bland. It happened in Ohio with Tamir Rice. It happens nearly every day in America according to the research.
We are in a place where we have to decide to say enough is enough but we also recognize that what happened to Mike Brown was a failure of multiple systems. It was a failure of a policing system. It was a failure of a municipality system that aggressively policed our community in order to raise revenue. It was a failure of an education system. Mike Brown graduated from a school that was unaccredited. It was a failure of a system of government that is supposed to protect and serve people instead of over-police and antagonize people.
This movement is clearly rooted in the fact that police violence is just one branch in a larger tree that’s rooted in systemic oppression and racism. Our work has to be to uproot that tree and plant in its place something that bears fruit for all people.
TCR: Talking about the movement, what has your relationship been with the Black Lives Matter movement?
BP: We are just like the mid-century Civil Rights Movement. We are a large group of many individuals and organizations. I certainly count myself as a member of that movement. There is an organization called Black Lives Matter; but just like the mid-century Civil Rights Movement, there are lots of organizations. There was SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). There was CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). There were the Panthers; later on, SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference); et cetera.
So the organization, the platform rather that I helped found is Campaign Zero, which is focused specifically on policy solutions but we work in tandem and in concert with lots of other individuals and organizations across this movement from all backgrounds, but collectively we are a group of people who are committed to justice, to liberation, and to equity for all people.
TCR: Tell us more about Campaign Zero.
BP: Campaign Zero is a template policy platform to address police violence in America. We know that the power of the people is critical. I’m a believer in the vote and strategy. I know that protest is critical to mounting pressure; and once the pressure is mounted we have to have clear demands and solutions, and that’s what Campaign Zero is. Campaign Zero was created to allow people to simply and clearly leverage an entire platform that can be advocated for at the local, state, and federal policy level.
At the local level, we’ve seen a number of city ordinances passed that reflect Campaign Zero priorities. At the state level, we see legislators proposing and passing bills that reflect those priorities. Most recently, in the city of Baton Rouge the new mayor implemented the entirety of our proposed use of force policy, which research shows actually prevents police violence from happening and not just holds people accountable afterwards.
We’re seeing a lot of traction on these policy solutions. We saw them certainly at the federal level; but we know that as things change, the thinking is to protect people at the local and state level as well. The policy platform covers police accountability to policy transparency to community oversight and involvement to police union contracts and ensuring that they do not subvert the ability of the people to seek justice.
The solutions that we propose, quite frankly, offer safety both for citizens and police officers because, as I said, we want to ensure that police are there to serve and protect. That’s what Campaign Zero is oriented towards.
TCR: We know in the Civil Rights Movement the concrete goal appeared to be ending segregation and getting full civil rights for African Americans. When it moved on to economic issues, the Movement lost its focus. What do you see as the goal for the Black Lives Matter Movement and its various parts?
BP: As you said, in the mid-century Civil Rights Movement there were multiple goals. Often people will get stuck on one goal and think the entire movement has a single goal but really there were multiple campaigns in the movement. The campaign around Selma was around voting rights in the south. There were campaigns around civil rights, campaigns around ending segregation at lunch counters, on buses, in schools, et cetera.
Similarly, there are multiple aims of this movement. A primary one is ending police violence in our communities and ensuring that police officers are held accountable but we’re also talking about economic justice for African American communities. We’re also talking about solidarity between communities of color and marginalized people. We are also talking about ensuring that there is equitable education for children of color and for poor children [and] ensuring that employed people are able to access a living wage.
These are all matters of concern to our group; and because people have different talents and different areas of expertise, different organizations and individuals take on different parts. For example, organizations like BAJI take on work that affects the black immigrant community. Parts of the movement like the Fight for 15 are fighting for a living wage. Organizations like Campaign Zero are working directly on issues of police violence. In my individual work, I work on issues of educational equity with a broad cross-section of people. There are multiple goals but they are all focused on freedom and equity for people of color and black people in particular.
TCR: One of the things that has been noticeable is this generational gap between the Black Lives Matter activists today and other segments of the African-American population. Do you really perceive a gap? How are you working to bridge these issues or helping people to understand that the Black Lives Matter Movement and Campaign Zero are just outgrowths of the same struggle?
BP: I think that this movement is a new chapter in a long book of black struggle. Our ancestors have struggled in this country for their freedom, for our freedom, since the very day they were brought to these shores. I think to dismiss the shoulders on which we stand is so a-historical and also not helpful. There are lessons to be learned from the people who have done this work before us.
That said, every generation experiences gaps between one and the other. Every generation experiences growing pains, everything from disillusionment to misunderstanding. So to pretend that this is some kind of brand new phenomenon I think is also a-historical. I’m not suggesting that’s what you’re doing. I just think that people sometimes forget that when they were coming up their parents didn’t like their style. Their parents thought that the way they dressed was too wild. Their parents thought that the way they protested was too confrontational and their parents thought the same thing about them.
We end up in this cycle where the generational gap is consistent and yet as we have learned to both speak to and listen to one another, instantly we find a way to move beyond those things. The people that I have been able to learn from, listen to, and engage with are all ages. I have been able to get close to people like John Lewis; and every time I see him, he gives me another bit of wisdom. I met some of the founding members of SNCC as the new Smithsonian Museum opening and was able to just kind of sit at their seat and learn from them.
Then there are folks like the young activists from Ferguson and around the country, like Clifton Kinnie, who when I met him in Ferguson was in high school and is now a sophomore at Howard University organizing a meeting there. He teaches me something brand new every time I meet with him. So many of our students who really made the world pay attention gave me new ideas about how to organize or how to move creativity, about how to create a crisis that forces powerful people to listen.
I think that the more that we learn to listen to one another instead of demeaning one another, the further we can go because we’ll be able to actually learn the lessons that there are to learn in each one of these generations.
TCR: How would you look at relationships between the institutional black church and this cycle of mobilization?
BP: I have seen both the black church and black church leaders be successful in this current cycle of mobilization. It’s when they have approached people with a listening ear and with no judgment. People like [the] Rev. Starsky Wilson and [the] Rev. Traci Blackmon out of St. Louis I think are incredible examples of this.
There was a tendency for church leaders, most of whom were older, to want to come in and set the agenda that young people had already been creating and had been putting their bodies on the line as far as teargas and pepper spray, who could push through. So for folks who were older and perhaps some of whom came from institutions that young people didn’t feel addressed and would welcome them, people felt kind of offended.
On the other hand, there are incredible young ministers like [the] Rev. Neichelle Guidry out of Trinity UCC in Chicago, who themselves are the black leaders in black churches, black themselves, and millennials, who are working really hard in front of and behind the scenes, who helped raise that gap to help translate what millennials needed and were saying for church leaders, and helped millennials understand that church leaders were not there to harm them, and trying to build that bridge.
I certainly think that it exists. We can’t deny that millennials and millennials of color in particular have been leaving organized religion of all stripes in large droves because often young people are not feeling welcome in their identity, in their orientation, in their beliefs, in their questions, in the way that we present ourselves in our music, in our dress. Where institutions are not welcoming to young people, they’re going to go and create their own institution.
Where I see churches do this well is recognizing where there might be fault, where there might have been lapses in communication, where there might have been a failure to welcome all of God’s people, and have sat down and said, “How can we do better?” Where I’ve seen them do that, I’ve seen bridges being built. I’ve seen traditional black church institutions who will get behind this work and empower and resource young people in ways that have been very powerful.
TCR: What do you want to say to our readers in terms of what the AME Church at all levels could and should be doing to do this, to help, and to be more active right now?
BP: I think it’s three things. I think one is to recognize and honor the black church and the AME Church in particular as an institution that was built for us and by us. That in and of itself is revolutionary. The recognition that a traditional Christian institution is not built just for us but also built for our subjugation and the decision to stand against our status quo is revolutionary. Any church is revolutionary at its roots. The black church is revolutionary at its roots and there is honor and deference to give to that.
There are also important lessons in history that the AME Church can be sharing with the movement in terms of how we can actually build institutions that last, build institutions that support and empower our community, and build institutions that don’t erase our heritage but embrace our heritage.
I also think, though, that with that historical perspective, rooted in there comes a responsibility around the future. I think people in general—not just folks in the church, but people in general—get nostalgic and feel so good about what we’ve done that we forget about what we have yet to do and that is human nature. In every pew, on every Sunday, preachers, lay folks, deacons, whoever, we have the opportunity to remind one another to stand upright and to fight for those things that belong to us, to confer dignity upon ourselves, and to stand up in the tradition of justice that Christ put before us and that he stood in himself.
The third thing I think is I would remind the church that young people are not the enemy and I would remind young people that the church is not the enemy but that means that we have to act like it. That means that our churches need to be welcoming and inclusive. That means that we need to love everyone as Christ loves us and maybe we need to listen to one another as we build bonds, not just for the sake of relationship but for the sake of our collective freedom.
I think that the generational gap that we often experience, especially between young people and their institution, I think that we have the power to erase but it means that we’re going to have to be intentional about it and instead of pointing a finger of blame, open hands of welcome.