Interview By Tia Williams
InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each month ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. This month ELIXHER spotlights Chicago native and National Coordinator at BYP 100, Charlene Carruthers.
ELIXHER: Tell us about Charlene.
CHARLENE: 28 years old, born and raised on the south side of Chicago in a predominantly Mexican immigrant neighborhood until I was in high school, but I also spent a lot of time in the Woodlawn neighborhoods of Chicago. I am an organizer. I am a writer and I have been doing racial justice, feminist, and youth organizing for 10 years now, in different capacities. I started in college and I have had the opportunity to organize all over the country. I am a traveler — an avid traveler. I love to travel outside of work. I travel a lot for work, but I really like to travel to places where there are brown and black people. I am the national coordinator of the BYP 100, a national collective of Black activists between the ages of 18 and 35.
ELIXHER: For those that don’t know, could you tell us more about BYP 100 and the role you play?
CHARLENE: We do organizing work and leadership development work with the ultimate vision of creating freedom and justice for all Black people. Our work really focuses on using a Black queer feminist analyst in the way that we approach what we do and our membership is extremely diverse. We have people from Oakland to New York City to Chicago to Tallahassee, FL. We have people all over the country. I function as the lead organizer in making sure that we move our vision forward.
ELIXHER: What is one of the most rewarding experiences you’ve had while working with BYP 100 so far?
CHARLENE: Oh my gosh. We [recently] hosted an event here in Chicago. A dialogue called Who Will Keep My Sister? [It was] a discussion about the criminalization of Black women and girls. We had Dr. Beth Richie, who is the author of Prison Nation – a book about violence against Black women, Dr. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker’s biographer, Mariame Kaba, founder of Project NIA, Ayanna-Harris Banks from the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander, and Deana Lewis from Black Girls Under Fire. We had this amazing event where people talked about the research, movement, work that’s happening now around the criminalization of Black women and girls, and so that was amazing. We had a packed room, we livestreamed it, we talked about an issue and experiences not in popular media. People don’t usually talk about this. They usually talk about Black males in these conversations.
And then one of our members, Edward James, participated in the petition delivery at Governor Rick Scott’s office at the Florida capitol calling on Governor Scott to fire Angela Corey, who is the lead prosecutor for Marissa Alexander’s case. And so it was like a full circle moment. Because we’re a national organization we can do those kinds of things. Having a young Black man advocating on behalf of Marissa Alexander in the state of Florida, he is from the state of Florida, he grew up there, he’s an organizer and for us to have had the event about Who Will Keep My Sister, it works really well together. I’m really proud of that. Extremely proud of that.
ELIXHER: What have been some of the challenges of working with BYP 100?
CHARLENE: We’re a national organization so we work in three different time zones. How do you work in thre different time zones and move an agenda forward? That’s something I don’t think folks think about often times.
The other challenge that we have is that we are trying to build a democratic consensus driven organization in the way we make decisions with individuals who have not experienced full democracy. We’re Black people. We have been shut out intentionally of a process that is supposed to be democratic and in shutting us out that lessens the ability of this country to actually exercise democracy. So when you have a large group of people who have not experienced this, it’s a different way of making decisions. And we’re teaching ourselves something most of us have never done before but it’s because we value 1) we have a rigorous process of debate and deliberation, and 2) so that everyone has the opportunity to give their input before we take a vote. That’s been a challenge in creating that culture.
Lastly, there is so much trauma in our communities. And we’re not a single-issue organization, and so, it’s a challenge for us to organize. We’re doing constituency organizing, so we’re organizing ourselves. We are organizing Black 18- to 35-year-olds and we’re the same people you hear statistics about. We are talking about people who are dealing with traumas and we are those people — while making sure we infuse healing work in the way we go about things. It’s very hard.
ELIXHER: What does it mean to you to be doing the work you’re doing?
CHARLENE: For me personally, I’m making my contribution to the liberation of Black people. This work is towards the liberation of Black people. This organization is a part of that. We are making a collective contribution to liberating our people. At the end of the day, that’s what it is about.
ELIXHER: How could someone get more involved with the organization?
CHARLENE: Well, the first thing is if you’re in the San Francisco/Bay Area, New York, or Philadelphia, you can connect with one of our chapters. For folks that are interested in national membership, the best thing for them to do is sign up on our website:
ELIXHER: You posted on Facebook back in March about receiving lots of messages about your BYP 100 bio when you were recognized during Black History Month and having no one ask you directly about identifying as queer. Would you mind explaining what “queer” means for you, or how you came into using that label?
CHARLENE: So for me, queer is both a politic and an identity. I think there are people who identify as having queer politics, meaning going outside, not just the binary, but the typical spectrum of what we believe politics should be and what they should look like. And who should be engaged and who should be valued. That’s a part of it. And how we even go about having the conversation of creating social change. Then there’s the queer identity meaning that for me, I don’t identify as a straight woman. I am not only attracted to cisgender men. And so, knowing that about myself, none of the labels fit. “Queer” doesn’t even fit sometimes. I don’t feel like they describe me. The closest I can get to describing my sexual identity and attraction is “queer.”
ELIXHER: What made you publicly draw attention to that fact?
CHARLENE: Because I had some secondhand comments from people. Like, “What? Charlene’s this? I didn’t know.” And I was like you could’ve just asked me. Just ask me. Instead of asking people who know me. Like, I know you. I’ve known you for years. It’s also what I see as a political responsibility as someone who is a leader. I know there are younger people who look to what I say. And so, I think it’s important as part of my politics.
ELIXHER: What’s next for Charlene Carruthers?
CHARLENE: This organization. Building this organization is really important to me. Making sure that the next person in my role is prepared to take this role. As prepared as you can be. I didn’t know I was going to have this job. I’ve never been in a job like this before. There’s no rulebook for how to do it, but I’m at least able to create structures and practices and help create a culture of this organization where the next person is able to expand the vision. In the future what I’m committed to doing is pursue an academic work in political science and African American studies. So what that really looks like is a PhD in political science or a PhD in African American studies focusing on Black women and citizenship in American.
Tia N. Williams is the woman behind The Buddha In Me, an agency of artists, speakers, poets, and activists based in Atlanta. The Buddha In Me specializes in providing quality programs to educate, enlighten, and entertain. Tia recently received her M.Ed. from the University of Georgia in College Student Affairs Administration.