Solidarity Organizational Health Language of Rights Cultures of Respect 42March 15, 2024

42. US: The promise – and the challenge – of a coalition for rights

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

Activists can boost their power and impact by combining their efforts, but herding diverse actors together can be challenging. Organizations and movements working on multiple issues may disagree on policy and principle or set conditions on their collaboration, so bringing them into alignment can require energy and resources that are in short supply. The Rising Majority coalition with around 70 member organizations combines black, indigenous and other groups of people of color, as well as campaigns on race, climate, gender, policing, labor issues, immigration and economic and environmental justice – in short, its members’ priorities are varied. Rising Majority grew out of the Movement for Black Lives – M4BL for short – amid the realization that even though individual groups had overarching goals in common, they weren’t taking advantage of their collective power. Rising Majority’s National Director Loan Tran explains how that changed in 2017.   

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The Interview

‘What we can do together that we can’t do apart’

Loan Tran recalls: “Where there was most consensus was that we did not have any power as the social movement left in the United States. We may be able to influence the discussion or debate from a narrative standpoint, we may be able to get our messages out, but in terms of governing power, economic power, and organizing power, we were severely lacking. That initial call out to organizations in the US that were anti-racist, anti-capitalist, pro-feminist, pro queer, pro worker was, let’s get together and think about what democracy means in this moment. Let’s think about what we can do together that we couldn’t do separate from each other. 

The Coda

‘Learn to stop if you want to keep going’

Katrina Ffrench is an activist in constant motion, pursuing multiple projects in her area of expertise, racism in UK policing and the criminal justice system. But there came a moment when she realized she was close to burning out and decided to take avoiding action. It’s OK to be still, she says, there’s power in stillness. 


Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity. I’m Akwe Amosu, here with episode 42 of our podcast about the tools, tactics and strategies being used to defend human rights.  And this time 

  • The promise – and the complexity – of building a coalition
  • and in the Coda, an almost burned-out activist finds out that learning to stop can help you keep going.

AA: It’s not news that you can increase your power and impact by mobilizing large numbers of people to focus on one cause. Struggles that are hard to win alone can succeed if you can get enough allies on board. But after that, it gets a bit more complicated. Organizations and movements working on a wide range of rights and with differing political sympathies can find plenty on which to disagree. They have different red lines that they won’t cross, and set conditions on their collaboration. Herding them into alignment is slow, hard work that takes energy, patience and resources. So when I heard about a United States coalition called Rising Majority, with around 70 member organizations ranging across racial justice, LGBTQ rights, gender, and climate justice, defense of democracy, and unions in labour struggles, I was curious about what had brought them together, and even more, how such a diverse range of voices could be persuaded to stay in harness, especially when faced with highly polarizing issues like Israel-Palestine. So last month I sought out Loan Tran, the Rising Majority coalition’s national director to ask them that question. It seems the answer dates back eight years to a stark, pivotal moment amid a post-Obama backlash, when immigrants and asylum seekers and religious minorities were suddenly at heightened risk.  

AA: Welcome Loan 

Loan Tran: Hi Akwe. Thanks for having me. 

AA: So, can we start by you just explaining what Rising Majority is? It looks like a fascinating community of very diverse actors. What’s holding them together and why? 

LT: Sure. So coming out of the 2016 presidential elections, movement for Black Lives, along with other organizations like Center for Third World Organizing, Blackbird, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, were all like, what, what the heck just happened here, right? Is it possible that we really underestimated this moment, and perhaps overestimated our power? And now we are heading into, an administration where the highest office is gonna be occupied by a very overtly racist, misogynistic, xenophobic caricature of a person. Um, and at that point, Movement for Black Lives [M4BL] was several years old, had emerged out of the grassroots Black Lives Matter movement, and was really committed to building this infrastructure for black-led organizing and black power, and also made the assessment that there were pieces of, M4BL’s policy platform and vision that wasn’t gonna be possible without building a genuine, authentic, multiracial vehicle. and so M4BL, and some partners initiated Rising Majority, with a sort of a founding tagline of “Building an anti-racist left for radical democracy.” 

AA: And Movement for Black Lives – say a little bit about what that was. Who was in Movement for Black Lives? 

LT: So Movement for Black Lives in the beginning, was a handful of our colleagues and comrades who were coming out of work in response to, primarily to racist policing and to the police murders of young people like Trayvon Martin, of Mike Brown in St. Louis and the Ferguson uprisings. And it was folks who, you know, were coming from all sectors of movement -gender justice, international human rights, who said, OK, we actually need to build a political vehicle and an organization that can think about long-term power building in black communities in the United States. 

AA: And so when they encounter this moment, post-Trump’s election, they’re actually seeing the need to build an even broader coalition. Is that right?  

LT: Yeah. In the beginning, there was a really, important emphasis on that anti-racist left part, because of, M4BL’s experience, the tendency inside of coalition spaces to not take the question of white supremacy and anti-black racism seriously enough, right? And so the hypothesis was, if M4BL were to initiate a multiracial space, that that core principle would remain at the center, even as we’re, exploring other challenges, questions, issues facing a variety of communities. But it also posed a challenge to all of movement to really ask this question of, well, what is a black issue? Right? It’s essentially every issue. Um, and so in the beginning when Rising Majority was started, a lot of the focus was on this sort of sometimes very elusive concept of alignment, right? Like let’s build alignment, let’s build unity, right? There’s so many ways that we tried to do that. We did surveys – everyone hated them, people did not want to fill out very long surveys – 

AA:  Surveys asking things like, what, what do you wanna work on, or? 

LT: Right, what’s your vision? What are your strategies? Where are you based? You know, um, or really long meetings. Um, and I’m being a little flippant about it but all of it, I think in, in the end, eight years in, was actually really helpful because at the heart of it, it was about us surfacing some really core questions of both what matters to the social movement left in the US, really broadly speaking, what are the challenges and opportunities? Um, and then what do we actually wanna build together? Right? 

AA: Can you just give me a sense of what this coalition is like, what it’s like trying to meet every week with each other and try and get stuff to happen? What’s the texture of your mutual engagement? 

LT: Yeah, so in the beginning, the main practice as a coalition was in rapid response moments. Coming out of the 2016 elections was sort of a rapid response moment. And then we saw the so-called border crisis in 2018, and so it was like, OK, let’s get to know each other in these moments where we’re being called to all mobilize and face in the same direction. So that was like one piece. And then the other piece of the relationship-building was just giving folks a platform for each movement or each organization to bring forward requests for solidarity, right? Whether it was, again, a rapid response moment or an issue campaign, that folks were leading. And interspersed, here and there were some shared experiments, whether it be around all of us going to a particular state and volunteering and doing door-knocking, or doing a public webinar and political education. And then the space in between those activities was about making ongoing assessments of, what does our ecosystem need to do, or need to know, or better understand in order for us to be effective and strategic? That has looked like monthly membership meetings where we take up different concepts, either there’s different definitions or understanding of it within our ecosystem, or different levels of experiences, right? Like there are some coalition members for whom this is the only coalition they’ve ever been a part of, right? And so they’re getting used to like, not all of our calls for solidarity are gonna be answered, and we can’t answer all of them. You know? There’s other organizations for whom the coalition and alliance work is like their main mode of being. And so we use that time just to dive a little deeper, like what do we mean by United Front <laugh>? What do we mean by building coalition or alliances? The day-to-day work, for me, I actually find myself spending a lot of time with our members just trying to get a sense of what their landscape is, so that I can help facilitate connections? So that I can get people’s organizers talking to each other. We talk about like de-siloing a lot, and I think sometimes it gets very complicated, but from my perspective, a lot of times it’s as easy as like, you know, in the Stop Cop City moment looking at our membership and saying, any of us who have any sort of policing campaign, um, or police accountability campaign, or anti-militarism campaign, let’s get everyone in the room.  

AA: You’re a signpost. You can help the right people get to the right places.  

LT: Yeah. And so we’re trying to see as many pieces as possible. And that is why, you know, we have grassroots, place-based organizations that are part of our coalition because they’re like, yeah, we, we wanna know that we fit into something much larger. 

AA: At that moment, there’s been this huge, apparently white backlash post-Obama, and the future isn’t certain but it certainly doesn’t look positive. I can see why people get together and say, OK we need to build something bigger.  But just because you want to do that doesn’t mean that everybody’s ready.  The movements that came together had a deep and abiding commitment to their issues – whether it was queer issues or race issues, or climate issues, or, uh, whatever it was – people were really focused up to that point, I’m assuming, on their own work and so I’m just trying to understand  what that was, in the way of a challenge for them to come into this coalition.  

LT: You know, honestly, I think that the piece where there was most consensus was that we did not have any power as the social movement left in the United States. Like, okay, we are sorely out of position, we may be able to influence the discussion or debate from a narrative standpoint, right? We may be able to get our messages out, we may be able to get our slogans out, but in terms of governing power, in terms of economic power, in terms of organizing power, we were severely lacking. And I think that there’s a few different layers in that sort of initial call-out, to say, OK, organizations in the US that are anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, pro-feminist, all the things, right, pro-queer, pro-worker – let’s get together and think about what democracy means in this moment. Let’s think about what we can do together that we couldn’t do separate from each other. And so that was like the initial call, right? What it didn’t factor in was, to some degree we all have sort of different definitions of like what it means to have those principles, right? For some of us, if we have those principles, it could mean that we refuse to work with any organization that doesn’t share that, that isn’t aligned, right? But then there are some organizations that are like, we don’t have the expectation that the only partners we work with share that perspective. And so that first period of time was actually trying to get really clear about, what are the real non-negotiables, not just in terms of our politics, but also in terms of our shared work and shared practice. And I think that that’s where it’s been the most challenging actually. And where Rising Majority has done a lot of work. We have a membership of about 70 organizations – grassroots orgs, base-building organizations, other alliances and networks, groups that primarily focus on a civic engagement strategy, other groups focused on leadership development and training, narrative work, like – across the board. And so it’s been this sort of process of increasing what we’ve been calling a strategic literacy among our own ecosystem. 

AA:  By which you mean an ability to understand the pressures and the constraints and the discipline of being in coalition? 

LT: Yeah. So being able to, you know, actually take a sober assessment of, of ourselves and of the broader landscape and the forces that are in motion to make decisions that are not just based on our own politics, right? But actually, based on the reality of the world, and what is actually in motion and I think we collectively have a lot of experiences of, um, you know, uh, uh, we have a lot <laugh>, I don’t know how to say that… we have a lot of experiences of losing, because we, we didn’t have the muscle built to make strategic assessments around the tactics and campaigns that we’re using, right? We’re going issue by issue, we’re going slogan by slogan, versus having some sort of framework that guides us in a particular direction, towards a particular vision. 

AA: So that’s maybe a good prompt to really try and get to a, a sense of what you were actually doing. If we just stay in those early years, presumably in the lead-up to the election that brought Biden into office what were you working on? 

LT: We were almost like readying the ground for what would come after a 2020 election, right? Uh, and what I mean by that was, one of the main questions that we had to grapple with was, you know, social movements are often really allergic to electoral organizing, right? Because our communities have very few genuine experiences with democracy, the level of attacks on very basic things like voting rights and gerrymandering and all of these things, right?  The communities that we’re a part of are like “democracy for who? it’s not for us.” It’s definitely not for, you know, working class black, indigenous people of color communities. The tendency has been because of our lived experience, “we’re just gonna throw that out, right? We’re like, not gonna engage. That is gonna be a terrain in which we just don’t contend for any power.” So it was a few years of, of trying to shift that, to say, hey, the electoral organizing is not the whole picture but it is a really key part of it because our opposition has tuned into the fact that most of our movement organizations don’t care to engage there. And so for a long time now, they’ve been rewriting the rules, and it’s very easy for them to gerrymander and pass restrictions on, you know, voter access, that only further disenfranchise our communities. And it’s not just about what happens at the ballot, right? It’s like questions of infrastructure. It’s questions of unionization, it’s questions of access to the commons, right? It’s not just the candidate.  

AA:  So that effective refusal to get involved has proven very costly. 

LT: Yes. Yes. Because the position that it got us into was, we could take our communities through, beautiful and elaborate processes for drafting policy, you know, drafting platforms, but we had no institutional means of delivering it, right? And that continues to be a real roadblock. And even as we make headways, and in recent years as the tides have turned and, we’ve had more electeds coming from movement, there’s now a new set of challenges around, well, once we get our folks into these positions, how do we actually govern with them, right? And how do we not just fall into the sort of trap of like, “OK, you’re in there now, like, fix all of these things!” 

AA:  Right? Because it isn’t just about getting elected. The person who’s been elected has got to figure out how to navigate once in office – all the horse-trading, all the challenges. But also the people outside who got them elected – they don’t know how this works, and they’re likely to lose confidence if they see that they’re not getting results because their person doesn’t appear to be able to deliver. 

LT: Yeah. And then it falls apart very quickly, <laugh>. So we, so we had to spend years sort of unpacking that tendency. And so by the time we got to 2020, you know, there’s like multiple crises and the terrain is shifting very quickly, right? And then in the spring, a global pandemic and everything being exposed, particularly the US infrastructure, it’s not structured to support the wellbeing of humans and the planet. And then that summer we have the racist police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis that triggers global uprisings in a historic manner. And then, and then you have the November elections, right? Um, and folks are very clear that we cannot have four more years of Trump. And so there’s all of these factors that are at play. Our movements are exhausted by the level of like rapid response, that we are just a constant cycle of rapid response. Um, and we made a decision that, okay, if there were ever a time to actually test and see if we’ve actually moved away from this tendency to just like abandon electoral organizing because we don’t like the choices we have, this would be the year. And so Rising Majority, Working Families Party, United We Dream, M4BL, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, uh, came together to initiate The Frontline, in August of that year with the intention of: let’s help our folks make meaning of this. Let’s make the assertion that it is social movements, it’s our communities that actually have the ability to influence this outcome. And let’s try to have a level of coordination between different parts of the movement employing different strategies, right? Um, let’s bring together the folks who are primarily doing mass mobilizations with the folks who are doing lobbying and advocacy, with the policy people, with the issue campaigns, um, with the political party building, and see if we can actually work together. And so we did that, and then we realized that we were able to successfully get through the November elections, but we still didn’t have a longer term vision or horizon to guide us. So shortly after the elections was when Rising Majority actually started making a pivot into, not just naming all of the things that we were against, but actually starting to try to articulate, what is the US social movement left, and what is it for? And what’s the vision, over the long term? And perhaps can we actually put together a cross-movement, cross-sector, power-building strategy? And so that became the work coming out of 2020, because I think one of the lessons that came out of that year was that we were able to get a lot of folks into the streets but there were still a lot of questions that were live, particularly for the Rising Majority ecosystem of, well, what about the long-term fight against neoliberalism, right? What, what about the long term, you know, fight against the fundamental ways that our economy and democratic system are constructed. 

AA: I mean, does that mean that it had been a, a very uncomfortable and temporary flex to work on the electoral strategy, and that they were, “okay, it worked out, but now we need to get back to our real work”? Or was it, “we’ve been changed by this electoral strategy, we now see it as worthwhile investing in this mainstream political system, and what, what about that goal that we had about taking down the economic system?” <laugh> 

LT:  I think it’s a little bit of both. One of the things that I’ve been reflecting on, and I know that it was live in that time too, was, you know, how sometimes when we might overcorrect, right? So like we go from no social movement organizations are working on the elections to, oh my God, everyone has to work on the elections now, right? Which is not necessarily the best pivot, because there’s different – when we take an ecosystem perspective, there’s different functions, right, that are really needed in order for this to work, in order for us to carry out a strategy, right?  And so there was a moment coming out of the 2020 elections that was both like, one, like, oh yeah, we actually could do this <laugh>, there’s a way for us to do this that is thoughtful, that resonates with our base and our constituencies, that increases our capacity to collaborate across the ecosystem. And the center of gravity around elections and presidential elections in particular can be so intense, that you do end up forgetting, like, oh, we were doing this in service of something, there was a bigger goal here. And so I, I think both there was a sentiment of like, wow, we did this thing that we thought just a few years ago we wouldn’t be able to do. Did we build more power? Did we build more infrastructure coming out of the elections, or did we just temporarily leverage the relationships and social power of our ecosystem, for a democratic system that our folks are incredibly disillusioned with. 

AA: And that didn’t change, despite the fact that you just pulled something off – with others, obviously, not alone? Did that not give a sense of, “okay, we’re on a good track, we know what we’re doing, let’s go to the next step.” 

LT: I think in some ways it’s easier to, to figure out how to make something stop than to start something. I think it was one thing to say like, we do not want Trump again, it was another thing to say, this is the kind of democracy we do want. This is the kind of economy that we do want, right? Because when you start, you know, making assertions about how things can be or should be, and tapping into imagination and political will, it’s like you’re going out on a limb <laugh>, you know, you’re going out on a limb, you’re opening yourself up to a lot of critique, a lot of vulnerabilities, a lot of, you know, well, why would you try it this way and not that way? And why would you… 

AA: And, and I guess now thinking about it, I mean, your 60 or 70 members, there’s a lot of them that don’t really believe in the entire political system anyway. They’ve done what they’ve done, uh, as a matter of exigency. But as you say, it’s not really a proactive commitment to the system in which that contest takes place. And, you know, I think there are people who make the argument that the Biden presidency has actually delivered a lot more than recent past Democratic, administrations. But at the same time, one is aware of the sense of disappointment about the things that were not delivered, and which presumably helped mobilize your coalition to do the work.

LT: Yeah, I think we have gotten into the practice of asking ourselves, so if we do this, then what happens? And what does that make more possible? That it has to be more than just that tactic, and it has to be more than just that issue or that moment. It has to be about what’s our approach to this that continues to widen the terrain so that we actually have the spaciousness and time to build the kind of power that we need, to start making the kinds of choices that we’d rather be making. But right now, we’re primarily faced with a situation where it’s like you got scenario A or you got scenario B. There is no crafting of those scenarios. There is no formulating of a third scenario. we don’t have the power to make that happen, right? And so with the limited power that we do have, the question then is whatever it is we do, are we unlocking a different set of conditions? 

AA:  Is it worth it, given our concerns, our preferences. Well, but then, you know, thinking about this, you’re back in the same <laugh> situation. I mean, it’s a rematch. And, at least at one level, whether you like it or not, you’re back in that moment of exigency. 

LT: Yeah, it sort of really sucks to be back in this moment, <laugh>. Um, and, and there’s some things that are very clear, the “vote or die” rhetoric is not gonna work this time. Because I think that this particular moment that we’re in, in the past four months of, um, incredible violence and aggression towards Palestinians and Gaza is impacting the consciousness, in particular of young people in the United States. And of course, not to mention, you know, SWANA [South West Asia, North Africa] Muslim, Arab, Palestinian communities. You know, there’s been millions of people in the streets. There’s been millions of phone calls and emails that have been sent to Congress demanding a ceasefire. And it’s starting to get really hard for folks to distinguish between, you know, Trump, who has been very clear about his authoritarian agenda, and Biden, who folks have now started calling Genocide Joe. 

AA: I mean, Gaza is obviously where we have to go, but before we go there, before the 7th of October, was there the stomach for that fight again, was there willingness to go back into that project again in your view? 

LT: Yeah, we had a lot, at, at least as an ecosystem, we had a lot of clarity that, OK, we’ve spent two years working on a vision towards 2050 with these beautiful articulations about, where we’re gonna head. We’re starting to develop a 10 year power-building strategy that really focuses on connecting different parts of our movement, having shared experiments, so we were like, “yeah, we’ll go into 2024, and when we are knocking on doors, we’d be able to say like, hey, this electoral moment is just a benchmark, right, in terms of what’s gonna be more possible, for this long-term vision and, and for this strategy.” So we were feeling actually quite like, “oh yeah, we we could totally do this.” Um, and, and then of course, you know, October 7th changes it and, and introduces a new set of contradictions that, are now completely unavoidable. 

 AA:  And we’re recording this in February. Uh, we’re four months in. Where have those contradictions landed us, in your assessment? 

LT:  So we’re looking at a few contradictions, right? We’re looking at Biden who is likely going to be the candidate of the Democratic Party with the lowest approval ratings in 15 years. We’re looking at the contradiction of more than two thirds of the United States public being in favor of a ceasefire, and yet the Biden administration has not explicitly called for one. Obviously we’re also looking at the contradiction between the right wing authoritarian forces that are rallying behind a Trump candidacy. And this you know, loosely coherent united front, if you will, of basically the rest of us who are like, we still need democracy, even if it’s deeply flawed. And so it’s February, what’s the strategic approach to this year? It’s like, what are we able to plant the seeds of now, to address what is becoming, I think, more plain for folks to see, which is there are trillions of dollars spent on an annual basis on the military. Meanwhile, regular people, everyday people are scared to go to the hospital when they’re sick because of the bills. There are young people who are deciding not to go to college because the debt is not worth it. Um, our public schools infrastructure is falling apart. Our teachers, our healthcare workers are working under ridiculous conditions. Our government is not investing in infrastructure for life. they are investing in weapons and bombs and wars, right? So how do we keep exposing that dichotomy, and how do we strengthen the experiments that have already been in place around, divesting from policing, investing in mental health infrastructure, for example, or divesting from coal and bad energy and investing in green jobs and green infrastructure, right? Continuing to open up, um, that particular framework and strategy. And we’re looking at where we are, we’re looking at our contradictions, and we’re like, how the heck are we gonna do this <laugh>? 

AA: Yeah. Because it sounds from what you’re saying is that this ceasefire piece, the Gaza piece, is a sort of prior requirement. If you’re going to get people to come out and go knocking on doorsteps, showing up to vote, protecting the vote, which will very likely be necessary at some places, they’ve got to believe it’s worth it. But from what you’re suggesting, that critical piece of just not trusting the people that they’re trying to get elected could just make the whole thing moot. 

LT: Yeah. So then we have to figure out what are the ways that we make real, particularly to all of the young people who have been out in the streets, the other disaffected voters that, if we don’t fulfill, the conditions around ceasefire, ending genocide and the conditions around divesting money from the military budget to invest in the sustainability of humans in the planet, that terrain is gonna be terrifying and awful. Right? We’re not trying to be alarmist. We’re just trying to be very clear that, you know, our opposition has a plan to completely gut any democratic infrastructure, which includes not just our right to exist, and we have to think about the growing and intensifying racist backlash against Muslim Arab and Palestinian communities in the US and our ability to organize, right? That we’re not just talking about like a Muslim Ban 2.0, we’re talking about like a Muslim ban 5.0, right? And our opposition has been very clear and very vocal about it. Um, and you know, we sort of shortly after, um, October 7th, you know, in the fall, uh, a lot of our reactions were like, oh, I’m definitely not doing this. 

AA: I keep hearing that from people on all sides. I, I’m not voting, I’m, I can’t vote. I, I’m not showing up. 

LT: Yeah. And then some of us, you know, had to be reminded of like, here’s what the right’s plan is for us. We’ve been hyperfocused on the specific candidates, but we’re also talking about entire administrations, right? We’re talking about appointments, we’re talking about cabinet seats, we’re talking about Supreme Court justices, right? We’re talking about an entire, you know, system of governance in which the president has a lot of say and ability to place people, right? And so there’s, the individual presidential candidate, but it’s not just this one person who we like or dislike. Um, it’s the entire infrastructure. 

AA: So, I mean, you don’t have a crystal ball. You can’t read the future. But you are sitting looking at a coalition of 60 to 70 organizations that have been willing to work in harness together for a shared objective that you and your colleagues are shaping and sharing with them. Do you have conviction that you can keep that coalition working together over the next few months? Or are you already seeing defections, doubts? Um, yeah,  

LT: You know, I actually feel pretty confident and hopeful that we’ll figure out how to stay together. And I think that I can base that on the fact that one of the things that we had to really build a muscle around was how to have open honest disagreements with each other to like really actually be able to name in a principled way. Like, “we do not see this in the same way”: and then the follow-up is, “well, even if we don’t see it in the same way, are we really gonna throw each other under the bus? Are we really gonna undermine each other? Are we really gonna like, abandon each other for some alternative that doesn’t actually really exist?” And that’s like speaking in somewhat defensive terms. I think the affirmative articulation of that would be that we have had so many, just world-changing crises in such a short period of time and have maintained a willingness to learn from those crises and learn from each other and push each other to take on leadership in really uncertain conditions. And so our trust and respect for each other has only deepened.

AA: So you’re going into this thing with a little bit of optimism? 

LT: Yeah, optimism of the will. Mostly…pessimism of the intellect! <laugh>. 

AA: Okay. Thank you so much, Loan 

LT: Thanks. Akwe, 

AA: Loan Tran is the national director of the Rising Majority coalition in the United States. You’ll find a transcript of our conversation and further reading on our website, Strength& 


AA: Time for the Coda – the place where human rights activists and workers reflect on what inspires them to keep fighting, or helps get them through tough times. This time we’re hearing from British racial justice campaigner Katrina Ffrench who has done a dizzying amount in the past decade – led a national organization aiming to fight racial targeting by police, been elected a labour party councillor, worked in the London Mayor’s office on policing, been appointed to help oversee reform in UK police forces and founded a new organisation, Unjust, focused on racism in policing and the criminal justice system. If that sounds like a recipe for burn-out, you aren’t far wrong. Katrina starts with a poem, Unstoppable, by Donna Ashworth. 


Katrina Ffrench:  


“Unstoppable they called her but  

I saw her stop I saw her stop many many times. 


Sometimes I thought she had stopped for good 

but no she always found a way to resurrect. 


To rise again.  


Not the same never the same.  

Each time a little more determined  

and a little less vulnerable. 


Unstoppable they said but  

I think it was in the stopping that  

she found her power. 


 (Donna Ashworth) 


KF: Human rights are under attack everywhere on this planet. There’s practically no country that isn’t in some way violating some group of people. And that always leads human rights defenders to feel that they have to keep going, that they have to fight on someone’s behalf and you don’t really get a chance to stop. And it’s very rarely that people doing this work put themselves first. They put the people that they’re serving first because that’s why they do it. 

KF: So this poem resonated with me because, on a personal level, I found that in stopping I’ve been able to reflect on things, process things, gain a better understanding and insight into issues. However, when I’m not stopping, it feels as though if I stop, it’s laziness, it’s idle, I’m not productive. So there’s a tension of knowing the benefit of stopping and utilizing, you know, your power to stop, but also wanting to change the world and help others, empower others. And that work never stops. So, yeah, it feels like a bit of a contradiction, but we all need to stop at some point, even if it’s just for self-care. Just to take a breath. 

KF: In the year of 2020, the summer, it was just after we had held the memorial demonstration for Mark Duggan who’d been killed by the police, over a decade ago now. And just after that I recognized, I don’t, I don’t think it, I didn’t like the word burnout because it wasn’t burn out. I was just frustrated. Um, the black squares were popping up all over the place. There was a lot of rhetoric around, you know, Black Lives Matter, but it didn’t feel like that at the time, as the police were disproportionately as they always do, but at higher rates, stopping black and racialized communities. So that summer I took time off work, I, um, stopped. I stopped for a month. And initially it was quite difficult ’cause you want to do what you’ve been doing. You know, as I said, you feel you’re called to do stuff. It’s purposeful work. However, I recognize now that in that stopping I was able to reevaluate what I was doing. And it ultimately led to me leaving the organization that I was in. I think had I just kept going and pushing through and being the strong black woman, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here now. 

KF: Reading and writing for me are the ways that I suppose I process and express myself and appreciate the vulnerabilities of others in sharing their thoughts to the world. I tend to look at and like to see on my timeline, memes of gratitude, things that give me hope, encouragement, inspiration – I suppose it is poetry, but it’s, it’s modern day poetry ’cause they’re memes. And reading other people’s words, you know, because it lets you know you’re not alone – if someone else wrote this, that was likely how they were feeling and it, if it resonates with me, I tend to screenshot it and share it with my friends. Writing is cathartic and I recently started journaling again ’cause there’s a lot going on and sometimes it’s just too tiring to speak about it. And everyone has a lot going on. So it’s tiring to hear other people speak about stuff. And I don’t say that to be like, don’t tell me anything. I say it. ’cause when it’s you and for me, a pen and paper, I, um, I prefer old school scribing than typing. Sometimes it just comes automatically. It’s as though I don’t have to even think about what I wanna write. My hand just moves and it, it comes out and I look back at it and I don’t think it’s what I sat down to write, but it’s what came out and what needed to be expressed. 

KF: I strongly recommend to people, listen to your soul. It’s really okay to not be whizzing around and being like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland with their clock and running and – I’ve gotta be here, I’ve gotta be there. Just to – I don’t want to say go with the flow because that feels very nonchalant or not focused. But it is okay to be still. There’s power in stillness and I, I really hadn’t appreciated that because action is where it’s at. And actually with stillness, sometimes you can hear things that you would never have heard because you were too busy not being able to listen. 

AA: Katrina Ffrench is the founder and director of Unjust, an organisation that aims to challenge discriminatory culture, policies and practices in the UK police and criminal justice system. 

AA: And that’s brings Episode 42 to a close… If you liked this episode, please give us a five star rating because it helps other people find the show. And if you have comments – positive or negative – about anything you hear on the podcast, we are very keen to hear them. Just drop us a line at….  For now, though, from producer Peter Coccoma and me, Akwe Amosu, thanks for listening.