“When we’re not willing to have hard conversations about race, we lose the opportunity to have a real conversation.” A Q&A with labor and community organizer Tanya Wallace-Gobern

As we continue to celebrate Black-excellence this month, we want to shine a light on movement builders who are empowering Black workers to lead. This week we interviewed an inspiring leader who is opening up the labor movement to ALL working people, creating safe spaces for Black workers, and putting the Black-worker experience on full display: Tanya Wallace-Gobern. Tanya is a labor and community organizer with more than 20 years of experience. She is the Executive Director of the National Black Worker Center and oversees multiple centers across the country, including the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, with the goal of building Black worker power for employed and unemployed, and unionized and non-union workers.

Tell us about yourself and how you got involved with the National Black Worker Center.

I’m originally from Chicago, and I moved to the South because I wanted to organize women, Black women in particular. My start of labor happened in 1990 where I was recruited to go through the Organizing Institute. It was the second class and that was before it was even a part of the AFL-CIO. The first union I started organizing with was the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) before it became Unite HERE and I was very surprised to see how few Black people there were in leadership positions within my union. And that led me to actually work for the AFL-CIO and create the Historical Black College Recruitment program.

And so I share that with you because all of my professional career and organizing has been this trajectory to organize Black people and bring Black people into the labor movement. And prior to coming to the National Black Worker Center, I was the field director for the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente unions and found myself having had a disagreement with our executive director around racial issues and felt that we should, as the union, be addressing the issues that our people of color membership were facing in the community. It’s this common thread of wanting to have a conversation about class, but they don’t want you to have a conversation about race AND class. Without race, I heard this quote before, it’s like trying to have a conversation in English with no nouns. So it was an argument that I was sick of having over and over again with every place that I worked with and I wanted to take my skills, my talents and expertise to do what I originally set out to do when I graduated from college and that was to organize Black people specifically. And so I thought there was no better place to do that other than being in a Black organization and just around the time the National Black Worker Center had formed, and they were looking for an Executive Director. So it was a blessing, serendipity, whatever you want to call it. But it was just the right time for me, and that’s what brought me to my whole.

Who most inspired you to become an organizer?

I would have to say it was a series of events that led me to want to become an organizer, but if I had to pick a person, it would be my mother who was a social worker. She also was a union member of AFSCME local 1000 in Chicago, she since passed, but was always having conversations with her clients about standing up for themselves and how to navigate the system and how not to say no. My mother just naturally had worker-leader conversations and there were not many things that we would be strongly disciplined about, but we were not allowed in our family to say the word can’t. And so in our household there was no such thing as can’t and that was something that she really imposed on the clients that she had as a social worker.

Can you explain what a worker center is and why it’s important to have these spaces specifically for Black workers?

A worker center is an organization and group of people that come together to build power for themselves when they don’t have that opportunity to do so, and that is how Black worker centers were created. The first Black worker center was created in 1982 in Rocky Mountain, North Carolina as a result of businesses moving from the north to the south looking for people that they could exploit and that happened to be Black workers. And by exploitation, I mean paying lower wages and taking advantage of the low union density in the south and not having to provide adequate benefits or retirement. So Black worker centers exist because of the reluctance and the result of people’s fear around not wanting to have conversations around race and deal with the reality of racism in the workplace. Their wanting to believe that if we just give higher wages or if we deal with issues of class, then issues of racism will disappear. We know that’s not true. It doesn’t matter how much money you make. It doesn’t matter what your title is,  especially if you rise in your career and then there’s only one or two Black people at the top. You’re more isolated, and statistically that increases the level of racism that you might experience in the workplace. And racism isn’t the type of thing that you can pay your way out of, or educate your way out of. If your skin is black or if your skin is brown, or if it’s anything other than white, you will deal with racism and Black worker centers exist to help people gain the skills and the tools that they need to fight racism and discrimination within the workplace.

One of the first campaigns you worked on took place in the South. From my understanding there were no Black staffers, with the exception of you, organizing Black workers. Can you tell us why it’s important to have organizers and union leaders who come from similar backgrounds and communities of the workers they’re organizing?

I remember that campaign because I was coming from Chicago to the south and like most Black women, you got to do something to take care of your hair. And so I got my hair braided and my organizing director at the time looked at me because my hair was different, and said “I don’t know if the workers will be able to relate to your hair like that.” The workforce I swear had to be like 85% Black women, and it really wasn’t about them relating to me, it was about him being able to relate to me and accept my hair in this state. I live in Raleigh, North Carolina now and last night, they just took up the issue of the CROWN Act. You know, shouldn’t Black women wear their hair the way it grows out of there naturally like it’s just so ignorant that we’re having this conversation, but I digress.

But what was important to answer your question is, how can this white man relate to these Black women? What makes him feel like he has more authority, more understanding of what they go through than I do? And it led me to stop second guessing myself and to recognize that when we are able to identify what we have in common, that’s a strength. And it allows us to quickly be in relationship with one another when we see those commonalities. Here it’s a small thing, but it really transcends on so many different levels of looking for that common denominator. Power seeks to divide us and say how we are different and not the same. And in organizing, we always should look for how we are similar. And when we recognize what we have in common, then we are more apt to realize who our common foe is. I think that is one of the problems we are experiencing in the labor movement. When we’re not willing to have hard conversations about race, we lose the opportunity to have a real conversation. And It’s not just Black people who are being discriminated against. It’s poor people. It’s white people. It’s Latinos. It’s everybody who is not part of that 1% and so, when we’re not willing to have those conversations, we lose the opportunity to strengthen our movement. There’s the union saying, “an injustice to one is an injustice to all” and so it’s important for people to see themselves reflected in leadership. And to see themselves reflected in activism so that they can recognize that they too can do the thing that they never imagined. And that is what union organizers do. That’s what organizers do. Period. We agitate and we push people to do something that they never would have done before. To stand up for themselves in a way that they may have never done before and what makes that possible is when you see others doing it, and knowing that if she can win, I can win. If he can stand up, I can stand up. And so the first and the easiest way to do that is by having that image of power being reflected.

Working while Black is the National Black Worker Center’s biggest campaign. Could you give a brief background on what the campaign goals are and explain how the initiative has helped Black workers?

When I started as executive director, I went on a listening tour to all of our eight Black worker centers to meet people and listen to the community:

  1. I was struck by how many people were embarrassed to talk about the racism and discrimination they were facing on the job.
  2. Some younger folks didn’t even recognize that it was racism that they were dealing with.
  3.  The racism they experienced was personalized, and people just kept feeling like, if only I would try harder or leap higher or run faster, maybe I would not have to deal with this situation.

And at the National Black Worker Center, you wouldn’t think that that would be the case. You would think that this would be an openly discussed, resolved issue and it was just that we had not been. And so we recognized that we needed to provide an outlet that was greater than me coming home and calling you up and saying, “you will not believe what this mofo said to me today!” Right? It’s got to be something more that we can do. At the same moment, we also recognize that the power that exists when people come together to talk about the challenges that they’re having, ultimately, they will also come up with the solution to whatever issue that they’re having. And so Working While Black started off as a listening exercise where we encourage people to tell their working while Black stories out loud and to other people. And so we did that through video and through asking the local Black Worker Centers how they wanted to implement this in their region.

A great example that we had was in New Orleans with Stand with Dignity. They started doing these story circles where they invited the community to come in and tell whatever happened to them at work, and sure enough, this one guy came in named Ezell Williams and he told his story about having an opportunity to go get a better job, but not being able to pursue that job opportunity because he had gotten a ticket  years ago that he didn’t attend to, and the fines had equaled up to around $23,000. And from that story circle, someone had read an article about a homeless shelter that was having court within the shelter for people that were intimidated by the legal system. So they decided to have traffic clinics. Their first traffic clinic goal was maybe 25 to 30 people showing up, but instead hundreds of people showed up. They partnered with Loyola University with law students and got judges and lawyers to volunteer their time. Ezell’s fine was reduced from $23,000 to $9 and he was able to get a driver’s license and get a better job…From then on the local clinic grew to having a waiting list of 1000s of people, even 25,000 people at one point, and has since expanded to three other parishes outside of New Orleans. And now they have a municipal program that addresses the systemic, racist ways that the municipal system finds poor people and people of color to subsidize and finance operations of the city. So it’s gone into this huge program, just starting from someone telling their story and then other people going “yeah, the same thing happened to me! I got a ticket. It started off with $50. And by the end of the month, it was $250.” So anyway, it’s really based on just trusting people and knowing that once we create safe spaces for people to listen and to be heard, they can resolve their issues. So Working while Black has grown from us collecting stories and telling stories to having a Working while Black training series. We just finished the creation of one on microaggressions. And in 2019 we had the first Working while Black Expo. But it has really been just a really great opportunity to lift up all things associated with being a Black person and working.

Union members are as diverse as ever. And some of the most innovative organizing is being done by young immigrants and BIPOC. What does that say about the future of labor?

That the future of labor must be people of color. It says that if people are paying attention, then the current leadership needs to step aside and make space for young people and make space for people of color and make space for women. When I started organizing, there was a saying that you just throw people up against the wall and if they stick – success. You now have a career in the labor movement, but if you just fell down to the ground, then you just didn’t cut it. There was another premise that people had to pay their dues and earn the right to lead a campaign or be a leader in the labor movement, which of course is BS when you think about the nepotism and everything else that goes on in the labor movement, and in other movements. The reality is movements are successful when movements are able to connect with people. And it goes back to that first question that we discussed, right? Who connects? Who is more able to connect? I had a talk with this group from CWA and they asked the question, what can the union do to connect with the community? And so I did a really quick poll and asked what percentage of your membership is Black, Latino, white, Asian…? How many of you know what percentage of your membership has adults that have returned back home to live with their parents because they’ve lost their job? So I just went on with a series of questions and people couldn’t raise their hand. And so what’s when I said: why are you wasting your time talking about wanting to engage with the community when you haven’t even engaged with your own membership? And the reality of it is your membership IS the community.

We think about Members as silos like they’re workers, and we see them just as workers, but the fact is, yes, they’re workers, yes, they’re union members, but they are also mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. They are people grappling with how to pay their bills. They are people who are grappling with family members who are being evicted. They are people who are worried that on their way to work, they’re going to get harassed or arrested by the police. They are the community. When we recognize that the community is the labor movement and treat them as such, then we have the opportunity to grow the labor movement. And I think that is something that people of color do naturally because we are a community focused people. And the opportunities that we receive from leadership are not the same opportunities that white people have received traditionally, per se. We look to different avenues to learn like mentors and mentors tend to be people who you admire and who look like you. And when you bring in that sort of a philosophy and approach to organizing into growing a movement, bringing in people that look like you, recognizing the whole strength and holistic component of an individual, you don’t see them as just a dues paying member. You see them and say they look like my mother. That sounds like my brother. And I think that people of color do that naturally because they have been excluded for so long. And that is what I think is needed in all of our movements, is to be more inclusive and to stop acting like little bosses. And it’s not just the labor movement. This is any nonprofit movement where we start to see ourselves as holding positions and holding power. And when you do that, you exclude everybody else and your goal becomes maintaining power and not building power, which is a difference. And if you have a structure where your members are only being told what to do, then you’re maintaining power, you’re not building power. And If you have a structure that doesn’t teach people to be strategic thinkers, then you’re maintaining power, you’re not building power. If you are afraid of thoughts different from your own, you’re maintaining power and not building power. And that is our job. To build power.

The Black community has a long history with the labor movement. Many important victories for Black people were led by Black labor leaders. But there’s also been a lot of racism in labor’s past and present. What can we learn from history to help us chart a better course in years to come?

I think it’s important to call out the fact that there is no corner, no nook in the history of America that hasn’t had some aspect of racism touch it. So it’s not just within the labor movement. We’ve got to tell our story and remember the lessons of how we got to where we are and where we failed miserably. We have to be bold and talk about our mistakes and what we learned from them, and lift up those successes as ideas on how we can do better because there are moments when race and racism plays a role in the work that we do, and we have to be willing to call that out. And what do we lose as a result of that? What do we gain as a result of this? When we look at staff in organizations that are not Black organizations, you can see these waves where Black people and people of color are rising up and then it crashes down and then they all leave. And then they go back up and so on. Well what happened that caused the wave to go up and what happened to cause the exodus? Why are we not retaining people of color and Black people within our organizations? Are we being honest about why they left? Are we being honest with ourselves about access, and who gets training, and who is able to lead within our organization?

There are many young Black organizers doing incredible work in labor. But still far too few Black labor leaders. How can labor create a space that not only welcomes more Black unionists, but empowers them to be at the forefront of the movement?

I don’t know how far we get waiting for someone else to create space for us, we definitely should demand that space, but we should also create our own organizing opportunities and movement building and leadership opportunities. When you think about how we are a community and the skills that you learn within movement building work, don’t limit that work to just what you do within the institution that pays you. For example, can you organize your community? Can you survey your friends and family to find out what issues that they’re dealing with in their workplace and start campaigns there? Can you create movements that are not connected to the organization that you work for? I think that we should be cautious to say that there’s only one correct pathway to creating opportunity. And what this world needs now is more leaders, not less leaders, and unfortunately sometimes institutions don’t allow you to exercise the full extent of your leadership, but don’t let that be a roadblock for you because you are a leader inside and outside of your organization.

Finally, what is your vision for the labor movement? What tactics do you think lead to growth and inclusion, especially in lifting up Communities of color?

My vision for the labor movement is that we stop calling it the labor movement and call it a worker movement. The labor movement is now synonymous with a union movement and that term is too narrow and too exclusive. We need a movement that includes all people that have a job, that want a job, that lost a job and to work towards building power for those individuals. We need to have a community strategy, one that is a long-term strategy. We need a civil rights 2.0 movement that includes all poor people. When you look at the 60s civil rights movement that was a period of 10 to 15 years. How many campaigns do we have? How many strategies do we have that are 15 years strategies? You know who does have a 15 years strategy? The Koch brothers. The Republicans. The anti-union movement. They have a 20-year strategy. We need to have one as well. And if we do have that, then we got a vision that people can hold on to. And that they can see themselves in, and that’s the kind of movement that I dream of. A movement where everyone sees themselves in it, and that it’s not tied to your employer. It’s tied to your innate ability to lead, to govern, to win, and to connect with others.