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California Black Power Network Is Protecting and Building Black Political Power

When all Black communities are prioritized in policy solutions, all communities benefit. Photo by California Black Power Network.

Our grantee California Black Power Network (CBPN) officially became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit on January 1, 2023, but they have been building power in Black communities for years. As a project of California Calls, the team behind CBPN lead groundbreaking efforts on voter engagement, the 2020 census, redistricting and more before they spun off to become their own entity.

We spoke with their Executive Director James Woodson to learn about their ambitious plans for Black Californians and Black-led community organizations in our state. He told us about CBPN's four strategies, the seven issues they are focusing on, their visionary work around reparations and more.

Woodson explained why they chose to be a "network" and why that particular structure is necessary to achieve their vision of a state where "Black people can thrive and not just survive. A California where Black people feel safe, secure, and free to be themselves."

Our conversation with James Woodson has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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How do we get people out of always firefighting and give them space to think and dream and create new things? We have to because the systems we're trying to change are also changing all the time.

James Woodson

What is the origin story of the California Black Power Network?

James Woodson: It has been a seven-year journey. The seed form of the network began after the flashpoint moment of the Trayvon Martin killing in 2014 and Mike Brown in 2015. A lot of energy and activism took place during that time and we wanted to capture the energy and put infrastructure around it to make sure that it was sustainable.

We didn't want it to be a flashpoint moment that came and went. We wanted organizations to be stronger. We wanted organizing to be more robust.

California Calls, which incubated the California Black Power Network, formed what was called the African American Civic Engagement Project in 2016. It was a three-year project and the idea was to take twelve local organizations and train them to do integrated voter engagement. Essentially, how to run large-scale voter engagement programs where you call, text and door-knock voters, but then take the leads you got from those programs and integrate them into the day-to-day work of local organizations. My colleague Kevin, who is now our Associate Director, and I ran that project with support from California Calls staff and infrastructure.

We did that work for three years and the purpose was to build each individual organization’s capacity and power to do that work. We didn’t seek to force organizations to work together. But people in the cohort started to look across the table and saw that they had a lot of similarities, shared interests and values. So, they started to dream about working together beyond the three-year project.

We organized a three-day visioning session to explore what an independent, Black, community-focused network could look like. We came up with some plans, but at the end of the three years, we felt that we weren’t yet ready to launch. There were only 12 groups at the time and we knew that there were other groups in the ecosystem that needed to be brought into this work. Plus, we knew that we needed a bigger team, besides just Kevin and me, to launch a successful independent organization.

In the meantime, our groups identified census and redistricting as important issues to take on. We transitioned the African American Civic Engagement Project into what became the California Black Census and Redistricting Hub. We went from 12 groups to 35 groups in the Black Hub during that time. The census and redistricting work ended up being a four-year project. We became the state's official contractor to do outreach to Black communities throughout the state to encourage people to fill out the census and we took on redistricting because we always saw census and redistricting as a two-part fight. It was not only important to count Black folks to bring funding to our communities; we also had to make sure that they had political representation.

So we brought on demographers and data folks to help us draw maps that we could advocate for and submit to the state redistricting commission that was redrawing lines on the state level.

During census and redistricting, we continued planning for an independent organization. 

And then, the summer of 2020 happened. In a lot of ways, it reminded us of the energy that kicked things off in 2014/2015. It was an opportunity to build infrastructure around a moment in time to make this work sustainable.

Anthony Thigpenn, who is the president of California Calls, engaged with philanthropy and other folks and the California Black Freedom Fund emerged out of those conversations. It is a five-year, $100 million pooled fund specifically for Black power building. Three networks were supported out of that effort and we were one of them. The funding that we received was for us to officially transition the California Black Census and Redistricting Hub into this sustainable network.

[Read California Black Power Network's final redistricting report.]

We've been asking this question since Tyre Nichols was killed. 'What would've happened if we were able to create a California where Black people felt like they could thrive and be safe and secure, not just survive? Could we have stopped that from happening?'

James Woodson

Why is this network and the ecosystem of organizations that you're bringing together needed in California at this time?

James Woodson: Nationally, California is seen as a left-leaning progressive state. But when we actually look at the data on how Black folks are faring in the state, as much progress as we've made, we continue to be at the bottom of a lot of indicators. That’s why we are taking on seven different issues that we have seen Black folks disproportionately impacted by.

There is a lot of conversation around violence against Black folks and what happened with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. But, if you look at George Floyd's story, he was impacted by more than the criminal justice system. At one point, he was homeless and was impacted by housing.

Tyre Nichols, who was recently killed by police officers in Memphis, lived in Sacramento at one point, but he got pushed out because of the housing crisis. The city was not affordable, and he had to move to where he ended up being killed. That reinforces the need for what we're doing.

We've been asking this question since Tyre Nichols was killed. "What would've happened if we were able to create a California where Black people felt like they could thrive and be safe and secure, not just survive? Could we have stopped that from happening?" It gives us motivation to continue to try to change policy and to work towards systemic change so that this doesn't happen again.

Your mission is to dismantle systemic and anti-Black racism by building political power of Black people. What key strategies are you employing?

James Woodson: We focus on four power-building capacities. The first is community organizing, which includes political education, policy advocacy, research, and data work to inform our work with community members to advocate on their own behalf. Then there is voter engagement, both during elections and in off years. Every year, we do two to three large-scale voter engagement programs. We did two last year around the primary and general elections that reached over 1 million people, both face-to-face, by phone, and virtually. We'll do two more programs this year. That's how we continue to remain in contact with residents, hear what's on their mind, and let them know what we're doing.

The third is narrative and cultural work. For the narrative piece, we're using social media and traditional communication strategies to shape public consciousness in ways that allow Black folks to thrive. We want to humanize and bring attention to the issues that are impacting Black folks and we are using strategic communication strategies to do that.

We also see a lot of power in Black culture. So, how we can use art to convey our vision for Black California? We've talked about developing and investing in films and documentaries that highlight stories of some of our organizations and the people that they serve and the issues that they're going through. Same thing with music and other art forms. For instance, we have one organization in San Diego who came out with a mixtape and a book and we want to build on some of that work.

The last piece is protest and direct action. A lot of times people see protests and direct action as reactionary and as a flashpoint moment. We want to be able to connect them to strategy and be intentional about our action to bring sharp attention to the issues that we're working on. 

Right now, we've leaned heavily into community organizing and voter engagement, but the narrative and cultural power piece and the mass protests and direct action are areas where we’re bringing more intentionality around and will ramp up in this next year and beyond.

What does success look like for California Black Power Network? 

James Woodson: As an organization, we have three metrics of success. One, we want to increase the capacities of the member organizations so that they are able to do more when it comes to system change work. Two, we want to make impact on issues where we see Black folks at the bottom of various indicators. Three—and probably the most important because it drives the other two—we want to create this vibrant, growing ecosystem of Black-led and Black-serving organizations.

We’ve found that Black organizers and Black leaders have been in crisis mode for so long that they are often forced to simply respond to whatever fire happens that day or week. There's not a lot of space to pull back, strategize, come up with collective plans and efforts. That's what we're trying to create with the network.

This work is more powerful when done together. So, how do we get people out of their silos? How do we get people out of always firefighting and give them space to think and dream and create new things? We have to because the systems that we're trying to change are also changing all the time. The ability to step back from that and evaluate—that is key to the work that we do.

Even if all of our other programming went away, there's value in bringing people together to have strategy sessions. That's one of the reasons why we built out what we call “circles.”

In this audio clip, Woodson explains what programmatic, leadership and Black leader circles are and what California Black Power Network hopes to achieve through them.

A question we get a lot is, 'Should we fund your network or your individual organizations?' I think that is a false choice. Our model doesn't work if our organizations aren't strong.

James Woodson

You mentioned that you are focusing on seven issues that disproportionately impact Black Californians. What are those issues?

James Woodson: We worked with Catalyst California, which has a website called Race Counts that breaks down race-based data and allows you to see data on equity issues and disparities between races.

They helped us to not only choose those seven issues, but also identify where to narrow our focus. For example, we could take on the big issue of education, but we know that we see particular disparities when it comes to sub-issues like school discipline and early childhood education.. Obviously, we want to get to everything but we also want to be strategic and intentional with our resources and Catalyst’s work helped us do that.

Ultimately, we prioritized seven issues. The top four are housing, criminal justice, education and democracy. We see those four as pivotal and there is a lot of overlap between them. Often, housing issues and criminal justice go hand in hand. We know that the homeless are criminalized more than the broader population and people with criminal records are often not able to obtain safe, affordable housing. We know that in Black schools and Black communities there are more police in schools than in other communities. So, there are a lot of campaigns where these issues will align and we’ll be able to make progress on a few different fronts.

The democracy issue dovetails into all of them: how do we have an impact on any of these issues if we don't have a healthy democracy in which Black people feel like they can participate and drive change?

Our other three issues are healthcare, environmental justice and economic opportunity.

Right now, we are in the process of putting together our vision, 10-year goal statements and an entire policy agenda around each of those issue areas. Starting this year, we'll also be rolling out webinars on each issue. Our plan is to bring in folks from our network who work on each of our seven issues to talk about what they're seeing on the ground and what the research and data are revealing. And beyond, we will use our policy agenda as a roadmap for what we do in the future. It's really exciting.

What do funders need to know to support the California Black Power Network and the individual  network members? 

James Woodson: A question we get a lot is, "Should we fund your network or your individual organizations?" I think that is a false choice. Our model doesn't work if our organizations aren't strong.

That’s because the model that we use is integrated voter engagement. We integrate the larger voter engagement programs that we do into our member organizations' ongoing work. That means that we need strong organizations that have ongoing work, and large scale statewide collective strategies to feed into their work.

Donor resources can support different things. What we focus on at the California Black Power Network is giving people space to develop and implement a collective strategy, technical assistance, leadership development with our leadership circles, and building bonds and relationships with people. Meanwhile, the local work is about making on-the-ground impact in local communities. Often, that work is issue-specific and tailored to what is going on in that region.

Whenever I'm asked that question, I say that folks should be funding both and not making a choice between the two. It's easy to say, "I'm going to put all my resources into this one thing." But figuring out what the ecosystem looks like and strategically supporting the ecosystem has a lot more impact.

In this audio clip, Woodson explains that due to displacement and gentrification, Black people live in different areas throughout California and that funders ought “to be looking at these new emerging areas, not just the traditional areas that we would typically think about as hotbeds for civic engagement.”

It's worth mentioning the work we are doing around reparations. The California Wellness Foundation has been a big supporter of ours when it comes to this work. We see reparations as a way to address all seven of our issues—but it goes deeper than that.

James Woodson

Can you tell us about an advocacy campaign that you are currently working on?

James Woodson: It's worth mentioning the work we are doing around reparations. The California Wellness Foundation has been a big supporter of ours when it comes to this work. We see reparations as a way to address all seven of our issues—but it goes deeper than that.

People think, "California wasn't a slave state.” But this reparations campaign and the reparations taskforce are laying out exactly how California contributed to the institution of slavery. We are creating a public record of the historic harms that Black people have faced, harms that have been transferred down generations.

A lot of people think about reparations as a cash payout. And while we support folks getting cash payouts because there was an economic harm that was faced, we think that there is a much broader array of policies that need to come out of the reparations process to address the vestiges of slavery.

One is that slavery is still baked into both the U.S. and the California Constitution through incarceration. Involuntary servitude is still in the California Constitution. Affirmative Action is not legal, at least when it comes to certain types of issues in California. How do we undo all of the vestiges of slavery that are race-based?

We are also trying to make this a space where everybody can see themselves. So, all Black people can see themselves in this fight, but also non-Black people can see how reparations for Black Californians can create a better California for everyone. Issues like involuntary servitude and mass incarceration affect all communities, not just Black communities. How do we use this as an opportunity to build on some things and make sure that racial equity is a reality in California?

We think that this reparations fight can both be transformational for Black people, but also transformational for all of California and we are trying to figure out ways to make sure that happens.

What is your proudest achievement as an organization?

James Woodson: Our proudest achievement is spinning off from California Calls and becoming an independent organization. January 1, 2023 was our first official day as an independent organization.

We absolutely love California Calls. They not only started the initial project that led to our existance, but helped to fiscally sponsor and incubate what we are today.

Spinning off meant that they trusted us to lead this organization into the future. In a lot of ways, their credibility and reputation are staked on how well we do. Getting that validation from them, and knowing that we come from their cloth, was really great.

I'm excited to watch our team grow as we add new people and integrate them into what we're doing. My colleague Kevin and I are really intentional about the organizational culture that we are setting. Apart from the two of us, we have a staff of all Black women and we are doing everything we can to give them space to lead, to support them and let them know that we have confidence in them. We are trying to create a different type of culture, one that is unique and grounded in Black culture. For example, some of our icebreakers are born out of things on Black Twitter or the latest Verzuz, which you wouldn't necessarily get in other spaces.

Just watching the network grow, watching the organizations within the network grow, and watching our team grow has been my proudest achievement thus far.

What projects do you have in the works?

In this clip, Woodson talks about the exciting partnerships California Black Power Network is building with groups like Black Equity Collective, Live Free California, Catalyst California and Million Voters Project to serve Black organizations and Black communities. 


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