The Power of Political Movements: An Interview with Kristi Henderson

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Kristi Henderson is a woman who is going places – quite figuratively. She is a senior member of Color of Change, America’s largest online organization devoted to racial justice, a position that by definition contains multitudes of challenge. Our call, carefully scheduled around the transatlantic time difference, connects on the third attempt and immediately I detect more than a hint of the energy and bustle we in Britain have come to associate with the rush of American life. I can hear the smile in her voice as Henderson tells me she has been “running and hustling”, creating a rather charming snapshot of a life on the move, a life in the movement.

We jump in at the deep end, talking about responses to the endemic of sexual violence in Hollywood. Henderson is enthusiastic about the possibilities of the Time’s Up campaign, the visible solidarity between film stars who wore black to the Golden Globes. “I think what’s very interesting about this moment is that we’re actually seeing change happen right now. The removal of silencing of women and men’s voices, the shame and the stigma that’s associated with speaking up – it’s changing tremendously, and I think that we’re completely seeing a shift in culture and policy and politics at the same time. People are really being held accountable, and people are creating safe spaces for those who are victims to speak out.”

Henderson doesn’t doubt the significance of the #Time’sUp movement, of the rich and famous banding together to oppose sexual violence: “I don’t think there’s ever been a time like this before in the entertainment industry, or in any industry for that matter.”

“People are really being held accountable, and people are creating safe spaces for those who are victims to speak out.”

Such optimism is necessary in a never-ending string of news stories about sexual violence in Hollywood. It is phenomenal to see powerful men facing consequences for their abusive behavior. And yet it’s grim to see how far rape culture extends in a place to which many of us look for escape from the everyday grind and struggle. It’s even sadder to think of all the women who were never allowed to reach their full potential as creatives because a culture of sexual violence pushed them out of the entertainment industry. Henderson is conscious of that balance between celebration and sorrow. “I don’t know if exciting is the word. It almost seems surreal, but it’s amazing to see this happen. It’s about time, no pun intended!”

To Henderson, there is no question that “Time’s Up makes a difference for all women, definitely.” Yet the power disparities that exist between women are never far from her mind: “I think that it is important within these movements that we continue to center those who are most disadvantaged, and when we think about some of the stats that people have been using and some of the information we’ve seen about percentages of women who haven’t spoken up or don’t feel comfortable and don’t have that protection, when you think about women of color – specifically African-American women and Latina women, specifically domestic workers and foreign workers – those who don’t have the same protection that many white women do, it’s extremely important that we continue to center them at the core of these movements.”

“I think that it is important within these movements that we continue to center those who are most disadvantaged, and when we think about some of the stats that people have been using and some of the information we’ve seen about percentages of women who haven’t spoken up or don’t feel comfortable and don’t have that protection, when you think about women of color – specifically African-American women and Latina women, specifically domestic workers and foreign workers – those who don’t have the same protection that many white women do, it’s extremely important that we continue to center them at the core of these movements.”

In previous interviews Henderson has spoken about the relationship between Blackness and womanhood, the challenges Black women face in to have both of those aspects of ourselves recognized, and the expectation we meet in political movements that it’s either woman first or Black first. Her perspective made me think of the Audre Lorde quote, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Which is why I felt compelled to ask if Henderson could imagine film stars taking up a similar movement around issues of racial justice and representation.

A pause fills the line as Henderson marshals her thoughts. Women in the feminist movement walk a fine line when celebrating what work is being done while expressing how it might be more inclusive. She takes an intersectional approach, musing that “I don’t know that we can separate one from the other, because race is attached to gender and all of those issues. With the power that we see in the Time’s Up movement, I think we are hopeful and we’re doing the work to find those racial justice moments, but I don’t think we’ve yet seen it within the same scene of the Time’s Up movement.”

“I don’t know that we can separate one from the other, because race is attached to gender and all of those issues. With the power that we see in the Time’s Up movement, I think we are hopeful and we’re doing the work to find those racial justice moments, but I don’t think we’ve yet seen it within the same scene of the Time’s Up movement.”

A former Director of Communications for Planned Parenthood, co-founder of the Women in Entertainment Empowerment Network, and now Senior Director of Influencer Engagement at Color of Change, Henderson’s work connects the dots between different areas of social justice. With such wide-ranging experience in movement building, I am curious as to what she thinks is the best way of getting people across political movements to connect different types of struggle to a common root.

“I think it all overlaps. And oftentimes it is creating the opportunity for many to understand the struggles and the challenges of the people they would see as the few. As we know, things are a lot more real when it’s on your front doorstep, and so I think that we continue to build allyship among those who may not be as directly impacted by some of the issues as other marginalized communities, whether that’s access to reproductive healthcare or whether that’s racial justice.”

While there are significant cultural and historical differences between Black feminisms across the pond, as Henderson speaks about her experiences of movement building I am struck more by the similarities. She points out that there are many ways to contribute to a movement, all of which are essential. “No two people serve the same role, so we look at grassroots organizing, we look at policy change –especially when we think about issues around sexual violence. I think there are quite a few different routes that people have to take until justice is real, but we find that place and keep going as strongly as we possibly can until there’s allyship and support from the wider community. I think we’re still working towards that.”

“No two people serve the same role, so we look at grassroots organizing, we look at policy change –especially when we think about issues around sexual violence. I think there are quite a few different routes that people have to take until justice is real, but we find that place and keep going as strongly as we possibly can until there’s allyship and support from the wider community. I think we’re still working towards that.”

Although she is clear that much progress still needs to be made towards social justice, Henderson credits digital space with opening up new avenues of possibility. “A lot of movements and spaces of justice are not necessarily new, but our approach to them is new: technology has changed things. So as we keep the movements going and we’re continuing to do the work, I think new opportunities for understanding – even for those who are organising, and those who are on the front lines – pop up to teach us how to better connect our issues, how to build better partnerships, and how to build shared strength in those areas. This is the importance of organisations like Color of Change, who continue to organise and educate people about political issues. We do that work, with the support of our members, in order to make justice real.”

Color of Change targets four key areas: economic justice, criminal justice, power & voice, and media justice. Last year it commissioned new research into representation: Race in the Writer’s Room – How Hollywood Whitewashes the Stories that Shape America. While media representation can sometimes be dismissed as irrelevant to ‘real’ liberation politics, there is no doubt to Henderson that one-dimensional depictions play a role in determining how minority groups are (mis)treated in society.

“If you think about the media and how characters across the board are created in Hollywood, it really becomes a point of reference for many who do not have access or exposure to any type of experience with different types of people. You think about the cardboard character, the stereotype, people use it as a reference for Black people which they apply to groups they may not be familiar with or be in close proximity to – it really starts to define their perspective.”

“If you think about the media and how characters across the board are created in Hollywood, it really becomes a point of reference for many who do not have access or exposure to any type of experience with different types of people.”

“The media helps to dictate the behavior and actions within mass culture, and when we’re working against negative stereotypes – whether it’s of the LGBTQ community, people of color – it’s creating a false understanding of who we are because it lacks the dimension, the true storytelling, the engagement, the awareness of our lives. You also have to work against those negative stereotypes in society to begin to build any type of equity.”

Color of Change has a fiercely political agenda for this coming year. In addition to continuing ongoing campaigns, Henderson points out that 2018 brings America’s mid-term season: “Color of Change has a strong pact that does tremendous work there, so we’re gearing up to continue our political campaigns in place. We showed up in 2016, we’re showing up in 2018, and we’ll be showing up in 2020 – at critical electoral times, you will definitely see Color of Change in those spaces.”

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