Kayla Reed is a powerhouse organizer who has been at the forefront of the struggle for Black liberation and social change since she took to the streets in 2014 after the killing of Michael Brown. In the ensuing seven years, Kayla has learned much and won victories for Black people and many others in her community in Missouri and beyond.
In this blog for Solidaire Action’s launch, Kayla shares her brilliant vision for social change, her excitement about the power of Black-led electoral justice organizing and the mandates philanthropy must take up in order to support movements’ contesting for power.
Solidaire: How did you come to organizing? What would you tell yourself as a young organizer when you were just starting out?
Kayla Reed (KR): I got into organizing in August of 2014. That’s when I was introduced to movement, after the killing of Michael Brown in St. Louis, Missouri. I’m from St. Louis. It’s my home. I lived not too far from Ferguson, in the next municipality. And this very small place that I interfaced with all my life became a site of national and international conversations about resistance and what it meant to be resisting oppression in real time. I was a pharmacy technician and became a protester and stayed a protester for many many months. I was eventually connected to the Organization for Black Struggle. They had received a grant to hire staff for the first time in their 30+ year history and I was hired as one of their first paid organizers. I had never heard of an organizer outside of a very limited context. My relationship to Black organizations was also limited.
What I understand organizing to be has evolved so much over time.
What I would tell myself is the definition of organizing that I found all these years later: it is and has to remain about connecting people to the tools they can use to discover and use their power. That it’s a collective struggle. That it’s a humble and slow fight. And that in order to develop our communities we have to consistently develop ourselves.
Those are important lessons I’ve learned through trial and error. I’d also tell myself that the same community you are working alongside will be the community that nourishes you in those hard moments. So don’t feel the need to always have the answer, be the answer, or find the answer. Trust the folks you are in the struggle with to be a part of that process of discovery.
Solidaire: How have you seen organizing grow over the time that you have been in it?
KR: A lot has changed since the first time I heard the word organizing. I was becoming an organizer at another organization and how I sit as executive director of an organization that did not exist seven years ago. The evolution of Black movement is something that we don’t talk about. For example, think about the 1960s, where there was SNCC, and the SCLC and CORE and FOR and the NAACP and all these groups that were springing up and redefining themselves. I’m interested 20 years from now, how people will see organizations like Action St. Louis and Equity and Transformation and Black Visions Collective and all these new Black institutions that are springing up out of moments of unrest and collective alignment.
I think that is one of the most transformative things since Ferguson is that an entire new generation of organizers have been born and invested in to push our movement forward and nourish our communities.
What is unique about this iteration is that we are really struggling through what local power means and how local power is situated in a national and international conversation about dismantling systems of oppression like white supremacy, capitalism and cis-heteropatriarchy. And there’s always been a struggle around the importance of local tactics and coalition. Should we be national or local in our orientation? What I realize is how we connect with people and bring them into movement is by interfacing with the issues that they see everyday. We can’t talk about education writ large unless we are talking about the school their children attend. We can’t talk about policing and abolition as a system of punishment if we’re not talking about people’s daily interactions with those systems and how it’s impacting their families in the place where they are.
I think of organizers as social scientists in a way. We are experimenting with what it means to build power, what it means to grow mass base movements and what it means for people to feel connected to that. I think that is what Action St. Louis and lots of organizations are trying to do. The difference in this moment is that we are not allowing things like the media or elected officials or funding to pit us against each other. We’re trying to understand our collective moments of alignment and work together to learn and share the lessons so we can all be better for the people we are fighting for and alongside.
Solidaire: How has Action St. Louis grown to meet the current moment?
KR: I think Action exists to try to answer the question: What does it take to build Black political power? The current Action St. Louis was started in 2016 after two years of work. And what we learned in those two years of organizing was that the issues can’t be separated. We can’t talk about the pain and suffering of our community just around policing or just around education or just around housing and not understand how it shows up in relation to voter turnout rates. All of those things are linked. It’s not an accident that the communities that are most oppressed by policing, like Ferguson, Missouri, also show signs of low voter turnout.
When Action was formed in 2016, it was the summer when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed. Philando Castile was from St. Louis. His family lives here. He was buried here. It just felt like we were not talking about the solutions to these things as power. We were responding to individual instances of bad apples and what we needed to think about were the roots of the tree that were creating the bad fruit. How much power does it take to uproot a tree? We needed to answer the power question. And for the last five years, that is what we have been doing, trying to answer the power question.
We have a three pronged theory of change: We believe deeply in (1) abolition as an organization that was born out of an uprising. We believe in the divest work that our movement has made real. We believe in the invest work that means we have to move resources and capacity and development into our communities and our people. But in order to make the (2) invest-divest vehicle work, we have to (3) contest for power. So we’ve added that third prong to say we have to challenge systems. We have to think about who is in office, what they are doing in office and if they are not doing a good job how do we get them out of that office. And in order for us to do this, we have to think about self determination as the most radical version of democracy. Our democracy matters if we want to articulate and actualize divest-invest.
We have gone to work to create an organization that holds those three prongs. Our electoral justice work has included everything from voter registration, to fighting horrible voting rights attacks in our state and also launching a C4, Action St. Louis Power Project, that launches campaigns to support initiatives like raising the minimum wage in Missouri, which we’ve successfully done. We’ve changed election reform laws. And we’ve gotten candidates who align with our vision in office. And that has created and supported the divest work.
We’ve launched the campaign to close the workhouse. We contested for a slate of elected officials who would support closing the workhouse. We know we want to invest in housing so we support policies and work that makes that possible. We’ve done a lot.
We’ve grown from just an idea into a fully staffed organization with C3 and C4 arms that is anchoring three issue areas in our community and has engaged close to 200,000 people since we’ve started. If you want to get good at anything, you have to sort of stay at it for a long time and resource it well.
Solidaire: What do funders need to keep in mind about the current moment and what they should do?
KR: It’s important for funders to understand how intersectional our work is. We have been denied grants because we talk about how intertwined our work is across three issues: democracy, housing and our anti-carceral work. And we’ve been told by some funders and donors that we are trying to do too much. And I think Action St. Louis exists to prove that we have to do that much in order to change the conditions of our communities. We’re being told what we can’t do and it’s work that we are already doing. I tell our canvassers and organizers when we knock on a door there is not just one problem behind it. And if we build a container to only answer a specific type of question and only fight for a specific type of solution we will miss out on organizing the folks who are impacted by the rest of the systems that directly harm us.
If our analysis is intersectional, then our practice must be intersectional. If funders are not willing to invest in our team to do this work, are they actually interested in justice? Are they actually interested in transforming our communities? Or are they just comfortable and content with the ways in which things have been happening?
Solidaire: Why is Black-led electoral justice work key to winning?
KR: It is key to winning because our electoral systems have never centered Black people. What we know is that Black voters are systematically disenfranchised, ignored, and then blamed for the results of our democracy. For us, what we know is that when Black voters are centred and invested in and trust the messengers, they are more likely to activate around the things that are on the ballot that matter to them. And when there are things on the ballot that matter to them, they are more able to show up. Black-led organizations are working on the issues 365 so why are they not resourced to work on the issues that make the work real for their communities? What I tell people as a Black organization that works around elections, is that election day isn't the win for us, it’s a measure of our power. If we move enough voters to pass something like minimum wage increases, we’ve done the organizing not just in the get- out-the-vote (GOTV) cycle, it’s not just turning out the voters, we’ve changed consciousness for them to understand why this policy matters.
Our democratic institutions perpetuate a very toxic cycle with Black voters. We overly invest in moments where a specific party or candidate wants to win. Then we collapse all that infrastructure. They get what they need from us but they have not given us what we need. Black movement lives to break that cycle. Black-led organizations break that cycle because we are invested before the ballot and after the ballot which builds higher trust and deeper development, which makes consistent wins possible.
If electoral justice is about building power then Black movements and Black organizations have to be central to that. If we are not centered, then we are agreeing that the extractive relationship that our democracy has with Black communities is ok, and I don’t agree with that.
Solidaire: How can Solidaire's C4, through grantmaking and donor organizing, be a catalyst?
KR: I think what’s unique about Solidaire is that the network has asked the questions about where we can invest that will make a difference. And there’s a long term commitment to funding and a commitment to understanding and taking feedback. I think replicating that structure with C4 resources is going to help expand the capacity of organizations already doing really amazing work. That will have ripple effects upstream. If we start investing in our communities deeply now and in the C4 capacity of the many organizations like Action St. Louis and SONG, that have been winning, we’ll see more success. And again, success is not just winning, but transforming the conditions of the communities. It’s not just asking us to vote, it’s asking us to vote for something that would directly impact us and improve our material conditions.
There is an urgent need to invest in organizations who are base building and developing new leaders, contesting for power and confronting white supremacy on every level. That is the only solution to save whatever semblance of democracy we have left in this country.
Our opposition has always known the power of the ballot which is why they designed our democracy to center the ideology of anti-Blackness. We have shown them the power of what we can do when we have the resources and they are coming to ensure that doesn't happen any more.
Kayla Reed (she/her) is a Black, queer feminist organizer and strategist from St. Louis, Missouri. Kayla is the co-founder and Executive Director of Action St. Louis, a grassroots racial justice organization founded after the 2014 Ferguson Uprising that works to build Black political power. She has led campaigns that have resulted in the election of progressive Black candidates throughout the St. Louis region and led issue-based campaigns around housing, voting rights and the criminal legal system. Kayla is also a lead strategist in the Movement for Black Lives, where she co-founded the Electoral Justice Project (EJP), a national campaign that seeks to challenge electoral injustice, expand and mobilize the Black electorate and strengthen the capacity of Black-led organizations building power across the U.S.
Support Kayla Reed and the communities she organizes alongside by resourcing Action St. Louis, Action St. Louis Power Project and the Electoral Justice Project of the Movement for Black Lives!