From Diane Nash to Ai-Jen Poo: Learning from Great Movement Leaders

From Diane Nash to Ai-Jen Poo: Learning from Great Movement Leaders

This week I am in Washington, DC spending time with my colleagues at The Raben Group and am, as always, having nourishing conversations around civil rights, movement building, and social change. Yesterday, several of us discussed the money being raised to send students to see Selma in an effort to connect our history to the civil rights issues facing us today. What a great way to leverage the film to build a critical mass of young activists nationwide.

While there is much to love about Selma, one thing I particularly appreciate is how Director Ava DuVernay chose to humanize rather than deify Dr. King, while simultaneously lifting up other leaders of the civil rights movement too often made invisible in his shadow. In particular, I appreciate the way Ms. DuVernay deftly showcased the leadership and contribution of a number of women involved in the movement, including Coretta Scott King, Diane Nash, Amelia Boynton, Viola Liuzzo and Annie Lee Cooper. It was revolutionary to see these women written back into history in this normalizing way.


Over the past week or so I’ve read several articles by folks reflecting on how African American women’s contributions to civil rights have been erased from history and our collective consciousness. This is due in part to the sexism of the time which often kept women leaders out of positional authority and out of the spotlight. As a prime example, in A Call to Conscience esteemed activist Dr. Dorothy Height recalled how women leaders demanded the opportunity to speak at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom only to be denied on the grounds that their interests were already being represented by the labor, faith based and civil rights groups. The denial of women’s place on that stage and the absence of a gender lens on those issues continues to reverberate throughout history each time the speeches from that day are replayed and remembered.

It is, of course, also due to the racism and sexism of what gets captured and told in our history books and lessons. So few stories of the strategic, brave and tireless activism of women in the civil rights movement are universally known. And even when we learn about icons like Rosa Parks, we often only get a glimpse of their full power and contribution. I am grateful for books like At the Dark End of the Street and When and Where I Enter for helping to fill in the gaps of my own depressingly poor formal education on black women’s contributions to our history. And for books like I am Rosa Parks that are helping me to correct that for my children.

At Move to End Violence, we believe in learning from the great movement leaders of our time. This absolutely includes Gandhi, King and Mandela, from whom I personally have learned so much about leadership, strategy, and social change. While we honor their strengths and gifts, we also acknowledge their limitations. So, we complement their teachings with our own efforts at robust intersectional analysis, through conversations with our remarkable Movement Makers, and through our commitment to learning from contemporary movement leaders via live and virtual fireside chats. So far, this has included conversations with great women like Gloria Steinem, Salamishah TilletGrace Lee Boggs, Monique Hoeflinger, Pramilla Jayapal, and Gabriela Pacheco.

We are excited to continue to expand our learning from all these folks and other extraordinary activists like Dolores Huerta during this cycle of Move to End Violence. To get started, I just downloaded my copy of Ai-Jen Poo’s new book The Age of Dignity. I consider Ai-Jen one of the most visionary leaders of our generation and can’t wait to read her reflection on how we can build a powerful movement to change the way we care in this country. As we continue to explore movement building, strategy and social change, we’d love to hear your thoughts on Ai-Jen’s book, and to learn about the other resources you are drawing upon to further your thinking in these areas.

Jackie Payne
Jackie Payne
GALvanize USA

Jackie Payne served as the Director of Move to End Violence from its inception until February 2018. A lawyer and policy advocate with 20 years of experience working to affect social change, Jackie brings an intersectional and cross-movement lens to her gender justice work. She recently founded GALvanize USA which creates safe, supportive opportunities for busy women who want a kinder, more respectful way to figure out how to make a real difference in our communities and our country. Learn More

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