Movement Maker Profiles: M. Adams
M. Adams is a community organizer and Co-Executive Director of Freedom, Inc. Born and raised in Milwaukee 53206 to a single Black mother, Adams survived many forms of institutional and state-based violence and knows intimately the terror patriarchal violence causes inside of relationships, homes and families.
Who are your people?
I would say that my people are Black people–descendants of Africans enslaved here in the United States. There is a particular experience of being made in this crucible as a Black person so that feels really important. It is life-shaping for me, but also I feel deep kinship and connectedness with Black folks across the world and across the diaspora.
My folks are also queer, gender-nonconforming, trans, intersex people. My people are also building on a queer politic. My people are not within systems or don’t fit neatly in systems. I mean that around gender and sexual orientation, but also I mean that around the economy. My people are hustlers, people who make something out of nothing, people who fight their way in so they’re rabble-rousers, they’re revolutionaries. My people are the creatives, so people who are finding ways to make meaning out of life and represent that to the world.
They’re musicians, they are a bunch of things that are about breaking down what should not exist but building a thing anew. I also have to say my folks are those who are named and those who are unnamed. I think especially as me being a Black person, a gender-nonconforming person, a fat person, and many other identities that are targeted and marginalized, there’s so many of us that get erased or the kind of violence that happens to us goes unnamed, and I want to uplift that those are my folks too.
What brings you to this work?
It’s my own personal life. When I was little I thought I could change the world by being a medical doctor. I’m originally from Milwaukee, born and raised on the north side, the Black side of Milwaukee, the poor side of Milwaukee. I went to college at UW Madison which is a very different environment.
While there, my plan was to do this whole MD/PhD thing because I wanted to help people. I was raised by a single mother who had four children, mostly making $13,000 a year. My mother is no longer living, she passed in 2016. My father was incarcerated. I’m 35, he’s been locked up 30 of those years–he was just recently released. I experienced a whole host of things that come with gendered racial capitalism, so that compelled me to think about making a difference when I went to college.
I could see the systems that had Milwaukee shackled in a different way from being in an environment with people who were white, middle class, affluent, or frankly people who had socio-cultural, economic power to live unbridled. It got me to see in a different way the way that Milwaukee was held down systemically. I became more interested in thinking about logistic systems so I was like, “Oh I am going to go into public health.” Then with more time, I was like, “No, fuck that, I’m about to be revolutionary.” That’s my life’s path.
Then it just intensified, the more you know, the more obligated, the more committed you are. I will also say, I’m inspired not only by where I’ve come from–my grandma, my mom, and all of them–but I’m also driven by my children, the people that come after me. I think about what it means to be a queer father, what it means to be raising young people in this time. I think it makes me worried about the climate in a different way when I’m like, “Damn, is it going to be inhabitable for y’all, and y’alls kids?” It’s my own life that propels me in action.
Which aspect of your movement work brings you the most joy?
Winning. Winning brings the most joy. Another way to put that is seeing the change that has been made as a result of the labor. That change looks a lot of ways. Sometimes it’s working with the different survivors of gender based violence, it’s watching them develop their own advocacy skills and challenging harm and violence in their own lives and helping members of their family and the community.
It’s watching them develop political skills and being able to challenge lawmakers. I think winning also looks like large-scale mass action, where millions take to the streets and say, “No more.” I think it also looks like the way that concepts are popularized so whether that’s abolition or defund or even the fact that people are talking about policing or if it’s the emergence of ‘me too’ and more people talking about sexual violence or more people talking about pronouns or whatever it is.
I think that demonstrates conscious shifts or at least attempts at conscious shifts. Those things for me are where the great joy is, is that it actually works, it matters. Even if we haven’t won as much as we want and that’s because we’re against the empire not because we aren’t incredible, but that to me is the biggest joy.
What moves are you making to end violence?
I think one is the work with survivors themselves, or working with people who have been victimized and helping them to gain a political understanding of survivorship and becoming activated around creating change. That includes leadership development work, that includes community organizing, that includes developing programs that meet the direct needs of people who are surviving harm and violence. The second is developing scientific grassroots campaigns that get at the root causes of that violence.
The campaign work that I feel really excited and proud about, for example, is Take Back the Land. Ten years ago we organized around taking back people-less houses and moving houseless people into them. We did it using direct action, we disregarded the backwards rules of the state and local ordinances, and did what was more–we centered our human rights. We were just moving Black queer women into the houses and giving people’s families houses and defending their right to be there with our bodies and organizing to change law and policy, directly challenging capitalism.
The second is campaigns to get Black women, Black trans women, Black queer people who’ve been incarcerated, getting them free. Survivors who were criminalized for living, for surviving, for fighting back.
I would say the third thing is willing to be a risk-taker, willing to be someone who is not on the sidelines, or not on the bench of patriarchy. Being able to intervene, practice intervening in my own life. Willing to run experiments on how does the organization intervene around these different things. To be willing to be brave enough to speak vision. To speak difference even when people are feeling burnt or at a loss. I think just an orientation around troublemaking, alternatives, experimentation.
How do you describe your leadership strengths?
I would like people to experience me in such a way that when they leave me, they feel more clear, more capable, more confident, and able to participate in movement. What I hope I offer people is a way to understand. Is a way for them to be able to situate themselves inside of these complex social systems, complex political-economic systems, and be able to make meaningful connections.
I hope to help people strengthen their analysis. I think of my political work, my personal mantra is I do more than I teach, and I teach more than I challenge. I want to be able to help people engage in the work that way, high impact, low ego. The other thing that I think I do as a leader is offer myself and my life as case study or as an example for the things that I believe in. Like if I believe in abolition, that I have to live out those values in my life, even when it is challenging, even when it seems contrary to what may be best for me or in conflict with what is best for me or what appears to be best for me.
It also means that, as a queer person, as a trans person, that I have to commit to living out loud. I can’t be teaching an audience of 1,000 people on how to address homophobia if I’m not willing to talk to my neighbor about it.
The last thing is I really seek rigor. I take movement really seriously. I take it more seriously than how people think a surgeon in the ER must be about their work. As much study as you think that a neurosurgeon may need to have in approaching this, as much capacity and talent and commitment, as much focus. I approach movement that way, I do. I come into things as studied and prepared as possible.
I come in having thought. I come in having wrestled with. I come in with the capacity to do the work between the meetings, I really take movement that seriously. I guess that’s the doctor training–the little bit that I did get is that I bring that scientific rigor to how we have to approach anything.
What keeps you in the work?
I am inspired by what our ancestors have done. I come from a people who have defeated fucking chattel slavery, can you imagine that? I come from a people who said we are not even seen as human, who had the courage and vision to make a difference.
The most extreme violence, the violence I can’t even imagine done to them, to their loved ones, to their children. There’s something really perverted about that kind of violence, to be a parent and to imagine my child suffering and not have the ability to affect that, it’s just beyond me. We defeated that. I’m inspired by that. I come from a people who defeated lynching as an institution. I come from a people who’ve defeated Jim Crow as an institution. I’m confident and I’m a scientist.
As a scientist, just looking at the math, we’re going to defeat this prison thing, I’m confident in that. We will do it, we know how to do it. It’s a matter of when. We’re trying to accelerate the when. I’m incredibly inspired by that. I’m challenged by that. I think of myself, and having to answer to my ancestors. “To earn the respect, avenge the suffering of our ancestors, earn the respect of future generations,” as Mary Hooks says in the Mandate.
I think about my children. I think about how I am a gender non-conforming person, I am a father. I think about how to create a world where my parenthood is honored and loved and unchallenged. I think about how my mother deserved to live. I think about building a world that would have kept her alive.
I think about how our movement is what got my father free. If it wasn’t for fighting for abolition, if abolitionists didn’t even lay the context to force jails and prisons to decarcerate around COVID. I think about all those things. I think about what I deserve. I think about how, in a different world without these issues, I could have really just have been a physicist. I could have really just been a trumpet player, and how I deserve that. I think those things keep me at it. The vision of one of those things, plus the evidence of winning, on top of the science of knowing how to win from our ancestors, I made it.