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By expanding scope, Black Lives Matter continuing work of civil rights movement

Black Lives Matters demonstrators carry a banner

Black Lives Matter is seen as an effective movement, but some believe a centralized leadership and more activity can help make the movement successful longterm. | Mark Vancleave/Star Tribune via AP

Since its formation in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has evolved from a hashtag to a politically savvy, global organization with a vision for a better a future.

A poll released by Northwestern’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy found that 81 percent of the 815 African-American respondents see the Black Lives Matter movement as effective in its advocacy for voting rights and police reforms, but 44 percent say they don’t see activity in their neighborhoods and 64 percent said they’d like to see a centralized leadership.

Others say the structure of the movement — meaning many leaders and organizations as well as a move toward policy creation — is part of what has helped it be successful.

Alvin Tillery, who created the poll, said that the movement is seen as effective but that people have some concerns about leadership was unsurprising.

“Millennials are focusing on new technology and have the ability to make images go viral, but they’re not reinventing the wheel,” Tillery said. “We forget that they’re dealing with the same issues because it has a different name now, but they’re fighting for the humanity of black Americans like organizations from the ’60s.”

Barbara Ransby, a professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said while the groups are similar there are key differences between activists today and those from the 1960s, namely their leadership and organization styles.

Ransby said Black Lives Matter “rejected the old top-down charismatic leader model. They are more decentralized and more democratic.”

Groups like BYP100, an organization of black activists 18 to 35 years old, and Black Lives Matter Global Network, which is composed of Black Lives Matter organizations around the country, focus on the importance of women, LGBTQ and youth leadership.

“They respect elders but are not looking for elders to tell them what to do. And they are focused on the most marginalized sectors of the black community: poor and working class and formerly incarcerated people,” Ransby said.

The decentralized nature of the movement fosters collaboration, which has led to the creation of the “Vision for Black Lives,” a plan of policy demands about economic justice, reparations and a reallocation of money from policing to education and employment programs.

Alyxandra Goodwin, a member of the Chicago chapter of BYP100, said she views the activism of the ’60s as a foundation to build off of and “folks who think we’re not doing anything are oftentimes folks who aren’t in the room with us.”

“Because we have the ability to spread ideas through social media and digital communication, what I’m seeing is that there are so many ways for someone to be a leader,” Goodwin said. “The work of organizers on the ground is important, and there is room for academics as well as people who aren’t academics/intellectuals but still forming radical thoughts and opinions through their own experiences.”

The work among academics, organizers and others has led to campaigns that focus on voting rights, eliminating Chicago’s gang database and stopping the construction of a new police academy.

Combining ideas and efforts with other organizations means that there has been a shift from protests to policies and direct actions so the movement can be effective long term, Goodwin said, pointing to the food box in Bronzeville created by Black Lives Matter Chicago.

Kofi Ademola, an organizer with the group, said it’s not fair to compartmentalize and dissect the actions of the movement because it is fighting for not only civil rights but human rights.

“We’re trying to address the root causes of racism, but also the idea of self-determination,” Ademola said. “I think once people have a better understanding of how the movement is evolving but still reflecting values of traditional black struggle they’ll understand it’s a continuum.”

Goodwin said that she believes the structure and tools available to the movement have made its goals more attainable now than during the civil rights movement.

She said the movement has an “interesting and strong way forward” that isn’t confined to police brutality or any single issue or under a single leader.

“We envision a future that is radically different than the world we live in today, and it’s about more than police brutality,” Goodwin said. “There’s still work to be done in terms of linking struggles together, but we’ve expanded the message in a way that shows commonalities between movements thanks to on-the-ground organizers.”