More than five years ago, and several months before the shooting death of Tony Robinson, I started to notice protests led by a group called the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition. At the time, I was responsible for a monthly one-page Q&A in Madison Magazine. Usually these consisted of four to five questions with brief answers. So I called YGB co-leader Brandi Grayson, hoping to fit her into this box—90 minutes later, I hung up the phone and immediately called my editor. I told her there was no way I’d be able to effectively and accurately paraphrase this woman into a single page. I transcribed the full interview and sent it over to let it speak for itself. My editor agreed, and ordered a photoshoot and a five page spread.
Today Grayson is the founder and executive director of nonprofit Urban Triage, and one of her fellow YGB co-founders, M Adams, heads up Freedom Inc. What strikes me most is that while our current events have changed, YGB’s core messaging has not wavered. It would be a mistake to think these protests are new since the death of George Floyd, or even that they were new after Tony Robinson’s death. No wonder Grayson and Adams aren’t interested in settling for another committee or survey or forum or plan.
A Q&A With Brandi Grayson
Madison Magazine, April 2015
Editor’s Note: This interview took place several weeks before Tony Robinson was shot and killed by a Madison police officer. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Grayson and her fellow activists continue to speak out on issues of race and equity. At the end of this story, we’ve added a postscript with Grayson’s reaction to Robinson’s death.
We suddenly started seeing your name everywhere this year. Who are you?
I’ve been in Madison since the age of ten. I came here with my [biological] mom, who at the time was addicted to drugs. I had my first baby at the age of thirteen and was placed in foster care until I aged out at seventeen, then graduated from high school and attended UW-Madison, all while being a mom. UW-Madison is where I first took part in activism and organizing. I joined Black student unions, ran a campaign to get more students of color to take part in student government and was elected to a diversity liaison position for Associated Students of Madison. Now I’m thirty-five and have two biological kids, an adopted daughter and a foster daughter. I was assistant social worker for Joining Forces for Families, I was a case worker for W2 and my full-time job currently is a budget and program analyst for a nonprofit. The work I do with Young, Gifted and Black is my “hobby.” There’s no money there, but it’s where my passion lies.
How did your co-founding of and organizing with Young, Gifted and Black start?
It really started for me at the town hall meeting that Pastor Alex Gee held for Justified Anger when I walked into a church full of white people to discuss the issue and plight of Black people. I ended up expressing my concerns about how all these people are gathered to represent the voiceless, and the people most affected by these disparities aren’t even invited. I started reaching out to Pastor Gee and other Black leaders, trying to get involved, and people just kept kind of pushing me to the side. ‘We’re not there yet, we’re not there yet, we don’t have anything for you to do, just come to these forums.’ And I was disappointed because these forums are really about educating white people about discrimination–what it looks like, how disparities happen. But as a Black woman I know those stories. I have that information. I live that life. People I work with live that life. So I really wasn’t interested in learning something I already know; I wanted to do something. I wanted a more direct-action approach versus just having these same conversations that we’ve had in Madison for thirty years. The coalition [created to address race and equity] is called Justified Anger–where is the anger? It’s not showing, you know? And that’s no disrespect to the leaders and people who are organizing that, and have organized that, and it’s working. But, for me, I needed something more tangible.
Then there was a rally after Mike Brown was shot and killed and I wasn’t notified of it and neither were a lot of people who look like me. I was on Facebook and I saw all these pictures of all these White people at the Capitol putting their hands up and I was perturbed once again, because the people who are most affected were not invited. To me, it was more of an image thing, it was a front. Because if we really are concerned about our Black men, our Black boys and our Black women, standing at the Capitol with our hands up wasn’t enough. We needed to do something. We needed to look at our own stuff that’s creating these mass disparity rates. So after I saw that image, that’s when I started organizing. I was like, I cannot just continue to sit back and complain about what someone else is or isn’t doing for our community. I have to make it happen.
What can your coalition do that the others can’t?
When you have a grassroots organization like us, there is no politics. There’s no funding, there’s no money, there’s no donors, there’s no one setting the agenda for us. There’s no one who can whitewash or water down our message, which is what happens with bigger organizations. If you ask them about institutionalized racism, if you ask them about white supremacy, they’re going to backpedal. The first thing people are going to say is, “Is this really even about race?” The numbers tell us this is about race. This is about the ugly truth of how America was founded and until we’re willing to admit and acknowledge what we’ve based our whole culture on, which is the genocide of a people and the enslavement of another people, then we can never start the healing process. The point for Young, Gifted and Black is to shake things up. To make people aware, to start the dialogue.
Do you lose potential allies with such a strong stance?
I honestly believe that the table has to be set by the Black community. By the people who are living in the struggle. Because what’s been happening in our systems and in policy setting is all these great intentions of our white allies and our white liberals to assist those who live in poverty, and that intent was good, but the impact was totally off, and that’s because the voices that are most affected weren’t considered. We’ve been programmed to feel like nothing we do or say matters; it doesn’t matter if you speak out because you’re not going to be considered. We’ve been told to believe that and accept that role and therefore perpetuate an inferiority that we already feel. So the challenge of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition is to engage the community, to educate the community and to show them and to prove to them that their voices matter.
Can you give an example of what you’ve described as “intent versus impact?”
The Behavior Education Plan that the [Madison Metropolitan] school district came up with. The impact is effed up, in so many words, and that’s because the voices that are most affected weren’t considered. It’s like standing outside of a situation and then coming in and telling people what they ought to do and should be doing, according to your experience and perspective, which is totally disconnected from the people you’re talking to and talking at. In order to come up with solutions that are effective, they have to come from the people who are living in it. When I first heard about this Behavior Education Plan, I immediately knew that it was going to affect our kids negatively. But people sitting on that board thought it was an amazing idea; we’ll stop suspensions, we’ll stop expulsions, we’ll fix the school-to-prison pipeline, which is all bullcrap, because now what’s happening is the impact; the school is putting all these children with emotional and behavioral issues in the same classroom. And because of the lawsuit with all the parents suing for advanced placement classes and resources not being added, they’ve taken all the introduction classes away. They can’t afford it. So then our students who may need general science or pre-algebra no longer have that. So then they take all these students who aren’t prepared for these classes and throw them in algebra, throw them in biology and all together in the same class. And you know it’s very intentional because if you have a population of two percent Blacks at a school of two thousand and all the Black kids are in the same class, that is not something that happens by random. And then you have kids like my daughter, who is prepared for school and can do well in algebra, but she’s distracted because she’s placed in a class with all these kids with IEP issues who, based on the Behavior Education Plan, cannot be removed from the classroom. So what does that do? It adds to the gap.
Speaking of education, you’ve mentioned the critical need to educate young Black kids on their own history.
Our children don’t know what’s happening to them in school, when they are interacting in these systems. Whether it’s the system of education, the justice system, the human services system, the system within their own families–that’s programming them to think they’re inferior. We have to educate our kids so they know what they’re dealing with. In Western history, we’re only taught that our relevance and our being started with slavery, but we know as we look back that that’s a lie. That we are filled with greatness and magnificence and if our children can connect the link between who they are and where they’ve come, then they can discover where they’re going. But with that disconnection, they feel hopeless. They feel despair. They feel like this is all life has to offer them and it’s their fault and there’s no way out. We have to begin to reprogram that narrative at kindergarten on up. We have to teach our children the importance of reading and knowledge and educating yourself and not depending on the education of the system because it’s already biased, based on the very nature of our culture.
There’s been a lot of criticism about YGB’s methods, particularly its list of “demands.”
If you read about revolutionary and civil rights movements, you find that you have to have demands. We know from history that any revolutionary movement that affected change came from the youth. It came from the people who were not afraid to shake things up. Even Dr. Martin Luther King, he started at the age of twenty-four, twenty-five, and everyone thought he was crazy, that he needed to be patient. His response was, ‘I’m not gonna let someone else set the timetable for my freedom,’ and that’s how we feel. What are we waiting for? Who are we protecting by working according to what feels safe for others? Our children are being physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually murdered. They’re being put in a position where they feel hopeless and they’re so desperate. So for me, as a Black woman and a Black mother and a soon-to-be Black grandmother, I don’t have time to continue the same conversation that we’ve had for thirty years.
One of your most controversial demands is the release of 350 incarcerated Black people.
Black people make up six percent of the population in Madison. Crime across the board between Blacks and whites in Madison is about the same. However, Black folks and Brown people make up forty-nine percent or more of the jail population at any given moment, so something’s wrong. If there wasn’t structural racism, then the population of Black people in Dane County Jail should be about fifty people, based on our population and crime rates. So then we say well, they need to release 350 people and make that even. It needs to be equitable.
And when we look at the numbers again, we find that a lot of people who are currently in Dane County are in due to bail. I’d say between $500 and $2,000 bails, so kind of like petty crimes of homelessness, stealing, tickets, revocations, suspension of license, child support, things that are directly related to being poor–as we have termed, crimes of poverty. You get a ticket, you can’t pay it, you get another ticket for not paying, then you get revoked, then you get another ticket and you have to sit it out, then we as taxpayers have to pay $90 to $100 a day for people to sit out their bails. If we’re talking about being proactive in dealing with the disparities, then we shouldn’t house people in jails. So we’re saying, let those people out. There are beds at Journey Mental Health; they’ve just gotten new beds at Tellurian.
And then there’s $8 million sitting on the table, which was waiting to go toward acquiring land for a new jail and/or paying someone to do a survey of building the jail in phases. We know as Black people in Madison that we’re eleven times more likely to be arrested than our white counterparts. That tells us if you put 186 new beds in a jail, who’s gonna fill them? We are. So no, we do not support that. We support money being placed in communities, invested in people, in resources, in opportunities, versus continually financing a criminal justice system that is already overly financed.
Are you suggesting people who committed violent crimes should get a pass?
YGB has never asked that violent offenders be released. YGB is saying we can’t continue to do the same things and expect different results–that’s called insanity. Wisconsin has always been a model and leader in innovations, in tackling complicated issues. YGB is saying, let us continue to be that model for the rest of the country. Let us set the standards for addressing the crisis that our country is facing. We can only do that by listening and thinking outside of the box. We can only do that if we’re willing to look at what we have accepted as “normal” and challenge those said policies and practices that contribute to the over incarceration of Black people and racial disparities in our county and our city. YGB is saying, we can do this, but only if we desire to. Let’s talk. Let’s listen to one another. Let’s be radical and creative–together, as a community.
Some of the criticism has been personal. Do you feel extra pushback as a woman?
We live in a patriarchal society, so when you have a woman who steps up and voices and is very matter-of-fact about things, then you pay attention to the media, they frame it as “forceful” or “aggressive” or those kind of “Black woman with an attitude” words that imply those things. And I’m okay with that. Because I understand who I am. I understand what kind of social constructs we’re working in. And I want to lead by example for my girls that we’re not limited by what someone tells us our place in this world is. Success is defined, for us, by us walking in the path that our soul desires and yearns for. I feel like I’m walking in my destiny. That I’m walking in my purpose.
And on my team I work with LGBTQ–some on our team are transgender; we’ve got gay, we’ve got nonconforming–so for me we’re really pushing the envelope for what is acceptable in our society on all levels, and we’ll continue to push that and make people uncomfortable and it’s okay. And it’s okay if people attack me. It hurts, and I get mad, but then I have to go back into myself and remind myself why I’m doing this and what systems I’m operating under. I’m saying the things even some Black leaders don’t want to say, and I’m saying the things that some people don’t want to hear. I’m doing the things that are causing people to get uncomfortable. And that’s okay with me.
The Dane County Board of Supervisors appears to be listening to your months of organized protest. What do you think of the proposed comprehensive jail reform?
Jail renovation is not jail reform. We are committed to ending racial disparities and mass incarceration. Therefore, we will continue to fight to free the 350–because there is no other way to end the disparities unless we let the 350 out! Reform must include letting people out, not simply rebuilding a jail facility. We are cautiously supportive of a plan to gather community input through having paid working groups comprised of people in the community to study what can be done on important issues. However, if those recommendations are never implemented and they don’t lead to an end to racial disparities, then they will simply be acts of political theater.
From the outside perspective of national media, it could appear that the protests began with the death of Tony Robinson–but YGB has been leading organizing efforts for months.
It’s important that we keep people aware of what’s happening in our city, our county and our state. Our protests leading up to the death of Tony Robinson were framed around the need to deal with the Madison Police Department and the need to stop investing in jails and to start investing in people. For us and to me personally the death of Tony Robinson is a symptom of a failure of our police department and structural racism.
When YGB formed we said, we will have a Ferguson on our hands. Our racial disparity numbers are three times as bad as Ferguson’s. We knew that inevitably something like this would happen and that’s why we reached out to the police chief.
—Maggie Ginsberg is an award-winning freelance writer in Madison, Wisconsin and a monthly columnist for Madison Magazine