On Building Teams, Not Saviors And What It Will Take To Achieve Racial Justice

By Marianne Schnall

For more than 100 consecutive days, protesters across the nation have been demanding justice for the violence and murders by police of unarmed Black men and women—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, the recent shooting of Jacob Blake, and many others in a list that, sadly, keeps growing. Alongside this outrage, we’ve also recently lost great icons in the Black community—John Lewis, C.T. Vivian and Chadwick Boseman—and many of us find ourselves looking for leaders who can help us chart our path forward. Activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham is among those voices many of us have been turning to for guidance, perspective and solutions as our nation grapples with how to heal the wounds of racial injustice, dismantle systemic racism and take action to create lasting change and true equality.

An award-winning educator, organizer, writer and leader, Packnett Cunningham’s deep work around social change and racial justice spans many years and platforms. She held top roles at Teach For America, served as a Congressional policy advisor and co-founded Campaign Zero, a police reform campaign.

Packnett Cunningham became involved in organizing protests against police brutality in 2014, following the shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. As a result, she was appointed to the Ferguson Commission to conduct a thorough study of the region’s social and economic conditions. Cited by President Barack Obama as a leader whose “voice is going to be making a difference for years to come,” she was appointed to President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, working to offer recommendations on police reform. She is also the Founder and Principal of Love & Power Works, a full-service social impact firm focused on creating justice and equity in every sector.

This year, as we’ve witnessed blatant and brutal police violence toward the Black community, Packnett Cunningham has become a sought-after voice and expert on these issues, appearing as an NBC News and MSNBC Contributor.

I had the opportunity to talk to Packnett Cunningham and get her powerful insights about this pivotal moment, how we can support Black women’s leadership, the importance of encouraging confidence and ambition in women, how to make sure we turn out the vote this November, what self-care means to her and what we can all do to advance racial justice to create, as she put it, “equitable, free, liberated societies where not only can people live and survive but all people can thrive.”

Marianne Schnall: Between the global pandemic, the groundswell of support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the recent loss of civil rights giants, it seems like the world is finally beginning to acknowledge that there is serious collective work to be done if we hope to see social change in our lifetime. I’ve heard a few people say this time feels different. Do you think real change is ahead? What’s your hope for how we emerge from this moment?

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: I think real change is ahead because whenever people of good courage and a radical imagination get together, change is always promised. And I think that the dual pandemics of systemic racism and coronavirus are pushing people to realize that just because this is the way things are, does not mean this is the way things need to be. People are taking power in their own hands to create the world they want.

Schnall: We’re seeing so many concerning ways that the pandemic is disproportionately impacting communities of color, who are becoming sick and dying in greater numbers and also soft suffering from the growing economic fallout. Many people are starting to recognize that this shines a light on deeper structural issues in this country. With this in mind, what can we do to make sure that these disparities and the systems that uphold them are addressed on both the societal and policy level?

Packnett Cunningham: I think it really comes down to accountability. It comes down to all of us recognizing that we have influence over the systems that govern us and the things that we consume. That we can stop buying things and start buying things; that we can start voting for folks and vote people out; that we can show up in all of the small and unsexy ways that are required of us as citizens—the city council meetings, the police and fire meetings, the school board meetings and the PTA meetings. And joining up with our local racial justice organizations and truly investing in them—that’s going to make a real difference.

Because ultimately, I think as individuals, we far too often leave change up to other people and we expect people to do things that they have not shown they have a propensity to do. We expect people to care in ways that they haven’t shown a pattern of caring. We expect people to keep us in mind when they haven’t shown a pattern of doing that. And I am by no means letting those in power off the hook, but it is our job to hold them accountable to that and to be consistently reminding them of the fact that they derive their power—whether it is consumer power and business power or government and legislative power—from we, the people, and we have an absolute say over what does and doesn’t happen in our name.

Schnall: You were one of the leading activists who brought attention to police brutality in St. Louis, you served on president Barack Obama’s 21st century policing force, you cofounded Campaign Zeroyou’ve spent almost a decade working to address police brutality and the systems that enable it. What should we be doing to join you and the many others working alongside you? What organizations, initiatives, legislation should we be supporting?

Packnett Cunningham: The truth of the matter is, there are lots of ways in which people need to educate themselves first so that they can be having influential conversations with the people in their lives. So conversations about defunding the police should not be had in ways that scare people; they should be had in ways that are honest to the fact that what we are talking about is re-imagining public safety, not creating Gotham without Batman. So there are ways to educate yourself on police divestment and community reinvestment on the New Jim Crow as Michelle Alexander calls it, and the system of mass incarceration, not just in America but across the globe. There are issues happening nationally, globally and in your own community that it is so important to critically educate yourself on because often we see people stepping up to help without the proper knowledge and information that they need to do it well. So that is the first step.

The second step really is to be connected locally. There are organizations in your community that are addressing the very issues that you care most about. It might be voter suppression; it might be racial injustice; it might be gendered violence; it might be LGBTQ issues. Making sure that you are resourcing your local organizations with your time, talent and treasure makes all the difference in the world. Whether it is the place that you are from or the place where you live, you really have to be grounded locally as you look nationally. So I still do a lot of work with the organizations in my hometown of St. Louis and the organizers there. My husband and I are really proud to continue to support an organization called Action St. Louis, for example, and they, along with many others, have led a two-year campaign to close a medium security prison in St. Louis called The Workhouse. And after those two years, they were successful just recently. So we find that it is truly local grassroots work that tackles issues over the long term with consistency and discipline that need our participation and support.

The last thing is that we have to confront this system that we are a part of that we perpetuate and that we have internalized. You should be looking around at your workplace, whether you run it or not. You should be looking around at your household, your own habits, your own friendships. We should all be looking at the ways in which we are either perpetuating systems of systemic injustice or we are operating as an oppositional force. That is what we mean when we say being actively anti-racist. It is going to require that not only have you turned away from systemic racism, but that you are running hard and fast in the other direction and gathering as many people along with you to create the oppositional force that is needed to reverse the promised direction of our future.

Schnall: When you spoke in the media following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, I heard you often start by distinguishing between justice and accountability, saying, for example, “George Floyd should be alive. This is justice. Everything else is accountability. And the family deserves at least that.” Can you talk a little bit about that? Why is it important for Americans to understand the significance of this distinction?

Packnett Cunningham: It’s a significant distinction because if we believe that justice is the police going to jail after they’ve killed somebody Black, then we will set limits to what freedom looks like. And no marginalized people can afford those limits. Accountability is holding someone to a minimum standard of humanity after they’ve already done harm, and so often that harm for Black people is lethal and fatal. So we have to make this distinction because words matter, and if we only set the bar at accountability, we’ll never actually reach the freedom and justice we deserve.

We have to see justice fully as equitable, free, liberated societies where not only can people live and survive but all people can thrive. And that requires an understanding that every single system is interconnected, that we were never just talking about policing: we’re talking about economics, we’re talking about education, we’re talking about housing, we’re talking about the carceral state, we’re talking about healthcare, we’re talking about mental health care, we’re talking about full employment. All of those things work together to dictate whether somebody can only struggle to survive or whether they can truly thrive. A world where everybody can truly thrive is what is actually a just world.

Schnall: How do we make sure the #BlackLivesMatter movement doesn’t become just a moment in time? What do we need to do to sustain the progress we have seen in the past couple months?

Packnett Cunningham: There are many chapters in the global freedom struggle, and this is one of them. In order to sustain momentum, people need to take the momentum seriously in their personal lives. It was Black feminists who taught us that the personal is political. So what people really need to do is think about every choice they make—from how they run their households, to how they run their businesses—and recognize that liberation is not somebody else’s job; it’s all of our job, especially if you hold positions of power and privilege.

Schnall: This upcoming election is probably one of the most important we’ve faced in our history with so much at stake. What thoughts do you have on how we can ensure voter turnout? And what do you think are some of our major challenges we’ll need to overcome?

Packnett Cunningham: We’re going to have to realize that some of the things we should have planned for should have been planned a while ago. We are experiencing right now the reality that, as unemployment support has been dwindled and Congress has let some of that run out, as protection from eviction has been allowed to run out, we are asking people to engage in mail-in voting during a pandemic and a time when they may not have a stable address. We are asking Indigenous people who often do not have their tribal addresses properly recognized to engage in socially distanced voting when mail-in ballots are often not a viable option for them. We are asking low-income people to continuously take days off of work and/or look for additional childcare or elder care during times when there may be longer wait lines because Congress refuses to fully fund the States in the ways that they need to to make this pandemic-era election seamless.

So there are some things that, frankly, we are late to the game on, and yet people who are not interested in the fullness of democracy have been exploiting this pandemic since the very beginning with great intention and attention to exactly how they could hold people of color, marginalized folks and low-income people back from the ballot box. So we have to get to work not today but yesterday.

We’re also going to have to make sure that we really come together as communities—all of us making sure that somebody is collecting the mail-in ballots, to be able to walk them from your block to the precinct, so nobody has to worry about sending something through the USPS. Because we watched USPS’s ability to maintain an election like this and maintain even their normal operations be challenged by this administration. We know that we need to have folks that are giving people rides to the polls. We know that we’re going to need folks who will be able to pass out masks and hand sanitizer so that people can engage in their franchise safely. We know that we’re going to need grassroots organizations and national organizations to get out the word and information on what are often confusing processes, because there are 50 different sets of rules in 50 different places.

So there are lots of things we’re going to have to confront when it comes to this election. But we have to be fundamentally clear that there are people who are extremely interested in exploiting this pandemic to make sure that marginalized people do not have their voices fully heard at the ballot box. And we have to be the mighty force that stands against that.

Schnall: Over the years, many of us have come to realize the importance of Black female leadership to the advancement of social justice movements. We want to support Black women and follow your leadership. What action or show of support would you say is most critical to realizing representation in leadership across sectors?

Packnett Cunningham: I think what’s most important is realizing that representation is only the first step—that unless people experience true equity and inclusion in the workplace and liberation more broadly, then we haven’t done all the work. It is not enough simply to bring Black women to the table if they are not leading the table, if we are not being resourced to build our own, and if we are not respected for the leaders that we are, instead of being made to fit into other people’s molds.

Schnall: I feel like Black women are often heralded for always being so strong, and of course, unfortunately, spending so much time oriented around fixing problems that you didn’t create, which obviously causes a lot of stress. How do you stay energized and take care of yourself and fight for justice while still managing to find joy? I’ve heard the phrase, “Black joy is a form of resistance.” Can you talk about that in terms of your life?

Packnett Cunningham: I think that the main point for me is what Audre Lorde said, that caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is preservation—and that is an act of political warfare. So our thriving stands in the face of a status quo that has tried everything to subjugate marginalized people. And not only are we still here, we are also more creative than ever, more innovative than ever, more determined than ever, more vocal than ever, more powerful than ever. And the continuation of that in and of itself is a revolution. That is deeply important to me, and that mindset helps me create alignment in my life. So I am doing the things that I am uniquely positioned to do and supporting others as they do the things they are uniquely positioned to do.

I always say we build teams, not saviors because it requires that we are radically disciplined in moving our ego out of movement work—that there are so many gifts and talents that so many different people bring to this work that should be respected and loved and cared for and supported. And, frankly, I don’t have to be the one that says yes to everything, because there are brilliant people who are prepared to say yes to the things that I’m not, who can do it even better than me. So for me, self-care actually looks like being disciplined in the art of community and recognizing that this is work for us to do together, and I’m not here to save anybody, because we collectively save ourselves.

Brittany Packnett on the TED stage

Schnall: You gave this very inspiring TED Talk about how confidence is a revolutionary act. And of course for women, and particularly Black women, there’s often this double bind—and we’ve seen this a little bit in some of the coverage of women like Kamala Harris and Stacey Abrams and countless others—where powerful, ambitious, confident women are portrayed in negative ways. How do we push back against that? And what advice do you have for women and girls for practicing and building our confidence when there are so many disempowering hurdles and messages trying to hold us back?

Packnett Cunningham: I think it’s important that we reclaim those narratives. The world should be grateful for ambitious women. We have stitched together entire societies, movements, cultures. There is art that you would never have without Indigenous women. There are discoveries that you would never have without ambitious women. America wouldn’t have made it to the moon without ambitious Black women. So I am convinced that those who find themselves pushing against ambitious women have some internal work to do because it is evidence of them being threatened by someone else’s power and promise.

The truth is, I think as a society we have to recognize that we actually don’t operate in scarcity—we operate for the most part in abundance and there actually is enough for everyone if we leverage things responsibly and allow people to share power instead of allow just a tiny few to actually hoard power. When we share power, no one is threatened by the power that somebody else has—we’re actually enriched by it. It is this very basic idea that we are stronger together: our society is at its best when you individually are at your best and you can contribute the powerful ideas, leadership and innovation that you have to offer uniquely.

I said in my TED Talk that I believe the crisis of confidence is that we are missing out on the brilliance of so many people that society is told to be quiet: women, women of color, immigrant women, Muslim women, Jewish women, disabled women and trans women have continuously been told over and over and over again to be quiet and wait our turn. And then our turn never comes. What are we missing as a society by all of the things that are bound up in the minds of the women and nonbinary people that we continuously tell to hold on, that we continuously tell to wait? There are cures for diseases that could be in those minds, but we’ve discouraged that young woman from STEM; there are new technological innovations that are in someone’s mind, but we’ve made no room for Black trans people in the technology field and big tech; there are creative pieces of art that we all should be benefiting from, but our media companies haven’t opened up to the disabled folks and the LGBTQ folks who are so well positioned to tell those stories.

We’re all losing out when we silence voices, when we discourage confidence and when we discourage ambition. And the sooner we can realize that, the sooner we’ll all benefit from the ambitious women that society seems so afraid of.

Schnall: We have this amazing opportunity right now—while everything is laid so bare—to rebuild a better world. What is your highest, most aspirational vision of what is possible? What does the world look like if your work is ever done?

Packnett Cunningham: For me it looks like true liberation—that we are not just being innovative about how to get people over the barriers, but that the barriers don’t exist. And that all people are able to not just survive but thrive and are able to live in a society that does not kill the genius within them. It is a world where there are no more names of hashtags, where there are no more Michael Browns or Eric Garners or Breonna Taylors; where there are no more Tony McDades or Dominique Fells or Nina Pops—some of the Black trans folks that we’ve seen taken from us this year. It means a world where young people are able to grow up and live their wildest imagination because they are embraced and nurtured from the very beginning instead of turned away from what’s possible. I have an absolute belief that these are the things that can be true and that we can uproot the trees that don’t feed us all well and plant in their place trees that bear fruit for all people.

Schnall: We’ve recently lost true heroes and civil rights giants like John Lewis and C.T. Vivian. What’s in your mind and heart as we mark these passings in terms of carrying on their message and legacy?

Packnett Cunningham: I think what we have to keep in mind in carrying on their legacy is the discipline of courage. I think some people who have just awakened to the struggle for justice, in whatever way they’ve awakened to it, have already become tired in week two or three. And these are people, they and their peers, did this work for 40, 50, 60 years and literally did not stop until the Lord called them home. So there is a lesson in their lives that requires us to mimic this discipline of courage, to practice it every single day, to be more and more brave about exactly how we do it, to push further and further into our responsibilities of justice and not get tired after a day or a week or a month or a year of fighting for things that everyone deserves for a lifetime.

Schnall: What is your call to action? And what Black-led groups would you encourage people to donate to and support? 

Packnett Cunningham: I would really encourage people to think locally—do the research that they need to do about the city that they’re from and the city that they live in, if those are not the same places, and figure out who is putting real wins on the board for racial justice. So for me, that’s organizations like Action St. Louis, organizations like Black Lives Matter DC, where I live right now, and organizations like The King Center in Atlanta, which is a national organization, but it’s really focused on building beloved community for all people. It is really about finding the places locally that support your community and that are creating discernible change in your community. And it is about making sure that you are also investing in the local and national organizations that have a vision that aligns with true justice and not just incremental change.

Schnall: Do you feel hopeful in this moment?

Packnett Cunningham: I do feel hopeful in this moment because I look to ancestors who remained hopeful in the face of odds more insurmountable than the ones we face now and challenges more impossible than the ones we have now. I think of Harriet Tubman and Fannie Lou Hamer and Dolores Huerta, who is still going strong, and Margaret Bush Wilson from St. Louis and Julia Davis—so many people who did far more with far less than we have now and not only continued to keep their hands to the plow but actually got things done. When I look at what they accomplished, I believe that we are capable of anything.

For more on Brittany Packnett Cunningham’s work, you can visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @MsPackyetti. 


This interview originally appeared at ForbesWomen.

Visit COVID Gendered for more articles, information and resources. 


Marianne Schnall is a widely-published interviewer and journalist and author of What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?Leading the Way, and Dare to Be You. She is also the founder of Feminist.com and What Will It Take Movements.