The BOR Interview: Brianna Brown, winner of CPPP’s 2016 Future of Texas Award Winner
Editor’s Note: This week, Brianna Brown was recognized as the 2016 Future of Texas honoree at the Center for Public Policy Priorities’ (CPPP) annual Legacy Luncheon. Brown is deputy director of the Texas Organizing Project (TOP). Founded in 2010, TOP is a non-profit organization that promotes economic and social equality for low to moderate Texans through community and electoral organizing. Brianna joined TOP in 2013 and worked on ACA enrollment. Most recently, she has worked with TOP members in Dallas to transform student discipline policy in the Dallas Independent School District. BOR spoke with her last week.
BOR: Brianna, what drew you to be an organizer?
Brianna Brown: Organizing is a real calling for me. I do this work because I’m passionate about transforming the idea of “Yeah, we’re going to fight for change” into something real, making that tangible. I grew up in a household that was very civically active, in Lubbock, TX. Both my parents come from different streams of Afrocentricity, and I’ve always had this real idea of, for me, what it means to be black. Part of that identity is “we’re going to have to fight.” Fight for our rights, for our voice, our ability to be recognized. That’s been a consistent not just theme but part of my ideology for my entire life.
It just started so young, with my parents. My mom was a social worker and a therapist. And my dad is a sharecropper from Crittenden County, Arkansas. It was just really baked in, baked in my DNA. So, I have that foundation, going about my life. Then I’ve had opportunities to prepare myself in other ways. When I went to college, I majored in political science and Africana studies with the purpose of trying to figure out how to make change, how can I be part of that, how can I be part of the movement, not knowing really what that meant at all, but knowing that is part of my purpose here.
BOR: Tell us a bit about what you did before coming to TOP?
BB: Well, I’m no spring chicken and I actually think that really helps in the work that I do today, that I’m able to bring in different life experiences. When I graduated from college, one of the things on my bucket list was to live in New York City, and that’s what I did. Eventually I ended up in fashion, and even with that, I volunteered over the weekend or any time I could with the Africana Criminal Justice Project at Columbia working on felony reenfranchisement.
BOR: What’s it like to work with TOP members?
We do this work, with the TOP members, we do this leadership development, and we get really deep with them. I know their recipes for pineapple upside down cake because I’ve been there making it with them. You get really into the crevices of people’s lives. And then you have CPPP that does such sharp policy analysis and research and is able to give the 10,000 foot view.
TOP members are the real story of Texas, not the made-for-TV version that has “Texas is the land of prosperity with good jobs, the home of the Texas Miracle.” Our members’ life experiences tell such a different story, the story of what’s going on for the majority of Texans.
It’s a nightmare for some. The miracle is a mirage for a lot of people. Our members are absolutely fighters, completely resilient and inspiring. It’s not all bad–they don’t walk around cloaked in oppression. I want to use a different word than “empowering.” What we do at TOP is uncovering, peeling back the layers for people, and helping them connect the dots. It’s already so woven into who they are and what their experience is. It’s about them coming in and us helping them see the larger picture, “It’s not just you on an island. You and people who look like you have very similar experiences. Our power happens when we come together.”
It’s sounds like kumbaya. The reality of it is that’s extraordinarily hard.
BOR: How are you working on bringing power together
BB: The way TOP works is we are a statewide organization with offices in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. It’s very responsive to what’s going on in those cities and those counties. We’re really anchored by campaigns in Dallas and Houston. In Dallas, we have our education campaign, which is fighting to turn around DISD. We just won the first ever pilot community school–not to be confused with Communities in Schools. It’s a community school where there are wrap around services for both the student and the family to make sure that student has what they need in order to really thrive: a culturally competent curriculum and shared leadership between the principal, the students and the parents. We just won it. We just had a community dinner there yesterday and we had about 200 people show up. The goal is to be really successful at this one pilot and win 20 community schools by 2020, and use this community school model as the turnaround model in Dallas for IR (“improvement recommended”) schools.
In Harris County, we have a criminal justice campaign that’s really taking off. It’s called the Right to Justice campaign. It’s really exciting work. We’ve brought together a coalition that there are some real opportunities to get some big wins for our county. Those kinds of wins, ending debtor prisons, ending 287(g) agreements, which is ICE entanglement, could impactt so many people just because of the sheer amount of people living in Harris County.
Also in Harris County, we have a jobs campaign, which is fighting for good jobs. That can often be a buzz word–“good jobs!”–but jobs that you know your schedule ahead of time, you got paid leave, paid sick days, you have health insurance. So these big developers that are taking public money, tax money–we want community benefits agreements that include local hire and affordable housing.
Bexar County is where we’ve just opened our newest office. That’s where our new executive director is based. That campaign started in 2013 doing health care organizing and built out a really committed member base that’s done a lot of work around neighborhood infrastructure. They’ve won a couple million dollars to make sure folks have streetlights and other neighborhood infrastructure.
It’s all issue-based organizing. It’s speaking directly to folks impacted by these issues. A really important tactic to win in those campaigns is what we do electorally. Right now in Harris County–you know that Right to Justice campaign I was talking about–the way we want to win big is to help elect champions to office who will shepherd the policies through. It’s definitely a longterm thing–we understand that our fights are not going to be won overnight, we understand that it takes real authentic organizing to win. But I take this work so personally–I’m from Texas. This is my state as much as it’s Greg Abbott’s state, as much as it’s Dan Patrick’s state. This is my state. I know who I’m fighting for. Who I’m fighting alongside. And I know for a lot of people the stakes are just so high. It’s about a family member being deported, who knows when you’ll see them again. It’s about not being able to breathe anymore because you don’t have access to good health care or any health care at all. It’s about, are you able to care for your children with a good job and not be rotting away in a prison cell because you can’t pay for a couple of traffic tickets. That’s the reality of a lot of our members and that’s the system that we’re fighting against.
BOR: There’s a much greater awareness of the criminalization of poverty nationally in wake of the US Department of Justice’s findings in St. Louis County. Tell us about what’s going on in Houston. Are there similar problems with fines and facing small misdemeanors that become debilitating financially and putting people in prison?
BB: Yes, those things are absolutely going on. Tarsha Jackson is running that campaign in Houston for TOP. They’re doing it here in Dallas, too. People are not getting the indigent hearings to determine whether they can pay for bail. They’re not getting bail hearings. There’s no real enforcement of the laws we have on the books. One of our members was arrested under this debtors prison umbrella, several times the same offense, and sat there because she didn’t have the money to get out. It was all traffic tickets, over and over again. She’s a mother and a grandmother. The reverberations that happen after are so hard to retract. Once the genie is out of the bottle that way, it’s so hard to repair the damage that it does to a family.
BOR: One of the things distinctive things about TOP is its focus on the most affected people in the community. What’s the process to help people get the point where they’re able to define the issues and take on leadership roles as TOP members?
BB: We talk about the need, if we’re going to win big, that we have to go broad and deep. We can turn out a thousand people to a march, but it’s not going to be that same thousand people that come back the next day for that meeting on leadership development. Our organizing model is both broad and deep, to tap into that energy that’s so palpable and to focus on the deep leadership development. In each county we’re committed to figuring out a curriculum to help people along that path. As an essential part of our operation, we have a training department that focuses on the development of both members and staff.
There are so many opportunities, too. Our members have the chance to travel the nation and meet members of other organizations that are doing the same work, that feels less like on an island. In Texas it’s hard. Texas is its own beast to organize. We’re not New York. We’re not California. We’re as big as these places but our state leadership is singing from a different hymn book. It’s really hard to do the kind of organizing we do here just based on what the political landscape is. But there is a real dedication to go both broad and deep and do deep leadership development with people.
It’s very much a two-way street. Like I mentioned before, I know some upside down pineapple recipes, I’ve been in people’s homes, that’s where that happens. Wherever you are sharing those stories that those transformations start to happen. Our members definitely help continue radicalize me, and make the stakes higher and higher for me and, hopefully along the way, for them. I’m helping them see the real skill and the real intellect and the real strategic mind that they have. Because to make it in this world, to make it in Texas, as an undocumented woman with “no job,” you know some stuff.
BOR: Let’s talk about TOP’s electoral work this cycle. What kinds of things are the members doing? Are you active in voter registration? Particular races?
BB: Right now, each county is running a member-led, member-run GOTV program. In Dallas County, we’re having the kickoff to our member program [Saturday, October 1]. For every yes to vote, people earn a whack at a Trump piñata. That universe is HD-105, one of two or three swing districts in the state of Texas. We have two voter contact events scheduled every week from now through the election and, during early vote, we’ll be doing phone banks and canvasses every day.
In Harris, our members had their kickoff two weeks ago. Some of the precincts we’re working in are going to be decided by tens of tens of votes. The doors our members are knocking on and those conversations they’re having are so critical. One thing that bore out from the electoral work we did in 2014 is that our members know how to have good conversations with people that drive them to the polls. Our members are really effective messengers.
In San Antonio, same thing. We’re knocking on doors every day. We’ve endorsed Pete Gallego and Jorge Salazar who’s running for sheriff. In each of the counties, our members are going to be involved in our Drive for Democracy program. Our members were especially insistent that, for this election, we’re not on the sidelines. This is a historic election. There’s a reason why there are Trump piñatas being sold. He has stirred up some energy. It’s not fear. We have members that are saying, “I can’t vote, but my daughter can and I’m taking her to the polls. I can’t vote but I know five people that can and I’m dedicated to getting them to the polls this year.” The difference between a Trump administration and a Clinton administration for our members is the polar end from one another.
BOR: Last thing: what about being chosen to receive the Future of Texas Award at the CPPP Legacy Luncheon this year?
BB: Who knew I was going to be a lady who lunched!
BOR: How do you feel about that?
BB: I have been so bowled over by the response. CPPP has always been a resource for us, especially on health care. I remember, last year I was at the luncheon, and it’s wild to think, “This year, it’s me.” There’s definitely been some cool energy that’s come my way in the last couple weeks. We always talk about in our work we don’t spend enough time celebrating the wins, because you’re on the next fight. I’m really honored because it really isn’t about me. If I’m standing up there, you’re also seeing our 100,000 plus members and supporters we have across the state.