Fatima Goss Graves on Protests: ‘This Moment Is Unique'

Fatima Goss Graves is president and chief executive officer at the National Women's Law Center. She's also a co-founder of the TIME'S UP Legal Defense Fund. Goss Graves clerked for a federal judge before embarking on a career promoting the rights of women and girls. She's worked on the American Law Institute Project on Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct on Campus as an adviser and serves as a board member at Equal Justice Works. She's a graduate of UCLA and Yale Law School, and is based in Washington, D.C.

This is the second part of a series where civil rights leaders, cultural influencers, advocates and critical thinkers explain race relations, societal change, community protest and the political awakening happening in the United States following the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans. The group, including NAACP President Derrick Johnson and #OscarsSoWhite Creator April Reign, pose their thoughts on race relations during the summer of 2020 and how America may move forward less divided. Join the conversation on social media using #PassTheMic.

Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEO, National Women's Law Center
Co-Founder, TIME'S UP Legal Defense Fund

Fatima Goss Graves

Our current racial reckoning is not the result of any change in the message of Black people—it's the result of more people in power finally awakening to it.

Fatima Goss Graves

Q: How would you describe the civic unrest occurring in America right now?

A: The famous Fannie Lou Hamer quote, "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired" resonates. The current uprising, born out of so much pain, anger, and frustration, is energizing. Seeing millions take to the streets in support of Black lives and futures is an important reminder of the healing potential of action. And I think as a result we will see change not just in policing but across institutions. That gives me great hope.

Q: Is this a fleeting moment or have we reached an inflection point where lasting change is possible?

A: I think we are at a meaningful inflection point in our long struggle for racial justice and freedom thanks to a bold movement with clear demands for change. And whether we are at a point where change is lasting will also depend on the ability of leaders around the country – those elected, leading large institutions, to dive into the change ahead to make a safer and more just world.

Q: Is there another moment in history that relates to the moment we are living through now?

A: Between the pandemic, the economic downturn, and the movement against anti-Black police violence, I do feel this moment is unique in American history. Black communities lie at the crossroads of each of these crises, which only expose the aggregate impact of generations of structural racism built into health care, economy, law enforcement, and virtually every system in this country. The global pandemic has made it all more visible and people have had time to absorb the pain and promise.

A civil rights activist, attorney and writer explain race relations, societal change and the political awakening happening in the United States following the tragic death of George Floyd. When it comes to race, “systemic problems have plagued the nation for not only decades, but for centuries,” says Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The summer of 2020 is proving to be a moment for multiracial coalitions to come together, according to Fatima Goss Graves, TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund co-founder and National Women’s Law Center president and chief executive officer. Bestselling author George Johnson explains the revolution is being televised.

Q: What specifically needs to happen for Black lives to matter in the United States?

A: The current uprising and movement have opened our imaginations to the possibility that our laws and policies and budgets will demonstrate that all Black lives matter. It’s my hope that calls for defunding the police will pretty immediately reduce the role of policing in people’s daily lives and allow for a reimagining of public safety. We are already seeing important wins as school boards vote to remove police from schools. And what has been made visible by the global pandemic – that Black people are disproportionately losing their lives to COVID and disproportionately losing their jobs to the accompanying economic collapse, did not actually begin with COVID. To ensure that Black lives matter will require taking on the structural inequities that have left Black women with higher rates of maternal mortality and lower rates of health insurance and greater vulnerability to the effects of COVID. It will require addressing the economic inequality that leaves Black women making only 62 cents on the dollar when compared to white male counterparts and a federal minimum wage that has not lifted in over a decade. It requires investing in communities and systems that demonstrate that all Black lives matter. It will require that our culture and our systems treat Black survivors with safety and dignity.

Q: What does social justice mean to you personally and why should others care?

A: True justice to me not only centers the experiences and voices of those harmed—it trusts them to show us the way forward. We are in a period of acceleration but the work to defend Black lives and name a better future is not new work. Our current racial reckoning is not the result of any change in the message of Black people—it’s the result of more people in power finally awakening to it.

Q: What solutions will heal racial divisions and disparities?

A: The systems making this moment so hard for Black people—from health care and schools to policing and our economic ecosystem—are not simply broken. They were designed with these unjust outcomes in mind. Decades of tinkering around the edges of these systems ignore this critical fact. We need to fundamentally reimagine the role of these institutions if we ever hope to build the systems that result in the sort of change people are taking to the streets to demand. 

Q: How do you feel about the future?

A: Hopeful. Some degree of optimism is inherent to my work—I could not fight for racial and gender justice if I simply believed things will just go downhill from here. I also have a deep awareness that this particular period is just one piece of “a long arc” that generations have driven. But amidst such a dark period in our nation’s history, it’s been understandably hard for some to believe true change is still possible. Watching march after march and rally after rally, it’s clear more people in this country are waking up to the fact that the future we want will not find us—we must find it. We must continue this fight with clear eyes while also remembering cynicism is always the enemy of progress.

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