Every year, Black August serves as a month of reflection, resistance, and education for the Black liberation movement. Initially created in 1979 by movement leaders jailed in California to remember fallen comrades, the month has grown in importance in recent years.
Grassroots International is commemorating the month with a series of reflections from our recent delegation to Haiti. In June, Grassroots and Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD) brought a team of Black women activists to learn from Haitian social movements.
For this installment, BOLD program-alum Natasha Soto spoke about building a local organization in the Movement for Black Lives, and what she learned from the delegation. She organizes in Just Resisting Buffalo and Black Love Resists in the Rust.
Could you talk about the work Just Resisting does? Have you had connections to Haiti beforehand, or was this delegation your entry point in some respects?
We use two names. Black Love Resists in the Rust and Just Resisting. My co-director and I decided to formalize some work that we were doing in Just Resisting and called it Black Love Resists. Essentially we are the only organizing space exclusively for black and brown folks in the city. We’re creating a political home for Black and Brown folks, skilling them up and teaching them the historical significance of organizing in the United States, and also in other places, which is why we were interested in going to Haiti. I haven’t had any real connection to Haiti. My parents live in the Dominican Republic and I was always aware of the history between the two: one island, different identities and experiences, historical conditions that drove it. So I grew up, listening to some anti-blackness, some of which was associated with Haiti, and some of it which was not. Then I think most recently with conversations with some other Dominican folks about immigration and Haiti, I started jumping into the politics of it a little bit more.
I learned on the delegation that, due to the nature of the work, some folks are traveling back and forth, or recently moved, from the Dominican Republic and Haiti. There are some with political homes and organizing experience, and there are some who didn’t have those “homes” or that experience.
Given the anti-blackness, the colorism, you mentioned, how did the delegation reinforce or redefine how you think of your Blackness and your Black feminist identity?
One of the most striking things about the trip was the number of similarities but also the very stark differences that can exist in the same place physically speaking. At certain points I was reminded of the Dominican Republic, both in feel and in smell. On this delegation I experienced this deep, deep uncomfortability with my identity as an American citizen; someone who has the privilege to travel; who has far more access than others. I grappled with all of that: voyeurism, poverty, colorism and Dominican identity. This made me tread very lightly, I hope respectfully.
It was very humbling, because the culture and the knowledge that exists in Haiti feels kind of isolated. It’s a narrative and a history that lots of folks should know. I think that experience should be talked about in Dominican homes — especially since a lot of the anti-blackness, the colorism, the wanting to assimilate to European standards, is manufactured.
So I had a lot of questions at the end of the trip. What can I manufacture here in the States to lend from the conditions in Haiti? What about those material conditions in Haiti makes it possible to create mass movements? What can we replicate here with our work? What can be possible with anti-blackness, Dominican anti-blackness specifically, and what can I add to what’s already happening? Lots of questions, none have very strict answers. But these are the questions still bouncing around my brain after the trip.
It was particularly special for me. I only started to identify as black in the past 5 years, because of all of the other things going on. So it was an interesting experience to have all of these identities, to be in Haiti and to have conversations with people about what is Blackness in a Black nation and talking about the historical implications of it. It was both beautiful and profound.
What sort of experiences did you have that stand out in your memory, that you are trying to replicate?
The most striking thing for me was how everyone knew the revolutionary history of Haiti. That’s my biggest takeaway: what would be possible here if we here knew the organizing, the revolutionary history of the places where we live? Not just the textbook history, like the lunch counter sit-ins. What if we knew the red lining, the school district decisions, the election manifestations? What if folks knew how people got in power, how corrupt people were, how the 2% lived?
Nationally, I think we are starting to have those conversations. 2016 was the first presidential election where I’ve seen someone come in and talk about capitalism. But there is still some muddling of our history. Not everyone knows the facts; not everyone knows the timeline. Not everyone knows the impact of their place in broader movements, revolutions, things like that. So it’s important to try to figure out how to do that teaching, particularly here in Buffalo, that is predominantly people of color, and has had some fights. We’ve had fights to get us to a city with elected officials that are also predominantly people of color. But we’ve also had the Attica uprising — how did our county play a part in that? How did redlining of the past create the segregation that we have now? Why is poverty so bad here?
Having folks be knowledgeable about those decisions puts them in a place and potentially moves them towards something. It challenges an abstract, untethered “this is the way the world is.” That was so evident from conversations with people in Haiti. They knew the decisions; they knew who signed that policy so that their rice crop was messed up. That was super significant for me — how are we tying folks to place, to that memory? Because we tend to forget things a lot.
Just looking at the stuff you are doing in Buffalo, it seems like political education is an important part of that. How are you seeing the transmission of these lessons from Haiti to Buffalo?
We’re having a bunch of workshops, political education teachings. We’re really tackling some of the history that has lead to the conditions today. Why is Buffalo the 6th most segregated city, the 9th most poorest? How did our mayor get in office, what was the political machine that got him there? These lessons can really anchor folks in place, that can help people learn, strategize, and move forward in the work that we do.
How do you feel internationalism fits into this work, coming out of the delegation? How are you bringing an international perspective back to Buffalo?
I’m not 100 percent sure yet how I’m doing that, because I’m not a good internationalist. I’ve been thinking about how folks have been paying more attention to the election this time around, how issues like tariffs and farmer bailouts have gotten attention. How can other global fights be talked about in similar ways? These are some of the things kicking around in my head. But I’m just coming into internationalism so I have yet to go through some trial and error.
Why right now did you want to spend a week and a half in Haiti? What was the importance of this delegation given the political moment we are in?
I struggled a bit with deciding whether or not to go. I’ve started an organization; I’ve been figuring out how to manage folks and build capacity at home. But ultimately I decided to go to solidify my politicization, to broaden my movement understanding and work, and to figure out what we’re doing in Buffalo and how it can add to and incorporate this larger global fight we are in. We are so hyper-local here.
My work, my members, the base that we are trying to build here can only benefit from me deepening my understanding of my identity, and the nuances and the global perspective of the work we are doing and that others have done. I said it was a reminder, but it was more a wake-up call that this work is going to take a really long time, to shift that orientation from what are we winning, what noise are we making now, to actually what are we building that can be sustained and grown 50 or 100 years later. It was so amazing to share space with MPP to see how many members they have, how old they are, and the way they’ve grown. We’re playing games out here in the States. We show up with 200, 2,000 people and we can feel really good about that impact. But how are we developing very disciplined, long-term visions, so that in fifty years our work will have grown and not decreased? How am I contributing to that, and what am I building under me that can grow and sustain that? What political ideology are we going to be on while we build the thing? That’s my biggest takeaway.
That long term perspective and the sense of building not only resistance but also organization is a really significant perspective. I’m excited that you’re projecting that sort of vision in Buffalo.
If I can impart that lesson on 20-year-old organizers today, what difference could that make?