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Civil rights activist Shaun King outlines strategy for ‘making change happen’

In a Q&A at Blackman Auditorium on Friday, civil rights activist Shaun King described his four-pronged approach to "make change happen." Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“There’s a lot to be furious about,” said Shaun King, the political commentator and civil rights activist. “But I’m also hopeful.”

It was Friday afternoon at Northeastern’s Blackman Auditorium, and King was reflecting on the current state of affairs in the U.S. The nation’s political climate, he explained, had catalyzed a large-scale movement to affect positive change from the ground up.

“I honestly think we have only scratched the surface of our potential,” said King, a prominent figure in the Black Lives Matter movement and newly minted columnist for The Intercept, an online news publication dedicated to adversarial journalism. “I’m not thankful that Donald Trump is president, but it has caused us to organize in a way that is now intersectional.”

Speaking directly to a capacity crowd of students, faculty, staff, and neighborhood residents, he added: “Most of the change you want to see will come from the ground up. It will come from you.”

How to ‘make change happen’

King is widely known for using Twitter and Facebook to tell micro-stories of injustice, influencing how people learn of those impacted by racism and police brutality. On Friday, he discussed everything from healthcare policy to the National Rifle Association, answering questions submitted by attendees and posed to him by moderator Adam Omar Hosein, associate professor of philosophy and religion.

“Most of the change you want to see will come from the ground up. It will come from you.”

Shaun King civil rights activist

The hourlong Q&A marked the second annual installment of Northeastern Crossing’s Winter Gateway Speaker series; last year, cultural critic Jeff Chang reflected on the intersection of race, art, and politics in modern-day America. The event, part of Northeastern’s celebration of Black History Month, was co-sponsored in part by the Center for Intercultural Engagement, the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute, and the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion.

Halfway through the Q&A, King described his four-pronged solution to “make change happen.” No matter the cause, he said, positive change is predicated on recruiting highly energized people, learning what skills they bring to the table, designing a comprehensive action plan, and raising a lot of money. “Whatever you’re doing, you have to get those four things moving at the same time,” he explained. “Until you do, you won’t really see change happen.”

Students, faculty, staff, and neighborhood residents filled Blackman Auditorium to hear civil rights activist Shaun King. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

King underscored the need to create a well-thought-out plan before taking action, saying that “the problems we’re facing are more complex than we give them credit for.” It’s not enough to scribble a half-baked strategy on a napkin, he said, or post an ill-conceived message on Facebook. “That’s not comprehensive enough, so our plan will be completely overmatched by what we are up against.”

For him, the NRA is the nation’s only organization that “nails” all four of his tenets of change. In 2016, he said, the political arm of the gun rights group raised nearly $400 million—more than all civil rights organizations combined.

A ‘hot mess’

King talked party politics. He credited the Republicans for gaining control of the House, the Senate, and the presidency in recent years, saying that the GOP “out-organized” the Democrats en route to victory. “The Republicans didn’t accidentally find themselves controlling virtually the entire government apparatus,” he said. “It happened as a function of their strategic plan.”

King called the Democratic Party a “hot mess,” citing reports that the Democratic National Committee is nearly broke. “I’m not at all pleased with how the Democratic Party represents what we care about,” he said, noting that he left the party after the 2016 election, “but I know they will rely on our votes in every possible way.”

From left to right: Shaun King and Adam Omar Hosein. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

He added: “We have to pivot to people in local offices who actually represent what we care about and find people in federal positions who have the courage of their convictions.”

Near the end of the Q&A, King reflected on the portrayal of African Americans in TV and film. He singled out Dear White People, a Netflix series that follows a group of black students at a predominantly white school. “It shows black folks having fun and working through life,” he said. “We’re finally showing 360 degrees of black life and that’s valuable.” Of Black Panther, the new superhero movie set in Africa, he said: “It depicts an Africa that hasn’t been infested by colonialism. It shows you what could and should be if not for white supremacy, capitalism, and bigotry.”