Movement building and defending MLK’s dream

by Granate Sosnoff on 23rd August, 2013
New York Times photo

New York Times photo

Fifty years later, no amount of messaging can change the fact that we aren’t further along than we’d hoped in attaining civil and political rights or anything resembling racial equality in this country.

Martin Luther King had a dream, and before he spoke that day at the March on Washington, civil rights leaders gave speeches about economics, jobs and freedom in America. What we talk about most is MLK’s dream of racial equality – because it is inspiring and uplifting. It’s a message we can get behind, but something unattainable without economic and racial justice.

This is partly why, fifty years later, we are talking and dreaming about the same things.

Nowhere was this more evident recently than after the not-guilty verdict of George Zimmerman and the deep disappointment that swept the nation.

Fifty years later, Trayvon Martin was murdered because he was a young, African American male in an upscale neighborhood.

Questions about who are we in this country, and why are we so far from where we need to be with racial justice and equality have resurfaced. Even with a black president, numerous role models and achievers, we are deeply and economically divided with a huge number of brown and black people in prison and living in impoverished neighborhoods.

But, as always, there is hope. One bright star has emerged from the void of justice in Florida that day and that is the Dream Defenders, a new civil rights group organized by young people in Florida.

The not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial evoked righteous anger, disappointment and a deep sense of injustice. The country seemed to take a deep breath and moment to grasp the blatant racism on a national stage.

And while some lashed out, the Dream Defenders got to work on an executable strategy to change things.

In Florida’s Capitol, the Dream Defenders began what would become a month-long sit-in. About 30-60 people were locked in each night and left to sleep on hard marble floors. Joined at times by Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Julian Bond and other leaders and artists, they were also supported daily by a multiracial community. They held their own hearings when denied formal ones by the governor. They talked about what it was like to be racially profiled as young black people.

They got real and people responded.

The Dream Defenders are pushing for reforms under the umbrella of Trayvon’s Law to combat racial profiling and Stand Your Ground laws in Florida and other states where they exist. They have impressed many with their tenacity and commitment and made progress by pushing to get the Florida legislature to consent to hold hearings on these issues in the fall.

August 24th, Phillip Agnew, the executive director of the Dream Defenders, is slated to speak at the 50-year anniversary March on Washington. His organization may be the most authentic representation of that era and many will be listening to what he has to say. Our president is slated to speak too (Aug. 28). His presence represents the pinnacle of achievement and shows the limits of leadership in bringing about far-reaching change.

Why aren’t we further? It’s a question many ask every day.

The Dream Defenders represent a new hope. They are inspiring and reflect the brains and energy of young people – who so often bear the brunt of racist actions.

Like Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant in Oakland and so many others.

Events in the last months have worked as a catalyst to reinvigorate civil rights activism. Some organizations are going to rebuild their brand with the new energy.

The Dream Defenders look like they are going to build a new movement.

Dream Defenders: superheroes for racial justice

by Granate Sosnoff on 7th August, 2013


Written by Granate Sosnoff. Reposted from Oakland Local










There is something very impressive happening right now in Florida. A human rights organization of “Black and Brown youth confronting inequality and the criminalization of our generation with nonviolent direct action”… are doing that this minute, in Florida’s state Capitol, camping out on hard marble floors since the Trayvon Martin verdict.

This is day 22 of the Dream Defenders takeover of Florida’s Capitol, and each day they are there, the more authentic, far-reaching and motivating their actions become. They are also making progress and winning victories with their direct action. On August 2, after much pressure and constant presence at the Capitol, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford announced he will hold hearings on the state’s “stand your ground law” in the fall. Although short of what the Dream Defenders would like, which is a legislative hearing right now, Philip Agnew, executive director of the Dream Defenders stated that “It’s a critical first step, we’ve been here three weeks. We know Democracy takes time. Progress takes time.”
Seemingly out of nowhere, this politically savvy, committed group has emerged. Youth of color are standing tall and sitting-in, reminiscent of the sixties and impressive as hell.

Their well-thought-out campaign is one that demands justice by peaceful direct action, guided by strategy and intelligence. The Florida group, with chapters throughout the state, has captured the attention of the media, support of the NAACP and and hearts of civil rights stalwarts like Jessie Jackson and Harry Belafonte. Jackson spent one night with the Dream Defenders and Belafonte met with them and endorsed their efforts with his elegant words of praise including:

“If they reject you, then the world will pay attention to what’s happening to you, and it is possible that Florida could become ungovernable,” Belafonte said. “By ungovernable, I don’t mean violent. But it could mean tens of thousand of people will join you. That’s not good for tourism.”

While police issued alerts around potential riots and violence after the Zimmerman verdict, Dream Defenders organized the opposite and called for an audience with Governor Rick Scott and a special session to repeal Florida’s stand your ground law. They were given a meeting with Gov. Scott but instead of a congressional session, he offered a “day of prayer” to deal with racial profiling.

In response, Dream Defenders organized their own hearings and are coming up with their own drafts of legislation and strategies to combat racial profiling — while still sitting in at the Capitol. Since July 16th, these young people have stayed committed and determined — a counter on their website marks each second of their protest. They have been 150+ strong with a wide range of visitors including an original Black Panther, university professors, and support people of all colors bringing food and and other items daily.

The not-guilty verdict in the Zimmerman trial is sparking a new phase of young, persistent and effective civil rights activism.

One can only hope that Dream Defenders spreads to California. We could use some superhero energy. Currently Florida is “ground zero” for Dream Defenders as they are organizing freedom rides across the country to address racial profiling, dismantle the “school to prison pipeline” for youth of color, and repeal other existing state stand your ground laws.

More info here:

Their petition here.

Oscar Grant, Zimmerman trial and BART strike connected

by Granate Sosnoff on 14th July, 2013



Online with Oakland Local, Friday July 12.

When three related stories regarding race, labor and BART occur, you need to pay attention, especially in Oakland.

As “Fruitvale Station” opens and retells the story of Oscar Grant’s murder, we also brace for juror deliberations in the Zimmerman trial. Oakland gets angry when the judicial system betrays young black men. A backdrop to these two stories is that BART is in the middle of strike negotiations and if nothing changes soon, Fruitvale station, and all other BART stations will be closing for a while.

The Zimmerman trial has already been disappointing particularly in how Trayvon Martin and his young friend have been denigrated in the media. What seemed like an open and shut case against George Zimmerman, a man who stalked and killed a young African American youth, is now seeming less so.

Those of us who lived in Oakland during the BART police shooting of Oscar Grant by Johannes Mehserle are flashing back to a similar time and feeling of impending betrayal by the justice system and wondering if we will once again need to take to the streets to let the world know that a young black man’s life is worth as much as any other life.

Even if Zimmerman is found guilty, the murder still happened, in the name of security and safety, in a country filled with fear around race and thick with racism.

And as the Sundance award-winning movie “Fruitvale Station” opens, giving Oscar Grant back to Oakland for a moment and skillfully telling a one-day story till his tragic and preventable death, wounds will open up. This shameful, tragic BART incident, revisited in the shared-story format of film, will have an impact on many.

BART has apparently been very cooperative in the making of the film, even allowing movie posters at the Fruitvale Station. A BART liaison to filmmaker Ryan Coogler was quoted to say: “The film is really about humanizing Oscar Grant, and Ryan did a superb job.” (Thank you BART?)

In the real world of BART security we are being told that reforms at BART are underway. A few weeks prior to the film’s opening, in what might be viewed as a PR move, BART released that they’ve hired a retired police chief to review these new reforms.

The other BART story is about the strike (30-day stay ticking away…) and it seems that more than the coincidence of timing connects these.

The union has released a video stating that security and safety are of high priority for workers at BART but that management refuses to respond to that need.

Unfortunately, what “more security” usually means is historical racial profiling and the targeting of youth of color and in particular black men like Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin. The opportunity to make an important statement and connection seems lost on union organizers and begs the question of whether you can publicly make a request for added security without acknowledging the pain and public tragedy surrounding BART police.

It seems to me that this is the perfect intersection for union and worker concerns to build solidarity with social justice organizations. If you are going to make a demand for more security, in the same breath why not ask for public review of reforms and changes? What specifically is BART doing to prevent another tragedy like what happened to Oscar Grant?

BART workers are angry with management and have good cause I can imagine. They have a variety of demands but currently a focus on making visible the high pay of management and a need for more safety and security. They recently stated: “We will be prepared for the bloodiest, longest strike since the 1970′s.”

But will we, their natural allies, friends of labor, social justice workers and concerned community members be ready to stand in support of them?

The union is losing an important opportunity to link worker’s rights and social justice with this connection. In their primary (current) video they flash on a mural of Oscar Grant as if hoping the slight association and acknowledgment will say something. Similar to BART’s decision to cooperate fully with filmmaker Ryan Coogler and to allow “Fruitvale Station” posters in BART stations, it seems to lack authenticity and doesn’t say much of anything.

Advocacy media – one up from the Simpsons?

by Granate Sosnoff on 29th June, 2013

Drugs are bad. You shouldn’t do drugs.

This is what Mr. Mackey, the guidance counselor on the Simpsons, tells Bart Simpson and his classmates.

But it’s not so far from what many a nonprofit imitates in their advocacy.

It’s not pretty but it happens. And because we are who we are it ends up on a bumper sticker, your social media and shared elsewhere.

And as our president said a campaign ago – “we can do better.” 


My friend is the epitome of the tireless, brainy, activist-leader. She’s involved in complex work in Africa investigating and organizing to stop “land grabs.” Land grabs are when financial groups and corporations swoop into (usually) poor countries and buy up or lease large swaths of fertile land for investment not development. These mostly foreign groups are involved in a variety of industries, with a majority focused on export crops – including palm oil for biofuels.

Investors claim to be improving economies and livelihoods for impoverished communities, but investigations into the benefits are negligible. Worse, the projects often cause great harm to the environment, loss of work and food production and displacement to the people already living there.

It is a very troubling global trend impacting Africa particularly hard. Not a brand new issue, the fight against what’s been dubbed a global “land rush” is underway by environmental, land and human rights activists. Unfortunately the work isn’t unified by a single vision and messaging.

SIDEBAR: My friend’s group works on a shoestring budget, even after impressive wins and courageous strategy that put a halt to the largest land grab in South Sudan and stalled out a huge land grab in Tanzania that would have displaced over 170,000 people. They don’t get the kind of funding name brand nonprofits get, even with the notable strides they’ve made. The money seems to go elsewhere.


By chance I stumbled upon a very slick video made by a much, much, larger international group working on land grabs. It shows what appear to be first-world people who suddenly find themselves without homes. Shown with various belongings, like couches on the street and the like, and doing things like brushing their teeth and sleeping (in clip after clip) out-of-doors while a song by Coldplay plays in the background.

Copy appears and states things like: “imagine getting kicked out of your home.”

The problem with the campaign is that it isn’t about the widespread tragedy of poverty and homelessness that occurs in first-world countries every day (like the areas shown in the video) the video is addressing “land grabs” that most often take place in Africa, South America, Papua New Guinea… but no word is said about these places. And nothing points a finger at the corporations and investment groups taking over the land.

There are no answers to who, what, why and where.

The message is: land grabs are bad, you wouldn’t want to be displaced. The secondary message is: aren’t we awesome for being a part of saying it’s bad.

“Drugs are bad, you shouldn’t do drugs.”

And there you go.

I’d like to think we’re more than one up from the Simpsons’ guidance counselor when it comes to this stuff, but sadly others think differently. It’s not a lack of money that is the issue, it’s a lack of creativity and respect for our intelligence.

Just like regular bad advertising.

When the hometown hero’s a bad guy

by Granate Sosnoff on 17th April, 2013

We read about notorious incidents, not the least of which are recent cases involving the suicides of teenage girls from small towns who after being raped and shamed in social media, take their own lives.

We shake our heads at the inhumanity and awfulness of it all but also know that less broadcasted and personal hells are going on all the time.

I took a trip back to my hometown, a small city that still has an old-timely feel, but now also a few more malls, Pilates and micro-brews.

We met up with my sister’s friends including one who teaches math at our old high school. He told us about recently being granted the honor of introducing a local math and science teacher in a video project that played in the theatre.

It sounded like he gave a grand and appreciative speech for this teacher who played an important role in his life.

I remembered the teacher, not as a life-changer, but as someone who followed a friend’s progress in college, semi-stalked her via false impressions of scholastic interest and support and who later tried to convince/quasi-coerce her into having sex with him – much to her horror.

A gray area on the sexual abuse spectrum, for sure, but ON the spectrum I would say.

So in a held back tone fully expecting a “here she goes wrecking everything” stare I mentioned:

“You know that guy had a not-so-pretty flipside.”

A tense room change occurred. Two people responded with anxious defensiveness including a “we all have flaws” and some other similarly themed comment. I answered in my new calm way of arguing that I was well aware of being flawed myself but didn’t semi-stalk young people I knew in their teens.

One woman at the gathering spoke up and told the story of her friend who walked out of the theatre crying during the speech about this teacher. The woman was shaken and upset about the honoring of a man who had clearly done something “untoward” to her.

Even though there’s broader understanding that violence is often perpetrated by someone who knows their victim rather than a stranger, we are still caught in a mind loop of dismissing acquaintance-rape and abuse and amplifying stranger-rape.

Often it’s the case that many people know something is or has gone on when sexual abuse takes place. I don’t know if this math teacher was a rapist, I just know there was something very, very wrong with how he interacted with young women and girls.

So when I hear impassioned calls for ending “rape culture” I wonder at how we’ve all protected rather than spoken up or schooled someone when we had the chance – and hence participated in maintaining the status quo.

If this teacher was such a great guy deserved of accolades then why didn’t one of his fans let him know his “character flaw” (which many seemed to know about) could use some serious self-reflection and change.

Abusers are not usually one-dimensional creatures. Seemingly kind people do hideous things.

If we consider people part of our community – even in the broadest former-high-school teacher sense – then we have a role to play.

Too often we want to believe the best and do nothing, despite our hunches and intuition, until it’s too damn late.

Selling a better world

by Granate Sosnoff on 21st March, 2013


No – Official Trailer (HD) Christopher Reeve, Gael García Bernal – YouTube.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste. This is your brain on drugs. Just say no. You’ve come a long way baby.

I have a love/hate relationship with slogans. Trapped behind a Volvo in Berkeley and faced with the bumper sticker “War is never the answer” my response is: what if the crossword is a three-letter word for extended battle?

In the right context, slogans and iconic imagery do some heavy lifting in getting messages across and motivating a crowd.

If you want to see that in action or if you have any interest in communications for advocacy, please go see “No,” the Oscar-nominated film about an ad man’s social marketing campaign that helped end Pinochet’s reign of terror in Chile.

Brief history: Pinochet’s brutal 17-year regime started after a U.S. supported military coup that overthrew and caused the death of Salvador Allende, the first elected Marxist president in Latin America. Pinochet’s military dictatorship was notorious for torture, murder and corruption.

But “No” isn’t a continuation of “Missing,” it’s a story about an ad man with a leftist background who gets talked into producing a series of 15 minute segments for late night television to combat the government’s dominant messaging and control of the media.

It’s a one-time opportunity leading up to a yes/no referendum for Pinochet. And even though it’s widely held that the election will be rigged, bystanders from the West are watching, and there is hope for change.

Prior to engaging the ad exec, the allied social democrats and leftists produce a moving docudrama that shows the violence, repression, and suffering they believe will motivate the masses to come out and say “no.”

The ad exec pooh poohs the effort and states: “esto no vende.” That doesn’t sell.

Much to the chagrin of the stalwart leftists involved, he then produces a spot that at first looks a little cheesy (it is set in the 80s) – think Coke meets New Freedom mini-pads, with a catchy jingle.

The rest is storybook, movie history. The ad man takes the aspirational slogan-jingle “Chile, Happiness is Coming” to a battle cry level, infuses the creative with more meaningful content and inspires a majority to give showing up a chance and saying no a try.*

For people involved in advocacy communications it’s a potent reminder to keep asking: What will motivate your audience? What are you offering them?

After almost two decades of murder, disappearances and repression, an ad man in Chile played a pivotal role in changing history with a catchy jingle, rainbow logo, people on horseback and scenes of a bucolic picnic. That’s a powerful tale for progressives here.

The movie showed a winning strategy that combined both the ugly truths (images of loss and repression) within a frame of smart motivation (hope for a happy future) to get to a new dawn moment.


*No, it’s not exactly how it happened, but it’s one aspect of the winning campaign. Apparently the filmmaker got some flak (NY Times article). But it’s a good movie and the message is worth heeding.

An app to figure out which petitions are for you

by Granate Sosnoff on 18th March, 2013


Kinder eggs v tomato

I need a child genius to create an app to figure out which petitions have legs and which ones are just hurting my wrist.

Nearly every day there’s a gigantic new problem looming that requires my clicking and double-clicking and autofilling only to get to a place that asks for info I don’t want to give out and then (oh crap) I’ll decide NOT to sign the thing but then feel guilty so I do (and unsubscribe later).

Honestly, I’m happy about all the activism, but are these petitions moving a well thought-out agenda for change or just some tomatoes getting thrown? And in some cases maybe only a largish strawberry.

Even the White House is trying to streamline how they get petitioned and has set up their own petition site: We the People. It doesn’t seem to be catching on yet though.

One of the petitions, Lift Ban on Kinder Eggs a chocolate from Italy that has a small toy inside is this close to getting 800 signatures but far away from their 100,000 goal. More important sounding petitions like “End Corruption in Congress” seems like something we can all get behind, unless there’s a “Pro-corruption” angle I’ve missed.

P.S. YES – sign things! But your best nonprofits, activists, networks, etc. should have an accompanying campaign strategy backing it up.

You’re best off with a progressive petition site like which has activist roots as a spin-off from MoveOn. The campaign for mandatory labeling for GE foods is a good example of activism with a targeted campaign, growing popular support and multiple nonprofit partners working together.

The petition: “Tell the FDA we have a right to know what’s in our food.” Is authored by Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation” and co-producer of “Food, Inc.”) and the president of Stonyfield Yogurt, Gary Hirshberg.


Is feminism always going to feel like a white thing?

by Granate Sosnoff on 12th March, 2013

First of all: Action = Good. A drawback to social media is that it can seduce you into believing you’ve done something significant by using your powerful “like” or “share.” In addition to all our good work at the keyboard, we need to get out and participate at some point.

So… recently I volunteered for local efforts for the One Billion Rising V-Day protests/flashmob dance/events on the Communications Team and found myself reinvigorated with a shot of feminism that felt echo-y of the mid 80s.

The involvement also raised a few questions for me.

In addition to volunteering, my friend and I challenged ourselves to participate in a flashmob dance. We watched the youTube instructional video – predominantly African American young women from a Brooklyn school, choreographed by the prominent Debbie Allen, also African American. And we went to a rehearsal in Oakland where only a handful of people of color showed up. She’s Chicana, I’m mixed heritage Asian/Jewish, and there we were in Oakland, a tremendously racially diverse place surrounded by white people… weird and wrong.

I had two reactions, one was: this is awful, god what poor outreach, ugh, can we do this? And two: thank god for the goodness of good white people and their showing up … I know, weird too, but humor gets me through…

Because I had some insider knowledge, I know that people of color were involved but not in the majority for planning. I also know there wasn’t any money involved and many were working full-time jobs AND volunteering to get this thing off the ground.

Regardless, it was very retro in a bad way that a group of feminist events felt overly white. At the risk of sounding like a political Carrie Bradshaw: Is feminism always going to feel like a white thing?  Even when there are people of color involved?

Seems to me, it’s still the case that unless it is a people of color-defined organization, or maybe a youth group, activism around women’s issues (and other areas btw…) in America still has an 80s feel regarding race.

What was heartening was all the footage from around the world, New Delhi, City of Joy in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, all over Europe. Even seeing the celebrities come out and participate was a good thing. Because it’s a good idea – dancing and rising up all on one day to bring attention and a positive vibe to something so awful and in need of a world movement everyday… not THE solution, but part of all the work that needs to get done.

P.S. Not to be preachy, but action still does = good… back away from the keyboard, give your thumb a rest and try it (if you haven’t lately). Sometimes the action isn’t perfect, but if you’re not there you can’t engage to make it better.



Targeting indifference: Extending “see something – say something” to gender-based violence

by Granate Sosnoff on 15th January, 2013
Michael Nodianos, 18, was intoxicated when he participated in a vile video in which he mocks the alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl last August. The video resurfaced last week after a hacktivist group posted it on YouTube.

Michael Nodianos, 18, participated in a video in which he mocks the alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl last August. The video resurfaced last week after a hacktivist group posted it on YouTube.

The good people of Steubenville, Ohio are in the middle of a modern-day gang rape case that is disheartening in a number of ways. What strikes me about the story are the displays of indifference to the drugging, dragging and public gang rape of the 16-year-old West Virginian girl this past August.

This guy (see image) should be replaced with another guy. The guy I want to read about is the guy who sends his video to the police the night of the event and calls and reports the crime.

The parents I want to read about are the parents who say, “yes, well, we raised him to be a responsible ally, it’s no wonder he did what he did.”

We need a better strategy to engage bystanders when it comes to sexual violence so that when they see something – they actually “say something.”

As the story deepens (see New Yorker article) we learn that this isn’t the first time something as cruel, vicious and illegal has happened around Steubenville High (or other schools for that matter).

“Peer pressure” is something we made fun of when I was a teen but it’s at the crux of indifference to violent crime and probably why, given the many people who had opportunities to intervene, they did nothing.

The enormously popular author, Stieg Larson, who wrote the “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series fell victim to it as a teen.

Mr. Larson witnessed the gang rape of a girl, a real-life Lisbeth, by his friends. He didn’t intervene, and according to his longtime friend, this inaction haunted him the rest of his days.

Given the long life of a story on the web, I can only imagine Michael Nodianos’s future regret.

He could have been a hero.

Eric Cantor stomps his feet and VAWA doesn’t get ratified

by Granate Sosnoff on 11th January, 2013



One of the best books I read in 2012 was Louise Erdrich’s powerful, National Book Award-winning novel, The Round House. The central theme is that of a violent rape committed against an Ojibwe woman. What is important to note here is that where the rape occurs is of legal significance as well as who perpetrates the crime, since tribal courts have limited jurisdiction over crimes that occur on reservations by non-Natives.

The book is a complex exploration of the impact violence has on family, community, and of the limitations of legal recourse – all relevant to the issue of violence against women…

I bring this up because the reason why VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) didn’t pass this time around was because:

“At the eleventh hour…majority leader Eric Cantor dug in his heels over the Native American provision, which would have expanded tribal courts’ jurisdiction over domestic violence offenses committed on reservations against Native women by non-Native men.” Excerpted from The Nation article by Erica Eichelberger

Seems to me that a provision for extending tribal law is written in there for a reason. According to US government statistics (via Amnesty International) Native American and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women in the U.S.

According to the US Department of Justice, 86% of this violence is perpetrated by non-Natives. Given the history of violence against Native Americans in the US it seems that tribal courts SHOULD have more jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Natives on reservations.

Please take a few minutes to let him know that you think he is wrong. You can leave him a message at: (202) 225-2815 or write to him at:



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