Brenda Joyce Crawford has been in the thick of social justice work for over five decades. She’s an unapologetic butch woman who comes from a blue collar working class background in the U.S. South. A great deal of her career has been spent promoting values-based leadership in order to create safe and welcoming environments where the richness of the information that resides within all communities can emerge and be appreciated and included in the planning or change processes. She has worked with such groups as Mental Health Consumer Concerns and Progressive Research & Planning for Action, and has won numerous awards for her community work and her work supporting those with experiences of alcohol and substance abuse, including the California Legislature Assembly Certificate of Recognition for Front Line Work, and Certificates of Recognition and Appreciation from Congresswoman Barbara Lee and U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer.
Crawford now lives in Vallejo, California and does work focusing on cannabis justice via the organization Senior-Cann, a cannabis education and healthy living membership for seniors that seeks to break the stigma associated with medical cannabis and aging.
Q&A with Brenda Joyce Crawford
You’ve been on the frontlines of social justice movements for decades. What first inspired you to get into social justice work? What keeps you doing the work?
I was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and my folks were sharecroppers. My earliest recollection of racism was when I was seven years old. I remember hearing this White man speak to my Grandfather like he was a child and my grandfather being extremely deference to this man. I did not understand what was happening, but I will never forget the shame and anger in my poppa’s eyes as he walked away. I think in my childlike understanding of what was happening, I thought, “When I grow up I am going to protect people from ‘mean people’.” This childhood memory has led to my spending many years fighting against Racism, Sexism, homophobia and classism. All of these isms are illness of the spirits that separates us all from our humanity and health. So it has always been important to me promote and work to achieve social justice as ways of achieving health and wholeness in our lives and spirits. What keeps me going is the support of my community and my unwavering commitment to Justice and trying to eliminate barriers that separate us.
How have movements changed since you first started organizing?
The movement is more diverse today and people are more open about their sexual orientation. When I first came out in 1963, many people were closeted and lived in fear of being outed and maybe being the victim of violence. Sadly, today we seem to be going backward under the current administration. However, I still believe we need to continue to have conversations on race and class in the LGBT communities. Without these conversations, we will remain racially polarized where eighteen Black Trans women can be murdered in this country, practically going unnoticed by many mainstream LGBT communities and organizations. In the early days, grassroots organizing was the way in which LGBT communities built communities and developed strategies to achieve civil rights. There seems to be a move toward seeking support from corporations to provide resources to support our struggles, which does not always serve us and leaves out the most marginalized and disenfranchised members of our community.
In Los Angeles in 2003, you organized to bring Black lesbian elders to the National Black Lesbian Conference. Why did it feel so critically important to have elders in that space?
Because before the formation of the National Organization on Black Lesbian Aging (NOBLA), our voices were not heard, honored or even sought to contribute to LGBT aging conversations. I along with my sisters were aging and services were being developed without our input. Very little research was being conducted to discover the health risks and develop healthy aging strategies for Black Lesbians. Many of us when we age become frightened because of the extreme social isolation and homophobia in many Black Aging and Older Adult service organizations. I wanted to bring older Black Lesbians together, first to show women from all around the country that we are not alone, and next to get information on what our needs were as we age so that culturally appropriate services could be developed. I also wanted to expose many younger Black Lesbians to Black Lesbian Elders as a way of creating intergenerational conversations and relationships. It was important that younger women see and experience that we are all stronger together. I wanted to highlight and illustrate how ageism in the Black Lesbian communities hurts us all young and old.
That gathering was one of the highlights of my life.
What does it mean to you to be nominated for the Astraea Acey Social Justice Feminist Award?
I am grateful, honored and humbled. I continue to do the work at 73 because unfortunately, there is still work to be done. My hope is that by continuing to work for full inclusion and equality now that I am older and my work includes the wisdom that aging brings, can be more effective and have a greater impact on my community. Thank you all for this recognition. I really appreciate being selected.