The left, says Bree Carlson, needs to rethink its strategy. Tired of fighting isolated battles on racial justice and economic justice, and always playing defense, she wants to look toward broader battles—and then win them.
Carlson has been involved in movement work since she was a child, joining her mom on picket lines in Reno, Nev. After a stint as a union organizer, she joined the Center for Third World Organizing and later became the deputy director at People’s Action, a multiracial, multigenerational coalition engaged in “joyful rebellion” against structural racism. This August, she took the helm of the Action Center on Race and Economy (ACRE) as co-director.
Carlson says that ACRE’s approach, which combines high-level advocacy and analysis with local organizing, is especially suited to the moment. The problems we face, she believes, are more complex and oppressive than ever. To overcome them, organizers need to work at different scales, across sectors, and with a critical eye to how race and economy intersect.
ACRE is what Carlson calls a “proof of concept” organization attempting to merge different campaigns and reveal where systems of oppression interlock. They advocate for policy changes, conduct economic research, and partner with community organizations. From helping to appoint progressive Federal Reserve member Lisa Cook to ending municipal contracts with surveillance tech, their work is as far-reaching as their opponents’ much better-funded campaigns. And Carlson argues that if we’re going to succeed, we can’t afford to think small.
—Lucy Dean Stockton
Growing up with a flock of cocktail waitresses meant that I had a really cool childhood, because not all, but almost all, were single moms. So we always lived with someone else and their kid, too. Everything that ever got done, got done by somebody’s mom. I was in my 20s when it first occurred to me that there were things girls couldn’t do. My mom was and remains a very political person. I was raised on the picket line. She was on the board of Planned Parenthood of Nevada at the time and was always organizing her workplace. My mom has my politics, but she has never had the luxury of putting all of her time into them.
LDS: Most recently, you were with National People’s Action. Can you tell me more about that?
BC: I had mostly done work in training, organizational development, and organizing that was focused on traditional racial-justice issues. But I had this crisis of faith when I was working at the Center for Third World Organizing, because every campaign was so important. It was a moment where it felt like there was a real possibility to win on a lot of them. And yet we weren’t winning.
Bernard Moore, who I believe is still at SEIU, came up with this exercise that we used to do, called “tombstone.” It’s so gory, but it asks you to reflect on what you want your impact to be: What’s your legacy as an organizer? What will you leave behind? I realized that we could win every single racial justice campaign in the country and never put a dent in racism.
LDS: What drove you to change positions and organizations?
BC: The limitations were what drove me out of CTWO. It was great work we were doing. But without huge results. At the end of my life, I want to point to some crack in the structure of racism, some actual impact. At that time, it was common for organizing to be two camps: economic-justice organizing and racial-justice organizing. They didn’t really intersect. That’s when I went to People’s Action, a historically economic-justice-focused organization that organized people of color but that also believed centering race could be divisive.
I was there for 10 years, focusing on how I would build an organization that really understands the secret of capitalism in the United States: that it’s interdependent with racism. We created a long-term agenda as an organization and did a listening project talking to our member organizations across the country, asking questions like what could we win if it wasn’t just an assessment of what we can win in any given moment, but an assessment of what has to be won in 40 years and what it would take to move there?
That was probably the most exciting work I’ve ever done, because it was built from the ground up with members, standing in Cincinnati with people who are in public housing, standing in Des Moines with people who are unemployed, people who are struggling in really profound ways. And asking them: What would it take to have an economy or a democracy that actually worked for you? Asking was in and of itself powerful, because it helped people to imagine things that were impossible to imagine before that, and it really changed the organization.
LDS: Are there common bad guys that show up across projects?
BC: There are corporations that are so bad that they show up in very disparate ways and in different campaigns. More interestingly, there are two sectors: finance and tech. They’re producing some really heinous outcomes. Finance is more straightforward. Tech is more complicated.
If you think about race and economy, it’s important to understand that there’s not just one bad guy. It’s not personal. We don’t move systems and arrange power because we’re picking on someone. I think we struggle to win on race, because we talk a lot about the horrendous implications for communities of color but are distracted from the big picture. Like Amazon doesn’t want to be mean to people of color. Amazon wants money and power. And one of the most efficient ways to get there happens to be really cruel to people of color.
LDS: Where do you see your projects in your own life?
BC: Some things directly impact my neighborhood. I can look outside right now at how many people are homeless. It is not unrelated to corporate landlords, and companies that are buying up real estate. We didn’t suddenly have a shortage of affordable housing. We didn’t even suddenly have a homelessness crisis. It’s exacerbated by unchecked greed.
One of ACRE’s campaigns that I’m most excited about is our work around ShotSpotter. They’re a corporation that has sold municipalities and police stations the idea that they can tell where a gunshot is. But they’re only accurate 9.1 percent of the time. The rest of the time, it’s not just a waste of money, it’s a loss of life. Adam Toledo, the 13-year-old in Chicago, who was murdered by the police—that was ShotSpotter. This campaign is a great illustration of how we work, which is partnering with local groups. In Chicago, our two key partners are Defund CPD and United Working Families.
LDS: ACRE partners with a lot of local organizations. How do those partnerships happen?
BC: We believe that we can effectively fight the way that finance and tech work if we center race instead of avoiding it. So we look for opportunities with local partners who want to learn how to campaign that way, who have a real commitment to a long-term fight. Winning any one ShotSpotter campaign won’t transform policing in this country. But it’s a tangible fight when there’s so much pushback around policing campaigns in the country. It gives people a window to make a real impact on people’s lives and a real chance of winning. That helps the bases of those organizations while changing the conversation in the rest of the country.
LDS: There’s an economic aspect around fighting these companies, a policy aspect where you’re trying to work with local cities, and a community-organizing aspect to your work. Any one of those is an enormous campaign. How do you approach an issue?
BC: Community organizing hasn’t evolved as quickly as it needs to. It’s a methodology that stems from the 1950s, where your target was local, and globalization was not really a factor. You could hold the president of your local bank accountable or your employer or your local government for what it invests in. But that’s not the world we’re in right now. It requires an ecosystem of organizing and progressive infrastructure to work together, and thousands of cuts. Hopefully we’re proving our model, so it’s possible for other organizations to approach campaigning this way.
I’d also add the political work that we’re doing. We have our 501(c)(3) ACRE Institute, 501(c)(4) ACRE organizations, and our political work. Vasudha Desikan, our political director, led the group of organizations that fought to have Lisa Cook confirmed as the first Black woman on the Federal Reserve Board. It’s a hard fight, because most people don’t have any earthly idea what the Federal Reserve Board is or what it does. And insofar as they do, they think it’s just about controlling interest rates to slow the economy down or avoid a recession. But there’s more they could do. They could be the answer to housing insecurity or they could replace private banks. Having somebody who actually studies racial disparity and economy is a huge step in the right direction.
LDS: What’s a project that hasn’t worked? What did you learn from it?
BC: We’re an organization without a base. There are good reasons for it, but it will always present challenges. In 2018, ACRE did great research on policing and race. But it fell flat, because we didn’t have a base that was ready to pick it up. In 2020, when everybody and their mama and their cousin needed that data, it was picked up, but it sat for a long time.
If you’re not connected to a base, you can do research and policy work that is groundbreaking but won’t necessarily be connected to something immediate that people are dealing with. It’s tricky to be an organization that’s not tied to a particular base and still anticipate what will be useful.
LDS: How do you want to transform your organization’s work?
BC: This part of the interview process was so hard, because I don’t feel like the organization’s broken. I want to make ACRE more ACRE! It’s a baby organization, just five years old, and its work is not done. We have a mission to change how we fight for what people need in this country.
How do we get from here to this next level? Some of it is organization building. I mean, a five-year-old organization as large as ACRE has some predictable challenges around sustainability: How do you create the organizational culture that best reflects our values? How do you resource an organization that really leads with race when there are consistently ebbs and flows from funding in that arena?
And I want to look at other interventions like the Fed, where there’s not an obvious group to lead it. I’m asking: What are the most strategic opportunities that will both make change that’s deeply felt by people and expose what is behind those problems to inform our organizing?
LDS: What would be the most meaningful step that lawmakers could take to protect vulnerable communities from corporate exploitation?
BC: I don’t think that there’s one solution to anything anymore. The systems are so interconnected. You pull one thread and go, “Well, shit.” As Pollyannaish as this might be, I think the most important thing that lawmakers could do is not so different from what we do at ACRE, which is to seek solutions that shift power to people over profits. Any solution that you’re stomaching because it gives a whole bunch of breaks for corporations may not be worth it. That’s what I’d say to lawmakers: Where can you push the envelope the most to shift real power?
LDS: ACRE has a vested interest in changing system-level strategy, which matches the long game that conservatives have been running for decades.
BC: We play checkers, they play chess. And unless we straighten that out, we’re always going to be chasing results while playing their game.