Q and A with Rhonda Briggins
You were born in Alabama and now serving on the board of directors of the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma? What does this moment mean for you, personally and professionally?
It is full-circle for me. Growing up in Alabama, I always wanted to go to law school to become a civil rights attorney. In high school, I went to Selma two or three times a year, in the summers for a week, and in the winter and spring for a couple weekends, doing leadership trainings. Many of the folks in Selma and that were members of the civil rights community basically helped to raise me. And so personally for me to have the entire world, as a result of the movie Selma being released, to understand and see all these courageous people, and see [Selma] as a place of strength instead of a place of weakness, I’m seeing Alabama being shone in this different light. And professionally, [my experience in Selma] has created the person that I am now and without that experience, I wouldn’t be me as an adult, me as a professional, me doing the things that I’m doing in the world.
Can you tell me about the time you spent as a young person in Selma?
I’m a ‘70s baby, so after the Civil Rights Movement in the late’ 60s, a lot of those Civil Rights folks began to have children, and really still be very highly engaged in the community. They started a youth organization called 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, and I was a member of that organization. And so, during summers, during spring break, during winter break, we would go to different locations, and pretty much be trained in leadership by many of the folks that participated in the Civil Rights Movement. Fast forward, I graduated from high school, I went to college, and [was still] heavily be involved in the community. Then I got my first real job. I worked for the Georgia Legal Clinic for the Homeless. We were street lawyers, and we began to advocate for welfare reform, and making sure that there was coverage for women and children, and looking at how to implement welfare reform, and so I ended up in the newspaper. A couple of my mentors were like, “If you’re doing all of this amazing stuff in Atlanta, you should come back to Alabama.” So I went back to Alabama and began to do education reform. I actually moved back to Selma, working in these very rural school systems, beginning to redevelop the curriculum and reeducate children of color in a different way. Through that, the governor took notice of my work. They called me into his office and offered me a job, and that how I got to the governor’s office, which then led to women’s work.
In your own words, why is it important to commemorate the Civil Rights Movement today?
You have to know your past before you can know the present and the future. You have to understand the past, you have to understand the history, and you have to understand the various roles which different people played. The civil rights community was so wonderful because you had ordinary people doing extraordinary things. That’s why it is so critical [to commemorate the Civil Rights Movement] because it shows people like us that when we are doing what is right, regardless of what anyone feels, ordinary people can do extraordinary things. That is a very powerful thing to know, and the only way you get to know that is through a commemoration of a time when it happened.
How can women of #VRLnation get involved in Selma?
One of the huge correlations to Selma was that Selma was fighting for civil rights and human rights. As women, we have to always be a part of that, especially [given] the plight of women in this country. Women have to fight for all of their rights; equal pay, gender equality. And so if you don’t see that as a human right and a civil right, that’s why it is very critical to go to Selma, because Selma is ground zero of that for the United States.
The number of women in leadership is low across the US, but what is happening specifically in the South? And for women of color in the South?
I think we still have a very long way to go. You do see a lot of very strong women in power in the South. Do we need more? Yes. We’ve had tons of women in the South: Shirley Franklin, Mayor of Atlanta; Leah Sears, Georgia Supreme Court; Denise Majette, Congress; Cynthia McKinney, US congress; Terri Sewell, US Congress. And so the South has always had a lot of very strong women, but that was culturally what you had to do because of the history of the South. When you look at the numbers, locally and nationally, we’re still way off the course of where we should be in 2015. We have to continue to fight, and to continue to remember that if you want to be considered, you have to have a seat at the table.
Connect the dots for us on voting, running and leading. How do public policy, voting power, and leadership connect?
They all connect because at the end of the day, they’re all the same. If you’re going to get to public policy, then you have to have voting. Voters, the electoral process, elect the candidates, and it’s the elected officials who set policy. So it’s all connected, and that’s the connectivity that we have to get our community to understand. Take Ferguson, for instance. In Ferguson, Missouri, 52% of the voter makeup is African American. However, on the police force, on the elected officials, it’s no blacks; it’s all whites because they have not made the connectivity between public policy and voting power. If they understood and exercised their right to vote, with that type of percentile, then you should not have policies at that level that are against you, because you would have elected officials at the table representing you and you interests at a much higher level and rate. It’s all connected.
Your “day job” is serving as a lobbyist for Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. What does that entail?
[Before law school, my dream was to be a civil rights attorney]. I realized my second year of law school that the law was not just. If I wanted to make the powerful impact that the last generation prior to me [in the Civil Rights Movement] had made through litigation, this time our generation had to move forward in a space of public policy. Litigation is on the back end, and public policy is on the front end. If we are going to change the landscape, especially the political landscape, it has to be a war and a movement on public policy, not the aftermath, which is litigation. And with that, I understood the importance of public policy. I decided after law school not to practice, because that gets you into the world of litigation, and instead to stay in the space of public policy. And to be in a place of public policy, I needed to lobby, and become a lobbyist, because that’s where those other folks that shape, write, and do everything around public policy are. I was just on the phone, helping to shape the Transportation Funding Bill for the state of Georgia. It is currently 1.5 billion dollars. That is something you do on the front end. And so, through conversation, through negotiations, you begin to shape how the future will look fortomorrow, and it it’s in a space of public policy. And once those laws are in place, it takes litigation and changes of the law to make a difference. And you have to be on the side of the creation of the law, from the front side of it.
Why does lobbying have a bad reputation?
Because people don’t understand. There are lobbyists in everything that you do. There’s a lobbyist that controls how we talk on this phone. There are lobbyists that control how you cross the street, there’s lobbyists that control how much food, the different types of food, what’s approved, what’ s not approved. It’s all lobbying. And the problem is, it gets a bad rep because people only know that one aspect of lobbying, and they don’t understand that every aspect of their life is governed by a lobbyist. Lobbyists are the guards that make sure that good things go in, and bad things go out. There are just as many good lobbyists as there are bad lobbyists. People just don’t know that.
Do you see a difference between men and women lobbyists?
Let me tell you, I just got out of a meeting where there were ten white men sitting at the table, and there’s only one seat. I knew another person was supposed to come to the meeting, so I go and I sit in the back; I didn’t go up to the table. They’re like, “Come join us,” and I was like, “No, I’ll sit back here and just listen in.” And something occurred to me. [I thought to myself], that’s not good. You’re the only woman in this room. Go sit at the table. So I got up, and I went and I sat at the table. And so if I’m going to be a part of the process, I have to be at the table. And I went and sat at the table. And so that’s where we are; really having to understand all of those pieces, and all of those dynamics in the space of public policy. A lot of people don’t understand this space, and a lot of people fall into this space; very few people strategically put themselves in this space. There’s not as many women, at all, in this space. Not at all. And so over the years, most of the time, especially in the space of transportation, I am the only woman at the table, especially the only woman of color.
Isn’t that intimidating?
I’m not going to lie and say it’s not intimidating, because it has been over the years. But women have different perspectives; we see things totally different. We can multitask, which means we can see all of the pieces of the puzzle. We don’t just see our little piece, but we see all of the pieces of the puzzle, and because of that, we have to really embrace our strengths. And because I’m at the table, I can quietly change the dynamics of the conversation. Sometimes, I have also learned, you don’t have to say anything. Just being there makes them uncomfortable. And so, if I have to be there to make you uncomfortable, hey, sign me up.
What do women bring to the table that men aren’t able to?
Again, we see the big picture. We’re collaborative, where men are very competitive. Because we’re sisters and cousins and aunts and daughters and mothers, we’re going to think about everything and everyone. We’re not just thinking about our little piece. We’re very communal in that way. We’re concerned about all children, not just our children, so we’re going to make sure all of the children are being protected. Those are the types of things that women do that I don’t think men even care about.
Does having more women in positions of leadership foster more bipartisanship?
Oh yes, of course. We know how to compromise, we know how to play fair, we know how to get to what’s best for the vision, and for the people. When you saw government shut down, it was the women that went and said, “Enough is enough. People need to eat, people need to feed their families.” [Women] don’t have the ego that men have; they’re not in there for the pissing contest, and so the women will always foster that comprehensive, coalition-building, collaborative type of thinking. And being a part of a team, it’s the us and we, not I and me. And so it’s very critical that we extend the invitation to women. It’s very critical that we invite women to run because of all of these things. We have to have women at these tables, and we have to get women out of their comfort zone, to be engaged in subject matters beyond education and finance. We have to get them interested in transportation and infrastructure. We have to get them interested in security, in wars, in I.T., engineering, and technology. We have to get them understanding those bigger issues because, where we are in this world, those big infrastructures and innovated places are where the word is going. So if we’re going to shape the future, then we have to be at those tables.
Transportation, especially public transportation, is all about busses and trains. Rosa parks and the Civil Rights Movement kicked off because of a bus, and now I get to continue to make sure that I protect that bus. And so that’s what it has meant for me.
What is one accomplishment that you are proud of?
I’ve had a lot of great mentors, and over the years, I have always tried to mentor that next generation behind me. I have tons of these wonderful little mentees that are now working at organizations in DC. They were little kids that, when no one told them they could intern for them, I said, “come to my office and work.” Or they said they were confused they didn’t know what they wanted to do, and I said, “Well maybe you should go to law school, or maybe you should think about public policy.” And now to see them doing all of this amazing stuff, and them calling me and asking, “What do you think about this,” or, “This is what I’m working on”– that’s the work that we should be doing. So, as we continue to change the world, we always have to reach up, and also reach back. And I have been, my entire life, be very steadfast to do both.
What has been the most meaningful part of your work with VoteRunLead?
Most of us have been working together for over a decade now. It is probably one of the most diverse groups of women that I have ever been a part of. So we should have a whole bunch of differences, but we don’t. We all are very clear about this common goal that we all share; we are very clear that we are our sisters’ keeper and that we are a sisterhood. We understand the collective we, and we have shared and expanded that over the years. We have made this unannounced commitment to one another, and that has turned into this family and this sisterhood. I expect to walk the next 20 or 30 years of my life with these women, and I think they would probably say the same, because we understand that with the mission that we’re on, we cannot stop until we feel that we’ve done all that we can do. That is how we have set the tone around this nation, and why the VRL invitation is so critical. We’re asking other women to join us in this mission, and as we move, and as we walk, and as we evolve together, that’s what we’ve done. I don’t even think that we even know that we’ve made this commitment because we’ve never verbally said to one another, “we’ve made this commitment.” But we have in our actions, in our movement, in our commitment, and in our staying steadfast. I think that’s one of the most powerful things for VRL, and other women feel it, which is why we are going to easily implement VRL nation, and let it spread around this country.
I think we have a beautiful story. When The White House Project closed, we all got on the phone and said, let’s not let this work die.” And we made this commitment to one another that we would see this work through. We’re all here, and I think we’re going to be here for a long time.
Check out the VRL library for Rhonda’s last webinar training if you missed it and sign up to train with Rhonda in person at Go Lead and Go Run this year!