Activist and organizer Dante Barry talks about the people and events that shaped him, and his ongoing fight for social justice.
Dante Barry ’10 is executive director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, an organization he helped found in response to the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, by George Zimmerman in 2012. Since its inception, Million Hoodies has sought to build the next generation of human rights leaders and end anti-black racism and systemic violence. In recent years, Barry has expanded the organization’s reach beyond people of color. But he continues to draw on the lessons he first learned as a young black community organizer.
What sparked your interest in activism and organizing?
My mom was the person that really got me excited about organizing, and about black freedom work and its relationship to the civil rights movement.
I was born into a single-parent household in Mount Holly, a small town right outside of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. We were very poor: The highest level of formal education my mom got was a high school diploma, and she worked multiple jobs to put food on the table for me and my younger brother.
When I was 7 or 8 years old, she asked me: “Are you a leader, or are you a follower?” I didn’t really understand the question at the time, but it stuck with me and informed my initial understanding of organizing.
When I was a senior in high school, our teachers had a contract dispute and went on strike, which meant that all the extracurricular activities were cut. I was very involved in school—I was class president, ran track, played soccer—and as a poor black student who didn’t have any family members who’d gone to college, the strike really impacted my ability to advance myself. So me and a group of friends built an organization to change the situation. We raised around $20,000 and held a march and a daylong event that included all the activities that had been cut. Vernon C. King, a nephew of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., gave the keynote address.
That experience has informed a lot of my organizing to this day. I saw the effect of having people get excited about elevating issues in their communities and taking action.
How did you find your way to Million Hoodies?
All politics is personal, in that everyone enters politics because they were impacted personally: Something got them so angry that they wanted to do something about it.
And for a while, I was very angry. My experience in Ferguson shaped a lot of the work that I’ve done over the last few years.
After graduating from Monmouth, I moved to Washington, D.C., and worked as a policy assistant at the School-Based Health Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates at the federal and state levels to provide health services to young people in schools. But I left after a year because I wanted to do more of what I had done in high school and college: I wanted to organize at the community level, and I wanted to see tangible results. National-level work is important, but with local organizing you’re more likely to see the fruits of your labors in a direct way.
So I went to work for the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, a student-run policy organization that has chapters on 130 college campuses. I directed their operations, gave support to chapters, and trained members in community organizing and advocating for ideas at the local level.
Daniel Maree, who initially founded Million Hoodies in response to the Trayvon Martin shooting, was a member of the Network. In 2013, he asked me to join Million Hoodies to help turn it into a sustainable organization. I was a volunteer until 2014, when I moved into Million Hoodies full-time.
A bunch of things happened in 2014: Eric Garner was murdered in New York City, John Crawford was murdered in Ohio, and Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri.
I was in New York City when Brown was killed. I was hanging out with some friends from Monmouth at a bar in Hoboken when I got a bunch of text messages about it, and I was stunned. I remember watching on television as the tanks came in and the police started throwing teargas, and I just remember crying. I felt deep outrage and deep sorrow. I felt even more angry than I did when Zimmerman was acquitted.
I went down to Ferguson to support some of the local community organizations. And one particular night really shaped my life moving forward. Someone in the street threw an empty water bottle at the police, who started throwing teargas and chasing all of the black people down the street. I was pushed to the ground, and I had four loaded guns at the back of my head. I remember screaming, “I’m unarmed!” and getting up and running. There was a helicopter flying above me, there were spotlights all over the place, there were sound cannons going off. I felt like a runaway slave: I had nowhere to escape. I’m a very different person because of that experience.
All politics is personal, in that everyone enters politics because they were impacted personally: they were poor, or they experienced some type of violence, or they were incarcerated. Something got them so angry, so enraged, that they wanted to do something about it. And for a while, to be honest with you, I was very angry. My experience in Ferguson shaped a lot of the work that I’ve done over the last few years.
What drew you to Million Hoodies?
At the time, there were very few organizations that were engaging young black people in a way that felt authentic and represented our values and vision for the world. Million Hoodies filled a gap among young people of color who were outraged by the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, and it provided a unique form of organizing and leadership development for communities of color.
What makes the organization special?
We’re a black-led human rights organization, which means that while our membership is predominantly black we fight for a set of rights that all human beings deserve. We do leadership development in which we train and develop the next generation of human rights leaders. And we do grass-
roots organizing, advocacy, and education.
As far as I know, we are the only black-led organization that engages youth of color over the long term, from high school to young adult: We organize folks between the ages of 16 to about 37, and we have chapters in high schools, on college campuses, and in local communities.
What kinds of campaigns do you engage in?
Much of our work is around ending anti-black racism, criminalization, and systemic violence. In 2015, for example, we launched a campaign in partnership with Color of Change, a progressive civil rights advocacy group, that stopped the state of Oklahoma from passing a discriminatory bill that would have criminalized black youth for wearing hoodies in public spaces. That was one of our first wins as an organization.
But we work from a values-based perspective, and the core value is safety. So right now, we’re moving into the sanctuary space. A lot of folks have heard about sanctuary cities. We’re pushing a framework called freedom cities. We like to say that safety is freedom: If we’re able to feel safe in our communities, if we have jobs and housing and healthcare and food to eat—the basic tenets of what we think of as human rights—we’re able to live freely.
We’re also building a movement called Freedom Campus to provide opportunities for people of color to build more inclusive academic curricula in their institutions and feel safe on campus. Just last month, our Bard College chapter delivered a set of demands to the college president that included inserting Africana and Latin American studies into the curriculum and investing in a space for students of color on campus. Several of those demands have already been met.
You’ve broadened the organization’s scope beyond people of color: Recently, you’ve advocated for social justice on behalf of immigrants, women, and members of the LGBTQ community. What’s driving that shift?
When black people win, everyone wins. What I mean by that is, when we empower black folks that creates opportunities for every other community.
But we can’t have movements that are just about black people. We need to organize white folks and Latin folks and Asian folks and women and trans folks and queer folks. We need to build coalitions with other communities that understand that the main fight of our time is about safety. Me Too is about safety. Black Lives Matter is about safety.
We all understand what it means to be safe in our communities, and what it means not to feel safe. We all want a job, we all want a place to live, we all want to have our family safe and close to us, and we all need to eat. That’s the core of what we are moving toward and what we are working on.
Do you see signs of progress?
Yes. More and more people across the country are getting involved in grassroots organizing because they see that so many communities are hurting and are vulnerable to so much injustice, and they want to do something. I think that’s in large part because of black people being out in the streets. Ferguson allowed the world to see live on television how poor people of color are treated in this country, and made them more aware of racism, sexism, power, and abuse.
Five or six years ago, I would never have guessed that NFL players like Colin Kaepernick would be kneeling during the national anthem. I also wouldn’t have imagined all of these celebrities—people like Mark Ruffalo, the actor, or Ava DuVernay, the director—communicating messages relating to black people and gun violence. So I’m definitely hopeful. We need to keep creating moments of courage for people to get involved and take action, so that people’s lives can change.