Review: The Purpose of Power

4 stars

THE PLOT: “The Purpose of Power” by Alicia Garza is non-fiction that provides an insight into grassroots organizing, the history of #BlackLivesMatter and highlights key areas to think about when attempting to affect change. A co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter, Alicia intersperses personal stories of her upbringing, education and activism with notes on the meaning of movement and deliberations on effective tools, such as the involvement of organisations or the use of individual profiles. Structured in three sections, this book provides historical context, background about the decade of organizing before the hashtag and useful learning for future movements.

RATING: I’m giving this book four stars because I feel it was very accomplished. No shade on other writers, but I think there’s a publishing trend for “millennial memoirs” where people with Instagram platforms cobble together some personal anecdotes and Wikipedia entries, which is then marketed as important ruminations on our times. This book does not do that. It is a highly intelligent, critical analysis of how to build a movement that truly affects change (hint, it’s not the same as building a platform).

I’m someone who has worked with grassroots campaigns in a limited capacity, but I quickly transitioned into government roles because I became frustrated at the preponderance of ideology rather than tangible change. As a disgruntled civil servant, this book has given me a lot to think about in terms of different strategies to affect change and the way I can be an ally from within. Honestly, before this book I didn’t know about the amount of work that has gone into #BlackLivesMatter. Just to be clear – it’s more than just protests. It is an organised movement, set up as different chapters with aims, principles, and strategic goals in order to affect systemic change.

GOOD BITS: I really appreciated the amount of historical and political background in the earlier chapters. As a Brit, I vaguely knew about how the Clinton and Bush administrations led to the political climate around #BlackLivesMatter in the early 2000s, but this book really deepened my understanding. I also liked how the author isn’t complacent about presenting her views as a fait accompli, rather she debates both sides of the coin throughout and draws on historical examples as well as her own experiences to identify useful tools for creating change.

The themes that particularly struck me were the idea of turning empowerment into power and the difference between mobilization and organization. For me, (and I may be wrong), the Women’s March in London is a great example of how many people were mobilized but there was no organization to allow it to be leveraged into systemic change. This lack of organization, without explicit aims or principles, then allow the movement to be seen as a white feminist initiative as there was no real consideration of how having explicit policies to end inequality for black and brown women would benefit the whole of womankind.

NOT SO GOOD BITS: As an international reader, I would’ve liked more information about how the movement has exploded beyond the U.S. Although Garza mentions the use of social media to amplify their work abroad, I feel exploring international takes on #BlackLivesMatter would have made a useful case study in how to organize in different contexts. I particularly feel like she missed a trick by not discussing the #EndSars protests against police brutality in Nigeria as a movement that was (essentially) fueled by her work but used different strategies for the cultural and political context they were in.

OVERALL: I’d recommend this book if you’re interested in the history of #BlackLivesMatter and black oppression in the United States, but it’d be particularly useful if you’re working to affect change in any capacity in any country (e.g., charity or grassroots work in your local area, or if you work in policy or thinktanks). I also think it’d be good reading for students of sociology, anthropology or politics. Okay, I removed a star because there were times my focus drifted – sometimes it was more medicine than milkshake… But there are some practical tools to be gleaned, so make sure you read with a notebook and jot down anything you may find useful.

Thank you @penguinukbooks @hanasparkes @chasinggarza for sending me a #gifted copy of this book as part of #ThePurposeofPower Instagram tour. Particular thanks for my exclusive copy of the audiobook so I could listen along as well as read.