Activist Brittany Packnett is woke, and she’s empowering others too
Her journey of self-discovery fuels her passion to fight for education and black lives
Culture, education, social and racial activism have all been parts of Ferguson, Missouri, activist and educator Brittany Packnett’s life since she was a toddler. She remembers seeing pictures of herself with her parents at rallies. The photos were a foreshadowing that she wouldn’t escape kismet.
Some 20 years later, she just may be the face of modern-day wokeness.
Packnett, 32, said she doesn’t consider herself famous. She considers herself to be just visible.
“I know I’m more visible than I thought I would be. I didn’t set out for this. I didn’t seek fame or visibility. I’m not an entertainer. I’m not an athlete. I’m not someone who said, ‘I want to be a star.’ I really just love my people a lot. And I love black children a lot. And I want to see us live. I want to see us thrive. I want to see us enjoy the kind of life that our ancestors fought for. And that’s the way that I was raised. I feel like every time I’m able to access some of that joy, I try to hold on to it in my personal life. I just want to see us all be able to live lives of full humanity, ’cause that’s what we deserve. And then all of this other stuff happened. So yeah, it still is a shock for me.”
Packnett is a regular guest on fellow activist DeRay Mckesson’s podcast, Pod Save the People. The two formed a friendship because of their activism. She was recently named one of Essence’s 100 Woke Women. She rose to prominence after Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson at the hands of police. Packnett was outraged, so much so that she knew something needed to be done. So the educator set out to protest, serving as one of the leaders in the Ferguson protest movement. Along with other passionate activists, including Johnetta Elzie and Samuel Sinyangwe, she co-founded Campaign Zero, a campaign centered on police reform and an end to police violence. She was also a member of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Influenced greatly by her father, who died in 1996 — the Rev. Ronald Packnett, pastor of Central Baptist Church, a large historically black congregation in St. Louis — and her mother, Gwendolyn Packnett, a social worker, she and her younger brother, Barrington, have a sense of community and sharing. Like their father, Barrington Packnett graduated from Yale Divinity school.
“It’s fascinating because when I was on the streets of Ferguson, especially in the first days, people would walk up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re Rev. Packnett’s daughter,’ or ‘You’re Dr. Packnett’s daughter.’ There are folks in St. Louis and still, if my dad were alive, that we wouldn’t actually have been in that kind of crisis, which is really humbling. And it makes me feel even more responsible, not just to our community but to his legacy, to my parents’ legacy, to do good with this platform.”
The St. Louis native earned her bachelor’s degree in African-American studies from Washington University in St. Louis and her master’s degree in elementary education from American University. Packnett is vice president for National Community Alliances at Teach For America. As an activist and change agent, she is a protester and organizer and co-founder of We The Protesters. From joining #BlackLivesMatter to sounding off on the #BlackWomenAtWork social media movements, Packnett is in the midst of activism and keeps the conversation about racial progress going.
She recently spoke to The Undefeated, where she opened up about self-preservation, social activism and her rise in visibility that have shaped her wokeness. For the first time, she speaks up about her battle with depression and a new endeavor.
What was your first moment of activism?
So I don’t think I can remember my first moment of activism. But I do remember the fact that there were no black Santas at any major mall in St. Louis. I had to be about 10 or 11. My father called one of his contacts at one of the local news stations. They came out to the mall and did a story on a rally that he hosted there, and the journalist turned to me and said, ‘Why do you think it’s important to have black Santas at the mall?’ And I didn’t know it at the time because I didn’t have language, but I was essentially talking about representation. I was like, ‘We shop in these stores, we celebrate Christmas too. It would be nice to go and talk to a Santa who looks like me.’ And I remember going to school later that week and some of my friends had seen it, and they were like, ‘I just don’t understand what the big deal is.’ I went to a majority-white school, and they were like, ‘I don’t understand. It’s Santa. It’s just Santa.’
But I was raised to know that in the small things and in the large things, the recognition of our community and humanity matters. Period, end of story. Whether or not other people want to acknowledge it or understand it doesn’t mean that it’s not important.
Were there any experiences in high school that shaped you into the activist you are today?
I feel like myself and a half-dozen other folks of all different races started a diversity organization, the very first one in the school’s history. And that meant that among other things, we would do awareness speeches in our morning assemblies. And this white upperclassman did not like the fact that we were doing that, and I ended up being the object of his ire for some reason. He used to follow me around after class … in between classes, rather, and harass me. He would say, ‘Is my whiteness oppressing you today?’ The irony of it is rich, though. You actually are being quite oppressive because you are harassing me and I’m just trying to go to school. But I just ignored him, and then one day I turned around and just told him it wasn’t OK for him to do this, and he spit at me, which was a trauma that I think I … not I think, I know I buried for years. I didn’t talk about it for years.
I ended up going back to my high school in the midst of Ferguson — I want to say about September, October of 2014 — and they asked me to talk about my experience on the streets. And that was the first time I told that story since 2000. It just came up and came out, and I realized that reclaiming my story in a place that could have broken me was a really important step for me to take. So, yeah, to answer your initial question, I kind of don’t remember a time that I wasn’t doing this.
What experiences of activism in college stick out?
You know, college was an interesting time because it was the first experience that I’ve had that I feel like was the intersection of what I really care about now. It was working on an institution that I cared about but it was deeply imperfect, engaging in the act of protest and activism and being unafraid to do so, and also going through my own journey as a black woman and learning to love myself and see my own power to be able to go and effect the kind of change that I wanted to see in the world. And I feel like that is what I do every day now, and college was the first place that I got to live in that intersection and really explore what it meant and take the hits and have the hard days, but also have the moments of triumph.
We also did a lot of work on labor. I was one of the co-founders of an organization called Student Worker Alliance. The group ended up shutting down the administration building. I was on the other side of campus because I was also charity and alumni chair for our junior honorary and our big carnival was that weekend, so I couldn’t shut down the building. So I would, like, run water to the building and come and make sure that people were good and then run back to the carnival and make sure that we were raising money for our charity and that people were enjoying themselves.
I also was really physically ill during a lot of college, so I wasn’t always making the best decisions for my personal health, but I always just wanted to see issues of justice win the day. I was constantly making that sacrifice.
I think my college activism taught me a lot about privilege, because in that instance I was not a member of the most affected. I was not a member of the group that was dealing with the injustice. I was the privileged student swiping my card every day to go get food. I was not going to be fired for my activism. I was not going to be fired for speaking up for this. I was not going to risk losing the ability to put food on my family’s table because I engaged in this. It was important for us to engage in a way that didn’t silence folks who did work on our campus, and people that we were fighting for but also fighting with.
Can you share the physical illness you experienced in college?
Yeah, I had bad ovarian cysts in college. I also really suffered from depression. And so the combination was toxic in a lot of ways. I lost a lot of weight my junior year. I was in a relationship that was not healthy for me. There were lots of classes that I just stopped going to. I think for a week straight, all I ate were peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And I just think that it’s hard for people to imagine someone like me that they might see out speaking out about issues, dealing with something that’s very human. We don’t talk about mental illness a lot in the black community, but thankfully my mother is a social worker by trade, and so she knew the signs. And even when I wasn’t ready to talk about what I was feeling, she knew how to hold me up and make sure that I was cared for in the midst of that.
I ended up taking a leave of absence from school, first semester my senior year. It was a medical leave of absence, but I also needed to kind of remove myself from the surroundings that were weighing me down. I came here, to D.C. actually, and interned on the Hill for Congressman Lacy Clay, who’s our congressman from St. Louis. I did that for a semester, and it just felt like a whole new world opened up to me and that I opened up to myself for the first time in a long time. And this idea that social justice could be something I made a living at, I was reminded of the power of my family’s legacy and that I could carry on that mantle, that I didn’t have to wallow in the depths of what I was feeling, that I could actually live for something greater than myself. And that really helped pull me out of where I was.
And I know that depression is something you can’t say, ‘How’d you get over depression?’ It doesn’t happen like that.
Oh, no, I battle it every day. I battle it all the time. Therapy definitely helps. I also just had to make some decisions about who and what I would allow in my space. Managing depression … because that’s really what it is — you don’t get over depression, you can’t cure it, you manage it every single day. I would say that two points in my life where I was deepest in depression were during college: the second half of college or kind of the middle of college, really. I think I came out of it in my senior year. But also … gosh, I would say probably between 2012 and, like, last year. So when I talk about managing depression, it is purely from a place of lived experience. It’s not anything I read in a book or saw in a movie. It is what I have figured out for myself.
And the big difference between 2015, 2016 Brittany and 2017 Brittany is being intentional and deliberate about what I allow in. And so there are a lot of times that I will take a break from social media. I will take a break from watching the news. I had to give myself permission to not be at every protest. So, too, knowing full well that when I have mental instability, it shows up in me physically. Working on ensuring that those kind of triggers that I’ve identified for myself, I can stay away from as much as possible, which also just meant learning how to love people from afar and recognizing that I want everybody to win. I know that everybody is human. I also know what I need to be strong and what I need to feel like myself. And, so, yeah, making those choices has been really important. We talk about self-care all the time, the movement. I’m not an expert at it. I’m actually not very good at it.
Audre Lorde is one of my favorite writers. … I often think about Audre Lorde’s conversations about self-care, when she talks about how, ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it’s self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ It is still very hard for me to take care of myself intentionally and consistently. But when I am able to remember it, it is because I remember that me surviving all of this and me being here to fight on another day is an act of political warfare. It would be much easier for folks to be able to take out activists and for us to not be here to raise the truth, to sound the alarm. I don’t want to imagine a world where Bri is too tired to climb up the flagpole, or where we’re too tired to march down in Baton Rouge with the activists there.
How do you balance your work with activism and your work with education?
Thankfully, my organization is very supportive, but they also understand that the two aren’t separate. I think people ask me that question often, and for me, I don’t actually balance them because they inform one another. When Michael Brown Jr. was killed, he graduated from a high school where we placed teachers. So when I was running Teach for America in St. Louis, I had teachers that saw him walking down the hallway. And whether or not he was ever taught by one of my teachers isn’t the point, because all of these young people are ours. I think looking at them like they’re all our children would get us out of what we’re dealing with now. And so I stepped out on the streets of Ferguson for the same reason that I stepped into a classroom in 2007. I stepped out on the streets of Baltimore for the same reason that I have remained in education for the last eight years. I stepped out on the streets of Baton Rouge for the same reason that my parents stepped out on the streets that they did, because all of this is deeply interconnected and even if Michael Brown Jr. had lived, there was still so much more that we owed him. He graduated from an unaccredited school. He is someone for whom a diploma should have been a ticket up, but it ended up not being bulletproof in the way that we keep promising our children that it is.
I don’t find that they are separate. Justice work will always be necessary inside the classroom and outside of the classroom. And we educate children in the context of their community. I can’t claim to care about what happens in the four walls of a classroom and not be deeply and gravely concerned about what they deal with as soon as they leave that classroom. So it’s all one and the same for me. I know that I have to keep political conversations very separate, and I have to make sure that I’m doing that kind of stuff on my personal time. But whether it’s education or criminal justice reform or police violence or racial injustice, we are dealing fundamentally with people’s humanity and making sure that all of our systems and institutions fully recognize it. And that is the business that I’m in, shifting institutions and empowering people to be able to live full lives. That’s it. Period. Education or not.
What drives your passion for activism and all of the work you do?
In some ways, it’s from knowing what life can be without that. I remember I started finding a lot of my Twitter conversations, threads and tweets with a heart emoji and a fist emoji. And in my head, I was thinking love and power, right? I didn’t quite know where it was coming from, it just came up. … Then I found a quote from Dr. King where he actually talks about this, and he talks about the fact that we often don’t speak about love and power in combination with one another. We think that they’re oxymorons. We talk about love in a way that lacks power, and so it’s usually anemic and sentimental. We talk about power in ways that lack love, so we talk about power that is reckless and dangerous when wielded the wrong way. But the combination of love and power is actually what’s going to change the world. And that is the thing that I am most obsessed with.
What’s been the hardest part of your journey?
Truthfully, knowing that I was good enough for any of this. There are assumptions we make about people with a lot of visibility, that they’ve got it all together, that they’ve got all the answers, that they are not figuring this out along with everybody else. And I didn’t start to own that I was powerful enough, good enough, strong enough, worthy enough to do the kind of work that I’m doing right now, to have the kind of platform that I have right now until very recently, through very intentional hard work and self-reflection.
What’s been the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
This is such a millennial answer. The best piece of advice I received was from Instagram. This is so shameful! I want to tell you it was from President Obama or Valerie Jarrett; I got great advice from them. I want to tell you it was from all these cool people I got to meet over the last few years. There was great advice there. President Obama gave us a good talking-to about being in the work for the long haul, and Valerie and I had good conversations about what a strong pathway looks like and how you consistently increase your aperture and your ability to do more with every step.
But I was scrolling Instagram one day and there was this picture that said, ‘You had a purpose before anyone had an opinion.’
How did you meet DeRay Mckesson?
Oh, Lord. This story. So DeRay and I both taught through the same organization that I still work for, and DeRay was living in Minneapolis at the time. He was working for Minneapolis Public Schools. I wrote a post called Education Didn’t Save Mike Brown, mostly because I wanted people who were questioning my participation in this uprising, who were questioning our students’ participation, a lot of our teachers’ participation in this uprising, to understand why we couldn’t separate justice from teaching and why diplomas are wonderful, important, incredible things but until we fix the systems that are supposed to serve, protect and uplift our students, then those diplomas will never be bulletproof.
So I wrote this piece, and they were about to run it and they were like, ‘We need a picture to go with it.’ So I sent them a picture, I want to say maybe from my second or third night out in Ferguson on West Florissant Avenue. There was a gun line, a skirmish line right behind me, and the symbol we were all using was to hold our hands up. We chant the saying, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot.’ So I’m holding my hands up in front of this gun line. There’s an armored vehicle behind me, and there are police with rifles and all that stuff. DeRay was in the TFA [Teach for America] office when they were about to run the piece, and they were passing the picture back and forth, so DeRay saw the picture. And DeRay was like, ‘I think I need to go down there. I think I’m gonna go down there.’
And there’s a picture of myself, a bunch of our teachers and alums, a couple staff members who were out there of their own volition, and DeRay the first night he was down there. And, yeah, we just started to work together very quickly.
How is the podcast world for you?
So the podcast has been a lot of fun. I’m really thankful to people for listening to it. We called the first episode American Do-over because we were fantasizing about what would happen if everybody just left the White House and we had a whole new election. We just have a nice, American do-over. But I think the podcast represents one of the many ways that we are finding new and creative avenues to engage with folks.
Pod Save the People. So DeRay hosts it, and so DeRay, Sam and I do this segment called My Two Cents in the beginning of each episode. And I think what’s powerful about it is, we are not seasoned politicos, we are not reporters, we’re not official commentators on some network. We are regular people who care a lot about humanity, who care a lot about issues of justice, talking about news that affects us all. So we talk about everything from health care to Michelle Obama’s speaking fees and how Donald Trump was making $1.5 million for speaking fees, so I don’t want to hear about Michelle Obama’s speaking fees in the ways that, honestly, the three of us often talk about things just as friends, as people who care, as black folks who are trying to make a better day.
What’s new for you?
I’ve been very into fashion my whole life, and I taught myself Adobe Illustrator. Well, my boyfriend helped teach it to me. And I can design shirts. I was walking down the street and somebody was wearing my shirt, and I was like, ‘I cannot believe this.’ I’d love to continue figuring out what it looks like to outfit people in a conscious way that both allows people to express what they believe and wear things that they believe in. So I’d love to explore that. But really, I just want to help. … I really want to figure out this intersection of love and power. I really want to help people figure out what it means in their own lives, what it means in how we shift institutions, what it means for how we shift this education game, what it means for how we ensure that the truth is being told and protest on the streets translates into real policy change. I want to make sure that we are using our power, as Dr. King says, to correct everything that stands in love’s way. And so what that will look like, I’m not sure yet. I don’t know what title that would be, I don’t know what job that’ll be, I don’t know what city that’ll be, but I am open to whatever comes, as long as I can ground my feet in love and power.