General Session

Thursday, August 4, 2016

9:00am – 10:00am

Henri Makembe (Beekeeper Group)Shanelle Matthews (Director of Communications, Black Lives Matter) and Brendan Burns (CFO and Senior VP of Field Strategy, Autism Speaks)

When faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, sometimes a social movement will rise to capture public attention. Our two panelists represent organizations that have successfully harnessed ‘people power’ to grow a movement. Their activists lead the charge to fight for recognition, a substantive shift in attitudes, and real political change.

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When faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, sometimes a social movement will rise to capture public attention. Our two panelists represent organizations that have successfully harnessed ‘people power’ to grow a movement. Their activists lead the charge to fight for recognition, a substantive shift in attitudes, and real political change.

Learning Objectives:

  • How does a social movement happen?
  • How do you know that you are onto something?
  • What are the secrets from your playbook?
  • What happens when the harnesses snap?
  • Do you want control/structure?
  • How do you harness without it feeling like you are being harnessed?
  • How to keep the right people engaged?
  • What was the story that created the tipping point? How do you keep the story going?


Question: Give us an overview, or a timeline, of the birth of the Black Lives Movement.

Shanelle Matthews (SM):

  • Important to note that all of these issues are intersectional.
  • The individuals in this room are uniquely positioned to take this information and affirm and share these messages.
  • Black Lives Matter is an affirmation of the value of black life, working at the intersection of many different parts of the different experiences. The movement is working at the intersection of many issues. There are many ways in which black people intersect with the state, and many opportunities for the state to oppress black people through systemic racism.
  • Began in 2012 with the gunning down of Trayvon Martin, and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman.
  • At that time, Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter International, wrote a “love letter” to black Americans (“A Love Letter To Our Folks”).
  • Black people continued to be murdered after 2012, but the next big inflection point for the movement was Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, a municipality of St.Louis (Note: journalists often misreport Ferguson as separate from St. Louis, and do not  call out St. Louis).
  • Black Lives Matter is an affirmation, catalyzed by these murders, but also focused on the central point of affirming black lives.
  • Social movements are not prescriptive, but they can be somewhat formulaic, but we are focused on empowering people to communicate and act directly against the systems that are prejudiced against them.
  • Black Lives Matter has become a global movement, led by women of color, with chapters in places as far away from the United States as Ghanda, UK, and France.
  • All of this is under the umbrella of the Movement For Black Lives, which recently released a policy platform. There are 40 organizations working within the movement, but Black Lives Matter gets called out most frequently and becomes a representative of the work that many others are doing.
  • The broad overarching goals of the Black Lives Matter International Network are reform and abolition.

Question: Autism Speaks, founded in 2005 and funded with a $25 million dollar donation, an organization with a more traditional approach to movements, how did you go about creating your movement?

Brendan Burns (BB):

  • Autism Speaks, founded 10 years ago by Suzanne and Bob Wright.
  • Received a $25 million dollar donation from Bernie Marcus to launch the organization.
  • The essence of movement building is the right issue at right moment in history.
  • 10 years ago, most children weren’t getting diagnosed with autism, parents were going home terrified.
  • At that time there was no information, and no websites had any information. It was a movement primarily built on families affected by children with autism.
  • That has since changed significantly, and now there is a greater understanding and more conversation and awareness of people with autism and what it means to receive an autism diagnosis.
  • Question: What does a $25 million dollar contribution mean for a grassroots movement?
  • BB: We chose to focus on education. We wanted to clarify and educate what autism is caused by and what it is not caused by – and so we launched a large educational campaign directly related to explaining autism.

Question: What does your grassroots work look like? Tell us more about how the grassroots arm of your organization is structured?


  • Grassroots is really all we have. We have some individuals who fund our work, but overall it is completely grassroots driven.
  • When the catalyst for your movement is systemic death, you can’t help but have people power. Our organizational strength comes from every day people.
  • Not sure what a grass tops movement would look like in this context.
  • But for Black Lives Matter, it’s unique because people are sick and tired of seeing their family members over-policed.

Q: How do you keep track of that diffuse network?


  • For Black Lives Matter, we are built on coordinating and staging direct actions of one. People need to push back on narratives and systemic oppression.
  • There is no one way for us to get free, so we need to address these issues in a multitude of ways that address and embrace intersectionality.
  • There are people who are working under the network, we are steadfast in the things we do every single day, even though there are a number of people who say Black Lives Matters are terrorists.
  • People are organizing under this because the politicians won’t, so you’ve got individuals making sacrifices and activating because they do not feel as though leaders or politicians are representing them or doing the work that needs to be done.

Audience Question: Is there a police force in the United States that can act as a good model?


  • In short, no. We get asked the question “If you don’t want the existing model, what do you want?”
  • The history of police in the United States is one rooted in the Civil War and slavery.
  • We want to ask: what does it look like to radically transform security in America? This requires us radically imagining what systems we could put in place to eradicate racism.
  • Ultimately, success doesn’t look like anything that we see out there today.
  • We need people to consider and to imagine what a new system, with a new method of and understanding of what accountability looks like. People who do not experience the prejudice need a system where they can easily see and say “I didn’t experience this prejudice, but I can do something about it”

Audience Question: There has been conversation around the addition of a word to the phrase “Black Lives Matter” (Black Lives Matter, Too), which brings up the question of hidden bias. How do you address hidden and implicit bias?


  • When it comes to Black Lives Matter, the scope of this work spans across a lot of different people. We need to spend time educating people on the experience of blackness.
  • The hidden and implicit bias against black people is deeply entrenched in the political subconscious going back decades, there have been many moments where black people were seen as inherently criminal, and these deeply politicized beliefs we have around blackness are very challenging to address.
  • Overall, we need to invest in message platforms for people who think they are being good allies, that are acutely aware of the bias, but then don’t know how to use that privilege and power to make change happen at the voting booth.
  • There are also deep challenges in discussing and investigating this work and to find people who will not have that implicit or hidden bias.

Question: What techniques do you use to grow, and engage people, and to get the message to those people?


  • For Autism Speaks, it starts with communities across the country. Primarily, people who had children or grandchildren on the spectrum, and who want to get involved in the fight.
  • Because Autism is primarily based on one child, you get these pods of people (family, friends, etc.) that form after someone is first diagnosed.
  • The important part becomes recruiting those pods and then enabling them to see and process the witnesses.

Audience Question: How do you not let individual successes sideline the larger movement and what happens to these movements when you have a success? For example, what will change if there is important legislation or policy perspectives passed?


  • For Black Lives Matter, it’s hard to see any wins interfering with the larger narrative; we need very large systemic changes.
  • We don’t have many wins, because people are still killing people with impunity. The wins we do see are people affirming out loud that black lives matter.
  • Is it a win to have a black people on the Trial Review Board here in Maryland? It’s a small win, but what does it do to change the system overall?
  • To some people, the last “win” we had was when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was organizing people, but we have had many win since then. We just also have a lot of work left to do. Ultimately, the wins will not sideline the rest of our work.


  • For Autism Speaks, we’ve done a lot of work to adjust the goal post.
  • When Autism Speaks began, there was a focus on “curing Autism”, but now we know that is not a feasible goal. Instead, we are no longer seeking a global cure, we’re just looking to implement specific ideas and approaches.
  • We’ve just continually moved ahead by changing what winning looks like.

Audience Question: When Senator Bernie Sanders said All Lives Matter at an event, was this a moment of inherent or implicit bias? How did this play into the overall narrative of your work with Black Lives Matter.


  • It was a major moment for us, as it became part of a 5 day news cycle.
  • For us, it’s more about holding people’s feet to the fire.
  • When you are in a position of leadership, and you miscommunicate, you are doing a huge disservice.
  • The debate between All Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter isn’t new – but the point of Black Lives Matter is that blackness is the fulcrum. We focus on black lives.

Audience Question: How do you deal with the craziness of Black Lives Matter’s opposition on social media (including Blue Lives Matter)?


  • Unless we are talking about Smurfs, Blue Lives Matter is not an appropriate nomenclature.
  • We get a lot of hate mail, so it doesn’t necessarily make sense for us to combat every negative comment. We don’t want to feed the trolls.
  • Always read the comments, even if they are nasty, they often have arguments that our opposition is making that we can use to strengthen our own messages.

Question: How do you stay positive and stay on message when there are fringe elements or people misappropriating your message for other uses? (Example: The shooting of police officers in Dallas, Texas)


  • We have never encouraged violence against anyone.
  • There is an inherent challenge that we face because we are a black activist movement, so there is an element of homogenizing the community.
  • The articles showing barbecues between black people and police officers are not for black people, they are for others.
  • Like any movement, we have people who take our values and beliefs out of context.
  • We need to make sure that journalists are doing their job and reporting with integrity; if they were listening they would see that time and time again we’ve never advocated for violence.
  • I use design thinking and iterative and generative models to talk about our work. This helps us address some of the challenges of people talking about our work.

Audience Question: What are some of the specific policy changes that could be put into place that would make a difference for Black Lives Matter?

  • Right now, there is a subset of the movement working on reform, and another group of folks that are working to find ways to build solutions that address the fact that we cannot build on a system that was built on the backs of black people.
  • Worked at the ACLU and saw how effective some policy can be (when implemented, not just passed), but for Black Lives Matter we need to discuss two prongs: invest and divest.
  • We recently released the Movement for Black Lives Policy Platform, where we advocate to divest in policing and invest in security and accountability matters.
  • Example: If you have someone with a mental health issue, and you call the police, they are not equipped to help that person. But what if we had a 311 system you could call to get that specialized help.
  • What we’re asking for is to try to prototype different options, we test, we ideate, but nobody is bringing innovation to legislation or policy, we just have to continue until we find out what works.

Question: In your experience, what tensions arise from harnessing the power of people?


  • There are 2 types of movements out there, prescribed ones and ones that move with the flow.
  • With Autism Speaks, we’ve taken an approach that focuses on a definition of success at the beginning. We then move along that pathway, that we’ve sketched out, but we build flexibility into the process.
  • The path we sketched out did not stay the same, so after an 18 month cycle we had to ask where do we start? Where do we end? And then build from there.

Question: Part of the criticism of Black Lives Matter is that women of color and LGBTQ people of color are not a big part of the narrative? How do you address grievances of overlooked populations?

  • People are misinformed and people are miscommunicating about us. There is a very big misconception that the Black Lives Matter Movement is not inclusive.
  • It was founded by 3 black women, 2 of whom identify as queer.
  • There is also an inherent bias in the media, rooted in the models of white cisgender heterosexual men who have been leaders.
  • Representation in the media matters.

Question: What about grievances from people with autism who do not believe that Autism Speaks is representing them?

  • High-functioning people often do not like Autism Speaks, because our specific approach is not in line with their personal experience.
  • In many ways, this movement is at war with itself.

Question: What does the future of your movement look like 5 years down the line?


  • Complete pivot in the way that we perceive and educate on autism; need to focus on the fact that you have autism for your entire life.
  • Need more services that will address the lifecycle of that person, and the recognition that there are different approaches for different times in life.


  • 5 years from now, I want each person to feel prepared to communicate effectively about Black Lives Matter.
  • We would like to see this network grow, and for every person to feel empowered to have a radical conversation where the black lives are affirmed.