Our California Director Elly Matsumura sat down with Brisa Johnson, director of the Black Worker Center, and Dr. Kyra Greene, executive director of CPI, to learn more.
Elly: You’re launching a Black Worker Center in San Diego, incubated by the Center on Policy Initiatives. Can you tell us about the center and what it does?
Brisa: Even before the pandemic, Black workers were already facing two lethal conditions: racism and economic inequality. It’s really important that we devote resources specifically towards Black communities and Black workers, that policy be made for Black workers.
The San Diego Black Worker Center is a home for Black people to build Black power and create their own table.
Right now, San Diego does not have a concentrated Black community, we are spread all throughout the county. The center is a place for Black workers to not only find community and find folks that are experiencing the same issues that they are, but to fight for solutions.
We want to create an equitable economy for Black workers across the diaspora, including folks from our Afro-Latina community and African communities as well. We’re focused locally here in San Diego, and the Center is part of a growing movement for Black worker justice, joining eight other Black Worker Centers across the country.
Elly: Kyra, how did CPI come to be involved?
Kyra: Here at CPI we always want to guide all of our work in deep partnership with community organizations and labor unions that are focused on the future of organizing in our region and really pushing a new vision of our economy.
This project came to us when Brisa was at the United Domestic Workers (UDW) union. UDW was founded by people of color and particularly Black people, and their leaders expressed an interest in establishing a Black Worker Center here.
When Brisa and UDW came to us and said, “We’d like to have a deep partnership with CPI on forming this new nonprofit,” that felt to us like exactly where we wanted to be. It’s consistent with PowerSwitch Action’s long-term agenda to create a multi-racial feminist democracy. One of the core strategies we identified in the long-term agenda is to build more civic organizations, and this Black Worker Center is a prime example of that.
We’re excited about this opportunity to use CPI’s resources and strengths — to support the Black Workers Center through providing research and analysis, help with mobilizing folks, and also being the fiscal home. That lets Brisa and her staff focus on the work in the field, while we do some of the backend administration to help it take off.
Elly: Why is it so important to have a center specifically focused on the needs of Black workers?
Kyra: We often point out that the lowest paid jobs in our economy are the types of work that Black people did in slavery — care work, service work, farm work. These kinds of work have been colored as Black and devalued as such.
Today, Black workers are concentrated in occupations that have some of the worst working conditions and some of the lowest wages in our region. These are fields where there hasn’t been a lot of organizing, and few workers have joined together in unions.
And even when Black people work in other occupations, we are devalued in that space as well. We’re the last hired, first fired, and are underpaid even relative to other workers in the same industries.
That double oppression is part of what the Black Worker Center will help address because it can speak across different classes. While still centering the most oppressed and the lowest-paid workers, it can also speak to a general Black experience, and be part of an ongoing Black freedom struggle.
We know that when we truly center Black people and truly deliver for Black people, we all end up better off. We’ve never lifted things for Black people, and then no one else benefited from that.
Elly: What’s the vision? In a few years, how is life going to be different for Black workers in San Diego?
Brisa: We’re really focused on systemic policy change. We’re organizing for workplace rights, safety protections, equal pay, health benefits, sick pay — all the things that everyone should have. We’re making sure that Black communities are front and center in those conversations, that we’re addressing Black workers’ high unemployment rates and lower pay compared to their white counterparts.