By Chris Crass (July 2, 2021)
Honoring the passing of justice movement veteran, elder and one of the most important mentors of my life, Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez.
Of two Latina staff members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the 60s, and founding leader of the Women’s Liberation movement and the Chicano/a Power Movements in the 70s.
Her organizing was rooted in a vision of building multiracial working class power – for example, in the 90s translating Black History educational materials into Spanish and developing Black Freedom movement literacy programs in Latinx communities as both antidote to anti-Black racism, and to forge alliances for racial, economic, and gender justice.
Her mentoring and support for younger generation organizers of color was already legendary – developing leaders, strategists and alliance buildings. I knew I wanted to figure out anti-racist/collective liberation organizing in white communities and I hoped she would mentor me and help me grow as a leader. She took on so much more.
Her vast experience organizing, her movement journalism, her bringing people together to build movement together, all of this was so incredible. And it was also her deep belief in young people and encouragement to experiment and grow.
She would often say – “I will pass on as much as I can about what I know and what I think, but I also want to learn from you and what you and your generation are thinking, what you’re doing, what historical reference points guide you.”
And in the late 90s, as a crew of us were building Catalyst Project and developing new ideas/approaches for anti-racist/collective liberation organizing, ‘Betita’ and her leadership was crucially important
At a time when guilt and shame were prevalent in anti-racist work in white communities, when the end goal often seemed to be getting white people to know how racist they were, and then saying “stop being racist”.
Catalyst started talking about organizing white people from a place of love, that white supremacy as a system dehumanizes white people and turns us into weapons against communities of color to maintain ruling class power, that white anti-racists didn’t just need how to move back and listen, but also move forward and lead (learning the nuance of when to do either).
One long night I was talking with ‘Betita’ about this approach to anti-racist work in white communities, she said, “Look, so much of this work is focused on making white people feel bad about racism, and it’s not working. If you all think you can organize white people in a way that inspires them and helps equip them to be effective anti-racists, and you talk about love and collective liberation, do it, experiment.” And then she said, “What can I do to help this happen?”
I shared with ‘Betita’ that one of the barriers was that the narrative of “white people are racist and therefore problematic” is so strong, that it’s hard to get momentum for a narrative that “white people can be effective and powerful for racial justice and collective liberation, that white supremacy hurts us all, differently, but creates damage nonetheless, and that we need to all get free.”
‘Betita’ said something that energized me and Catalyst and gave us political space to operate. She said, “I believe in what you all are doing. I organize in Brown and Black communities, and I know how important it is to have large numbers of white people support and join that work. If you all think you can get large numbers of white people into this work, and want to try different approaches, I have your back. I will vouch for you, you can use my name regularly and publicly as supporting what you’re doing, I’ll be an advisor, I’ll publicly support what you all are doing – even if I don’t totally understand it, because I’m not trying to organize white communities. I want you all to be successful and i’ll show up as often as I can to help with your work.”
‘Betita’ believing and supporting me and Catalyst was monumental and it all flowed from her lifelong organizing and vision of powerful multiracial movements.
Years later, ‘Betita’ was at a Catalyst event where there were hundreds of white people learning about Black and Brown movement history, where white people were raising money for Black and Brown organizing, and learning how to organize in white communities for racial justice – and she said “This is what I hoped you all would do, and it needs to keep growing, and you just let me know how I can help.”
I love you ‘Betita’ Martinez.
I am so grateful for you, your leadership, your mentoring, your laughter and sense of humor, your encouragement to try and build.