Digging Up the Root: An Introduction   

“In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning–getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.”  - Ella Baker, 1969

I am starting this blog series, Digging Up the Root, by paying respect to movement teacher Ella Jo Baker. She was born on December 13, 1903 and careered as an activist for more than 50 years (1930s to 1980s). I am a student of Ella Baker; as are many of us, whether we know it or not.  During her life, numerous grassroots organizers sought out her guidance and strategic insight. For those of us who did not personally know her, we learned from her work and legacy.

She has been affectionately called “Mama Baker” and by her nickname “Fundi,” a Swahili word meaning a person who teaches the next generation. Ella Baker was a powerhouse in the Black Freedom Movement; contributing to more than thirty organizations and playing a pivotal role in three of the most prominent Black freedom organizations of that time: The  National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

From “Mama Baker,” we learned what it meant to think radically. She said that to think in radical terms is “getting down to and understanding the root cause.” And her movement children—the brilliant leaders, members, and organizers with Black worker centers and Black-led community organizations across the country—have been doing just that.

They have been grassroot, down in the dirt, and digging up the root causes of inequities experienced by Black workers. They are the “diggers.”

These centers and organizations, through their root cause analysis, are developing solutions and creating plans of action for systems change with Black workers at the forefront. They practice this theory of change, just as Ella Baker did, that directly-impacted people need to be at the center of the work. Involving oppressed people in collective action to transform the laws, structures, and institutions that oppress are the radical terms that these organizations think in and that shape the way they organize and advocate.

I  am  inspired by and committed to supporting the work of these organizations to defeat white supremacy and anti-blackness, while eliminating unemployment and the workplace harm and discrimination that deprives Black workers of quality employment opportunities. The Digging Up the Root blog series is one way that  I  acknowledge, highlight  my  respect and  appreciation, and  lift up Black worker centers and Black-led community organizations for being the “diggers.” In Digging Up the Root, NELP staff and guest contributors will share our reflections and opinions on what we learned about and from Black work, Black workers, and Black worker centers and community-based organizations.

This entry is the first in a one-year series and serves as an initial introduction to a space to recognize the racial, social, and economic justice work of Black worker centers and Black-led community organizations across the country. Every month, we will contribute a piece that highlights the conditions Black workers are organizing in and the significance of the worker centers, and their organizing and advocacy efforts and triumphs through story sharing, interviews, and opinion pieces.

For more information about Ella Baker and important work done in her honor, check out Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

1. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

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About the Author

Nzingha Hooker

Staff attorney on the Social Insurance and Work Equity, National Employment Law Project

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