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YES MA’AM Series | Nsombi Lambright, One Voice

YES MA’AM is a Deep South Voice series spotlighting women-identified activists in Mississippi. Join the conversation online with #YESMAAM

When Nsombi Lambright speaks, wisdom flows. Her deep knowledge of Mississippi activism, built on a life’s work of speaking truth to power, compels us to listen and understand what resistance means at its most essential level.

Now the Executive Director of One Voice, Nsombi has worked as an activist since her days as a student at Tougaloo College. Her work at One Voice, a non-profit founded in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina to better address the needs of historically disadvantaged communities, has focused on dismantling the school to prison pipeline, ending mass incarceration for people of color, and organizing election protections.

The day after Alabama elected Doug Jones, an exciting moment for every progressive in the South, Nsombi and I sat down in One Voice’s Jackson offices to talk together.

Marisa Jane Green for Deep South Voice: So what are your thoughts about the election results in Alabama last night?

Nsombi Lambright: It was really amazing! You know in the South, we have so many things that affect us negatively, especially with elections, because we always come from the vantage point that we have less power because there are fewer progressive voices, fewer women voices, fewer POC voices. So this is just one of those examples of when people join together in unity– beyond racial lines, sometimes beyond even political lines– we can win on progressive issues. And we can send a message to people who do not respect rights, who do not respect women’s rights, who do not respect LGBTQ rights, that this is a different county. Even the South is different now. So I was so excited! And then when I saw the numbers of the black turnout, and the black women turnout, I was just like, okay. This is what we know all the time, but sometimes aren’t able to articulate in a way that shows it so vividly. Those numbers just don’t lie.

MJG: So do you think there’s a pathway for something like this in Mississippi?

NL: We’ve seen examples of progressive issues being successful on a statewide level here, like when we defeated Personhood back in 2011. Everyone knew that Mississippi was gonna be the first abortion free state when that Personhood [Amendment] passed. I mean, they had just written it off. And we were able to win that. People came together– doctors, nurses, clergy, religious leaders came together– and said, “You know, I may not agree with you on everything, but on this thing, I’m against it.” And we were able to win, we were able to defeat Personhood. I mean, I think we were fighting hard, and we wanted to win, but there was always that thing in the back of our heads, “I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to pull it off.” But we did, and it was an amazing victory. So I know the power of really getting out there, beating the pavement, making sure that you have allies.

MJG: How can allies here in Mississippi energized by Jones’s victory, specifically white allies, support the work you and other WOC are currently doing and have been doing?

NL: Sometimes when we have allies that are from different communities, they want to talk to the same people that we’ve already talked to. When we have white allies, when we have religious allies that may not be with us on all issues, they want to come and go to black churches. Or go to black organizations. And it’s like, okay, we have those. We’re good with those! We’re trying to bring new people in. So when we have people come in that are new, or are from different communities, or who are unusual allies that we haven’t talked to before, we ask them, “Can you bring some of your people? Can you go talk to some of your folks?” And that’s when we really win.

MG: Looking through the One Voice website, the idea that your org’s work is not single-issue work is clear. You’re focusing on education, on voter rights, on community engagement, and much more. Can you speak to the challenges of the multi-initiative work One Voice is doing?

NL: We have our issue areas, and the main thing behind all of these issues is building effective leadership statewide. And so that’s one of our main focus areas. We have the Leadership Institute, we have the Leadership Summit, we have internship programs. So if I had to point to one main thing, it’s building a network of progressive leadership across the state, so that when ballot initiatives come up, when crazy folks are running for office, we have a statewide mechanism to either support or fight it.

Education in Mississippi, from its beginning… you know, there hasn’t been an effort to support a well-funded education system that truly creates leaders in the state. Our education from the beginning has been meant to educate factory workers and create a low wage workforce. And so our goal is shift that paradigm, and just completely transform our educational system here. And we’re starting to get a little traction on that, even from the white wealthy community whose children go to private academies, because they’ve said, “Okay, our kids are fine. But we can’t get businesses to come to the state, because our education system sucks.” And so it’s hurting everyone. Education’s not a black issue, it’s not a white issue, it’s not a poor issue; it’s an everybody issue. I think that once we continue to build leadership and build on that civic engagement strategy to make sure that folks are informed, I think we’ll start to see some more progress. And we’re hoping that Jackson becomes a model on what an effective large school district can be.

MJG: And do you feel the new Mayor’s radical, progressive vision for Jackson will help move this forward?

NL: I definitely think that Antar’s the person to do it in Jackson as Mayor. And he’s gonna need a lot of support and a lot of help because he can’t do it by himself. He has major infrastructure issues in the city that he has to address. And so as citizens, and allies of the Mayor, and supporters, we have to be able to provide that support to him, with ideas, with manual labor, with joint initiatives to make sure it happens. And what I’m confident about is that his administration is open to progressive ideas. I’m excited to see what the next year or two is gonna bring for Jackson.

MJG: I know that one of your personal activist issues that you’ve been involved with for a long time is the school to prison pipeline. Can you speak a bit about this? And for someone who might not be aware of what this is, what would you show them here in Mississippi?

NL: If someone was coming to Mississippi and didn’t know anything about it, I would start by showing them schools, showing them the metal detectors, and the security guards walking around schools. I would show them classrooms where students sit all day and can’t talk, and can’t interact, and have very little recreational opportunities, have very little access to arts. I would also show them how, if you go down any middle school hallway in Jackson, you’ll see kids just lined up. They’re in uniforms, and they’re lined up, and they can’t talk. And they’re walking in a straight line to their next class. That’s the visual I would provide to people when describing the school to prison pipeline.

I have a 20 year old son. And so watching him matriculate through the public school system, every day I would be like, this didn’t even happen when I was in school. His educational experience was worse than mine. As a mom, you want your children to have something better. You don’t want to go backwards. That was tough to watch. And having a very active boy, who was always involved in sports, and him having to sit in a classroom all day long, not able to talk, and not being able to interact. I don’t even know how I could do that! So you find yourself training your children to be docile. Don’t talk in class, don’t act up in class, respect the police. So there’s not a place in society where we can let our young people be themselves. They always have to be somebody else or they’ll go to jail. Or get seriously hurt. Or die.

And along with that, just showing people the numbers of young people who have dropped out. The numbers of young people who have gone into the juvenile detention center and just never come back into the school system because they didn’t get the support to be better. And you know, most kids are there [at juvenile detention centers] because of something that happened at school. In some schools, you’re put in the police car, you’re handcuffed, you’re taken to the detention center. And I’m like, was there a weapon? Was there drugs? Something serious had to happen here. And that’s just not the case. It’s a very, very scary time.

And now with all of the Homeland Security stuff, that’s added another element to school to prison pipeline. Now if a kid is on social media and they say something like, “I hate my teacher, I wish she were dead,” then all of a sudden you’re at a federal level now, because you’ve threatened a teacher. So it’s really, really, really scary.

But I think that moving forward we’ve been able to build alliances with educators about it. Because before it was parents here, teachers and principals and superintendents over here. We’ve been able to bring these groups closer together, and say hey, no one’s winning. Because if you’re spending 80% of your day dealing with disciplinary issues, or you’re suspending half of your classroom so they can’t be tested, you’re still not winning. You’re getting an F rating. So we’re gonna have to come up with some creative solutions. Like joining together with them and mental health services, to make sure kids can be kids, and have the support that they need both at school and at home.

Starting to see a little progress in that area. But it’s one school at a time, one community at a time.

MJG: Can you talk a bit about your entry point as an activist, and how you became involved in organizing?

NL: My entry point was in college, at Tougaloo, working with our local NAACP branch. And that’s also where I met and worked with Derrick Johnson, who’s now the national CEO [of the NAACP]. We’ve kind of followed each other since then! He was president of our local NAACP chapter. At the time, there was this big lawsuit around equity for HBCUs. So that was my first big organizing campaign. I hadn’t really been involved in anything up to that point. We did marches to the Capitol, and we visited all of the HBCUs around the state and took pictures of the ridiculous conditions of schools, like Valley [State University]. Basically their whole campus would be underwater if there was a big storm. Just crazy! That activism then led to the winning of a lawsuit in the Ayers Consent Decree, which then led to more funding for HBCUs in the state.

I was an English and Journalism Major. I was gonna live in New York City, in a penthouse, and work for Essence Magazine, that was my dream! But being involved in activism, it just took me on a different path, and I haven’t turned back.

I left here for a while and I started working in the Empowerment Zone in the city of Baltimore, and that was my first time doing organizing work in a white community. I was working in a south Baltimore community that had both blacks and poor whites. They were just trying to figure out how to get along, with all of their history of racism and segregation. There were all these babies running around with black daddies and white mommas, and it’s like hey, it’s happening now! What are y’all gonna do about it?

MJG: Catch up to your kids.

NL: Right! So that was an interesting experience. It allowed me to see what works and what doesn’t. At every meeting that I had, I would have to have law enforcement present, and people wouldn’t talk. But then later, when I would visit them at home, and sit at the kitchen table, they would say, “Well, so and so’s not gonna talk because her grandson just got arrested last week.”

So coming back from Baltimore, I started working for Southern Echo, which is another grassroots organizing group here in Mississippi. I was trained by Hollis Watkins, who was the youngest member of SNCC back in the sixties. You can’t get any better than that! So that gave me a real grassroots organizing training base. I’ve used that in my work moving forward.

MJG: Talking to people.

NL: Talking to people. Standing back, and allowing the community to be up front. If it’s a community issue, they have to be the leaders in it. Like I can’t go into Brandon and say, hey Brandon, I’m gonna lead the march and be the spokesperson. That’s not how we were taught. We were taught go into Brandon and work with the group of citizens there and train them to be spokespeople and provide them that back up support. That’s true organizing.

MJG: When you look back, what would you want your legacy to be? What story would you want celebrated about your work?

NL: As an organizer, it’s hard when I get that question, because I don’t ever want to be in the forefront of anything. I want to be standing back.

I just want people to remember the relationships that I had, and that I loved people. And that even though the work was hard, and the work has been hard, we were always able to laugh and have a good time. That we had this powerful network of progressive people who were friends and loved one another. That’s it. We were able to build progressive power and have a good time doing it. That it wasn’t all crying and cursing and getting arrested and getting stuff thrown at us, that we loved each other.

MJG: What’s one thing you’ve read or watched recently that’s helped inspire your work?

NL: Dr Willie Parker’s book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. He’s one of the doctors at Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and he talks about how he’s able to reconcile his Christianity with providing this necessary service for women.

MJG: What’s something that you’ve done recently that’s helped take your mind off of work?

NL: I love live music, I love concerts, so I had an opportunity to see Jay-Z on his 4:44 tour in October in New Orleans. It was amazing! I went with a friend of mine, and it was amazing. Just me and Jay-Z. And 20,000 other people. But they don’t count!

MJG: Finish this sentence: Mississippi needs more ______________.

NL: Activists. •

Find Nsombi and One Voice online, on Facebook, and on twitter @OneVoiceMS. To find out more about One Voice’s Black Leadership Institute and Black Leadership Summit, including how to apply, go here. To learn more about the school to prison pipeline, begin here.

YES MA'AM Series

Dec. 5, 2017Laurie Bertram Roberts: On the Front Lines of Red State Reproductive Justice
Jan. 9, 2018Nsombi Lambright: Resistance at its Most Essential Level
YES MA’AM is a Deep South Voice series spotlighting women-identified activists in Mississippi. Join the conversation online with #YESMAAM.

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