Frontline Warriors: A Conversation with Three Movement Leaders

Leading a social or political movement in this moment is an arduous and complex endeavor. The challenges faced by movement leaders are numerous, ranging from navigating fierce opposition and threats to personal safety, to combating cancel culture and internal divisions within their own communities. In a deeply polarized society, where disinformation and misinformation abound, maintaining the credibility and integrity of their cause can be an uphill battle. The weight of responsibility to represent marginalized voices, drive meaningful change, and tackle systemic issues is often overwhelming. Moreover, the continuous struggle for resources and funding adds pressure to ensure the movement’s sustainability. Despite these formidable obstacles, some of our world’s most impressive leaders persevere, driven by an unwavering commitment to their vision of a more just and equitable world.

Following is an intimate conversation with three remarkable movement leaders who are at the forefront of social justice activism in the United States. Rajasvini Bhansali, the Executive Director of Solidaire Network and Solidaire Action, speaks passionately about the immense challenges faced by movement leaders, particularly women of color, who are constantly threatened and tracked by opposition forces. Saru Jayaraman, President of One Fair Wage and Director of the Food Labor Research Center, recounts her 21-year battle against the powerful National Restaurant Association, including personal attacks that targeted her family. Jade Begay, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the NDN Collective, highlights the toxic nature of political work, the fear dynamic within her movement, and the urgent need for protection for frontline organizers.

These leaders shed light on the perseverance required to sustain their work and candidly discuss the critical role of resourcing and support from philanthropy to ensure the safety and effectiveness of frontline organizers. 

This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Rajasvini Bhansali

RAJASVINI BHANSALI: I don’t want to gloss over the threats inherent in being a movement leader. The threats to security, to protection, to constantly having an opposition that’s tracking your movement, and threatening your children, your family. The cost of doing this work, on women, on women of color in particular, is immense. 

Personally, this work has come at great cost to me. I’ve been flanking social movements, and I’m not even on the frontlines like you are. 

Some of us see these charismatic, brilliant leaders in you, and we’re like, “Yeah! Inspire me!” But what does it take to do what you do? 

Saru Jayaraman

SARU JAYARAMAN: I’ve been up against this incredibly powerful, well-funded trade lobby called the National Restaurant Association for 21 years. They, for many years, had a man named Richard Berman. He calls himself Dr. Evil. He was a hired goon. This is a guy who’s almost seven feet tall and was basically a hired mobster for big tobacco for years. Then he became the hired goon for restaurants and for food. And this man created attack websites. He put my children’s pictures up on them and took out full-page ads in Wall Street Journal, USA Today, driving people to these websites. 

Wherever I went, he had a digital ad truck follow me around with a website condemning me. He went after funders or celebrities or anybody who would work with us. He went to their homes, bullied them, pressured them, went to some foundation funders’ homes to tell them not to fund us, tried to hack into a foundation website to stop a grant to us, and almost got our IRS status revoked. 

I learned two things somewhere in the middle of that. One is that I take so much pride in all of that, because who am I? I’m like a little flea, and they’re this behemoth organization. For them to spend that much money trying to squash me proves that something I’m doing is right.

The second lesson was that not everybody sees it that way. Certainly, there were some foundations, funders, and allies that ran away. They would often compare us to other organizations that were less risky or had more of a stance of love and peace and joy. As much as I want to have a stance of love and peace and joy, my life’s work is going up against somebody who wants to kill me. I can’t be love and peace and joy in that context. 

RAJASVINI: I will say, before we transition to Jade, that if you’re in a position to move resources or influence resources, stop acting like people like Saru are going to do it on a dollar and a dime. Please start asking people to invest in this work for real, because if we’re asking the low-wage workers of this country to win for us, we need to resource them to win for us all. I’m speaking to my people in philanthropy. Let’s do better. Because we are part of creating the risks to the lives of our frontline organizers by not providing them cover that resourcing can provide in real ways.

Jade Begay

JADE BEGAY: What are the threats, and what do they mean for us? I think about how what we’ve seen play out politically in the last few years does to the potential of leadership. Just recently, I talked to someone who does incredible work in the state of Arizona. We know Arizona is a hard place to organize; hard place to be a person of color; hard place to be a person who has a uterus, especially right now. And that’s what this person does: They support undocumented people with reproductive health. There’s an opportunity for this person to step into a public office. They feel supported by their community, but they are scared as shit to step into that role. 

I see this with a lot of environmental justice and climate justice leaders. And then we wonder why our stuff isn’t moving forward in the political spaces. We don’t have our people in there. 

There’s also this fear dynamic around each other. I sit on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. Yes, I get threats in various different ways from people on the opposition. But it’s almost worse when I’m thrown under the bus by my own people who say I’m a sellout for sitting in these spaces and being in proximity to government. I’m not even paid by the government. I’m a glorified intern, if anything.

This is the toxic nature of political work. There’s cancel culture. All of this combined is tearing at the potential of leadership that we need. We see these mean laws, like banning drag, don’t say gay. These are mean and ridiculous laws, but you know what they do? They build the base. They signal to the GOP base that they can win. Yet we’re not seeing our side play the same game. We don’t have that mediocre-white-man confidence to do the same thing. I just wonder what it’s going to take for us to work at creating protection for our people.

So when I think of the threats and what they’re really doing to us, yeah, there’s bullying, but I can dust off my shoulder. The real consequence is the threat to how we’re building power or how we’re moving away from building power because of the fear that these threats are trying to instigate. 

RAJASVINI: What brings you joy and what brings you resilience to keep doing what you do? 

JADE: I have tossed being resilient out the window. We’re glorifying people going through oppression after oppression by saying they’re “resilient,” and it’s insulting. We want to thrive. We want to be safe. We just want to be okay. We don’t want to keep surviving and enduring, and then get a little gold resilient gold star. 

I was talking this morning about the power of language. In my role in the different spaces I am privileged to be a part of around policymaking, we’re trying to nix that word. No more resilience. We want to talk about thriving communities. We want to talk about justice, adaptation, mitigation, things that actually keep people safe.

But what is bringing me joy? My dog, the simple things in life. In this work, it’s the opportunities and the wins that are building upon each other. I get to see every day the small but very important impacts of having Native leadership and having environmental justice leadership start to make the decisions at the highest levels, and it’s incredible to watch. It does bring me faith and hope that we can continue to build.


SARU: I think three things bring me joy. First, my children. I have two girls. They are 10 and 13, and when they were born, because I’ve been in this for so long, I made a personal vow that by the time they were old enough to work in restaurants, we would have seen a dramatic change. For women who’ve worked in restaurants, they’ve experienced the trauma of living off of tips and having to put up with anything and everything the customer does to you because you live off of those tips. 

There’s no industry in the United States with higher levels of sexual harassment than tipped workers in the restaurant industry, including the military. There’s no policy more effective at cutting it than paying these women an actual wage so they don’t have to live on tips from customers. 

My second joy is that we can see the promised land. We can see it. Workers are winning. The corporations know it. Their days are numbered. They know that wages have to go up. There’s an incredible joy in seeing workers realize for themselves that it’s coming, and they won’t put up with this anymore.

My third joy is seeing that at scale. There are ballot measures in Michigan, Ohio, Arizona. If these measures were successful, in each state, one million people would get a raise, and when we incorporate security for their families, that’s three million people in each of those states. These measures give one million people who have a 12% voter turnout record a reason to vote, a chance to vote themselves a 500% raise from $3 to $15 an hour, or in Arizona, $18 an hour. There’s no candidate, there’s no party, there is no canvassing, there is no ad, there is no new voter methodology that will get these folks out to vote more than the chance to vote themselves a raise. There’s a possibility of saving our democracy when people actually feel like their issues are directly on the ballot.

That gives me incredible hope because we’re doing it so differently. We’re not hiring a firm to collect the signatures. We’re paying low-wage workers to collect the signatures. They’re out in the streets doing it all day, every day.

We have the potential in 2024 to do five things in one: to give three million people a raise; to get people out to vote that could potentially turn three battleground states; to get people back to work because they finally feel there’s a reason to go back and work in restaurants; to allow restaurants to reopen because they finally have people; and to save the country from fascism, because we all know that fascism comes when you have these moments of incredible economic inequality and people feel completely disconnected from the political system.

The hope that I see is a multiracial democracy where we value the working people across America, whoever they voted for in the past, whatever their T-shirts say. They are people with needs and families, and we have the ability to, in this moment, allow them to change their own lives, and in the process, change the trajectory of the country.

I forgot to say one more thing: The other thing that gives me hope is that we are the majority. The overwhelming number of people in America agree on some very fundamental things: Everybody should be paid a livable wage; guns should be controlled; women should have the right to control their bodies; we need a planet we can live on; we need food that we all can eat that keeps us healthy. Most people agree on a wide variety of things. We are not polarized from each other. We are polarized from elected officials who pretend that we are polarized from each other. They use that idea of polarization to drive their political agendas.

What gives me hope is the potential for issues like this one to bring people together. Then once they come together, there’s the possibility to talk about things like race and slavery and the history of this country. But the first step is we come together around something we fundamentally agree on, which is everybody who works in this country should be paid.

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