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On Advancing Opportunity for All By Centering Black, Brown, Low-Income, and Rural People: An Interview with Taifa Smith Butler

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Taifa Smith Butler, incoming president of Demos, a progressive think tank aimed at creating a just, inclusive multiracial democracy and economy.  Butler currently serves as CEO of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) where she leads and inspires the team to accomplish the organization’s mission and vision to improve economic opportunity for all Georgians. 

You’re transitioning to a new role as the head of Demos in a few weeks. Tell us more about Demos and some of your hopes for this next chapter. 

I’ve been a huge fan of Demos for a long time. I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of an inclusive economy and inclusive democracy because I think those go hand in hand. We need the voices of people through their votes but also the presence of people through their advocacy to apply public pressure. 

Demos works at the intersection of ensuring people have a say in this democracy and a chance in our economy and is full-throated about centering Black and Brown people who have often been left out. I’m excited to take what I’ve learned in Georgia over the last 20 years, and what I’ve learned as the leader of a research organization, to the national level so we can stay connected to the movement-building arena and get policy changed at the federal and state levels. 

You’ve been a leader in Georgia for two decades.  Tell us about your recent work at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. 

GBPI is a nonprofit research and advocacy organization established in 2004 to address the issues of low-and moderate-income families and help them have better opportunities to prosper. We approach public policy broadly from a fiscal lens. 

The budget is the number one piece of legislation at the state level that articulates what our priorities are. Oftentimes, the priorities laid out in the budget don’t benefit low- and moderate-income people. GBPI examines how we are spending our tax dollars, and tries to make sure that the state budget is benefiting people who are struggling the most and providing the necessary support and safety net.

In Georgia, as in other states, we have tremendous inequities across all spectrums of life—education, wealth, income and wages, health—and I think we need to be much bolder in how we talk about the solutions. GBPI’s evolution has been exciting because we have been more courageous in this moment. We have to name structural racism as a huge barrier to opportunities we see for Black and brown communities, low-income families, and rural communities. 

If we want to have opportunity for all, especially those who have been marginalized by past policy choices, we’ve got to be looking very intentionally at Black, Brown, rural, and low-income communities to ensure the policy solutions we offer are targeted towards us.

What can Black women do to advocate for policy change?

Black women have been showing up in communities for a long time, elevating the voices of the most marginalized and engaging people civically.  Our votes and voices can help us advocate for some of these policies like increasing revenues to support families and allocating dollars to support the safety net. This is really critical now, post-pandemic. We’ve got to make sure families can get back to thriving, and there have been a lot of barriers put in the way preventing people from doing that. We can continue to have Black women share their stories, activate people in their communities, and make sure their voices are heard by lawmakers. 

Anything else you’d like to share?

As I look at this horizon and where we are a year into COVID-19, I see the devastation it has wreaked across our nation, our health system, our financial system, and our economic system. What’s top of the list for me is – how do we make sure there is an equitable recovery? I think it’s going to take all of us, national as well as state-level organizations, pushing for change. Some people want to go back to the status quo, go back to “normal” and the way things were, and we cannot allow that to happen. If anything is going to change for communities that have been marginalized for years and years, we have to do it now. I’m hoping that given the racial injustice we continue to see in this country and the economic devastation, we will not go back to normal – we will build something better. 

Who are your BlackHer Sheroes? 

Stacey Abrams – to see this woman go from state representative to minority leader to gubernatorial candidate who laid out a vision and lost and then reset and now is an advocate for voting rights is to see how setbacks turn into tremendous opportunities for advocacy.

LaTosha Brown – co-founder of Black Voters Matter, singer extraordinaire, and a champion for voting rights and Black people. To see her come from and be a voice for the south and be on this national stage talking about Black votes mattering in this country is phenomenal!

Nikole Hannah-Jones – we had her as a keynote speaker at our conference last year and to see this sister, as a journalist and investigative reporter, elevate the history of this country in a way that has created a broad conversation about how this country was founded, where we are and where we’re going has been phenomenal to watch as well.

Let me ask you the miracle question. You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow, and it’s June 2022, and a miracle has occurred for Black women. What happened?

Black women are well in every sense—spiritually, emotionally, physically, mentally. We have been carrying so much in this country, and many Black women are holding it down as heads of households trying to work, be a mother, be a community leader, all the things. A year from now, there are systems in place to allow Black women to shine and thrive. 

 

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