“We need to stop being nostalgic for a time that never was instead of preparing for a time that’s inevitable,” Angela Glover Blackwell stated during a recent keynote address in Detroit. The speech captured a message she has been taking across the country: toxic inequality is threatening people of color, who are our future. What happens to them will determine the fate of the nation.
After stepping down as President & CEO of PolicyLink – an organization she founded and led for 20 years – Blackwell has been busier than ever, serving as the organization’s Founder in Residence. In this role, she advises former employees (myself included) and spends much of her time writing, teaching, speaking, hosting a new podcast, and finding ways to contribute to the national equity movement she helped build. But while she is sounding the alarm around what persistent racial and economic inequality will mean for a diversifying nation, she also offers a bold path for winning the fight: “radical imagination.”
She first began discussing radical imagination publicly at the 2018 Equity Summit. “We have to build something. And we have to build it with our best creativity because we don’t have forever anymore,” she told the crowd of over 4,000 attendees. “It is going to take radical imagination to get where we want go to.” In other words, rather than trying to reform systems that were never intended to serve all people, it is time to overhaul those systems. And this thinking guides what she calls the “third act” of her career.
Throughout her life, Blackwell has been an organizer, public interest lawyer, community builder, foundation executive, and policy advocate. In her book Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America’s Future, Blackwell explained, “I’ve had many jobs, but only one project – to do something about racism, injustice, and inequality” – a vocation she attributes to growing up in a segregated St. Louis Missouri.
Despite living under the “sting and burn” of racism, Blackwell’s childhood was filled with Sunday School picnics, block parties, activities at the Phillis Wheatley Y, and social clubs, exposing her and other Black children to a world in which they were valued, supported, and could dare to dream. “Through ingenuity and collaboration my black community created a parallel universe that took from the outer world what it needed to expand my horizons and make me feel that I could do anything,” she wrote. At the same time, her parents were active in the civil rights movement, instilling in her a commitment to fighting racism, particularly for her peers who had fewer opportunities to escape its grip.
After attending Howard University, Blackwell graduated into the Black power movement, becoming an organizer and embracing the movement’s critiques of race, economics, and power. Following law school and serving as a public advocate, she would go on to gain national recognition for founding the Urban Strategies Council in Oakland, CA, which pioneered new approaches to neighborhood revitalization, blending community organizing, public law, data analysis, community building, and advocacy to drive change. She oversaw a number of transformational efforts, including work that led to a 50 percent reduction in Oakland’s infant mortality rate.
She soon recognized how every community could benefit from this blending of tactics, envisioning a new kind of policy institute that would drive national policy using local wisdom. In 1999, she founded PolicyLink, which is credited with advancing the national conversation around equity and playing a fundamental role in everything from revitalizing neighborhoods to helping design some of the Obama administration’s signature urban initiatives.
Today, Blackwell’s new role is allowing her to be more creative than ever. At the heart of her work is the aptly named Radical Imagination podcast, which enters its second season on February 28. The podcast features “thinkers and changemakers” from all disciplines who are challenging the status quo. “We aren’t stepping into the moment with enough big ideas, enough confidence, and enough audacity, and I think radical imagination says what we need now exists in our heads and our hearts,” she explained.
In an episode on police abolition, Blackwell interviews Jessica Disu, also known as FM Supreme, a Chicago activist and “humanitarian rap artist” who gained notoriety after telling Fox News’ Megyn Kelly “we need to abolish the police” during a live interview. “It was completely unscripted. I had never before that moment ever thought anything like that before,” she tells Blackwell in the episode. “I became a poster child of something that I wasn’t even fully sure what it meant. What does it fully mean to abolish the police? It taught me to go deeper.” Disu discusses how her spontaneous and impassioned call made her study the police abolition movement and alternatives to policing, unlocking new possibilities for our society. Reflecting on the episode, Blackwell said the conversation underscored that “strong leadership can come from unexpected places.”
Other issues explored during the first season include open borders, guaranteed income, and reparations among other topics. For Blackwell, interviewing visionary leaders reinforced an early lesson she has carried throughout her career, “The people who are close to the issues are way wiser than the pundits and the policymakers and the universities in terms of what we need to do. Follow the people.”
Season 2 of Radical Imagination will bring listeners to another wide range of voices. The first episode will feature Dominique Walker of Moms 4 Housing – a small collective of women who made national headlines for starting a new movement to reclaim empty homes in Oakland. Other episodes will cover topics such as gender fluidity featuring activist Tiq Milan, and Afrofuturism with author Walidah Imarisha. “Radical imagination is not limited to the people paid to do change work,” Blackwell explains. “We all have the capacity to contribute to it.” With this new season, Blackwell hopes to inspire us all to be bolder and think beyond the limitations imposed upon us – something she has done her whole life.
Tracey Ross is a writer and advocate who leads federal policy and narrative change efforts for PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity.