Charlene Walker, Faith in New Jersey
“The first revolution is internal, where you figure out what is driving you. Everyone needs to understand why they are showing up as individuals first, what is your motivation. I show up because I don’t want anyone else to be hurt and feel the pain that I and my family have felt.”
“It is important to build relationships across differences.”
- Charlene Walker
We were lucky enough to speak to Charlene Walker, Executive Director of Faith in New Jersey (FINJ) and Executive Committee member of New Jersey Alliance For Immigrant Justice, about her work as a social justice leader, movement building across differences, and Black History Month. Even so, that description of this conversation is insufficient in capturing the transformational nature of Charlene’s words that moves the reader across the digital screen.
FINJ is a multi-racial network of faith leaders and faith communities with a mission to develop grassroots community leaders, analyze the policies that shape our communities, and mobilize faith voices and faith voters to effectively act on the prophetic call to build the Beloved Community by working together to advance a social and economic justice.
FINJ is one of the founding members of the New Jersey Alliance For Immigrant Justice (Alliance) who saw the need for a statewide coalition working in lockstep to move immigrant justice forward by achieving key immigrant justice policies.
Charlene began actively participating in the Alliance as a member of FINJ in supporting the driver’s licenses for all and other campaigns. She has brought new energy and insight to organizing and building a racial justice and immigrant justice movement to the work of the Alliance. FINJ serves on all Alliance committees including the Executive Committee, Driver’s Licenses committee, and Fair and Welcoming committee.
FINJ leads on racial, immigrant, and economic justice in New Jersey. Some of their most recent successes include expanding access to driver’s licenses for all in New Jersey, independent prosecutor bill, moving $600 million in the Heroes Act away from policing toward the funding support of DV survivors and slowing the spread of Covid19 in New Jersey prisons, increasing vaccination access, and redistributing over $1.5 million to undocumented immigrants left out of COVID-19 relief efforts, formerly incarcerated loved ones, and families experiencing food insecurity during COVID-19.
On getting involved with Faith in New Jersey...
“I found a political home in Faith in New Jersey as an organizer in Union County with faith communities where my work would often intersect with FINJ. I found my values aligned with Faith in New Jersey and loved that everyday people were building power to address the issues that kept them up at night. Before I knew it I was spending more and more time with Faith in New Jersey leaders and soon ended up in a leadership position on FINJ’s Union County board.”
On her moment of politicization...
“There’s no one moment but really my lived experience that led me to become politicized.
“From the day I was born, I was placed for adoption when I was four days old, my foster mom adopted me in Hillside. She continued foster care until I was in about fifth grade, so I grew up in a household with foster siblings from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Also, my mother celebrated every holiday that she knew of and that really impacted my point of view about how to honor our diverse world.
Growing up, my mother also ran a child care business in her home, taking care of children in the neighborhood when their parents were at work. I remember one Spanish-speaking mom, that I would later find out was undocumented, asked my English-speaking mother to watch her kids after simply seeing our backyard filled with kids from all backgrounds. She knew she could trust my mom to look after her kids. That was the kind of place I was raised in. A home that believed it takes a village to raise a child and the community has a responsibility for each other.
“In high school, my classmates and I protested to demand our Board of Education offer more AP classes in the curriculum and women’s soccer in the high school.”
On experience with medical inequality in the healthcare system….
“I had to advocate for my mom to get the healthcare she needed when she had a cough that wouldn’t go away. She was going to the doctor for help, but the doctor kept brushing it off as something minor. I had to risk being seen as an “angry Black woman” to move the doctor to give her a chest x-ray. The x-ray showed my mom had lung cancer which she passed away from within a year.”
When Charlene was 20 years old, doctors wanted to give her an unneeded hysterectomy.
After all this, Charlene lost her son after he was born prematurely and the hospital claimed they could do not anything to help him live because of his low lung capacity. She later connected with a white mother who also delivered her baby prematurely at the same hospital around the same time. Even though the white woman’s premature baby also had the same complications, the hospital worked to save her child.
“The medical system has never loved us Black women”
Watch Charlene Walker deliver her remarks as an honoree at Make The Road New Jersey’s 2020 Virtual Celebration (starting at 44:40 mark)
On the importance of faith communities...
“Faith leaders are essential workers. People come to them when they are in need and they have a responsibility to their communities. Our leaders have been showing up for people in new ways during this pandemic that often aren’t publicized such as through the mutual aid movement. Clergy during the [Summer 2020] uprisings followed the leadership of young organizers. Many clergy members that were not at high risk of Covid19 were in the streets, maybe not in their collar, but in their sneakers and jeans.
“We believe faith leaders have a moral responsibility to be prophets of the resistance and not Chaplin’s of the empire. Our job is to stand with the people who are oppressed. As people of faith, we believe that every person has inherent worth and dignity. You are as valuable as I am. Faith communities must provide a moral narrative in policy discussions to push decision-makers to do what is morally just for all people.
“I believe in demonstrating unapologetic radical love in action. We go outside of our houses of worship to build power with people within our communities for liberation from systemic racism and to provide opportunities for healing. Where we demand decision-makers to stop playing politics with our lives.
“Our job as Faith in New Jersey is to move faith communities beyond only meeting the immediate needs of the community such as providing food to those that are food insecure to questioning why more and more people are showing up hungry on their doorsteps. We teach them to go upstream to find out why it’s happening, what needs to be changed and mobilize their communities to demand change.
“With a diverse faith community of all races, religions, economic status, and gender identities, we learn that we have shared interests in issues that keep us all up at night. This shared interest means for example we don’t have meetings where only immigrants show up, because it’s not just an immigrant issue. All different communities show up because it is an issue for the community that can’t be divided.”
The part of the work Charlene enjoys the most is working with and building relationships with a wide network of advocates from all walks of life. She says,
“There is still a lot of room for growth in building the immigrant justice movement in New Jersey. Faith in New Jersey has the privilege to walk between spaces. By working in a coalition, we get to be thought partners because we all bring something different to the movement and have different insights. We get a more robust strategy.”
On being a leader in the social justice movement and the need for more Black women in the movement...
“I see myself as a person that believes in people and the development of people so that they can lead. My favorite part is being able to develop the leadership of new leaders in the movement.
“As a Black woman, the justice movement has a long way to go. Often it feels like there’s a ‘quota’ for how many Black women can be in the room, too often it’s just one, and sometimes two-three. Yet, this state is full of brilliant Black women.”
On white supremacy and the co-opting of Black ideas in movement spaces...
“I believe white supremacy has attached itself to the justice movements. For example, after the uprising, racial justice became a “sexy” thing/cool thing for allies, and while a lot of this work and ideas come from Black people, they are forgotten or not given the leadership, or even recognition. Progressive folks will take the idea and go do their own thing without Black leadership or participation. We (Black leaders) are often told, ‘Now is not the right time’ we are asked to compromise and wait. Some white allies lean into organizing in ways that are heavily influenced by white supremacy instead of spaces rooted in Black and Brown liberation because it’s comfortable for them when the space should be pushing them to move beyond allyship to conspiring with Black and Brown folks.
“FINJ is a place that aims to intentionally build a space where everyone conspires together but I don’t see it happening everywhere.”
On who inspires her…
I am inspired by Chanelle Helm of Black Lives Matter (BLM) Louisville. She is leading the BLM work for Breonna Taylor, to end the gentrification in her community, and so much more. I got to spend 4-5 days with BLM folks and leaders in the Black liberation movement. It was inspiring to spend that time with Black folks working in a space that’s traumatic. They ensured there were healing spaces, elders were valued for their contributions and youth were supported so they could lead. Among everything there was community and Black joy. I'm also inspired by Ella Baker and our ancestors, just all the Black women organizing who came before us.”
On who she would choose as a mentor...
I’m blessed to be part of the next generation fighting for liberation and those that I get to work with serve as my mentors, especially those within our national Faith in Action Network. There are too many to name. If I was to add one maybe Dr. Melina...
On the importance of Black History Month...
“Have you heard of Sankofa? It means to go forward in an intentional way, you have to look back to honor ancestors like Ella Baker, that you don’t hear about and I embrace the fact that I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. Black History is everyday for me but this month I think more people lean into Sankofa to help us move us forward. We reflect on the past, we ask what it says about where we're going next.”
On what social justice advocates need to consider more in their racial justice work...
“We need to think about who is leading us and who’s not. We need to ask why am I following this person, versus someone else. Ask where are those closest to the pain. Are you showing up for the right reason? Everyone needs to understand why they are showing up as individuals first, what is your motivation.
“The first revolution is internal, where you figure out what is driving you. I want everyone to live their dreams and live the long life that God wants for them. I show up because I don’t want anyone else to be hurt or feel the pain that I and my loved ones have felt. I want everyone to be liberated, healed, embracing their power, and loved.”
“Learn to understand the connections we have to systems of oppression and see the humanity in everyone. For example, family separations at the border resonated with most people because we saw our own families but many have turned a blind eye to the family separation Black families face daily due to the carceral system. Both are based in systemic racism. At the end of the day, we are fighting for human rights.”
“ It is important to build relationships across differences. john a. powell speaks about how we bridge across differences to build a sense of belonging to each other.”
“As Pastor Ben McBide says we need to stop asking first what we need to do instead the right first question is who do we need to become.”
“FINJ believes in meeting every person where they are, establishing deep relationships, and building around shared interest.”
Something about Charlene that not many people know…
“I am currently writing a cookbook, a vegan cookbook that features vegan soul food.”
The last books Charlene read...
On what she is passionate about outside of her social justice advocacy work...
“Photography (when not under stay-at-home order) and I love museums. My favorite is The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in - Montgomery, Alabama which takes visitors from enslavement to incarceration. The museum is not whitewashed to just present facts; it elicits a deep emotional response where I found myself crying in the middle of the museum as I stood before jars etched with names that held the soil from where they were lynched.”