Five years ago, with ancestors’ magic surely at play, Mary Hooks was called to step into the role of Co-director at SONG. Fueled by love for and commitment to our kindred network, and dedication to build power alongside our people in the South, Mary accepted the position. Recognizing the gravity of what she was being pulled into, Mary has consistently held onto her authenticity, always led by the spirit of movement, and moving with the wisdom of SONG co-founders and elders. She’s been part of leading enormous transformation and growth of SONG amidst these uncertain and trying times. She is the definition of a dreamer and schemer centered around finding our people. After 5 years of service, our beloved Mary is transitioning from Co-Director into the Forever SONG family at the end of 2020. We are so immensely grateful for her service to SONG, our people and movement broadly.
In this interview, Mary Hooks was joined by previous Co-Directors, Paulina Helm-Hernandez and Caitlin Breedlove to discuss her transition, reflect over her time as Co-Director, look back at joyous times with the SONG family, and how she was called to lead our organization and movement.
Mary shares pivotal moments during her leadership journey, key lessons she’s learned, and what her dreams and plans are for the future. We look forward to having her as a rogue member with lifelong commitment to SONG and movement.
We’re also deeply excited to see her pass the torch to longtime SONG family, Aesha Rasheed and Wendi Moore-O’Neal as the incoming Co-Directors of SONG in 2021.
Bia Jackson: Hey y’all. So first. I definitely want to go around and give a brief introduction of yourself. SONG fam should know y’all, but just for the sake of this time let’s just popcorn around and then we’ll hop on to the first question. We’re talking about Mary’s transition into the Forever SONG rowdy family. So, who wants to go first?
Caitlin Breedlove: I can go. Hi y’all I’m Caitlin aka Breedlove. Almost always known as Breedlove, at SONG. I currently sit on SONG’s board, and I was a co-director with Paulina for a little over nine years. So super happy to be here and that’s who I am.
Paulina Helm-Hernandez: My name is Paulina Helm-Hernandez. And I’m also one of the former co-directors of SONG, nine and a half years with Caitlin. And how long Mary, [with] you and I?
Mary Hooks: I think we got a good year in. About a year, a year and a half.
Paulina: Both of them, an incredible privilege. So happy to be on the call with you all.
Mary: I’m Mary, Mary Hooks, she and her pronouns. I am the current, yet exiting, Co-Director of Southerners On New Ground. That’s all I got.
Bia: Yes, yes. So we thought it was really fitting for the folks that honestly, I want to say, developed Mary’s leadership, came into SONG, wrangled Mary at times and also asked Mary to step into the co-directorship. So first, I want to ask Mary, how did you come into SONG and also movement broadly?
Mary: Well, SONG was the way I came into movement. Y’all know the story before, but yes, I always feel a particular way of sharing it. But one night, partying with the homies, picking up ladies at some, lord, I am trying to remember the name, but this one bar. I think it was [called], not Lipstick and Ladies. It was Ladies at Play Party, in Atlanta. And, [my friend] Angela asked me to speak to a homie, a little little situation that she was interested in. And I went over to talk to her, and in our conversation, I asked her what she did for work. You know, networking. And she said that she was trying to stop the shackling of Black women while giving birth in prison. That was a game changer. A game changer.
That person was Paris Hatcher, and we all became buddies. Angela did not get the cakes, but we got a lifetime friend and comrade. And I would just ask her, “What the fuck are you talking about?” Like, “what do you mean?” as our friendship grew. And she was like, I’m going to introduce you to my political home, to SONG. And Paris was on the board of SONG at the time. SONG had just moved the admin office to Atlanta, P [Paulina] just moved. And that’s when the mentorship circle was taking off. It was like six months or something, right? Like, social justice 101, like organizing 101. I felt 101, I think others may have been a little bit more advanced than I was.
But that process and doing that, like was a game changer, as well, cuz I think, and I remember being in those spaces, and oftentimes I was deeply confused, deeply confused. I was learning shit that I had never even heard of before. I’d never heard anybody talk about feudalism and colonialism, like none of these concepts. I remember afterwards, thinking this shit feels like gospel. I didn’t understand it all. But the shit feels like gospel. It feels righteous and I want to be a part of it.
And so then I had this party, one of our parties at the Juice Box (Mary’s collective home + space for Black lesbians and queers + those that loved them), and I think in a drunken phase, I was like, “yeah, Paulina, let me know if SONG needs anything.” And I literally didn’t know what I was saying. I did not know because I don’t think I still understood organizing. And like, I remember maybe like two or three months later Paulina hit me up “Yo, I need to come to SONG’s office. I got something for you to do,” and put me on assignment. And that’s how I got locked and loaded.
But I will also say too is that, in hindsight, there have always been watershed moments leading up to that moment of meeting Paris in a bar. Just from my own growing up, the War on Drugs, family, deeply impacted by all the things. But then there were moments like, remember when Columbine happened, or when 9/11 happened, or when all the Black dudes at my college were going to Afghanistan looking for weapons of mass destruction. And Katrina and the Jena 6, there were key moments that I saw happen playing out and just didn’t have an analysis about it. I just noticed shit wasn’t right. And I was pissed off as fuck. And I believe that the ancestors, and as much as they wanted us to hook up with the ladies. I think more importantly, it was ancestor work, who had me go talk to Paris for Angela that night. And my life ain’t never been the same since.
Bia: I love that. And I love the story. I think what’s been interesting has been hearing your story but I’m really curious to hear Caitlin and Paulina, what is your story around when Mary came into SONG? And what did you possibly see in her then that was a big component to her being asked to step into co-directorship?
Paulina: Oh, man, I’m cracking up. I was like, that’s exactly what happened. I mean, I will be honest, that at that time, SONG was going through a lot of discerning as an organization. Caitlin and I had a lot of different ways we were thinking about to nurture a new generation of SONG leaders. Because what you said is exactly how SONG gets you, right? You think it’s about the ladies, and then you get politicized. And then you’re like, now I’m organizing – what is happening right now? You know, you’re like, how often do we get to ask people that?
Because you spoke to it, Mary. I think that, at the time, SONG was going through a lot of transitions, we moved our office from the place that we had started from in Durham, North Carolina, which I definitely want Breedlove to speak more on that. Because I feel like she was holding a lot of that, as well, in the beginning. Like you said we wanted to come to Atlanta and step into Georgia with an offering. We had been doing regional work and had some really strong members coming out of Georgia, already people that have been plugged into the regional network, for sure.
But I think for us, it was a big deal to do that. We were moving the office there and there was a lot going on with the LGBT community. And like you said, a lot of social spaces and then organizing. And I think just in an opening to want to connect with people, that have not been previously organized in Atlanta, or in Georgia, and really wanting to connect with people that were coming into consciousness and the way that we have come into it too through lived experience, to really assess what was happening in their own lives. And I think the leadership circle was one of those experiments, to be honest with you. We were kind of like trying to co-design something that was open, invited other organizations from Atlanta from other places to come facilitate sessions and just offer the kind of political grounding that felt helpful for all of us, and I think for new SONG leaders. And I’ll be honest I think that when I was thinking about like, what was the thing? What was the thing? I think that you, there was a lot of, learned a lot from the leadership of the mentorship circle. Because I think it’s one of the gifts of SONG we’re never looking for, like the perfect kind of like, type of leader, the perfect kind of prototype of who are the people that we want to organize alongside.
But I think that you always just kept stepping to us with that. Mary was like, “let me know, when there’s a role for me, let me know I’m ready to tap in.” I don’t know how serious you were at the time, I think that was kind of hilarious. But I think when we were talking about like, what it meant to expand the team regionally and who has shown a real genuine interest in wanting to organize alongside our people, and actually could talk to regular people and could organize. I think that you’re also downplaying how amazing those parties at the Juice Box were and how amazing to have a community space y’all were providing for folks. I feel like you were already one of those people that cared about community and was grounded in community.
And I think for us it was an opportunity to yeah, just be able to ask you. At the time, I mean, the ask is always a little bit loaded and wild with SONG so we’ll get to that later. We’re like, “Are you willing to go to Alabama? And find our people there? Are you willing to do all the things?” But I think that you were really, honestly I just really appreciate it the way that you were like I’m drunk right now, I know, and I’m surrounded by the ladies, but let me know if y’all need anything. And I was like, “Oh, we’re gonna call you up, baby. I just hope that you’re ready.”
And I think Caitlin and I were like, we had our eye on you, and obviously a bunch of other folks that we were beginning to connect with them and build with more at the regional level. And I think that one of the things that you also spoke to a lot during the mentorship circles, like “how does it apply to my life? How does it apply to the people that I love, that I live with, that I organize with? How does this apply to my auntie?” I remember that being one of the things you would bring into this space? And I was just like, I see you Mary Hooks, I see you looking beyond yourself. And I think that it speaks to not just your politics, but I think it speaks to the way that you relate to the organization and to the movement. And it was something beautiful to be like, “what else are you willing to do?” So Breedlove will pass it over to you.
Caitlin: So often, I think about the past, and I’m like, the shit that we knew in our gut then P and then like, in retrospect, I feel like we knew, you know what I mean? And I think now in retrospect I think about how much Mary, even though really you and I came into relationship a little bit later, it was Paulina, who was really engaging you first. Like, I think what we saw so much in you was like, just like this really incredible sense of wanting to bring our folks along, and kind of wanting to bring everybody along, who was willing to come along, as long as folks, we’re going to act right. And I guess I think about that a lot at this moment. Because I think that I value it more and more with passing time. And like, in this moment, value it really, really deeply, because I think that you have always been so willing to be like, “Well, why can’t we like, bring more people in? Why can’t we bring more people like, let me just recruit all the time,” right? And we all know that should get messy all the time, right? Because then like, people screw up, and then some folks can’t can’t really hang and then all these things move. But like, your willingness and interest, I think, I’ve always felt so deep to both Paulina and I.
And I also think just your authenticity and commitment to your own experience, to being in that experience. But also, your commitment to being very honest about what you were bringing in, what you couldn’t bring and what made sense to you and what didn’t make sense to you. And then I honestly think, and P I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, but I think a lot about our conversations about Mary’s class politics, too. And her race politics and her class politics from a political level. And I think about that a lot, because I just think it’s really important to be explicit. A lot of times in organizing, there’s so much tokenizing that happens with Black women, Black social justice infrastructure, and especially living outside and working outside of the South, that I don’t want anybody to ever be confused. That like, there were a lot of great leaders. Paulina and I had a lot of options about who we wanted to develop. And a lot of those people were of all racial backgrounds, and a lot of those folks were Black, you know what I mean?
And that was also a question of just like, your class politics, your commitment to a multiracial base, your commitment to like being inside the conflict and the difficulty. We were living that commitment as a crew, even in our guts of like, there’s identity and there’s vision and there’s strategy, and there’s just that integrity, that principle, that I won’t fucking quit. And so I think that, especially in a moment where like, there’s so much tokenizing, and kind of commodification, particularly of, Black leadership in a lot of places like I just think it’s really important to name that. And I feel like you’ve held that well and I’m sure we’ll get to this in a moment, but like, the fact that you were kind of reticent about this job, and we had to be like, “Ooh, let’s go in the back bedroom and have this conversation.” Actually, I’ve always thought that was a good sign. I’ll be honest, people who are jumping to be EDs [executive directors] make me really nervous these days y’all, they make me nervous. I’m not sure if they are the one because sometimes the ones that are like priming and pumping to be the one that like, “pick me put me in the spotlight”, that shit makes me really nervous. And that was never Mary hooks, y’all, in case y’all didn’t know, that was not her. She was like, “Really ah shit.” So that’s what I remember y’all check me if I was wrong.
Mary: Dead on, dead on.
Bia: So, I’m definitely hearing it and I do remember this story quite often being like, “I was asked to step into this role.” Best believe, I had my questions and thoughts. So what advice did you receive that eased your anxiety around stepping into this role? And what was the most useful advice that you used throughout your experience at SONG?
Mary: You know, I think about, I just had Porty [Mary’s kid], this was 2013, I just came on to staff full time. And P, you came to my house, we’re like in orientation okay. We’re sitting on the little couches at Juice Box. And I was, I think I expressed like, “I’m fucking scared.” And you’re like, “Good”, then you said something to the extent of like, “because then you know the gravity of what you are stepping into and you’re not taking it lightly.” And you said to me that “you have good instincts and that right there, that’s going to take you far.” And you said something to the extent about being tried in the fire.
And what it makes me think about is some of my, you know, hindsight is always 20/20. And I’m like, it just reminded me a lot about when I would organize with white Jesus through the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) Pentecostal Church and I think, holding on to that, and like I haven’t walked this path and co-directorship without that. It’s little cup of fear, a little cup and I’ve seen it fill up at different times than others. But there’s always been a little cup there. I think because of the gravity of what is being asked of us, as people who are trying to change the world and trying to change our communities, I think that is something that I have held on to.
Even after being asked, I remember being very like, “Look, these are things I cannot do, I don’t know how to do them. So I don’t know how we’re gonna work around that.” But, you know, the discernment part, instinct part, I think, is what I’ve tried to cleave to and really always sharpening the sound of what Spirit is saying and always trying to get sharper in terms of how I’m hearing and what I’m hearing, and be able to bring that as an offering. You know, it’s something I feel like, hell that’s all I got. I’ve got other things but that right there feels like what has been my saving grace, real talk, has been my fucking saving grace.
Bia: Absolutely, and I love that. And I guess I’ve also felt the advice from Paulina and Caitlin, also make his way through staff. So you have always been passing on these learning lessons, for sure. What were you gonna say, P?
Paulina: I love that. Yeah, I mean that was something that was imparted to us, from the founders, from the OGs. I remember having this very similar conversation with Mandy Carter, when she was handing us the key to the storage locker at SONG. Like, “Now before you go over there, let me tell you – you’ll be fine.” You know, she’s like, “’cause you’re gonna start opening up boxes, and then you’re gonna get overwhelmed, and it’s gonna feel like, what am I doing here?” And I think honestly, we just didn’t know what was ahead, obviously, for anybody.
I think that about so many of the things that I’ve learned so much from the two of you, from you, Mary and Breedlove and also, as parents. Like what it means to bring life into this world that you’re like, brave new life. We do the best we can. And to me, that’s how it feels to me to bring people into movement. I knew that you were a powerful woman. And I knew that bringing all of your full self to the work was going to, of course like Caitlin said, cause a little bit of a stir, cause a lot of that. And I think that to be much more explicit, I think we were really worried about some of the ways that people were talking about leadership and movement at that time. I was really stressed out to be honest about a lot of the eliteness or some other ways that people were like, “This is the kind of leader that we’re looking for and this is the kind of walk and talk.” I think for for me, it just was super important that like Caitlin said, if you don’t have a gut, if I don’t have a sense that you can even trust yourself to make this decision, that you have made it through something harder, and having to make this organizational decision, then we just don’t know.
And I love that you were so honest about what you were scared of. It just honestly was such a relief to me, because I was so scared. I was so scared. I was like, we do ask a lot of people. You know, we ask so much of our folks. There were so many things that I wanted for you obviously as a leader that I’m like, I hope the organization can do right by you. I hope that we can help manifest some of these things and always do right by you.. And I just knew that in that moment , it was you responding to your own call too, and that was bigger than what SONG was asking you, you know, to step into leadership in a way that we were asking you to do. We were asking you to be in the wind a little bit. We were asking you to take some risks, we were asking you to help build then rebuild the organization at the time.
And I think that I was honestly always worried that people would try to put somebody in the fire that wasn’t ready or they just like the heat and just want to cozy up to it. But actually, not willing to do what’s necessary. And I think that you already had so much insight. And I think you were just like seeing through the loopholes of so many things like, “Interesting, so organizing and advocacy equals this? What does that mean for our people? What does that mean for the safety of our people?” And I think that I just was really grounded in that, I was like, Mary, you are going to bring exactly the kind of questions. Not questions that I have the answer to or Breedlove and I, collectively, have the answer to, but the questions that have kept so much of the political work of SONG alive.
Continuing to ask ourselves: “Are we doing right by our people? Are we taking the risk necessary to move this work, and if we’re tired, maybe we don’t need to sit down and let somebody else take a crack at this?” And I just, I think that I was really fortified by your class politics, right where Breedlove said, but I also think that you also had such a really solid core of like, “Oh, we can do that shit. How many people? We can do that shit. Where do we need to go? We will do that shit.” You know all of the things that I remember when you were pregnant with Porter, and like, all of the ways that you were showing up has everything to do with your resilience.
I remember having a conversation with Breedlove that I was like, “Okay, I think now it’s time for Hooks to go on maternity leave. I think now’s the time.” And remember, you finally Breedlove, being like, “I think Mary has told us that there’s a couple more things she needs to do before she can take the time so we’re gonna support her see her through this.” And I just remember being like, “You know what, you’re right, like what needs to happen?” I think that there were so many other moments, Mary, where you were, “I know what else I have to deal with but this is really important to me, too.” And I just think you were always really honest about what else you were holding. And, I’ve learned so much from you about that vulnerability, over the years, because I’m not somebody that comes by that easily. I’m like,
“I don’t want to tell you what’s going on. I’m fine. You know whatever, whatever.” And I just knew that you were ahead of me on that curve. You know, here’s what’s really going on with me. Here’s what I really need to know. I think I learned a lot from working together on that.
Bia: Wow! So my next question really goes similarly to that piece that you’re speaking to P. And Mary’s always like, “We can do that shit” and the dreamer and schemer of fucking life. So I want to ask you, Mary, name some of your proudest moments with SONG, whether it be like taking the streets or scheming over a cig and some E&J, whatever it may be.
Mary: Geez, I’ve been so full and so fed. It’s hard to locate them. I looked at the questions, I did. But I don’t like to look at the questions for real, for real ’cause I just want to speak from what’s on my heart. But let me see I think one of the things that stands out is shutting down the ICE office in Atlanta.
And I remember whew, that shit right there, y’all! I remember Kate and I had the mic, or whatever the fuck, airhorn, not airhorn, but y’all know, the megaphone. *laughs* And, and I just remember the night before at the GLAHR office folks going around, and what it meant for the scrappy LGBTQ organization to be alongside of GLAHR, fucking GLAHR, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human fucking Rights, badasses. And to be bringing our energy, our politics, our culture, you what I mean, have that in space. And maybe it was you, Paulina, talking about pronouns, and then a monolingual Spanish speaker in the circle was asked to share their pronouns, and said they/them, like they tried something new. And it was like the first time somebody had given them an invitation to name yourself.
This is also part of your self determination. And to have that moment, knowing we were taking collective risk together and go shut it down. Whether we could speak the same language or fucking not, and then to go and shut the shit down. And I just remember you, Breedlove, in your little Not One More hoodies and arms fucking linked and locked with other comrades. Kate and I, you know, bringing the joy and the goddamn energy. And I remember this look on your face Breedlove when they (the police) started taking y’all asses and it was just something about the way in which you did it. I don’t even know, after all these years I still don’t know not articulate it, but I remember the way it felt to witness it and watch it and to be a part of that experience. It’s a game changer, game changer for me.
And super proud of the work with GLAHR. I know it was not just that moment. It had been years of work that led to that moment, but to be a part of it, to be able to bear witness to it, was all the things! I think I’ll name three, I think the other one was, I remember when we had a staff meeting in Atlanta, I believe, but all this shit was going down. P, you were still on staff, Breedlove I think you may have been gone already. But all this shit with HB2 in North Carolina was going down and we’re supposed to have a staff meeting in Atlanta. We’re like fuck that shit. Re-route! Motherfuckers, we’re going to goddamn North Carolina gang gang gang gang gang! I feel like it should always be essential to the way in which staff moves that are regional. It is essential that we’d be in the streets together. That must happen, as regularly as possible.
But to go and be a part of that shit and to be disrupting the narrative. They were saying its about bathrooms, and we were like “No bitch, put your lens on.” They are trying to dismantle wages. To be able to have a read and assessment and to be able to throw down with the comrades of Durham chapter there, and to bring the weight of the regional staff there. I think we ended up being inside of the legislative session in the balcony or some shit. I think the Poor People’s campaign was getting ready, it was a lot going on, the smoke was in the city! But, I felt proud, because TLC also mobilized. But it was just the power of being able to yield the power of the institution in that way for that particular flight. Then also to be able to broaden the conversation about what time. To have that fucking read was delicious!
And last thing, I’ll say, I have to say, oh, of course I’m gonna talk about the bailout work. But I feel like a big part of the proudest moment. I don’t think it’s a moment, but it’s just like, folks who have been riding with SONG, you all, myself, and so many others have poured into their leadership. You know, fucking Keel came into the organization at 18 or 19 years old and shit and still fucking riding. And is like a beast, beasting it in Virginia, you know what I mean? I’m like, damn, I played a part in that! The different leaders and organizers who have come up through the ranks and have stayed in the struggle, who haven’t left, we cried together, we have not talked for a minute, then come back to each other.
Like that makes me feel proud like to see folks thriving. Like little Bia motherfucking came in through the Harrisonburg work that Hermelinda was doing, and was like the little communications fellow. So that feels righteous, that feels like the purpose! I feel proud of that shit. You know? And I said three, but of course, and it’ll probably come back up, but certainly the bailout work. It has been a fucking game changer, has literally been a game changer. Those are some of the things I’m holding. I’m curious what these other fuckers see as you’ve watched from afar, very close far, but you know.
Caitlin: I mean, I just think there’s so many things I’ve been so proud of. But I think the spirit with which y’all have really held the integrity of just that longevity, that same “to stay in it”. You know to me, that’s just been incredibly powerful, especially right now. I think a flashy sprinter is nice, but like a marathon y’all. Not a marathon that costs us everything, but really that depth and that spirit. I think it has been really critical to feel like that’s carried through. And I think a lot about those moments and leadership, like how scared we all were. We’re all going through all these scary moments, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing half the time. But it’s staying and not being shady, I didn’t know things every single day, but every single day I learned at SONG. But it’s also, it doesn’t matter if we fuss and fight and people go away and come back because our lives are about the same thing in a spiritual way. And that doesn’t even mean we have all the same ancestors and all the same gods and all the same interpretation of that. I mean, honestly that’s what keeps me in this organization. That’s not the space we’re in every day. And like, we’re just people that fuck things up. And I think Mary, definitely, like you have had that courage to be like, this is what I bring and this is what I don’t bring. And I actually think even though we’re talking about the end of this particular role in leadership, and it’s been a while since Paulina and I were in leadership in this organization in that way. I actually think we’re in a moment where this kind of leadership is needed more than fucking ever.
Because it’s not about a pundit. It’s not about a celeb. It’s not about an individual. Like, it’s about what we have, what we still have which is why my bitch ass is still here. You know what I mean? When I stopped doing so many other things, I really did. And it’s just like, that’s accountability. I’m like, oh, I can’t tell Mary I’m too busy to be on the board. I can’t, I can’t have that conversation. I’m not going to have that conversation. So something else needs to go. Because that’s not what I’m going to do. I’m not going to tell Paulina that I’m not going to go in there and do a solid on something. I can’t do it, I can’t do it. You know what I mean? And that’s some really different shit. I mean, just to keep it completely 100% real. And that has everything to do with continuing to be in relationship. So that’s what I think.
Paulina: I agree with all of that.
Bia: It’s so juicy. I want to move this a little to talk about the challenges and the tensions. So Mary, you want to kick us off? And I would love to hear from P and Caitlin. What were some of the challenges when you were in this co-directorship, Mary? And also, what are the challenges that y’all saw from the outside? Or even when y’all were co-directors?
Mary: Let me prime my goddamn self again. I’m gonna take a few sips before I answer this question. Out South, what year was that, Out South 2016? We began talking about the plagues. Was that 2016?
Paulina: I believe so.
Mary: I felt like I stepped into the role in 2016 and it felt like at the time, we were clocking it from the bird’s eye view. At that time, I’d already started representing SONG inside of Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). We went to that LGBTQ White House sitch. Oh, my God. Sometimes I’m like, Mary, you need to write about this shit, yo. But we began to see the plagues. And I felt like we were kind of like, “Don’t let that shit in the house!” like guarding, the fucking gates around that. And I think that at the time, we were naming the side effects. I don’t think I quite, and y’all smart fuckers probably did, but I hadn’t quite diagnosed it, I just saw the side effects of it. And I think it took me maybe a few more years to understand the diagnosis of it. In terms of some of the cynicism, the navel gazing, the fragility, and some of the other stuff.
But I remember naming it then, and we hadn’t seen it all the way manifest all the way inside of SONG and that shifted. And I think the challenge has been to be able to, because it’s so widespread, y’all. It’s the challenge of to not just name it, but also address it, be able to redirect, be able to carve a different path. These last few years, I would say some of the ways in which I saw different folks came for folks inside the organization in different ways, or the organization broadly. I remember one time someone popped off online and shit. I was like, “Who is this motherfucker? I ain’t seen you at a membership meeting. I just look in the database you ain’t paid no fucking dues. You ain’t been to a meeting, how dare you?”
Other people saw it, but other people wouldn’t speak to it or other people wouldn’t like to name it or whatever. And people just kind of watched, back in the cut because everybody was like, “I don’t want to be like disliked” and “I don’t want them to say I’m homophobic or transphobic or being anti-Black or being classist or all the shits.” And I think that the greatest challenge has been watching and seeing how I entered SONG and movement, and seeing a different tendency come up and not have the skill set, the know how, whatever the fuck. ‘Cause I don’t know if I can articulate a way that ain’t gone be harmful. I feel like I lost a lot of confidence in speaking the truth. And that shit is a political regret, is a political fucking regret, not being able to name it and to call it. But not do it in a way that’s like fucked up, but because I love our people so and we want our people to fucking win. And also be able to hold when we see these types of tensions and how it shows up in our spaces and the way in which we’re responsible for naming it, redirecting and supporting our people on a different path. Obviously, none of us are perfect or nothing like that. Like, that’s not the goal here.
But there has to be something that goes beyond the identity politics, and the plagues in which we’ve named, that takes us further and requires more from us, as you would often talk about Breedlove. You would say “movement not just needs more of us, it needs more from us.” And we in a time motherfuckers like, “Yo I ain’t trying to give more. I want to be able to rest. That’s cool. I want to downplay what people need to take care of themselves. At the same time, it’s just been, it’s been a weird, fine line to grapple with. That’s a deep fucking challenge. And again, not just in SONG space, but just like broadly in movement. Like what the fuck are we doing?
Because like you trying to get free, cool – get your personal freedoms. We are talking about liberation work and that comes with a different level of sacrifice and a different level of humility.I just feel like the only way in which I can intervene is when folks come sit on my porch, smoking a little bit, have a little E&J baby and let me talk to you. I feel like some of the other challenges too, just like more as a self-critique. This iteration of the Black liberation movement started when we clocked it in 2013. At least that’s when I felt it, remember, me, Kai, TC from Alabama bunch of us went to the Free Minds, Free People conference.
Yeah, we went there because we were trying to figure out our campaign. We thought about public schools, the only institution still left accountable to our people. You know, at that time, this is when Pharr has clocked that the charter school shit was coming down the pike. And then we heard from our people like actually, we’re not in school no more. Whatever, go down the rabbit hole. But 2013, being at that conference in the time that it happened. This is when George Zimmerman was acquitted from what he did to Trayvon Martin. And I’ll swear to God, literally something shifted in the fucking air that night. And it has not shifted since that fucking night. It was like, everything changed. The temperature, the urgency, everything shifted. I think what many of us were being called into and what we were being invited into, was to build out a lot of work inside of M4BL. You know someone was like, “I didn’t know SONG had gone national” and I was like, “Have we gone national? Is that what that means? I don’t fucking know. I’m just doing the work.
But I think that that has come at a huge cost. Come at a huge cost. Because there were times where I was like “Decide do I go to this M4BL meeting. When M4BL was like, all right bitches, are we gonna build some shit? We need everybody to sacrifice for the next 6-7 months. We are going to meet once a month in fucking person.” And that came with a cost because one of the things I was clear about when I stepped into this role, I don’t care if other motherfuckers might know me or hear about me. But I never want the people outside of my political home to act as if I’m a stranger, to act as if I’m Mary Hooks, whatever fuck.
I didn’t get to do, you know, the bar outreach all of the time with our people where we build. We got all the convenings, the weekend crew ups, scheming and theory, then practicing. And that’s what I feel like I didn’t get to spend a lot of time doing. And then I’m like, “bitch was that would you have been asked to do inside of your role as co-director?” But I feel like on the flip side, I’ve always, always always stayed and kept my hand on the pulse and stayed active inside of Atlanta work. Even though I wasn’t probably able to go to different places, that has kept me grounded in organizing. But I feel like the choice to help build out national Black infrastructure in this time, and what that means, and what other things I didn’t choose because of that, or the time to spend with different staff and different member leaders. I feel that shit, I feel that shit, you know? So, there’s some challenges, there’s been others. But I’ll stop there.
Bia: Either of y’all want to name a couple?
Paulina: Thank you for sharing that, Mary. There have been so many challenges. I do think that anything that gets in the way of us having political clarity becomes the challenge. You spoke to it beautifully, Mary. I think that there’s questions around formation and what it means to keep the fire hot at the political home, and be part of meaningful collaborations, alliances and coalitions where we have to give, we have to give of our time, of our politics to build a bridge that we want there to be. And I think that I remember that moment where you were being called to play a national role and inside of national, what was about to become a global movement.
I remember having those conversations with you about what felt meaningful to hold down at SONG and how some of the work was gonna have to shift. But I’ll be honest, I don’t have any regrets about that. And I’m sure that there’s many other people in the organization that wish they had more of your time being mentored by you, or directly or like all that bar outreach that maybe you missed that you regret missing.I really hear that. But what I know is that the National Bail Out movement, Mary, is what it is, in huge part because of your work, leadership and vision.
Because that was something that was deep in your heart that I remember you bringing to that organization, as a nugget of an idea to bring to M4BL. And how could we have chosen anything else? You know, how could the organization have chosen anything else, but to support you in expanding that vision. Because I’m like, you can talk about the work in abstract terms, but what the work actually meant for so many people that wanted to get their folks out of jail and prisons.
Caitlin pops back into frame with her baby. Rocking him back and forth to sleep.
Paulina: Hi God baby! He’s sleepy. I’m so glad he joined us!
Caitlin: This is the real shit here y’all. It’s all what it is.
Paulina: So honestly, I just have my own regrets about whether we should have done more to support you. We should have done more to ease some of the tensions, we should have done more to support more of our people stepping into the kind of leadership opportunities that we were cultivating across the board. But I feel like anything, honestly, that’s gotten in the way, like you said, the plagues– that’s some evergreen shit, right there. You know that’s an eternal problem as long as there’s ego in movement, as long as there’s capitalism, as long as there’s white supremacy and white nationalism, like those things are going to be things that we’re going to have to guard the political home against.
And I love that you both are two of my favorite people, though, because both of you come by that honestly. And, are both people that I trust 100 percent. Like you actually care about having political clarity. You actually care about there being political unity in order for us to be able to move. And so many challenges along the way, but I’m also thinking about what else it would look like to be and share leadership with people that were never willing to move, that only ever wanted to be comfortable, that only ever wanted the easy choices. I don’t know where this organization and where our movements would be at.
So to me, I’m like, people talk to me about the bail out movement all the time, Mary, all the time. You know, and they give me credit for it, and I’m like, I can’t take credit for that, but it’s about SONG. It’s about your leadership. It’s about a lot of the new generation of leaders that you’ve helped to bring into this work and all the Mamas and all the caretakers. So I really am like, I hope you can see both sides. Because I definitely sometimes get all of this love. And I’m like “That’s about SONG, that’s about the work, that’s about you.” And about a lot of the work that was possible because you brought that fire to the organization, and you named a real opening and a real possibility.
And I think that all of the challenges that I’ve had where I’m like, “Oh, there’s somebody that we should’ve smacked around harder,” or like, “We should have pressed harder,” like the LGBTQ Congressional Caucus. I’ve had all these reflections of what we could’ve done differently tactically. But I have no regrets about how hard we went at the things that we did. And like you said being able to shift gears and show up for our people. Because we didn’t know how devastated people would be after their names were written into policy to be policed at bathrooms. We knew that it was going to be like a knife turning for so many of our people. So I think being part of a political family that understands what’s the most important thing. I think that to me, just that has been such a lifesaver. Such a lifesaver.
Bia: Absolutely, so many gems, so many gems here. And I guess this question is for all of you. As Mary transitions into the rowdy Forever SONG fam that be talking shit in the back of the room, and just out organizing us, which I love. I love to be challenged. I think all of our staff loves to be challenged, and the members love to be challenged. What does the commitment inside of forever SONG look like? What does that commitment look like?
Caitlin: I mean, I would say that I think a big part of it is just what we already talked about –the staying in and the political clarity. And I would say like, often when you go outside of SONG, I mean, it’s holding up political clarity, and hearing that respect that I still have from y’all as comrades. It also means so much, because lots of times it’s lonely as shit y’all, to be honest. It’s lonely as shit, because the plagues are powerful. And they’re in our spaces. And when you speak out against them, people feel shame, because they know they’re afflicted by it.
Like, they know, we’re all afflicted by it, but you know what I mean? They know it got in there. And so then oftentimes, it’s like they don’t always want to have the conversation with you, or it gets really complicated. And I think that the Forever SONG commitment, and this is like completely Pat Hussain, it’s like, I don’t have to agree with every decision that Mary, Paulina, or Caitlin makes. It’s not about that, if there’s something big, we’ll talk about it. But it’s about rolling and not sweating the small stuff, and also being like, if it’s the big stuff, we can have that conversation, but we know it’s big stuff. And I ride for this organization. And, some years that’s easier than others, because there’s lots of stuff that happens, it’s hard. You know?
Paulina: I mean, y’all know, I’m like, shit, now I’m getting a little bit older. I was like, oh, man, it’s so nice to get on the phone with people that you don’t have to explain everything to. It’s so nice to know that when you’re talking about “Oh, somebody’s trying to make me decide between anything and movement.” And I’m like, “Do you know me? Do you know what I’m about?”
Yeah, I feel like I take so much strength from just knowing that there is absolutely what it means to cultivate paid opportunities for people to be able to organize. And that the organization can have formal roles of staff, to have all of those things. But I think I just never get confused between the difference between that and the fact that we’re a political organization where leadership matters and trust has to be earned. And we have to earn the respect of our people and we have to show our people that we’re willing to do all of the things necessary to move, to advance this movement. And so I think that there is, to me something that’s just really [key], that I’m like, “doesn’t mean that we have to play every role all the time.” Oh, my God, I love that you named Pat because I was like, I love that about Pat. She’s like, “I’m here this weekend to bring you gay bitches some joy, some wine, and the hits and that’s what I’m here to do.” And like, what a game changer it is when you know what you bring and I think that I just honestly think about that all the time.
I deal with my own shit around perfection, around projecting like, “they have it together enough to be talking to people about certain things.” And SONG has just shown me the power of being scrappy and showing up and just showing up honestly. Just showing up. I think I think differently. I don’t think we should be disingenuous. I do think we expect more from Forever SONG folks. I do think that the ask is different and the expectation is different. It is that we can, not that we don’t have our petty sides, and not that we don’t get to squabble about some things. But I think there is a different ask to be grounded in the long term vision of the organization and not to allow stupid petty shit to bring the organization down.
So that’s one of the things that I’m committed to. If it’s really that time, I’m like you know me, you know my phone number. Y’all better, somebody better, give me a call before they’re getting ready to set anything on fire because I feel like one of my roles, honestly, is to be like, “Really, y’all, we’re at 10?” I’m like, “I need to know why” and not because I’m here to mediate conflict at all. I don’t even think of myself that way. But I think more that I’m like, “this needs to survive to the next generation. This organization, this huge gift and privilege that we were given, that we didn’t create ourselves, has to survive. Not the non-profit but the political home itself.”
So to me, I think it’s one of the things that I do care about what I hear about stupid little petty shit that I’m, like Caitlin says, it doesn’t matter as long as the political home is there for people to be able to come home, come back home, and rebuild and re-light the fire. I think about some of the other people that I’m committed to being in struggle with, just because of SONG. It is because I want to be good. You know, I want to be in my integrity, and I want to be good with SONG and I want things to be good. You know, not perfect, not like “fake-friendly.” But I think that there is a different call to try to be more grounded in what’s most important.
And I think that’s changed for me over the years. I used to think that I knew, that I understood what other people were doing to support us. And then shit got really hard. And then people stepped in to really support, and that’s when I realized, “Oh, no co-director’s carrying this by themselves, there are literally a 100 people really ready and willing and able to support us.” And if we don’t know how to ask for help, that’s our problem. That’s something for us to figure out. But I think the fact that there’s so many more people that are sold to this organization than the haters. Because we do have haters, no need to downplay that shit either. There are many people who I don’t think are about movement. I don’t think it’s even about SONG. I think they’re not about themselves. So they’re not about movement and sometimes they want to drag other people through the bullshit. I think they need to work that shit out. And sometimes I’m like, “Is SONG the space for that?” Maybe not. Maybe go figure that someplace else. And I just love that people have had that conversation with me. “Is this about SONG, is this about what we’re doing together? No, it sounds like y’all need to go handle that.” And I think that is one of the things you can’t learn by reading about it. You learn that by watching other people be bigger. You know, I’ve seen how people handle business. So I just, I’m glad that I got to learn that the hard way.
Bia: Absolutely, absolutely. And so getting into the close. It’s been so juicy. Mary, what are you looking forward to? I feel like in SONG tradition P and Caitlin, what do you wish for Mary? Because I see this as the gay blessings. You know, I love the gay blessings. What do y’all wish for Mary?
Caitlin: Well, I can go first because I gave a toddler a distracting game for a few minutes, because that’s real life. Oh my god, I wish so much for you, Mary and I hope that my recent efforts, as a board member or my time just getting in there with you , felt also like love and support. It’s not a secret that I’ve been like, “when people name their timeline, y’all, we got to respect that and Mary said five years, and she always was an organizer at heart and she was reticent to do some of this other shit and we need to honor that timeline. And we need to make it a reality and not just live in fantasy land.” And then be like, “Oh, but Mary, ayee.” So I hope that part of the blessing is the actions, you know what I mean, and not just the not just the words, but the pushing for that.
Because I know that it’s a big transition for the organization with a lot of exciting things and also a lot of complexity. But my hope for you is that you get to be with your baby, with your family, with your people, have all your dreams for your family that you want come true right now. And shit, get to organize in a way that’s in your heart, where you can lead, [where] you can come back into the space of how you want to lead from a place that, in some ways, is honestly unfettered from some of the responsibilities of being a director, that is disconnected from that. [I hope] that you get to soar into that campaign nerd weird ass, direct action preacher ass part of yourself. I think we need that creativity and that integrity too and we need it and we need you in that different role. So those are all hopes that I have for you.
And I feel like it was said and everything we’re saying, but like going back to that Airbnb back bedroom in New Orleans that night, sitting on the bed, the three of us. I just, as the years go by, I feel more and more gratitude that you said yes. Your yes is connected to a legacy of yeses. Like when P said yes to me, and we said yes to the board and that’s the shit that’s going to get me crying because man that yes, it’s like we gave our time. That’s our lifeblood. That’s our lives. That’s our years. Like, we said, yes and I would say yes again, if it meant that I was saying yes with y’all bitches, you know what I mean? But I think to not acknowledge the cost is to not honor it too, so that would be my wish for you. What about you, P?
Paulina: I’m so glad you said yes too, Mary. Thank you for your service. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your vision. And honestly, I can’t imagine what this organization would be if you had not said yes. So we won’t even go there. I don’t even care about that alternate universe. But I saw you sacrifice so much, I saw you say no to so many other things so that you could say yes to SONG. And I know that there’s some of that though that the movement can’t give you back, like time with your baby. You know, no matter how much we love you, no matter how much the movement loves you, there’s so many things that we just can’t give you back and restore, to make it worth it or more worth it.
But what I will say is that my intention for you is that you say yes, to all of the things that are calling you now, that are gonna untether you from some of the stuff that, I definitely I really agree with Breedlove about the responsibility. But more than that, I think you carry so much of that with you in your spirit. You’re a deeply accountable person. I know you care deeply about our people. And that’s not something that I think you have to programmatically build into your brain or figure out a job that tethers you to some responsibilities that are gonna fill you. You’re gonna carry that wherever you go, baby.
I was seeing all these things, like movies and creating, all these people that are doing incredible, incredible work, sharing incredible stories with our people right now. Where shit is so depressing, so fucking sad. This whole new generation of screenwriters and theater producers. I’m honestly fucking blown away by a lot of the stories that people have had for a long time. These are not new stories but it’s a new generation, a new brave generation, honestly. It was like telling them for the first time.
I think that was one of the things that I just think is so powerful about your leadership, and one of the things that you have gifted our people with too. Not narrative for the sake of narrative, but it is about that. It’s about people digging in and not projecting their story onto you, but you asking people like, “what are you actually about? Who are your people? What do you care about? And I think that I just remember when you were going all over Gaycation interviewing everybody with this camera, and I was like, “Mary, you are not going to interview me, I am sweating through every pore in my body. I’m not gonna be on camera this weekend. It’s not happening.” But our people have so many stories to tell and I remember being like, I just think that’s something that I hope that you figure out. You know, where your voice taps into the millions and billions of voices of the people that I know you want to lift up and that you lift up through your work every day.
And then I think that there is the part of that that SONG speaks to really clearly, and I think that there is a whole other big broad vision that I know does have to do with The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), that has to do with the Black global liberation movement. And people that talk to me about some of the things that they have heard you say that they’re like, “I’ve never heard somebody say that in a movement space. Like I need like three days to unpack that.” And to me it is about your abolitionist vision, it is about all of the things that I think light your heart on fire.
And I just hope that whatever work you choose next, I think it’s to me, almost less important as what it is that you want to say yes to. Whether it’s in a paid capacity, whether it’s your pay work. I just, I really think that I want you to know that we’re gonna have your back whatever chapter you want to go into next. If it’s creating something new, bet. If it’s supporting you into stepping into leadership, bet. We have your back. I think my intention for you is that you have the heart space to sit with the things that you want to do, and that you want to spend your time with. Because we got you baby, and you’ve done so much, you have done the absolute most for this organization. Like I hope that you feel all of the joy and all of the calm that comes with really having done the fucking most. So I hope you feel it eventually, baby.
Bia: What do you want to say, Mary? What’s on your heart before we close?
Mary: There’s two things that are critical, one that I have another baby. So in search for the baby batter. Must have another kid, and I put it off, you know. And I’m gonna take some time off, a few months to gather myself, to spend time with my kid. If the continent [Africa] is letting people back, I want to go back and spend time there and write, not necessarily publish, but to write to tell the story. To just download historical memory. I’ve been just deeply grappling with it so much lately. I’ve been in deep study. I’ve been in conversation with comrades, both here in the US Empire, but also globally, and I just want to continue to press and challenge myself and those of us who are in struggle around what does liberation actually look like? Not just the ideology, but the practice that’s gonna get us there?
And there’s this empty lot that’s across the street from my house. My main main thing, yo, there’s an empty lot across the street from my fucking house. It’s owned by some white dude like in rural fucking Georgia. I’m like, “Why you even got this?” But I want that lot. And I want that lot for me and my neighbors, who we sometimes stand around and smoke cigarettes and talk like, “We gotta fucking garden. You know, we could have a fucking peace circle.” There was a shooting last week. And if we had a spot, we could drag people over here and actually get, you know what I mean? Like I want to do, I wanna experiment. I want to try, I want to fail and mess up, and I want to be in deep study and practice. And I want to debate, principled debate obviously, but I want us to get clear, I want us to get clear about which way forward and what are the huge moves.
Paulina, I never forget this shit you always have said, of “we can spend our time making small decisions or we can make the three big fucking decisions we got to make and goddamn move.” And I’m like, “what are the big decisions we need to fucking make and got damn move?” I don’t want to, I don’t want to deal with some of this other shit, you know? And more than anything, I want to be in right relationship with the political home. I do want to be a rowdy ass fucking member and forever SONG member. I cannot wait, I cannot fucking wait. Oh my god. Oh my god. I’m like, oh, I just cannot wait. I cannot wait for that to come and convene, COVID whatever, but when that happens again, to not have all the things that’s required of us when we create this space, obviously I’m gonna do my part and shit, but I’m just looking forward to being in that space in a different way and to show up in a way in which other people are showing up for me inside of SONG.
I think about how Mama Pat, when we shut down the highway in 2014 and Mama Pat, hit me up like, “yo, I’m your driver that day…I’m the driver and I’ll be able to get you out or whatever. Just stay ready for people.” And when people are ready to take risk in that particular way, to be inside of that, to be in support of it, to do what must be done to flank and support the leaders that are coming up inside of this organization.
And my front porch will always be a place and a SONG space. It will always be a place that people know they can come to and air their grievances, or fucking whatever. But those are some of the things I want to do. Those are some of the things I want to do. And I want to continue to build out work that I’ve been a part of, so of course, the political home. Of course, I want to figure out how to support the National Bail Out Collective. I certainly want to give my time, tithes and talent to M4BL. It’s much of what I want to do, so in order to figure out how I can do all the things I must rest first. So that’s what I will do and I will have a baby. If I can find the baby batter. But yes, those are some of the things I’m thinking.
Bia: Thank you so much. I hope you find that baby batter, I really do.
Mary: I mean, put the word out. Let me know, let me know, you know.
Paulina: Last time I heard, it’s not going out of style. Last I heard, there’s a lot of it. Maybe I missed the memo, but.
Bia: Thank you so much for your leadership. Mary. I know you have thoughts on how things could have been done differently. But I hope this is just the beginning of thank yous that you hear in this space. You are the model of what leadership development has looked like. And it has helped shaped what membership has looked like. So you should not have any regrets, any regrets. Because you have invested so much in all of us. So yes, love you deeply. Love you both Caitlin and Paulina deeply, because if it wasn’t for y’all, our asses, my ass won’t be here. A lot of people’s asses wouldn’t be here and keeping this organization alive and well. And also, let us not stray away from our truth and our people. So thank you so much for this time, and I’m sure there’s plenty more times to come in. Y’all ain’t going nowhere cause y’all be on our asses we know.
Paulina: We ain’t going nowhere!
Mary: I love y’all so much, so fucking much!