Institution-Building Critical To True Change

Todd Urban

I’ve experienced a lot of pain, anger, and frustration over the last few weeks especially. It’s good to see that people have had enough, that they really need and desire something different. And that they are at the place where they are going to publicize how they feel. When the awareness is made, when the struggle is publicized, there needs to be conversation among ourselves—as well as the culture at large—about how to empower our community and what that looks like. It’s one thing to demand justice, but true justice is being in a position of power to define what that is. That’s liberation.

Liberation is the ability to have decision-making power and have those decisions drive the community that we live in. It means being able to feel that our culture is not always on trial or simply accepted as a commodity or convicted when it’s convenient. It’s having the resources we need under communal control. Education. Health. Energy. Housing. Economics. Art. Food. In order to do that, we have to have different (and varied) institutions, but it’s one of the things not talked about when it comes to combating racism/white supremacy.

Institution-building is a form of resistance, a form of resilience. There are systems and processes designed to disenfranchise us, so we need our own institutions and organizations to represent our interests with those entities trying to keep us enslaved. Organizing is a form of institution-building since an institution is more than a person, but rather multiple people coming together to manifest an idea. A strategy. A form of organizing that tries to create change, building is a long-term solution, but one that can potentially survive long after us, with the contribution of its members being felt for decades.

There are plenty of historical examples of institutions with the sole focus of providing access to capital to black people which had been long denied. The people pull their resources together and create the entity that they need: churches, HBCUs, black economic districts, credit unions, food co-ops. Not to say that they are bullet-proof, because churches have been bombed and economic districts burned to the ground.

From the beginning, my time with the Kheprw Institute has been about institution-building. Its focus has always been about developing young black leaders with the skill set to interact with individuals, identify issues, and create businesses or organizations that try to address their concerns. All while trying to impact and shift culture. Our voice, controlling our narratives, and telling our stories.

Prior to Kheprw, my people ran a T-shirt business, but its focus was still human-centered leadership development, using a business model to do that. That business model was created to serve primarily the black community. The more we create entities that have our interests at heart, the more they can champion us by interfacing with systems that individuals can’t in order to take care of our own needs. We can create our own resources and develop our own solutions, that culturally reflect our interests by:

  • Research. See what’s being done (even the stuff that you don’t agree with) and, more importantly, what’s not being done in order to get a clear lay of the land. Focus on an area of interest, education, economics, etc., and hone in on what you are passionate about addressing. Figure out what is already going on, what they are doing, and look how they can be supported. If there are gaps, those are the opportunities for creation.
  • Relationships. It’s important to start any plan of action by building relationships. Institution-building is simply the collective gathering of people and the power that comes out of it. Learn each other and from each other. Have critical conversations that examine what’s going on, difficult conversations about what we are experiencing. Find out the different perspectives. From there, see what emerges and figure out how to form action. Strategize the best ways to do something and create actions that arise from their own momentum. Decide what their purpose is and how they are going to move on that purpose. Maybe it’s starting a business. Maybe it’s organizing a movement.
  • Repeat. New relationships, new models, new solutions can be arrived at. Continual creation of things that don’t exist yet to keep moving toward our desired future state.

At the core of our beings, we’re social creatures. The pandemic has impacted our mental health because we can’t socialize and get together like we used to. Being with one another is what we need to thrive and survive. We need to never lose sight of that. We need to change the status quo on how we see one another, how we treat one another, how we uplift one another. The next steps involve what we do about getting there. There have to be conversations galvanizing what’s happening now and transferring that energy into the true change that is needed which is why institution-building is so critical. It’s long-term work that can lead to self-determination and impact the struggle well beyond the current generation. That’s the only way we will achieve true liberation.

Diop Adisa is an organizer, activist, and hip-hop artist who was born and raised in Indianapolis. He is on staff at the Kheprw Institute, which champions “community empowerment through self mastery.”