Wielding Grief to Enact Change
The Changemaker Authors Cohort, a partnership with the Unicorn Authors Club, is a new, yearlong intensive coaching program supporting full-time movement activists and social justice practitioners to complete books that create deep, durable narrative change, restructuring the way people feel, think, and respond to the world. This interview series features participants in the inaugural cohort.
Malkia Devich Cyril, is a writer, public speaker and award winning activist on issues of digital rights, narrative power, Black liberation and collective grief. Their book, Radical Loss: Black Grief Can Change the World, combines personal storytelling and political essays to reframe grief as a powerful driver for movements, rather than a private experience.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Narrative Initiative: Tell me about your project with the Changemaker Authors Cohort.
Malkia Devich Cyril: My book is called Radical Loss and it explores the role of grief inside of social movements as well as the capacity of grief and grief narratives to transform and change our conditions. I guess the best way to say it is, how we might wield grief to win.
Narrative Initiative: Why do you call it Radical Loss? What is radical to you about grief?
Malkia Devich Cyril: The idea is that grief is any response to loss, but radical loss is the ability to move grief in the direction of justice. Right now, I think we’ve been living in a historical period where the right wing and related forces have manipulated grief toward that to serve the politics of resentment. They have wielded a reactionary grief that has moved constituencies toward their regressive policies, and I think the left — and those who care about justice and freedom and a future — have to learn how to wield grief for a more radical end.
I believe that’s more important now than ever, because we’re in a grief moment, where we are being subjected to profound and significant losses and we’re experiencing loss collectively at a different scale than we have in recent history. Perhaps at a scale that we [haven’t] witnessed [since] the Transatlantic slave trade. And so that experience is definitely racialized, that experience is gendered, but it is shared.
As we move through what Antonio Gramsci calls the “interregnum” as this period of instability—political, social and economic instability. In that period violence increases, and we see more and more death.
When we’re living through that kind of a period, we need new skills, we need new techniques, we need new ways of understanding the world. We need a grief-informed approach to change. And that is what I hope to write about. And I hope to write about that in a unique way. I don’t want to write a self-help book. And I don’t want to write a book that is purely a political book or a book about movement building. I want it to be a book that touches many genres.
It will be, in part, a memoir that really shares my own experiences of loss and movements. My mother was a member of the Black Panther Party. She was also born with sickle cell anemia, which was a fatal disease that killed her. And it impacted her leadership. It impacted her beliefs, her outlook on life, her understanding of change and risk. And she passed those beliefs to her children, you know, very actively, but it was also an experience of profound anticipatory loss. We grew up knowing that my mother would die young, but not knowing when. So that experience has shaped the way I look at life and how I understand the world. And then being Black and growing up in the 1980s in Brooklyn meant that I lost many friends you know, I lost many family members——
Narrative Initiative: To what?
Malkia Devich Cyril: To all kinds of things. HIV, drug addiction, violence, gun violence, domestic violence to other diseases, to many different kinds of things. To accidents. My cousin BJ was run over by a bus because we used to run behind the bus and jump on the back. My girlfriend was raped and thrown off a bridge in the Bronx. Many different things. It’s just part of the violence of that era, particularly if you lived in certain neighborhoods and certain parts of the country.
Narrative Initiative: In your project description, you say, “radicalized grief” can transform loss into shared grief with the power to bring about change and, ultimately, a democracy that we deserve. So, in a perfect world, what does that look like?
Malkia Devich Cyril: We won’t ever have a perfect world. I believe that justice is a moving target at all times. There’s no nirvana. There’s no point that we will reach where we won’t need to transform grief into meaning. I think this is an understudied arena of work. . . . So I don’t want to sound like I have some answer today. But what I can say is that I think there are three broad approaches that I think about.
One is transforming the practices of social movements. Our ability to prefigure the world we want to live in. It’s part of the job of our institutions to do that. So, how we deal with loss and grief inside of our institutions and inside of our leadership shows the world something about how it should be done, and how it can contribute to the kind of relationships and the kind of belonging that we deserve.
The second thing is using grief to organize some very specific communities. Seeing bereaved people as a group to be organized like what the folks at Marked by COVID have done. They have identified a bereaved population, and they are organizing that population for specific policy changes and specific cultural changes and I think that is a model. [They’re not organizing] necessarily around what has killed us, but around the bereavement. COVID is a great example of how loss and grief can be wielded in a regressive and reactionary way. People who are grieving and frightened around democracy can be manipulated into believing that that thing (COVID) doesn’t exist. They can be moved in that direction around their grief, or their grief can be wielded in the direction of policies that support, that heal, and that connect. So COVID is one of those great examples of how organizing a bereaved community can make a huge difference in the outcome in terms of policy and conditions.
The third piece is narratives. When you look at something like the fight around reparations, when you look at something like the fight around climate disaster, these are the arenas in which grief is the storytelling medium. It is the mechanism by which we can look at and understand what has happened, what will happen, and what needs to happen. Being able to wield new narratives that translate grief into meaning is another strategy that I think is important and a way forward.
And part of the goal is to interview people, read more stories, and conduct a bunch of research. Debra Umberson is a researcher of grief and she has done a bunch of work about grief and Black communities. Her work is not looked at inside of a movement strategy, but she has a bunch of research that concludes that bereavement is an overlooked source of racial burden and of racial disenfranchisement and discrimination. Taking all the data that supports [her research] and then looking at what does it mean. . [in terms of] being able to move Black communities in a grief period toward toward action, toward voting, toward any of the things that require not being apathetic and alienated, matters.
Being able to think about how to engage folk through a grief moment matters a lot, especially now. So that’s some of what I’m interested in exploring.
Narrative Initiative: I interviewed a sociologist last year about COVID in the healthcare system, and what she surfaced during our interview was that Black people already had epidemic levels of death and pandemic levels of death before COVID. The number, specifically, was 400,000. So, 400,000 more Black people died in a year than white people because of our endemic diseases, heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, all those things that are attributed to stress, low wage jobs, marginalization, racism, etc. And then COVID happened, which infected Black and brown and indigenous communities at event two or three times the rate than white people. So we are living in this grief moment that is compounded by racism. What are the specific policy changes you hope to bring about in organizing Black, brown, and indigenous communities around grief?
Malkia Devich Cyril: That’s a good question and I can’t pretend that I have the clearest answer today. But I can say that in three arenas—prisons, public schools and popular movements—I think there are policies and practices that need to transform. Specifically, prisons and public schools are locations of extraordinary violence for our people, as well as opportunities to transform how we deal with the most disenfranchised grievers.
So, one, in prisons, many people cannot control the conditions of your death, nor can you control any of the conditions of your grief. You’re subjected to slave-like conditions, and so to me it becomes an extraordinary practice ground for new approaches and new practices and new ways. So some of it is institutional changes inside of prisons around for example, what happens to your body when you die? There are very specific practices inside of prisons around the kinds of services and supports imprisoned people are able to gain access to about being able to leave prison for funerals. Some of these are just conditions of confinement and then some of them would be broader policies about being able to transform policy at the site of loss. So that means this is a new way of thinking about policing. A new way of thinking about sentencing.
This is about being able to frame policy change at the site of loss and so that’s true for prisons and policing and for public schools. This is about being able to advance a new kind of grief education. This is intended to be a new way of fighting back against the anti-CRT movement and all of the policies that have prevented people from learning about American history in an accurate way. A grief-informed approach would say, This has disenfranchised grief by lying and withholding and excluding information about American history. You’re ignoring the the generational grief of these communities and disenfranchising them.
It’s not that there are some brand new policies. I mean, sure, we can and we should have some new federal bereavement policies, absolutely. And there are people working on that. Those grief policies should translate down through the states and the counties. We should have in every city . . . a grief officer, a bereavement office that is looking at the city’s experience of loss and ensuring that its most disenfranchised communities have access to services and have access to resources. COVID was a prime example of when you can get FEMA involved and when can you get funeral support.
In [Hurricane] Katrina, we had the same question, and the same discriminatory practices around who was able to get funeral support and who wasn’t. So, there are so many levels here, right. It’s not simply about policy change. There’s a cultural change that I’m trying to advocate. There’s institutional shifts that need to happen and a kind of responsibility that institutions need to take for acknowledging and responding to the losses that they are responsible for. [Grief] is a site of reparation. And yes, there are some policy changes at the city, state and federal level that I think would radicalized our democracy and strengthen our communities. But I don’t want to pretend that it’s all about policy change. For me, it isn’t.
Narrative Initiative: In pushing for transformational shifts inside systems and institutions that are generally impenetrable and resistant to change, you’ve also noted that studying the power of grief on communities — let alone organizing among grieving and bereaved people — is a new arena. So how does your work help shape this emerging field?
Malkia Devich Cyril: Dr. Tashel Bordere has this quote that’s like basically, “So long as grief is prolonged, injustice will be prolonged.” This arena of study — understanding the impact grief has to shape how we think—[applies] whether we participate in democracy or whether we believe democracy exists.
When we think about strategic communications, we often talk about audience. I think strategic communications is a ruling class way of talking about organizing. We’re trying to transform culture. And in doing so, we need to understand the effects of particular cultural phenomenon on our communities. [Grief] is one of those cultural phenomena that shapes how and whether we participate, how and whether we respond, and whether we can move from responsive protests to organized engagement. That only happens to the degree that we understand and transform the way grief is working on our communities. That requires study, it requires inquiry. I’m not probably producing new data, but I want to organize data that has already been produced in new ways.
And then also telling stories. Using stories of other activists begins to open up a conversation about the role that loss plays inside a leadership. The fact that we are in this historical period, that we’ve moved through an insane pandemic in which Black people have experienced more death. What COVID did was make more obvious that this [excess death] was not a natural part of Black life, that this was unnatural and systemic.
I think this work can reveal the systemic nature of disproportionate loss. I think that it will strengthen our movements. If we can understand how reactionary grief can limit our leadership, we can understand how a radical version of grief can strengthen it and help us unlock new new movement strategy, new versions of democracy, and new ways of engaging folk in the democratic process, in the liberation process, and also new ways of thinking about and talking about the specific conditions in which we live.
Narrative Initiative: In addition to studying grief, and its effects on community and movements, you mentioned that part of the book will include aspects of your own life, in the vein of a memoir. Why is it important to reflect on how grief has impacted you as a person, an organizer, and someone who works in movement spaces on grief narratives?
Malkia Devich Cyril: A couple of reasons. Number one: we’re at an interesting point in the history of our movements, where community organizing has been so devalued, so under-resourced, and the work of the changemaker has been too far from the [work of] the everyday person. Part of that separation, and that distinction, in how we think about the “the role of the organizer,” has led to a [belief] that somehow we’re different, we’re separate, we don’t need the same things, and that we are above and beyond. That produces a deep challenge, in terms of our ability to connect with others in grief and to organize through profound losses.
We need to start changing how we think about change. And as I’ve experienced the transformation in my life, and experienced loss in my life, [I’ve found that] the best way is to talk with people about change and personal exploration, not preach at people but to share my journey that may, in fact, be somebody else’s journey, too. So that’s one reason one reason I think sharing my story is important.
I think another reason is that grief is treated as such a private experience. And yet loss is, especially now, such a collective experience. So it’s like, basically you want to kill us en masse, but you want us to experience that loss deeply, personally, and privately — and that serves the Master’s tool. That way of dealing with and responding to grief weakens us. It makes us less powerful, less inclined to demand more. It makes us shrink into ourselves and into our homes and into our corners and and that doesn’t do anything for democracy.
It’s an invitation to share. I think by sharing [my story] I invite others to share . . . especially with some of those profound losses . . . we need to be able to acknowledge that and tell the truth about those losses.
We need to be able to be honest about how loss has shaped our ability to respond to conflict, our patience, our willingness to be authentic in relationships. But none of that can be can be preached. You can’t be scolded into change.
[This book] is something where I reach out my hand and I hope that people will walk with me. I think stories on any issue, but particularly on issues that are complex, can be seen as deeply private, and personal. [But] stories are really the only way to move through. We have to tell stories, and they have to be personal. I just happen to think that my life has a lot of these lessons.
I’ve lost a lot of people, and I’ve been in the movement since I was born. I was born into a specific movement, the Black Panther Party, where loss was an inherent part of the movement — endemic, I should say — to that movement. I think that there’s some richness in learning from the way that activists in that time responded to laws and what that means for us. We’re the Cubs. We call ourselves Panther Cubs. And we have a role to play here. One is to tell these stories.
And then, selfishly, I want to write about my mom. I want to write about my wife. I want to write about my friends. I want to keep their stories alive. I want to talk about the joy that I found in loving them post death. I want to talk about how they move me towards a new kind of leadership and a new kind of life because I’m selfish, and I want to talk about them because I love them.
Narrative Initiative: Is there anything else that you want to add that I have not asked?
Malkia Devich Cyril: I think the only thing that I would want to say is that I think there’s an entire arena, a whole story about grief, and white people, and power that needs to be told. I think there is a whole story about both actual grief and then perceived loss. For example, there is a generational grief of losing identity, losing ethnicity and losing culture, which loses connection, and replacing all of that with an identity inside of whiteness and white power. And then the perceived grief that comes from the perceived loss of that power, which is where we are today.
This is reactionary grief. I want to explore reactionary grief as much as I want to explore radical grief. I want to understand why we are still litigating the Civil War. I want to understand the reasons for this whole “Great Replacement Theory.” This is all a grief response to the perceived loss of power and privilege and position. Instead of metabolizing that loss, instead of healthfully acknowledging that this is a loss and it is a necessary and righteous loss that is in the natural order of things . . . they’re organizing their militia response. They’re organizing a political, anti-democratic, fascistic response. A highly patriarchal response [and] I hear them screaming, “No” to grief.
And this is as true of white supremacists as it is of patriarchy. What if men and white people could lose? What if there was a skill there around how to metabolize and accept loss? That’s not just about radical loss and what that means for oppressed people, but also transforming reactionary loss and what that would mean for [social] classes.
Nikesha Elise Williams