'I'm dreaming as big as I can': A Q&A with human rights activist Rukia Lumumba

Carolyn Copeland  |  Updated Mar 24, 2020 12:10am EST
Rukia Lumumba has no plans to slow down. The Mississippi native has spent her life as an activist and organizer fighting for the basic rights of people in and out of the prison system. A daughter of the former mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, and sister of the city’s current mayor, Lumumba has a deep-rooted organizing background. But she doesn’t need to invoke the names of her father or brother to be heard: she’s been perfectly capable of making a name for herself on her own.
Lumumba has been a vocal force for electoral justice and ending mass incarceration. Though she currently holds the title of executive director of the People’s Advocacy Institute, Lumumba dips her toes into the work of other organizations, offering insight into how to solve some of the biggest problems affecting people in the South and across the country. To offer support to communities during the coronavirus outbreak, Lumumba and her team are delivering warm meals to schools, businesses, and organizations in Jackson throughout the duration of the extended break.
Recently, I interviewed Lumumba for Prism. We talked about her experience as an activist, the people who have inspired her organizational work, and some obstacles she faced along the way. 
This interview has been edited down for brevity and clarity.
You refer to yourself as a human rights activist. What does that label mean to you?
I do refer to myself as a human rights activist because I believe that our fight is [for] more than just policies and practices to be changed; [it’s] for the right of people to live with dignity and respect for people to have all of their basic needs met. So we're not just talking about civil rights. We're talking about the right of a person who actually exists on this earth to have the basic necessities and to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect in all that they do. I believe that people have a right to housing, I believe that people have a right to health care, and a better-than-decent education. I think that people have a right to live free of bondage and free of cruel and inhumane treatment. I believe in people having healthy food that is available and abundant, and clean water. I think these are the rights of human beings, and so that's why I consider myself a human rights activist.  
You do criminal justice and electoral justice work for a variety of organizations. It seems like there aren’t enough hours in the day to list all of them. Tell me a little bit about the work you do at the local and national levels.
At the heart of it, my political home [is] with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, which is where I learned a lot about organizing, [and] I learned a lot about human rights. Through that learning and understanding and that teaching, what I came to realize is that a lot of our work is actually intersectional. So the organizations are all focused on very different things, but each of them have a shared common goal of creating a better reality for people in the world. For example, the work I do with The People’s Advocacy Institute, where I serve as the executive director, we focus on the systems of mass incarceration that are completely based on race, class, and a harsh penal system that does not result in rehabilitation.
We look to find new transformative ways of existing in this world through creating policies that are truly community-centered and community-led, and foster what we consider community-led governance, where community members on a hyperlocal level engage in their own democracy by creating the policies and practices that govern their lives. We do a lot of that work through what we call “people’s assemblies.” And so my work at The People's Advocacy Institute uses that community resource, understanding that those who are most directly impacted by some of the worst policies that exist in this country and in our localities are the people most experienced to actually determine how we shift and create a more just society. That’s my work at the local level. And then on a national level, that's tied to the work that I do with the Electoral Justice Project of the Movement for Black Lives, which focuses on building a safe political home for Black people to engage and to actually look at electoral justice as a tool to reach our North Star of liberation. And then, part of my work is that I lead the Electoral Justice League Fellowship, which is an annual fellowship, where we resource and train 12 Black organizers from across the nation to become political campaign managers, and that’s what we call the movement for social justice... So we're creating a political home for Black people to really begin to develop the policies and practices that we want to see instituted in this country that allow for a better way of life.
All the organizing you do is extremely important, but what aspect of your work do you feel takes precedence over everything else?
You know, I consider the work I do to be centered on transforming systems—what I consider transformative justice. That part is central. But I will say that I do believe that organizing, providing resources, technical assistance, and training directly to community members who are experiencing the harsh realities of mass incarceration, of separations from their loved ones who have been behind prison walls, is the focus. People have literally seen their child or their wife or their husband stripped from them. We work with those who are coming home from prison after spending 30 plus years in prison, 19 plus years, or even a year or a month, who have experienced those harsh realities. We must lift up to help guide the development of our policies and practices moving forward. I truly believe in this notion of community-led governance. I believe that those of us most impacted by these times can really have an opportunity to transform things. And we have to just push for that.  
After all your years as an organizer, you have worked with a countless number of people who have come in and out of the prison system. What you think is the biggest misconception people have about those who have been incarcerated?
It's hard to say. But I guess for me the number one thing is that people think they don’t need support. It doesn’t matter if you’ve spent three days inside of the prison walls, or if you spent 31 [years]. That experience is so traumatic that you need support. People are entering back into the world, and when I say support, I mean all forms of support. They need someone to just be that person they can talk to and vent to, somebody who can counsel them, right? You know, there’s a lot of trauma that comes from that and you are totally changed by that experience.
I think the other thing that people forget is that folks are still intelligent. Their experience inside doesn't mean that they lack education, that they lack knowledge, that they lack the ability to make decisions around policies and practices that are best for all of us, and I think that's also something that people don't recognize.  
Organizing seems to run in your family. How has your family’s work influenced the scope of your activism?
My mother was a very brilliant woman, and she was the person who taught me the concept of family as a community and community as a family. She really taught us the value of creating networks and relationships that live beyond your intimate family because those relationships can teach you so much more about the world and about yourself, but also truly help you build what I consider to be a sustainable environment. My mother understood the importance of building community at the school, making sure that she knew the other students and teachers and administrators and things like that, but she also really understood the importance of just knowing your neighbor and showing up and knocking on the doors seeing if they need anything.  That created a sense of community and actually was infectious.
My mother taught me the beauty of art, in terms of activism and understanding art as a state activism. That’s something that has guided our people since the beginning of time. She really taught that and we appreciate that because it's art that brings us so much joy, even in the midst of our pain. I just really appreciate her for that, and it also allowed me to be open to including all forms of art in all of my organizing work as much as I can.
Watching my father tirelessly give us his mind, his time, and his body for the movement showed me the level of dedication that I have to have. Both of my parents provided a deep sense of love, of unconditional love, of unwavering love, for people to the point where I don’t know any other way to be. Both of my parents really taught us—taught me—the importance of family in terms of making sure that you have family time—the importance of, you know, taking care of your kids and making sure that they enjoy some of the basic things in life.  
I want to switch gears a little bit. A while back, you wrote an
article in Essence
. A man running for county supervisor mistakenly thought you were running for office, and told you to stay in your place. What did it make you feel when you heard that comment?
First of all, I thought it was comical. It was just ridiculous, and I thought that he was so threatened by the strength of a Black woman. I was doing work that they knew needed to be done in the community, and I had been bold enough and big enough to do it without any resources, without any large funnel of economic support. I was able to go into the community and do what needed to be done, for a decade. I wasn't sitting back just complaining. I was actually developing solutions to common problems, and I think that threatened that person. It's threatening them because it threatens the status establishment of politics as usual. Because I'm not a politician. I'm a person who recognizes the importance of community-moving change. I'm not looking for a career in politics, and I think even the thought, even the rumor that I might consider running for office, threatened their ability to continuously do nothing, [when] I was actually going to do something different. It’s an honor, actually. To be honest with you, I had actually not considered running. I hadn’t even applied at all, so I don’t know where the rumor came from. But you know, it shows me that I’m doing the right thing.  
Who is your Black woman historical hero?
That’s an easy one. Outside of my amazing mother, it’s Harriet Tubman. She is my superhero. Harriet said that we need to dream big, that we need to reach for the stars, and I believe in that vision. She knew that we were gonna be free, right when nobody else could see it. And I think it's [Nelson] Mandela who had that quote that says, “Everything is impossible until it's possible,” or something like that. But basically, everything was impossible at one point in time, and Harriet recognized that when everybody else didn't, that freedom was inevitable. And she fought for that, when no one else could really see it.
I'm not scared to dream big. I'm not living in scarcity. I'm dreaming as big as I can because I know for a fact people might say the language I use is flowery and are like, “Oh, she's just as optimistic” and say I’m a dreamer. But, I'm not scared to dream beyond that, because I know for a fact that we can live in a world where joy is abundant and that everyone feels safe. I believe that can happen, and Harriet teaches me that nothing is impossible.  
How do you balance self-care with doing intensive justice and equity work? How do you prevent yourself from burning out?
I watch silly shows at night. I try to fall asleep to something that I enjoy. I love mysteries. And [when] my child is out of school, I love being able to just sit with him and laugh. His laugh just brings me so much joy. I enjoy traveling for fun and for leisure, but it's not easy. I mean, that's a really hard question, and most of the people around me will say that I don't practice self-care well, but I think that every night I do take a little time to just do nothing. I think that is self-care.  
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve dealt with in your career?
Honestly, the biggest challenge I had to deal with was my father's passing. Because in his passing, I had to make hard decisions around my overall purpose in terms of where I was going to be grounded in my work. I had to make decisions around whether to move my family back to Mississippi, I had to make decisions around how to support my brother in his campaign [for mayor of Jackson, Mississippi]. I had to shift things in my life a great deal. I moved back home to Mississippi from New York where I had been living for 10 years and [had] built a career around ending juvenile incarceration. I moved my child here, and helped my brother run his campaign during our grief, and that was really challenging. We're both grieving, but we're also both doing the work that we feel is necessary. We’re continuing to do the work my father left for us to do. Working through grief is a very hard thing. Literally grieving and fighting for change is a hard thing.
Carolyn Copeland is a copy editor and staff reporter for Prism. Follow her on Twitter @Carolyn_Copes.
Prism is a nonprofit affiliate of Daily Kos. Our mission is to make visible the people, places and, issues currently underrepresented in our democracy. By amplifying the voices and leadership of people closest to the problems, Prism tells the stories no one else is telling. Follow us on Twitter @ourprisms and on Facebook.
Join the discussion at Daily Kos

Prism appreciates the support from Daily Kos, who is generously providing their online platform to Prism staff and fellows to publish our stories, giving Prism unparalleled reach and amplification within the progressive community.