Brittany Packnett Cunningham wasn’t looking for the fame that sometimes comes with being an activist in 2020. She started her career as an educator who took a senior role at Teach for America in her mid-20s.
Then in 2014, after a police officer killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, Packnett Cunningham gained recognition as one of the organizers of the Ferguson protests. She was tapped to join the Ferguson Commission, a group of regional leaders building “a path toward change” for the city. She became a member of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which worked to offer recommendations on police reform.
This year, as protests once again unfolded across the nation, Packnett Cunningham has been a guiding force for many, while making changes to her career in real-time. In the past few months, she left two of her most well-known projects—as a co-host of the podcast Pod Save the People and as a member of Campaign Zero, a campaign she co-founded to help end police brutality. Additionally she’s been working as a contributor for MSNBC and writing a book. Below, Packnett Cunningham shares how she finds opportunity in life’s challenges, the questions she always asks herself, and the benefits of planning backwards.
My very first job
I was a camp counselor at a theater camp at my old elementary school. For a while I thought that my career would be in musical theater. Little known fact: Once on This Island was the first professional show I ever did in regional theater in St. Louis. My job was trying to write a script for 60 elementary school students and embrace all of their ideas inside what usually ended up being a three-hour production that their poor parents had to suffer through. But that gave them lots of opportunity to see themselves shine.
The most difficult job I’ve ever had
Teaching is and will forever be the hardest job I’ve ever had. The science and the magic of building community with young people, helping them learn how to do that amongst themselves and tap into the gifts and assets they already have in order to assemble skills that equip them to change the world, is the most difficult task we give anyone. We don’t respect the intricacies of that profession like we should. We should be paying teachers like we pay professional athletes, like we pay doctors and lawyers. You may go through your whole life never meeting a lawyer and never watching an NBA game, but you will always have a teacher.
What I learned as an educator
The lessons for me were essentially about how to bring a vision into fruition. Teachers do what’s called backwards planning, which means we start with the end in mind. We say: What do I want my students to fully understand at the end of this lesson, at the end of this unit, at the end of this year? What do they need in order to progress to the next step, and how do I act in order to make that happen? That is what organizers do, that is what communicators do, that is what writers do. It’s the thing that can inform how we do our justice work, that we envision a fully free and just world and then plan backwards from there and play our roles appropriately.
Why I’m always trying to make room for more people
I started running an education nonprofit in my hometown of St. Louis at 26. I had four million dollars to raise every year. I had a 22-person staff to manage. We had 20,000 students that we were serving every single day. I was a Black woman, who wore braids and blue nail polish, coming into a job where I had to interact with all of the power brokers in our city but, most importantly to me, where I was responsible to the community that raised me. I’ve sat in meetings where the donors wanted to address my white male colleague who reported to me, instead of me. I’ve been in conversations where people told me that my straight hair looks better. I’ve certainly been in situations where people have taken me off emails or out of meetings because they didn’t want me to come in and bring the perspective of communities they would rather not hear from. All of that, as far as I’m concerned, is all the more reason why I have to make more room for even more diverse people, even more marginalized people to do what they do best.
How I know when to leave a project
We always have a responsibility to ask ourselves: What do I want to be true in the world because I’m here? Whenever people ask me for career advice, that’s the advice that I give them. If we are asking that question consistently, then we have to be open to the answer changing, to the answer evolving, to us planting a seed somewhere and then allowing the next set of people to water it and being brave enough to move onto the next thing. You can feel proud of and glad for the things that you built and the people that you built them with, and then also—not but, not instead of—decide that it is time to commit your gifts in a different way.
How I manage my mental health
When I got diagnosed with depression and anxiety in college, I remember crying in my mother’s lap thinking, “I’m crazy.” The most important thing I have learned in living with depression and anxiety—because they never fully go away, they’re things you learn how to cope with and manage—is not to accept the way the world defines it. I’m not crazy. There’s nothing broken about me. When I let go of the belief that there was, I started to emerge as a person who could own my own power and be confident in what I bring to the table. I know when I have to turn off certain inputs, when it’s time for me to stop watching the news, when it’s time for me to get off of social media, when it’s time for me not to look at another video of a Black person being killed by police, so that I can be well enough and full enough and whole enough to do the work that I’m called to do.
My journey with confidence
I have come to better recognize the ways in which personal traumas have contributed to my own struggle with confidence. I am a survivor of sexual assault. I have been in emotionally abusive romantic relationships. These things have all had an effect on me. But I also have come to a deeper understanding about how my cycle of socialization, as the academic world would call it, has contributed to that, too. There are messages that were given to me as a Black woman about just how confident I should not be in who I naturally am. I’m unlearning things that have been taught to me over 35 years.
How intersectional feminism helps me reimagine the world
Intersectionality is understanding how systems intersect uniquely in the lives of people who have two or more marginalized identities. This is a framework for us to be able to build solutions that make sense for all of those people, so that when we win, the win is sufficient for everybody and not just for some, instead of getting a win like the Suffragettes got in 1920 where white women won the right to vote, but Black women had to fight for another four decades, Indigenous women are often still fighting, and immigrant women are often left out of that conversation. Instead of being afraid of what intersectional feminism calls us to do, we should see it as a unique opportunity to radically imagine a world that works for all of us.