How Organizing Saved My Life: My Road to Racial Healing
By Chris Bufford, Campaign Strategist
I was 14 years old when I learned first-hand how the existence of Black youth is criminalized.
I was walking home late at night and a police officer pulled up alongside of me. He asked me where I was headed. I told him, “I’m heading home from a friend's house.”
He continued to follow me down the street, watching me from his car. It made me nervous. Had I done something wrong? Did I fit the description of a suspect? Was he going to stop me for curfew? After about half a block I asked, “Don't you have some criminals to go catch?”
For the last 12 years, I have used organizing as an outlet for my pain and anger. I use my disappointment with the education system to fuel me to fight for counselors, not cops.
His response would forever change my perception of the police, and the world for that matter.
“You are the criminal,” he responded. In that moment, that officer let me know that I was a criminal even though I hadn’t done anything. To him, my existence was criminal. I was a super predator egg waiting to hatch.
That is where it all started. I believed this adult and that he knew better than I did of what I would become. And honestly, when I looked around, he seemed accurate. I had multiple family members who were involved in illegal activity and my friends had similar stories in their families. My neighborhood was constantly patrolled by police, so there must be a lot of crime, right?
Maybe I am a criminal and that is all I will ever be.
This FALSE realization set the wheels in motion for me to pursue a different kind of education. An education where I wouldn't graduate from high school to go on to college, but I would graduate from juvenile court to adult court. I would not graduate with a Bachelors in the Arts that would help me get a good job, but with two felony convictions that would prevent me from getting a job.
This is how Black youth are criminalized just for existing. Our communities are over saturated by police officers with state-of-the-art technology and weaponry, while our teachers struggle to provide quality education for their overcrowded classrooms. Elected officials continue to invest in policing strategies to reduce crime and violence when studies show that investing in education, jobs, housing, and healthcare are the real solutions. As a young Black person, witnessing this play out left me feeling powerless. I believed the world didn't value my life or the lives of my people.
Then, after high school, my eyes were opened to the truth. I learned about the history of oppression and the ways it shows up in this world. Some friends of mine were organizing to close the juvenile detention center where I had been a resident on a couple of occasions. This campaign introduced me to organizing and the power that we have to make change in this world. I learned about the school-to-prison pipeline, criminalization, human rights and the various forms of systemic oppression in the United States.
For the last 12 years, I have used organizing as an outlet for my pain and anger. I use my disappointment with the education system to fuel me to fight for counselors, not cops. I channel the trauma of being violently evicted from my home by county sheriffs into fighting for housing as a human right. I use my experience of not being able to find a job as a felon into work around “banning the box” on job applications. Most recently, I supported New Georgia Project an Atlanta-based voter engagement nonprofit, with voter protection efforts, so that people who look like me we can vote officials into office who will invest resources where they are needed the most.
Organizing literally saved my life. It not only gave me answers to questions that plagued me throughout my life, but it gave me a vehicle to express my hurt in a healthy way—and for that I am forever committed to being an organizer.
Chris Bufford is a Campaign Strategist with Advancement Project National Office and has organized for over a decade in Black communities.