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Episode 8: Phil Agnew on the Ups and Downs of Grassroots Organizing

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Phil Agnew first became an activist in 2006, after learning about a Black teenager who had been killed by guards in a Florida youth detention center. He became an organizer a few years later when he co-founded the Dream Defenders, a grassroots movement for prison abolition and more. In this episode, Phil talks with Ashley C. Ford about the nuances of activism and organizing, as well as the wins and losses he’s experienced on his journey toward a better future.

Read Episode 8 Full Transcript Below


A black-and-white photo of host and writer Ashley C. Ford, a Black woman with close-cropped hair wearing an off-shoulder top and dangly earrings.
Writer & Podcast Host, Ashley C. Ford
Brittany Falussy

ASHLEY [VO]: I’m Ashley C. Ford. And this is Into The Mix, a Ben & Jerry’s podcast about joy and justice, produced with Vox Creative. Let’s get into it!

[MUX]

ASHLEY: Here we go.

PHIL: Poof!

ASHLEY [VO]: I’m sitting here, in my office thinking about some of the conversations we’ve had so far in this show. We’ve talked with organizers and defense attorneys, and graphic artists and musicians.

There are so many different ways to use the talents you have to make the world a little bit better. And this work takes time. Years. Decades. Sometimes lifetimes. And it’s not always a straight line with clear wins. But that doesn’t make the work any less worth doing. That’s certainly true for our guest today.

PHIL: My name is Phillip Agnew, Phillip B Agnew. Currently I’m a community organizer. Um, and I co-founded an organization that is celebrating its 10 year anniversary this year, called the Dream Defenders.

ASHLEY [VO]: The Dream Defenders started in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida. We’re going to talk about what it looked like to start that movement and organization — and what Phil is up to today.

But first, you know I always like to start at the beginning. Let’s start with the source: family.

A black-and-white photo of activist Phil Agnew with a beard and short hair, fades on the sides of his head, wearing a light colored hoodie and a jacket.
Co-Founder of the Dream Defenders, Phil Agnew
Brittany Falussy

PHIL: I’m the oldest of four boys. I’m born and raised in Chicago, Illinois to a preacher and a teacher.

ASHLEY: As an oldest sibling, myself, I have to say, light work.

PHIL: Light work, light work. [ASHLEY laughs] Four boys, four boys. I’m the oldest.

ASHLEY: Wild!

PHIL: My mom was a teacher. She taught at my school until I was in third grade. And, um, my father, smartest man I’ve ever met in my life, he was on Jeopardy when I was in the third grade. He bet it all on the Double Jeopardy and lost it.

ASHLEY: No!

PHIL: He lost it. Yeah. And he came home with a salad shooter. You remember the salad shooter?

ASHLEY: Oh, I remember the salad shooter!

PHIL: Um, but I also grew up very, very… feeling, very much feeling like an outsider. Um, we did go to church a lot. I was in church eight days a week, about 25 hours a day. [ASHLEY laughs] And I went to a small church. It was not big. I knew everybody in my church and pretty much by marriage or blood, we were all related. And I didn’t feel that I was a part of anything but my church community.

Um, I grew up very much in the belief that, if you had community, a small group of people that all the problems in the world were minor inconveniences. That there was a higher power in the Lord that could put you through to the next week.

ASHLEY [VO]: This feeling, of being part of a community where people are united by shared beliefs, it’s a powerful one.

Something Phil found when he left for college at FAM-U – Florida A&M University. The historically Black college, or HBCU, in Florida’s capital, Tallahassee.

PHIL: I went to Black schools when living in a Black neighborhood. Uh, my church was very Afro-centric. Jesus was Black, everybody was Black. So I didn’t feel that I needed a Black experience at all. And I did.

[MUX]

And I went and it wrapped me up and it gave me all this confidence. But also it instilled in me a deep sense of purpose.

ASHLEY [VO]: At FAM-U, Phil is wrapped up in this new world. He’s a business major. He’s involved in student government. He’s maybe partying a bit, too – it’s college! But then something happens about 100 miles away that shakes him awake.

RECREATED SFX [REPORTER: This is a video showing the last minutes of Martin Lee Anderson… ]

On a January day in 2006, a 14-year old in a state-run boot camp detention center was beaten to death by staff. It was brutal and heartbreaking, and the medical examiner’s report claimed he died of natural causes, which seemed... unlikely.

Phil and a group of other students wanted to pressure the governor, joining in the public outrage to push for change. So they gathered to demonstrate at the state capitol.

Yes, the staff guards were acquitted, but the governor did close the few remaining juvenile centers like this that were still open. It was a win. And it sparked in Phil a flame that would be ignited again six years later, in 2012 after another teenager, Trayvon Martin, was murdered.

At this time, Phil was out of school, working in pharmaceuticals. He was still more interested in business than activism.

PHIL: I wore a suit every day with the tie. I could, I could tie my tie drunk with my eyes closed every day.

ASHLEY [VO]: He and the students who had protested in 2006 had kept in touch. And they set up a call to talk about what they could do. They used the technology available to them at the time.

PHIL: This was “FreeConferenceCall.com.” Do you remember 1-800-FreeConferenceCall.com?

ASHLEY: I do remember! [ASHLEY laughs]

PHIL: Yeah! Yeah. Yep. So we, we, you know, it was, I remember I expected, we expected, uh, you know, 30 people max to get on.

And it was over 200 or something on that call.

[MUX fades in]

And that was a moment once again, where I felt, “Oh wow, This is moving. This is, this is bigger than us. We’re in a whirlwind moment.”

[MUX swells]

ASHLEY [VO]: One woman in the group - an older woman watching this organizing coalesce - said it felt like they were the defenders of the dream. And the name stuck. They were the Dream Defenders. And they got to work. Focused, first, on one specific policy.

PHIL: The number one specific policy that became well-known because of this case is Stand Your Ground. Right? I hadn’t heard about it before then. Um, but this law I think, was on everybody’s mind for years.

This law that was authored by the NRA that said that you can murder somebody if they present a threat to you. Now, at first glance, that sounds right. But that is such a subjective measure.

ASHLEY: Right.

Yeah, we want to defend ourselves. It’s a, it’s a, a deep, maybe human-held belief. Um, but when you add in the fact that this country trains people to fear, irrationally, whole races of people for what they wear, the music, they listen to, the volume they listen to the music at. And then arms them to the teeth and says, “you can have whatever and however many weapons you need.” And then tells them that, you will face no consequences or repercussions for that.

You add that in and you get these policies that seem neutral, that seem victimless, and then you see what happens and how those policies result in the loss of life, and the loss of dignity.

ASHLEY [VO]: So, they wanted to see those policies changed. Three days after George Zimmerman was acquitted, the Dream Defenders wanted to pressure Florida’s governor Rick Scott to hold a special session on the Stand Your Ground law.

PHIL: We took over, the Dream Defenders, took over the capital of Florida for 31 days and 30 nights. And it was a crucible every single day.

ASHLEY [VO]: During this time, Phil and a group of organizers had all moved into the same house to focus on the effort, to support each other and strategize.

PHIL: Every morning at 5:00 AM we would all wake up together. We would bathe together. We would clothe ourselves together. We would inspire one another. We, you know.

Every day, it was about showing up, you know, and making sure that they couldn’t refuse us. They had to see us. They had to acknowledge us.

And then at 5:00 PM, when the building closed for, quote unquote, “business,” we would rise up right again. Start singing, start chanting, start making up songs, start freestyling. And so it was heavy on the music.

And we also had to consistently find a way to keep the morale for people as we were going. And to me, that is singularly one of the most important experiences for me because in that building where so much today, then maybe tomorrow, horrible things are happening. Um, horrible policies, what I consider very, very bad people doing very, very bad things are in that building all the time. For that one month, it was our building.

ASHLEY [VO]: At the end of that month, the governor still had not convened a special session. It was a disappointment to be sure, so the Dream Defenders decided to re-focus their efforts on registering voters.

As for Stand Your Ground, it’s still very much intact, and has led to about a 10% rise in violence nationwide, according to one study. That’s 700 additional deaths—homicides—each year.

But Phil plays the long game. As he looks back, he reflects on what they were able to build, with an eye towards the future.

PHIL: That experience encapsulates everything that I like to think is beautiful about movement. The familiarity, the community, the music, the strategy, the fight.

You know, we inspired a lot of people.

ASHLEY [VO]: What happened at the Capitol helped lay the groundwork for a movement that spread. The Dream Defenders grew. They opened chapters across the state of Florida.

Phil isn’t involved in the day-to-day any more, but he was a part of something that started a decade ago, and has kept rolling.

ASHLEY: There was a Dream Defenders t-shirt that read, “I’ve been to the future. We won.” In this moment, what does winning the future look like to you?

PHIL: The future, for me, looks like my children and other people’s children growing up and being new men, new people. And I use ‘men’ because that’s who I’m working with now, but being new human beings.

If we’re not talking to Black men, organizing Black men, creating a home for them, other people will. And those other people are not going to have Black men’s best interests, Black people’s Black interests, poor people’s Black interests at heart.

ASHLEY [VO]: After the break, Phil talks about his latest initiative called Black Men Build, and more on why he’s focusing on men in particular.

_____________________

MIDROLL BREAK

_____________________

ASHLEY [VO]: Earlier in the episode, when we were talking about Stand Your Ground and what leads to policies like it, Phil said something that struck me. He talked about how patriarchy tells a story that props up these violent policies. The story goes like this:

PHIL: The empire of man, there is nothing more important than a masculine man who picks himself up by his boot strip, goes on a solitary journey through the woods. And by his lonesome is able, just by sheer will and grit, to make something out of nothing.

ASHLEY: A few years ago, you started an organization called Black Men Build. Can you tell me what it is and how this extends your vision for the future, the work you want to do going forward?

PHIL: The first meetings for Black Men Build were in 2019. And, um, for us, we felt and believed that it was, and is always needed because, um, Black men are hurting ourselves. We’re hurting people around us and really struggling to make our way in this society.

[MUX]

We understand that Black men grow up steeped in a deep, deep, deep love for patriarchy. And bell hooks says, that first victim of patriarchy isn’t isn’t actually women or anybody else around us. It’s our ourselves. It’s ourselves. That first victim is ourselves. That, that we learn to silence who we are to, to not express any type of emotions, et cetera.

We’re also vanishing. A lot of Black men are in prison. A lot of Black men are dead. They’re not, they don’t have jobs. They’re locked inside their homes, locked inside their neighborhoods. And so for us, we felt that, um, you know, there’s a particular way that we have to approach Black men, with a level of respect to what we’ve gone through and what we’ve understood.

And so I see that as a part of Black Men Build’s mission. To make sure that in that new world, Black men are a part of it, a partner in it, and not opposed to it.

ASHLEY [VO]: The way I would describe Black Men Build, at least one part of it, is that it’s a community. It’s a space they’re creating for growth and healing.

But Black Men Build is also an organizing effort. And they are rolling out a new initiative called “9 Bars”.

PHIL: The 9 Bars is our political platform.

And the 9 Bars is our version of just, you know, the Black Panther, 10 point plan, or many of the other demand documents that have come out and proliferated across the world, or country. It’s our version of that.

And it’s very, very simple.

We think everybody deserves healthy, high quality food. Healthy, high quality schools, right? That teach critical thinking. We believe everybody should have a home, or space for a home or a roof. And checks. We believe that people deserve a basic income.

So another way we talk about it is “food, schools, land and checks.” So that’s an abbreviation of the first four of the 9 Bars.

So it’s, uh, a way, uh, for both vision, thinking forward and also planting our feet on the ground and saying, this is what we want to do right now.

We’re organizing Black men to advocate and move an agenda.

ASHLEY: I’m really very intentional about language. Not just because I’m a writer, but also because I, when I have clarity in language, I have clarity in myself. To be able to feel like I trust myself and I know what I’m doing. Um, and I know that words are important to you too. And I’m thinking particularly about your thoughts on ‘activism’ versus ‘organizing’.

PHIL: Yes.

ASHLEY: So talk to me about the specificity between those two things.

PHIL: Organizing, um, is different than activism in a few ways. Activism, to me, is the way that I came into the movement. And so it’s the doorway that most of us come into the movement.

Because it, it gives you some sort of immediate jolt, like where we’re doing this. We, you know, we, we took to the street, we, we, we planned this rally! We did this big march! We sat in! We handed out flyers! You know, it is an immediate reward that is intoxicating.

And so activism, I’ll never, never talk down on it, but it is a specific thing.

Organizing is, it’s like Dr. Frankenstein. It’s, it’s surgery. It’s, it’s a transplant. It’s like building a body with disparate parts. And bringing people together around this goal that may or may not, we may or may not get. But it’s the process of it that is so beautiful. And that’s what organizing is. It’s like a beautiful art and science to me.

And it, it fulfills me, um, in really beautiful ways. And maybe in some selfish ways. You know, I’m able to, say, I’m able to boost up myself in some ways to myself and say, you know, you’re doing something that’s gonna last, that’ll have a legacy. That people will remember you when you’re gone. You know, it’s not a flash in the pan.

ASHLEY: Also being able to recognize and celebrate and honor yourself when you do the right thing. And when you feel that in yourself, that that’s what will keep you being able to do it. That’s, what’ll keep you from burnout. So, that’s so important.

PHIL: One thing I say is I’m a head-in-the-clouds, foot-on-the-ground person.

There’s so much pain. There’s so much death and violence. There’s so much confusion. There’s also so much opportunity and real desire for a new world and it’s happening right now.

[MUX fades in]

ASHLEY [VO]: When you’re getting your hands dirty and doing the work, it doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself an organizer, an activist, or something else entirely. You may come up with some other model, some other term altogether that fits your talents and fits the ways you’ve created to find success and create change. It can look very different for each of us.

[MUX]

And now, we have one more treat for you today before we close. In this series, we often talk about what keeps us going. What keeps us motivated and nourished for the long road ahead. Sometimes it’s food, and other times it’s partnerships and collaborators.

And, as you know, this is a Ben & Jerry’s podcast. Phil actually has a bit of a unique relationship with the company.

ASHLEY: When did you first learn about Ben and Jerry’s like, what connects you to their mission as a company?

PHIL: Well, the, the connection is completely culinary. Uh, my, my, my dad is and was an addict to Chunky Monkey. [ASHLEY laughs]

And so my, that was my experience with Ben and Jerry’s, I knew nothing about their social mission. I knew nothing about what they were doing beyond making incredible ice cream.

But my, my personal experience with them comes through Ben. Ben Cohen. He called me one day. I was in, uh, I’ll never forget I was in the Popeye’s in Harlem and I got a call and it was a Vermont number.

And I was like, oh, bill collector, you know. Hit ignore. Vermont? I don’t know anyone in Vermont. I don’t think I ever will know anybody in Vermont. So I ignored it. And then, uh, I checked the voicemail and it’s like, ‘Hey, Phil baby. Uh, this is Ben Cohen. Um, you know, I just seen some speeches of you. Listen, just give me a call back when you know, it’s been Cohen. I have, I’ve got some ice cream, you may have heard of it. Uh, Ben & Jerry’s. So that’s me. You know, call me back.’

I’m like, what the? I’m looking at my phone. I’m like, “what the hell was that? That is, what?” You know, and I called him back and I’m talking to him and, you know. Short story long, he tells me that he’s just presented before the board this, this radical new direction for where they need to be giving what they need to be doing. Invites me to Vermont. I go to a meeting with other leaders in the movement.

And then I felt what their mission was. And then I had the opportunity to co-facilitate a talk with Ben and, and then I got to see his passion for it. And then they followed up and they say, “Hey, how can we help what you’re doing in Florida?”

ASHLEY [VO]: Ben & Jerry’s the company did small things, like providing ice cream at Dream Defenders events. And they worked alongside the Dream Defenders to support amendment four in Florida, which was the single largest voter-run franchisement movement in recent US history.

PHIL: They showed up consistently, over and over. They did what they said they were going to do. They said what they could do. And usually did more than what they said they would do.

ASHLEY [VO]: The company has modeled itself and its work off of the influence of Phil and others. And it’s showed. But of course, we all have more work to do. We’re in it for the long haul.

ASHLEY [VO]: Into the Mix is a Ben & Jerry’s Podcast produced by Vox Creative and ABF Creative. This episode was written by Jessica Glazer and Bethany Denton. Production help from Ken Miles and Gary Swaby. The Vox Creative team includes Executive Producer Annu Subramanian, Lead Producers Bethany Denton and Jessica Glazer, Production Coordinator Veronica Guity, and Production Manager Taylor Henry. The team also includes associate director of client success, Ryan Phelan.

The team from ABF Creative includes Head of Production Wanda Reynolds, Executive Producer Anthony Frasier and Producer Mike Bisceglia. Sound design, mixing and mastering by Chris Mann. Original music by Israel Tutson. Fact checking by Girl Friday Productions.

The Ben & Jerry’s team includes Jay Tandon, Jay Curley, Emily D’Alessandro and Chris Miller.

I’m Ashley C. Ford. Thanks for listening.

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