An interview with Rinku Sen.

AuthorConniff, Ruth

Rinku Sen is the president and executive director of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation, and the publisher of the news site Colorlines.

Under Sen's leadership, Race Forward has become a national leader of racial justice research and activism. The group's Drop the I-Word" campaign led the Associated Press, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and other news outlets to stop referring to undocumented immigrants as "illegal."

Sen started her career as a community organizer right after college. She worked for more than a decade at the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO), training new organizers of color and crafting public policy. Her first book, Stir It Up, draws on that experience and is widely read and taught on campuses across the country.

Sen's second book, The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization, tells the stoiy of Moroccan immigrant Fekkak Mamdouh, who co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York in the aftermath of September 11.

Sen got her B.A. in women's studies from Brown University and a master's degree in journalism at Columbia University. A native of India, she moved to the United States with her parents as a young child and learned to speak English in a tiny school in Ellenville, New York.

Sen, who appears frequently on MSNBC and speaks on college campuses all over the country, radiates warmth and intelligence. She spoke to me by phone from New York City on a recent winter evening.

Q: You've done so much work in the area of not just racial justice but [R] also police violence, going way back to your work in Oakland as a community organizer. What do you make of what is happening today?

Rinku Sen: In my thirty years of organizing, I have never seen this level of interest from young people in organizing as a way of making social change. I'm accustomed to lots of people wanting to be lawyers or even journalists or to go into government, but organizing lost a lot of momentum in the eighties and nineties. It has really begun to emerge again. In the last three or four years, there has been a dramatic growth in the number of people joining organizations, campaigns, and activist formations. We're definitely in a pre-movement moment. I think there are going to be some years coming of intense and growing movement activity.

Q: I'm curious what your take is on how things seem to be getting better and worse at the same time. There is a feeling of progress and excitement about a younger generation of activists, yet police violence is such an ancient, heavily oppressive problem.

Sen: I think the reason that we feel like things are getting better is because there's more outrage and more organizing. I think that makes us feel more hopeful that things could actually change. One reason for that is we've realized how important it is to the racial justice movement to have strong black organizations and leadership. I think we are seeing some of the recent investments in that starting to bear fruit.

In terms of police departments and their behavior, there has been a growth in new forms of policing for new groups of people. One is gangs. Another is immigrants, and there is a much larger system around deportation and detention that simply did not exist thirty years ago. The national antiterrorism mode of policing has militarized our police, especially over the last fifteen years.

But the other thing that has happened in those fifteen years is there's been such a lovely growth of the restorative justice movement and the prison...

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