Blog Entry Civic Participation

September Spotlight: Biko Baker, Organizer & Activist

On August 23rd, CBMA and Cities United convened a special call on the City of Milwaukee, as it searches to find justice, resolution and peace in the aftermath of the tragic police shooting of 23-year old Sylville Smith earlier in the month. Featured speakers on the call included local city leaders and activists, and was moderated by CBMA Member Biko Baker, a Milwaukee-native and national organizer/activist. If you missed the call, listen to it here.

For September's member spotlight, CBMA spoke with Baker about this background as an organizer, the work happening on the ground in his city, and how the broader CBMA network can become involved and engaged.

Can you share information about your background, and in particular, what led/inspired you to become an organizer?

Baker: I've been active as an organizer since I was 15. I first started as a volunteer soccer coach at the Sherman Park Boy's and Girl's Club and then spent several years working to help build an inner city soccer program with former US. Men's nationally team player Jimmy Banks. I think everyone in Milwaukee grows up socially conscious, but sports helped me connect the dots to the importance of building organizations and institutions in solving problems for my community. But like many people from Milwaukee who grew up in the movement, being an organizer is a lifestyle...a way of life.

 

What work are you engaged in on the ground in Milwaukee, specifically in the weeks after Sylville Smith's killing and the community's response?

Baker: Since the death of Sylville Smith, I've been helping amplify the voice of local grassroots and institutional leaders. I've doing media support for movement organizations since the death of Mike Brown and over the last two years I've learned a ton about how the media works. I believe that knowledge base is extremely applicable here. 

If we are going to push back against the predominant narrative about Milwaukee's Black community, we're going to have to develop a coordinated message. So I've been doing everything from designing websites to editing videos. Thanks to CBMA, I also helped convene a conference call with a number of leaders from Milwaukee that I think helped highlight the unity that exists in our grassroots community. It's ugly now, but I really believe the future is bright here. 

 

You are well-respected among grassroots organizers and local/national leaders alike. What do you attribute that to, and how has it helped you in your organizing efforts?

Baker: For the last 10 years or so, my family supported me as I was traveling across the country as an organizer with the League of Young Voters. So, I've been blessed to start projects with a lot of amazing people who are working to solve their communities' problems. I try hard to bring my authentic self to every campaign on which I work, and I think the people I struggle with respect that...even if they might not always agree with my opinion or approach. On the other hand, working at home is always harder because you have to maintain relationships through campaigns or movements that shift, change and sometimes get ugly. I think people in Milwaukee respect that I am willing to grow, and apologize for my mistakes. I've also helped train and teach a lot of people how to organize, and I think people know I am always going to try the best I can, regardless of one's position or title.

 

Are there are other projects/initiatives nationally that our members should know about?

Baker: I just started a tech company called Render. I spent two years working with a software firm called ThoughtWorks, who recently gave me a fellowship to figure out how to amplify the work of movement and non-profit organization through tech and digital storytelling. I really wish I would have had this knowledge 5 years ago when I was the executive director of the League of Young Voters. I am excited to be helping a handful of clients with everything from web design to data management. Over the years, I've learned that good tech is just planning, process and the delivery of a product that grows and adapts with its users. I really believe our movements need to learn to be agile like this, while at the same time maintaining a fierce dedication to executing on our projects. 

 

How crucial a role do you feel philanthropy plays in supporting individuals and groups organizing on the ground in their cities and communities?

Baker: Throughout my career, I have had incredible support from the donor community. Had it not been for the investments from individual donors and foundations, I would have never had an opportunity to help launch youth led institutions, let alone make mistakes . I know that the movement, at times, has a tenuous relationship with philanthropy. But I think that's often because movement leaders and program officers don't have strong relationships and or an understanding of shared expectations. For the most part, I've been able to develop relationships with thoughtful people who've cared about my work. If I don't feel that level of support, I won't engage in building a relationship with a donor in the first place. There are too many thoughtful donors and avenues to build capacity that you shouldn't have to engage with those that might not understand your work or your passion. 

 

Why did you join CBMA, and how can our members support your mission/causes? 

Baker: Years back, some friends in the donor world told me that I needed to meet Shawn and Rashid. They were launching the campaign at the time, and I think my friends realized that even though my work was in the civic engagement sector, my true passion is making sure that Black men are winning at the game of life. From the moment I met both of those brothers, I realized that they were very unique leaders who had a big vision, but also the patience to engage (lots of) passionate leaders to help build this massive dream. So it was easy for me to want to join an effort that was being built by great organizers. It felt like, and feels like, something I should be doing.

I think the best way members can support me and my effort to build a new Milwaukee is by helping me connect to organizations and leaders who need help with their digital storytelling. We're helping organizations figure out how to engage new audiences through text, social media, and improved data management. I hire creative and technical associates from my community and communities like mine and I am passionate about helping my clients shine. You can learn more about our efforts at rendertech.us.

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