207 Amber J. Phillips
Storyteller & Reproductive Justice Activist
“My attachment to success prevented me from doing the one thing that I value the most in my life, which is showing up for other black women.”
Amber is a storyteller, creative content strategist, and reproductive justice activist whose work imagines a world where Black womanhood is an expansive overwhelming experience of safety, pleasure, and joy.
The book I mentioned in the introduction is I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown.
When you’re done listening to this one, I recommend watching this video of Sonya Renee Taylor performing her poem “What Women Deserve.”
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW) It is the middle of June 2018 and I am sitting on the stage of an Episcopal Cathedral with two friends, the Rev. Broderick Greer and the writer Austin Channing Brown. We are discussing Austin’s new book, I’m Still Here – Black Dignity in a world made for whiteness, a beautifully written memoir that pulls back the curtain of a Black woman’s experience in white spaces. She writes things like, “It’s work to be the only person of color in an organization – bearing the weight of all your white coworkers’ questions about Blackness. It’s work to always be hypervisible because of your skin – easily identified as being present or absent – but then for your needs to be completely invisible to those around you.”
I read aloud from her book, Broderick shares his own insight, Austin says something hilarious.
When it comes time for audience members to ask questions, a young Malagasi woman, a woman I know, who is filled with effervescent joy every time I see her, is first to speak. But she doesn’t. She can’t. Not a single word gets past her tears. She apologetically shakes her head. I watch as Austin calmly walks down and embraces her while the woman sobs. Austin tilts her head gently so to have her own voice picked up by the standing mic. “This hug is for all of the Black women here tonight,” she says. “I just want to say to you: you are not losing your mind. All that stuff that is hard about being in white spaces – you’re not imagining it. There is nothing wrong with you. It feels impossible to get it right because it is. It is set up that way.” She speaks for several minutes, using her words to see the other Black women in the room.
It feels sacramental. A holy moment. A priestly act.
When Austin’s done signing the books, and consoling and laughing with the fans, we go get some profoundly needed ice cream.
But I am uncharacteristically quiet.
When I finally say something I say: “Austin, here’s the thing, that young woman, her name is Ihoby. And she’s actually my parishioner, and in all this time as her pastor I’ve only ever seen her joy. I’ve never once seen her pain. Until tonight. Her needs, as you say, were invisible to me as a white woman, even though I’m her pastor and I love her.”
As the movement for Black lives grows, each day seems to bring another personal account from another Black employee talking publicly about the pain of working in largely white organizations; Universities, arts communities, publications, reproductive rights organizations, and even my beloved distributor, PRX.
They’re speaking publicly about experiences of racism in the workplace, and of their needs being invisible or just disregarded.
I’m Nadia Bolz-Weber and you’ve stepped into the Confessional. It’s like a carwash for our shame and secrets. My guest today opens up about the reality of being a Black woman in a largely white organization, and a moment that she failed to act in way she wishes she would have. Stay with us.
NBW: Welcome, Amber Phillips. I’m so delighted that you chose to step into The Confessional today. And I’m really curious what story you came to tell me.
Amber J. Phillips (AP): The story I want to tell you is about myself as someone who really enters into all spaces as, like, this fat, dark-skinned queer, femme, black woman who I’m basically on my own side, like, I deeply value and acknowledge my own humanity. And that somehow is read as, like, political and woke.
NBW: I wish you could see how much I am, like, sort of beaming at that phrase, “I am on my own side.”
NBW: That’s just kind of beautiful.
AP: People don’t expect me to, like, honor that about myself or to be somebody like, yeah, I believe I deserve to be here. I’m on my own side. I’m advocating for myself. I know that’s new for folks. So, yeah, I’m glad that makes you beam.
AP: So, what I want to come and tell you a story about is really about how for a long time, because of these identities as well, I carry a very unhealthy relationship with hard work and success. But a thing that helps me to tell this story is our ideas around hard work, especially black folks’ idea around hard work and picking yourself up by your bootstraps has not really gone away. I have been the person who has told myself specifically that you have to work hard in order to gain respect or liberation or to achieve in this lifetime. And it’s not what I believe right now. But I do think it’s important to talk about how I got there.
NBW: All right. So let’s do that, like, set the scene for me.
AP: Yes. So I just really wanted to make my family proud. Like I grew up with limited resources. I was raised by my amazing single mom and all of our community members, like between my church and my grandmother and my aunts and my four uncles, like I always try to push back even against that. How we describe single mothers, because the reality is, yes, my mom had us on her own. She had us in despite the fact that my father chose not to parent. She still had all this support in our family.
AP: And we see low income people as just somehow you missed a step. Somehow you didn’t work hard enough. And what I know about my family, about my upbringing, is these are some of the hardest people I’ve ever met.
NBW: Yeah during the debates, during the primaries. You know, when there were like 48 Democrats running for president, one of the millionaires who bought his way on stage. I can’t remember this guy’s name.
NBW: No, it’s another one. The other one. And someone said something, like, a question like, do you think it’s right that you have billions of dollars when most of this country is struggling? And before he could even probably catch himself, he said, well, yeah, I’ve worked really hard.
AP: Oh, my God. If that was actually how you made a billion dollars. If that were actually true. Because if this were based on hard work. Oh, my God, Black people shouldn’t have to bust another grape. I knew for sure my mom was working hard. And I knew for sure we didn’t have everything we needed.
AP: So here’s my story. Because of my upbringing and being, like, politicized by my actual experiences in life as like a little black girl in the Midwest. Also there were like historic events like Hurricane Katrina, where it really highlighted for me that race is an issue in our country. You cannot as an individual, I cannot outwork the presence of racism.
NBW: Ah jeez.
AP: It is at play at all times. And I think when Hurricane Katrina happened and I saw people’s literal citizenship be blown away and then them being shamed for being in this place during this storm, I was like, oh, okay, so people really aren’t treating us well. People had no compassion, not only for black people, but poor folks. And I knew that I was then, like, if I lived in New Orleans there is no guarantee that my family would have just been able to pick up and drive out of town.
AP: So that’s really when I became politicized in that really, and that started down this pathway of I’m going to work in politics one day and progressive politics specifically. I went from my hometown in Columbus, Ohio, to go to college not too far away in Pittsburgh. And then like another moment happened where I’m like, oh, there’s my world. There’s the world that I’m in. And then there’s again, there’s systems at play. There were these billboards going around the country that said the most dangerous place for a black child is in the womb. And they were anti-abortion billboards that were specifically targeted towards black women. And when I saw that billboard, again it politicized me in this direction of bodily autonomy and reproductive justice.
NBW: I just have a question real quick, do you know what organization paid for that billboard?
AP: I don’t.
NBW: If you had an educated guess, would you say it was a white organization?
AP: Absolutely. It was definitely. Yeah, I could. That’s the topline. The people who hate us the most, like conservative folks, they’re really good at being very specific when they’re talking to black people.
NBW: Mm hmm.
AP: They will put our names. They will put our faces and yeah. And I remember seeing that and there was also a poem in reaction to these billboards by Sonya Renee Taylor called What Women Deserve. And it was another story. It was, I saw these billboards that came from the opposing side. But Sonya’s story was from her perspective. And she was also this beautiful, dark skinned, fat black woman. And I saw myself in her. The poem is gorgeous because it starts off on a bus, and, you know, low income folks are, like, single mothers are on these busses, people who are taking their children to child care, folks who are really doing everything they can to love and protect their children are being told that the most dangerous place for their children is with them, is in the womb with them.
NBW: In their own bodies.
AP: In their own bodies. It’s very sick to tell someone that. And especially what we know about what happens once black children are born in this country.
NBW: Right, right. So you said that you saw yourself in this poem, which I’d love a link after we’re done by the way. But like how did it shape the way you were thinking about yourself and the political work you wanted to do?
AP: I didn’t know that I could really put what I need personally to be a whole well, human being. I didn’t know I can advocate for that at a larger level. And I think that’s what lured me in through her work against this poster is like, if I don’t do it, this is what people are doing with my image.
NBW: Oh wow.
AP: So I need to take control of my story, my image, who I am and do completely opposite of that.
AP: So that’s really how I got into political work. How I grew to really want to love it. So fast forward to I had gotten a job that I really, really wanted and loved, which was at a reproductive rights organization. And I became really good friends with this, now she’s a brilliant writer, named Cecily. And Cecily worked at another organization that would be seen as a coalition partner of ours.
AP: And she’s just sharing with me how difficult her job is. She’s like, I don’t feel like I’m doing this right. I care about these things, but I don’t see myself as an organizer. Of course, my response to that is, of course you’re an organizer. You’re a brilliant organizer. Like, most black women are, like, we’ve been bringing communities together forever. So that was a flag for me. Like, my friend was very, much struggling with that job. And eventually she ended up quitting. She ended up having to leave to, you know, protect her mental health and get on track with what her goals in life were. But she worked at the organization that was like my dream organization to work at. So probably no later, even though I knew all that she had dealt with, I knew how hard it was. Something told me that, but I work really hard and I’m a great organizer, so I think I can do it. So I applied to work at the same organization on the same team under her same boss, probably two years later, I ended up working there. So it took seconds, it probably took maybe two weeks for me to actually see exactly what she was talking about. With the work culture, my boss worked all the time. You can expect to email at any time of the day. Early in the morning. Late at night. And then because things move so quickly, you just don’t know if you’re doing things right. Is this what we should be doing and, yeah, it was just, it was hard. It was really, it was really hard. And it wasn’t hard in this rewarding, I’m-learning-something-new way. It was hard in this way, I feel like the finish line keeps moving on me. This was also around the time of the first rise of the Movement for Black Lives. And at the time, that same year I was working there, there was this big conference called Netroots Nation. And this was around the time that Sandra Bland had been found dead in police custody. And a lot of us, these Black politicos who had been working in DC or just major progressive organizations, this is a progressive conference we’re on. we’re all allegedly on the same side. And at this conference, we saw the limitations on how even the conference was talking about race. So we planned a direct action at that conference. This was around the time where people were being introduced to Bernie Sanders. And that when we asked him, do black lives matter? He said, you know, all lives matter. White lives matter. It wasn’t this yes. It wasn’t a yes.
NBW: It was qualified.
AP: It was qualified with all these other things because no one was, like, I won’t say it because we care, right, but these folks now the, you know, the DNC will have the mothers of the movement and all these other things, but that was not without a fight. And I say this and I back these stories up because I need you to understand that it was fights. It was a battle. I remember coming back from this action that was monumental. Now, like people will tell stories about this in our history when we talk about this time to one of my coworkers coming to my desk and crying, saying she couldn’t believe how I treated Senator Bernie Sanders.
NBW: Oh, my.
AP: She was boo-hooing. She was like, he’s a human being too and y’all interrupted him. You didn’t want to listen to what he said. And I was like, this is racist. And she’s like, I can’t be racist, I’m vegan. Girl, oh, my God. And now it’s like-
NBW: I’m sorry, are you joking? Or did she actually say those words?
AP: I swear. She said, I am a vegan. I care about animals. So, of course, I care about black people.
AP: Yes. We shared an office! One year after this whole incident, this whole incident happened of this lady crying. Someone gifted me these candles that were like white feminist tears. And I kept them. And it was a white person who gave me the gift and I kept them on my desk at work. I later found out that she reported me to H.R. for having those candles of light. It was a mess. And no one spoke up for us.
NBW: Oh wow.
AP: No one came and gathered her. No one told her what she did was harmful.
AP: So there was just this willfulness to not have this conversation. So I knew what it was like to identify, speak up and move some things around action. But where I failed to do that was actually in my day-to-day at work.
AP: So around this time, I was really suffering with how my job was treating me. I knew other black women were suffering. So I decided to like, at the very least, that we were going to show up to work. I was going to do it in sisterhood with specifically someone who would become my work wife. Right. Like, we always hang out together. We ended up moving our desks. We ended up sharing a cubicle together just so that we had a support among all these things. So, I had basically built this bond with this person.
AP: So, I’m at the same place, and, you know, me and my friend are going through this together. One day we come into the office and we’re just sitting there and she’s like, oh, I have this meeting with my boss, and I didn’t see this on my calendar before. She just put it on there and she didn’t tell me what it was. I’m like, oh, I’m sure it’s nothing, right? And then I got a meeting on my calendar and I was like, now what is going on, y’all? But it was like a little bit after hers.
AP: So what I remember is she goes into her meeting, and then not too long after she leaves, my boss’s boss comes and gets me and she’s like, hey umm so I want you to know that I know you and your coworker are very close. Like, I know that you are important to each other. But I just want to let you know that she is no longer going to be working here. So I was like, well, why didn’t she tell me that she was leaving? Like, she would’ve told me, right? So we’re having this conversation. Of course, they’re like, do you have any questions? I’m like, no not really. Eventually I go back to my desk and my friend and all of her stuff is gone. What actually happened is they were telling me that she was leaving, today was her last day. And they called me into that meeting so that I wouldn’t be there at the same time, she was there to get her things. So, I don’t know why I still get so emotional about this.
NBW: Yeah, why? Like, what does it touch for you?
AP: Because. I don’t. I wish people really knew the sacrifices black women make to show up in a thing, in a job, especially, and I’ll put it as myself, I wish people knew what I sacrificed to show up, as someone who is always scared of going back to only making it paycheck to paycheck, as someone who has this fear of like what’s my safety net, who will be there if I can’t work anymore or if I can’t do this anymore, who will protect me? Who will care for me? And I think in that moment I so clearly saw how disposable we are. And that there’s really no amount of hard work you can do. Like the consequence to getting something wrong or literally in this case it wasn’t that this person wasn’t doing their job, right? It was that something about this person wasn’t aligned with how they wanted her to do her job and how they wanted us to show up and do this work. And instead of being good bosses, instead of being good stewards of the people that we hire into these places to do this very hard work of working on behalf of a future that we do not know yet, a future where people have access to what they need. We are not given compassion in real time. So in real time, it was like a flag of like, oh, girl, you could lose your job. And then what?
NBW: So, again, you really clearly saw yourself.
AP: Definitely. Yeah.
NBW: And what did you do?
AP: I was so shocked and all these past experiences like, what would your family think if you failed or all these other things came rushing back to me and, I was in such a practice of quote unquote speaking truth to power that I knew this was wrong, and I said nothing. I didn’t get up, I didn’t say this is wrong, you know, like I didn’t do any of that. I just sat there, finished my day out and then left. And in that moment, my ideas of succeeding and hard work had really confronted me, because I didn’t want to not succeed. And I didn’t know how to balance that, the fact that I was going to keep showing up to this job with knowing how they treated this person that I actually cared about, who was my friend. And I stopped showing up as a good friend. And I stopped checking in because I didn’t know how to rectify it with, like. I know these people are awful and I know how they treat people and I didn’t say nothing about it because I want to keep my job for now. And my attachment to success prevented me from doing the one thing that I value the most in my life, which is showing up for other black women.
NBW: When you say that showing up as a black woman in, in work in that way has extra stressors to it at an extra levels of exhaustion that feel invisible to white folks, would you say one of them is the fact that losing your job has a very different impact on somebody who does not have the safety net.
AP: Absolutely. I think that I don’t only want people to acknowledge how my lived experience makes things harder, but how it’s also a source of strategy. Like I have better ideas because I’ve been through more.
NBW: How long did you stay with that organization?
AP: Oh, my God. After that moment, I was like, I have to go. After that moment happened, my grandmother had also passed away and my grandmother was, I mean, the love of my life, like the love of my mother’s life. She was just everything. And my grandmother had passed away while I was working there. And when I got the call that she passed away, the first worry I had was, how am I going to tell my job? And that’s when I knew things were really not good here, if I felt like I couldn’t, that I was going to, again, potentially get fired because I had to go home and bury my grandmother.
NBW: Because again, I saw my grandmothers, I don’t know, maybe maybe once every three years like do you know what I mean?
AP: Oh my goodness. We would ride the bike to my grandmother’s house. I realized that if something were to happen to me, it wasn’t going to be my job to make sure that I had a home-going service, or made sure that all my sisters had an outfit to wear, that the choir sang my favorite song. It would be my family. And this work was taking me away from family. It was breaking relationships with people I actually really care about. So, yeah, that was the moment I was, like, I have to go. I’m not gonna stay here. But yeah, I think in that moment when I realize the potential of not undoing my relationship to success and hard work within these structures, which really is not, like, it’s not like being a rigorous about your issue area, the hard work that a lot of people are putting in is the sacrifice of being liked by people who don’t see your humanity. It’s like, I need you to like me. I need you to not see me as a threat. I need you to, like, not see that I have an attitude. I need to be likable to you so that you keep me here. And this is literally what I hear when people say I’m going to destroy it from the inside. Like, Audre Lorde was not playing with us when she said the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They made the tools. They know what this hammer does.
NBW: I am curious, like, your sort of commitment to staying employed, working hard, being successful, you felt like that kept you from doing the thing that you’re known for, which is saying the stuff, you know, speaking truth to power and, sort of, standing up for another black woman. So, can you tell me, is there a way that you move through the world now that might not be had you not stumbled in that way?
AP: Yes. Yeah. I don’t have these impossible standards on myself anymore. And when I see them coming up in my friends, I try to coach them out of it. I remind them that they’re allowed to lay down if they’re tired, that if you are sick you’re allowed to be sick. I realize that I have to shift my focus and brilliance towards creating the liberation I deserve right now.
AP: We talk a lot about political homes and you have to find the political home to do this important work. That’s really what I was motivated to do after I experienced that poem of what women deserve and I saw those billboards. But what has become clear to me now is that I am my first political home, and I have to organize and do whatever it takes to make sure that I’m well.
AP: So at this point, I’m no longer invested in just shifting people who know they can do better and who have access to doing better. Instead, I’d rather live a life that is based in liberation, that feels like liberation, looks like it, and teach other people how to do the same.
NBW: It just feels like you’ve had this clarity of, like, that’s me, like your, the body you live in, the space you inhabit, it just feels like every single part of it is connected to your love for that, and the fact that you can be that person and still come on here and go, here’s this moment where I fucked up. Like, I could not live up to my values and ideals. And yeah, there’s a million systems that colluded in me having that moment of struggle but still, it’s mine, you know. And then to be able to draw a line between that and where you are now and why is, like, just beautiful. I’m really grateful. I’m so grateful.
AP: Thank you. This, I’m grateful that you’re speaking from this place of grace, because I think that sets the tone to dig into where we could have done better, where I could have done better, because, yeah, you’re right, these systems are there and if I believe in my power I have to be able to access it in all these ways.
NBW: Yeah, that’s right. And there’s enough, there’s enough grace. There’s enough, which means the time when we couldn’t live up to our values or when the worst part of our personality was on display or whatever, if we can marry it with grace and like, see, oh, yeah, that’s how I got here. And I love myself, and so I have to honor what got me here, you know. That you can be a home like you can be referred to home several times, that’s beautiful. And there is none of the sort of master’s system, master’s tool element to that. It is a power that is completely separated from it.
NBW: Well, I’m so I’m so grateful to know you. And, um, I can’t wait till we can maybe be on a Moth stage together. And, uh, yeah, every good thing. Thank you so much for your willingness to come on. I appreciate it.
AP: Of course. Of course.
NBW: All right. Talk to you later.
AP: All right. Bye.
NBW: A blessing for Amber
You said as a fat, dark-skinned, queer, femme, black woman that you are your first political home and that you are on your own side.
So I keep envisioning your actual flesh and blood body as that home.
So Amber, I offer you a house blessing for your body — the beautiful and spacious home in which you live and move and have your being.
May your own body be the safety net that is always there to catch you.
May your home be well cared for by a relentless honoring of yourself.
May your foundation be so deeply rooted in the generations of all those who have loved you into this life that it cannot be shaken.
May your house be filled with good light — so that you see clearly and appreciate the beautiful curves with which you have been blessed and which bless the world.
May your house have a really, really good security system, so that only those who are on the side of your humanity be welcomed in.
May your house be blessed with delicious food and every fresh and beautiful fruit of your labor.
May your house be filled with the loud joy of other black women who show up and are also on your side.
May your house be quiet enough to allow you deep rest, soft enough to bring you joy, and big enough to let you grow. May the home of your precious body always be the first place where you practice liberation, and the safe refuge to which you return. And may all who surround you, honor it as such.
NBW: Next time on The Confessional…
Maria: You know, it comes down to a human error. Right. But one of massive proportions because you’re dealing with humanity and people’s lives.
NBW: The Confessional is produced by House of Pod and Shameless Media, with support and spiritual guidance from The Moth and PRX. Our original music is by Antwan Banks Williams.