As I sat with Rev. Raymond Greene Jr., I could feel his sense of passion for his organizing work and for his role as the Executive Director of Black Led Organizing Collaborative (BLOC). He speaks of his hometown of Akron, Ohio with a lot of pride. When he speaks of his community, he does so in a genuine way. He truly cares not only for the Black community but for all those who are struggling and live in poverty.
His organizing efforts played a critical role in the creation of one of the most effective voter registration teams in the country – a team that was able to get more than 500,000 Black voters registered over a six-year period starting in 2012. Before engaging in political work, Greene used similar canvassing techniques to recruit, hire, and train thousands of direct sales professionals.
Fueled by a determination to spark positive change in the Black community, Rev. Greene took the negative experience of being formerly incarcerated and turned it into his passion of researching and investigating policies that affect Black and poor communities.
What first got you into organizing?
What got me into organizing is being incarcerated at the age of 20, learning about the 13th amendment and educating people on policy. Most believe slavery is over, the 13th Amendment says different.
It states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
I realized the Black community knew nothing about this, although we were the ones most affected by the 13th amendment. When you have a felony record you can’t make a living wage nor can you attain affordable housing – and this is what pushed me into this work and wanting to make a change.
I realized that policies are the reason Black people are struggling. We can talk about racism, we can talk about white supremacy, but at the end of the day it boils down to the policy. There is a policy that is connected to us being enslaved people, whether it’s in chains or whether it’s credit cards or non-living wages.
I wanted to even the playing field and educate my community – poor Black people and poor white people – on what the real fight was and what the real enemy was, which was ultimately policy makers, many of them rich, old, white men, who made their political career by creating policies that make the rich richer and keep the poor poorer – that is ultimately what we’re fighting.
We have to have that education and then to develop leaders to get into those fields that allow us to change and alter our destiny to get to a place of freedom and liberation. I just fell in love with learning about policies and connecting policies to everyday life.
What was the first organizing campaign you worked on and what did you learn from it?
My first organizing campaign was around getting formerly incarcerated people jobs. I worked with many employers to give formerly incarcerated people opportunities. I would speak with entrepreneurs and CEOs about defining and redefining what crime is. Is crime the single father who can’t get a job so he steals from Family Dollar? Is crime the single mother that gets off work on the sixth day and can’t afford to pay her bills? Just bringing a human element to this and realizing that people have been brainwashed into this system that has no compassion.
Black people are raised in the culture that everything we do should not only build us up individually but also build up the community. Capitalism has turned our community into individuals that compete with each other as opposed to uplifting and protecting each other.
I organized 10 different places of employment that would give formerly incarcerated people a shot. I researched the policies that allowed the state to give businesses money for hiring formerly incarcerated people, but realized that those jobs did not have to keep the people for more than 90 days to get those funds. While I was unable to get that particular rule changed, we did change parameters of how employers were incentivized – so now they must hire someone and provide them benefits before the employer actually gets money from the state.
I learned that there aren’t enough jobs for everybody and then there aren’t enough living wage jobs. Employers are looking for good people and they don’t care if you have a record, but this felony thing gives them a preconceived notion about who those people are. We really have to change people’s perspective of what it means to have a felony and how those felonies come about.
Where did you grow up? How does that impact your work today?
Akron, Ohio for most of my life. I’ve also lived in Dayton, New Jersey, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. I learned how to build relationships, how to see different perspectives – but also that Black and poor people are struggling everywhere, not just in Akron. This is really about class and not just about race and those experiences allow me to build national relationships.
Right now, we have police violence in our cities and environmental violence in our rural areas and it allows me to connect those two plights. When we lift up Black people, the rest of the country will be lifted up. But to lift up Black people, we need poor white people to follow and help with that struggle because they are in the same situations. So it really helps with my relationship building to understand no matter where you go you are going to see the same thing you see in Akron, Ohio.
How did you get involved with Freedom BLOC?
Coming out of prison and learning my plight in this world, and then hooking up with an organization called Ohio Organizing Collaborative that taught me the skills and the basic principles of organizing. Taking all of that and realizing that Black people’s freedom is only going to come from a Black organization looking to revolutionize the movement. I couldn’t have that framework in a white or multi-cultural organization.
Although this is a class struggle too, Black people are at the bottom of this Caste system. We must first tend to the needs of Black people and that will allow everyone else to be lifted up. Equity must be applied to the Black struggle first because we are the ones most affected by capitalism and slavery and mass incarceration.
The people that brought me into this, we got together and we developed Freedom BLOC. It is unapologetically Black and focuses on Black liberation and freedom. That allows us to evaluate and examine the previous movements to create something new that really moves us to freedom and liberation with the understanding that for any of this to work, we must not only reconcile with our past but we have to become healthy from the past.
So we focus a lot on mental health and conditioned tendencies from our enslaved state that’s just for survival and is not suiting us well. We created the Freedom BLOC that stands on these pillars: Educate, activate, politicize the turnout of Black people for the freedom and liberation of ourselves.
The theme for Black History Month this year was “Black Resistance.” What does this mean to you?
Black Resistance is being Black. We are always resisting the capitalistic features of this country. That continues to enslave our body, enslave our mind, and enslave our spirits. It continues to keep us focused on working to pay our bills as opposed to our creative nature of loving and community with one another. So Black resistance for me is just life – everyday I’m getting up resisting the powers that be that want to use my body and my labor for their own personal gain.
Tell me about the campaign Freedom BLOC was working on last fall.
Another black man, 25-year-old Jayland Walker was brutally murdered, shot at over 100 times, and 46 bullets landed in his fragile body over a traffic light. We have been working on an oversight committee to improve community relations which oversees the Akron Police Department. It has been in the works since 2016 when another man was killed by the police over a similar altercation, and when this Jayland Walker situation happened, it was just time– the community was fed up.
In 2022 we formed and won the ballot initiative Committee to Improve Community Relations which oversees the Akron Police Department. And 29,000 voted yes on creating a committee to improve community relations which oversees the Akron Police Department. This oversight committee will allow us to approve policing communities relations, conduct hardcore investigations into malpractice and police brutality cases outside of the internal investigations by our police department.
That allows us to look at this whole scope of policing and safety and redlining what safety is. Is safety policing or living wages? Is safety armed militia or is safety affordable housing? We can start with those questions and move into a different direction inside of our city and statewide.
[Editor’s note: At the end of February 2023, the Akron City Council failed to seat a new Citizens’ Police Oversight Board by the deadline established by a city charter amendment approved by voters in November.]
Freedom BLOC builds and develops Black leadership and Black voices through activism and coalition building. We built the voice of the Black and poor community in Akron that allowed us to garner 62% of the vote [in support of Issue 10, the charter amendment that created the citizen review board for the police department] in the 2022 Elections.
What’s next for the campaign?
We are working on a housing campaign to continue to build tenant unions inside of Akron. Also, to demand that HUD in the state of Ohio and the city of Akron put money into a Black housing trust that allows us to create wealth in the city of Akron for Black people, and allows us to begin to solve the problem of homelessness. Akron has the highest eviction rate in the state.
We are looking to poll a couple of different ballot initiatives, including one ensuring that outside investors can’t buy for at least five years. That would mean that before the city sells the property, they must sell it to the residents of Akron. We want to create a Housing Bill of Rights to protect tenants and to create more housing stocks.
On the criminal justice side, we are ensuring that the oversight committee is seated and functionally running and ensuring that we are no longer using armed militia for traffic stops. We’re also looking to win some city council seats to ensure that these things that we are asking for get done.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start doing work within their community, but they’ve never organized before?
Get up and get dressed, go outside, make a left hand turn and start knocking on doors. When you start knocking on doors and you start telling people your story, they will tell you their story and you will figure out what to do next. It all starts with being fed up and talking to other people.
When we are five years old and start kindergarten the first thing Black parents tell their children is, “Don’t talk about what happens in this house.” That has enslaved us – we walk around with these smiles and nice clothes but inside we are dying because we can’t tell anyone we are dying. So we can’t get any help and we often think we are the only person going through it – and we are not. But we have been conditioned not to talk to people, so we go about this thing alone, until a 25-year-old man gets shot and then all the police stories come out.
And we realize that we could have stopped this earlier. Through talking to people, the people will decide what we need to do.