Q&A: Turning Texas Teal with TOP’s Brianna Brown

by The Opportunity Agenda

When states go to extreme lengths to repress voters in the name of upholding white supremacy, how do we continue the fight for people power? A new documentary film, TEXAS, USA (2023), provides invaluable insight. Told through the stories of several incredible Texan organizers, including Brianna Brown, Co-Executive Director of Texas Organizing Project (TOP), it explores “what it takes to build a new, hopeful vision for democracy against enormous odds.”

This year, The Opportunity Agenda convened Brianna and other grassroots changemakers from the U.S. Southeast and Southwest to build a collaborative narrative framework around civic participation and inclusive democracy.

And recently, we were invited to the New York Premiere of TEXAS, USA and saw firsthand how this inspirational film shifts the narrative on Texas politics. We caught up with Brianna after the screening to hear her unique perspective on the intersections between storytelling, narrative change, and their on-the-groundwork to create an inclusive democracy in Texas.

[TOA:] Can you introduce yourself to our audiences?

[BB:] I’m Brianna Brown, a proud fourth-generation Texan, raising two fifth-generation Texans, and Co-Executive Director of TOP. I’ve never known myself – even as a child – outside of a Black political identity, and I’m about the work of organizing.

As Co-Executive Director of Texas Organizing Project, how did it feel to watch you and your colleagues’ efforts represented on the big screen?

It was humbling and invigorating. My four-year-old daughter was with me at two of the premieres and it was a full-circle moment to witness her watching TOP’s work on the big screen. In my dreams, the social justice movement would help raise both of my daughters, so I really appreciate these kinds of opportunities to pour into her, outside of ‘Mom being in a meeting.’

The film’s spotlight on TOP’s network and impact across Texas is also a testament to the collective power of organized communities, the passion and the resilience of our team – members, staff, folks we endorse – who are holding tight to a vision that a #Texas4All is indeed possible.

Featured prominently in the movie is TOP’s voter outreach program where we made Texas history as one of the largest-ever investments in Black voters. Our state is home to the largest number of Black voters in the country, and we’ve long been uncourted. Our political field program was designed to reach two-thirds (1.4M) of all Black voters. And we did!

As organizers, our program put a premium on having face-to-face conversations at people’s doors and blended in other tactics like digital engagement, texting, and phone banking. We had conversations with some Black voters who couldn’t believe that someone was knocking on their door about an election and issues important to our communities.

Shot by Somi Studios

In the film, they repeated a couple times that “Texas isn’t a non-voting state, it’s an unorganized state.” These shifts in language make a big difference in how we think about politics in Texas and the work that is to be done. How would you like to see narratives about Texas shift?

I’d love for people to understand that Texas is a state full of potential and not just defined by our current reality of far-right statewide elected officials. Texas could be likened to an apartheid state. In a state where the majority of people are of color, there is a white, male, cis, religious-fundamentalist and nationalist majority that governs. In the counties where most Texans live, anchored by majority of color populations, we are electing progressives and passing progressive policy—only to be defeated at the state level.

We need to see a Texas narrative that centers Black and Latino communities, and really leans into the fact that progressive policies that are being passed in counties the size of battleground states are actually popular with most Texans. Yes, we’re battling voter suppression, atrocious anti-immigrant legislation, and we are the most uninsured state in the country. AND we need more resources to set up the infrastructure to fundamentally change how democracy works in Texas – or as we affectionately say, “Turn Texas Teal” (TOP’s signature color).

To paraphrase one of our beloved TOP members, Isaac Henry, Texas progressives have a plan, and we’re working the plan every day to build a democracy that looks like us, shares our values, and uplifts everyone – no matter our race, age, gender, faith, income, or ZIP Code. That should be the headline!

TEXAS, USA doesn’t just tell a story of elected officials spontaneously getting voted into office. Instead, the film emphasizes the labor of community organizers to mobilize voters, thus reminding us of our power and agency to make improvements to our communities. How do you build storytelling into your work when mobilizing community members to take action?

Stories are the heartbeat of organizing.  Stories, not stats, are how we all understand the world around us, and they are an essential tool in our organizer toolbox. Stories resonate, connect, and inspire, and I can’t think of a facet of our work where we don’t braid in the stories of our communities.  In the 25/8 organizing that we do, knocking on physical or virtual doors, we lead with the story of who we are as individuals and how those individual stories shape the story of us. We use stories to add dimension and texture as we’re fighting for policy reforms. Our stories thwart the opposition’s insistence that they know better. I especially appreciate the work we do as futurists – helping ourselves and others see a future beyond today and being able to do that, is really an ability to craft a story about the lives we see for ourselves and our kids just beyond the horizon.

Based on what you’re hearing from audiences’ reactions to the film, what advice would you have for organizers heading into 2024 for the stories & narratives we should prioritize to get people engaged?

Audiences are craving genuine and authentic stories. These kinds of stories are a counterpunch to the often photoshopped, and to quote one of my favorite movies, Steel Magnolias, “…cut out of cream cheese”…versions of our lives.  One of the things I really appreciate about watching TEXAS, USA is that you get to see the literal grind of organizing –  in our cars, knocking on doors, pouring over data, listening for connection and the opportunity to change hearts and minds, one Texan at a time. We see wins – like Lina Hidalgo in Harris county, Greg Casar in Austin, and TOP reaching our Black voter outreach goal – and you see losses.

Heading into 2024, I think we should prioritize stories that showcase the power that only happens when we act together, not as individuals.  Stories that illustrate the grind that it takes for us to win at the ballot box and beyond. I hope TEXAS, USA gives folks a front-row seat to what’s happening on-the-ground in Texas, and to see it connected to the larger fight of preserving our democracy across the country. It’s never lost on me that that’s the task at hand – the preservation of our democracy.

In TOA’s Beyond Democracy cohort, we’ve had a chance to play with different digital messages and themes to inspire people to get engaged. For folks who haven’t seen that research yet, is there anything you find exciting about the possibilities of how you could use these stories?

What’s exciting about digital messaging and organizing is the reach and ability to tell our stories without interpretation. Part of my job in many spaces is to make our Texas progressive revolution digestible, which is challenging, in part just given our sheer size. Texas’ most populous counties where we are strategically organizing are the size of battleground states.  Being able to tell stories at scale is key.

Digital outreach can help organizers shape perceptions and quickly spark conversations in unique ways, particularly around a cultural inflection point. In the cohort, we’ve been interested in the use of satire to pique interest as well as inspiration to help people make sense of the world around us. I’m especially looking forward to infusing more satire into our work, as a means to onramp new communities to our organizing and to help tell the vibrant and joyful stories of Black and Latino Texans.

Shot by Somi Studios

Anything else you’d like to share?

The stakes are too high to be an independent advocate. In the fight for justice, there’s no room for solo acts. It’s all about unity and strength in numbers. So come make history with us. It’s time to get organized, get involved, and amplify our collective voice for a future that includes us all: https://organizetexas.org/.

If you live outside of Texas and want to find a state-based, power-building organization, check out the Center for Popular Democracy’s website at https://www.populardemocracy.org/.

And don’t forget to watch TEXAS, USA streaming today!

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