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A Conversation with Phil Agnew of Black Men Build

Last month I had the pleasure of speaking with Phil Agnew, co-founder of Black Men Build. We had a wonderful discussion about the work and vision for Black Men Build.

Black Men Build is a place for Black men to engage in the world in an organized force.

Below is an excerpt of our conversation that I want to share with you. I hope you enjoy.

Phil: I’m originally from Chicago. I grew up with three brothers. My father’s a teacher, was a preacher; my mom was a teacher. Education and religion were big parts of my framework growing up. I grew up in a real rough neighborhood. So both education and church were the things that kind of kept me safe, in the ways that it could; hurt me in other ways, for sure. But you know, that’s the story of growing up. And I wound up in Florida because I went to Florida A&M University. So I wound up in Tallahassee, and started activism there. And I distinguish between that and organizing; but I definitely was very active in student government, and joined a fraternity, so I really threw myself into the culture of the Black college. And I graduated and went to Charlotte for four years; I was working in pharmaceutical sales, actually, for Eli Lilly. And that was misaligned with my purpose; I learned a lot.

And after Trayvon, I helped start the organization, Dream Defenders. And that was when I really started to learn about what organizing really is. I left there in 2018, and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wound up joining the Bernie train in 2019. And I helped start Black Men Build in 2020. And that consumes a lot of my days of work now, but I feel that it’s definitely a divine intervention in my life, I never would have imagined that I would start another organization period. And let alone one that has, I guess, a very obvious identity based framework.

And we try to blow that out. Every time that we talk about Black Men Build, it’s not Black men for Black men sake. It’s a place for Black men to come and really get trained to heal, to transform, and to be of service to all Black people. So it’s very important to us that we are clear that we see a central and essential part of our work as creating new men, birthing new men who can love, who are vulnerable, who find strength in their love, and will also fight back against patriarchy, chauvinism, capitalism, and white supremacy. And that’s a big part of our work. And it’s in service of all Black people, not just for Black men to come together, you know, and have another Black boys club.

And what inspired you and your partners… to start Black Men Build? You just touched on a lot. [A place to] heal, transform, a place of service. I really feel that. Were there certain events, or was it just a snowball effect where you knew exactly what you were about to get into?

Phil: Well, as with most great things, it was the sisters that pushed us; who, in July of 2019, I believe, penned an internal letter to myself and a number of other brothers in the movement. And the “movement” is in quotes, you know, the movement is large, it includes labor, it includes street organizations, all of that. But the part of the movement that I was a part of, we were one of the few brothers in there. And so they reached out to us and they said, “Hey, we want more brothers, and we want the brothers that are here to be better and to do more, be more active. And we also want to be a part of a movement that shows unabashedly that they love brothers.”

And there is also a kind of third prong. In that there’s a growing number of brothers who are becoming more and more conservative, and radicalized around conservative values, not just a Black economic, Black capitalism talk, but absolutely, that deeply entrenched patriarchy, and misogyny and the reassertion of the Black man as the dominating force in the community and in the house. And so, you know, it was those kind-of twin observations, one — Black men not participating in the movement at the level of other groups. Two — Black men being recruited and finding a home in right wing ideas and crazy, you know, faux-tep circles.

And then it was our lived experiences of the brothers that we had assembled, who kind of came together to talk about building what became Black Men Build. We all felt that, hey, we’ve been a part of fraternities, we’ve been a part of other groups. And there’s a new thing happening, and I think we all see it amongst men, and I don’t think it’s being acknowledged, to the level that we would hope, but that’s fine. But there are conversations happening about a new manhood and new ways of being, and how can we as a group, popularize those things and start to build an organization around. And so all of those things converge. And we had a meeting in Miami, actually. And the scaffolding for what became Black Men Build was built there, and has grown into what was supposed to be a project with a finite end date, to now being an organization with potentially nine chapters by the end of this year.

That’s amazing. How did it go from being a project to an organization? What was that like?

Phil: Yeah, it was pretty swift, honestly. We came out and the first thing we started doing were mass meetings, you know, in the tradition of the civil rights movement and previous movements, and they were all virtual of course. And we started doing them, and 500 or 600 brothers got on. We’re gonna have our ninth one next month. And our eighth one that we had in January was our biggest one since the first one. So we’re on a good trajectory right now by way of attendance. But by the second one, people were in the chat asking how can we join? And we were like, there’s really nothing for you to join. This is an initiative that we’re starting to really get Black men together, to get them started talking about politics, to get them to start talking about what moves and motivates them and to just be together, because Black men don’t have many places where we can just be together. But very quickly, people started asking, “Hey, how can I join? How can I do Black Men Build in my city?”

We knew that we wanted to have a field component — and when I say “project”, it was going to end in November. We wanted to make sure that November was a success. I mean, I’m no fan of Joe Biden, but you know, November didn’t go as bad as it could — And so we knew that we would have some field component, meaning people on the ground doing something. But we believed, at least in month two, that the field component will have a sudden sunset in November. And by the third month of us doing this, and the fourth, fifth month, it just became obvious that not only was there an interest, but that we would be doing a disservice if we didn’t try to build an infrastructure to support the continued development of brothers. And not just the development of them in building a space for them, but for them to do work together, for them to participate in work together. And so that’s how it developed, really organically. I know for a fact, because I was a part of the conversation, and I lead conversations at the onset, where we said, “Hey, we’re not trying to build another membership organization, there’s enough out there” blah, blah, blah. But we quickly found that there was a hole in in this space. And that it could potentially be filled by what I call faux-teps. Or some people call them the unc-right. Or even the NOI — people who it is my belief don’t have the political inclinations of what we’re seeking to build, that are anti patriarchal, anti capitalist, anti empire. So that’s what we seek to be. And that’s what we’re hoping to build if people will allow it and will accept it.

So that makes me think of the organizing component of the work. I noticed that y’all posted on Facebook about turning people out to protect the polls, and you have a national day of service to the people. Can you speak about that? And are there any other organizing efforts that y’all have on the way?

Phil: We have a lot on the way. But I can speak to those two things, specifically. The election was a very, very obvious elephant in every room. And so for an organization to be moving in the year 2020, there had to be some conversation about the election. And so we came together. And we understood that after 30 or some years of being men, and after a few months of engagement with brothers in a concerted effort and conversation, that us as an organization coming out and saying, “go vote”, doesn’t position Black Men Build to have long conversations or long relationships with Black men. We immediately start discounting it once, you’re like “oh you’re just trying to get me to vote, I ain’t listening to nothing else you say.” So we needed to figure out how we could intervene in a way that was genuine and authentic to us, not just to who we want to be seen as, but to us. And so protecting the polls seemed like that place. So what we said is whether you, as a Black man, are going to vote, believe in voting, can or cannot vote, it is our duty to make sure that our sisters, our elderly, our brothers, our family, can go out and vote safely. And so Black Men Build took that position, that the place of crisis may be at the ballot box. And whether you agree with voting or not, we can all agree that if our grandma gets knocked upside the head by some MAGA person, or there’s a paid Black person giving them bad information in the line telling people if they have a felony, they can’t vote, that we have a duty to make sure that we protect the rights of our people to go vote, whether you agree with voting or not. So that was our lane. We wanted to be precise in our language and in our activity, and give brothers an opportunity to take part in what was a historic day — no matter what your political tendency is, it was a historic day. So there was a lot of thinking that went into it. And a lot of understanding of the context that we are operating in. Really, all our signs said “protect our people at the polls”, because we didn’t even want to be seen as protecting the polls, you know, we need to protect our people at the polls. So it was about the people and it was about centering our people. So that’s why we went with protecting our people at the polls on that day.

The Day of Service is a key thrust of our organization over the next year. We want to introduce ourselves as Black Men Build, and reintroduce Black men in mass as a place of service. That you develop a trust and a camaraderie with your people who you serve, and that serving is an essential function of any organization that seeks to have a foothold or count itself as a member of a society, of a community, a neighborhood, a block, or a city. And so the Day of Service was just the first one. And we had fourteen, I believe; fourteen places where we conducted a day of service on that day, December the 19th. And we’re going to do national days of service four more times during the year 2021. And each of our chapters are going to do monthly days of service, they just won’t all be on the same day. So in order to become a formal chapter of the organization, you have to have a monthly service event that you’re running, and that you’re implementing and executing to become a chapter. And to stay a chapter, frankly, you have to maintain that. And so we want that to be a central part of what we do. Because our people have needs. Those needs should be taken care of by the state because the state should be run by us. And when they are not, we have a duty to provide those needs to not only show ourselves to be a steward in our community, but to shame the state into doing what they’re supposed to be doing already. So there are many reasons why we do service, it’s not just to be a service group, but it’s a way to politicize our people. It’s a way to hand out information and distribute information, as a way of showing yourself as not just wanting to get something from people but willing to provide.

How has that been? What’s the response been like from Black men around the country?

Phil: Well, during that day, the response was really beautiful. In some cities, they partnered with existing things, and in some cities, they did their own thing. But unanimously, it was just beautiful to see brothers serving, you know. Sisters thought it was beautiful, older folks thought it was beautiful. We got some great content, meaning pictures, but more importantly, some great stories and experiences. In Philadelphia after their service event, it turned into a spontaneous mens circle, where brothers were just talking for three, four or five hours, just talking about their experiences. In Ohio, brothers were teaching young boys how to play chess. And so the images of seeing older brothers and little boys learning to play chess was really beautiful. I don’t know how to play chess, it’s a source of great shame for me, I really gotta learn. But that was dope. In Miami, we did a Christmas toy giveaway. So I have a video of like 20 brothers putting together the bikes because they all came in boxes. So they were putting together their bikes, which is also hilarious, because I don’t know how street ready any of those bikes were after they were done, but it was just dope to see. And I think the men felt, especially with COVID, and being inside, it just feels good to come together and do something. So we hope that as we continue to do it on a monthly basis, that will become a part of what people know Black Men Build as at the very least, you know, “y’all the ones who do the service things”. And if that’s how you know us, that’s a good way of being known.

Yeah. What’s funny is, the two things that you touched on — protect our people at the polls, and serving. Makes me think of protect and serve.

Phil: Right. I didn’t think of that before but, yea.

That’s what it should really be.

I hope this isn’t too romantic of a question: What would you like the impact to be of Black Men Build? Or in other words, How would you know that y’all have had an impact in the community?

Phil: That’s a great question. We have two ways of assessing that for us right now. For us, one of the primary ways to know we’re successful is by the number of members that we have by the end of the year, and the number of chapters that we have; it’s not easy to start a chapter of Black Men Build. There are trainings, you have to have your own office located in a community, not a co-working space, but your own storefront office in a community that we’re fundraising to help support. You have to show yourself to maintain a service event and a reading group on a monthly basis; it won’t be easy. So one measure of success is how many members that we have by the end of the year. To be a chapter you have to have at least 27 members. We want nine chapters. So around 250 or so members in the organization by the end of the year is a metric of success. There’s also dues. So for us, that’s one thing that’ll show us that we’ve been successful, not just because we were able to count these numbers, but because we have brothers who have gone through things together. We also have a sister who is our organizer in Milwaukee. Not our deputy organizer, or secretary, she’s our lead organizer in Milwaukee. And we imagine we’ll have a lot more people of other identities who want to take part in the activities because we’re going to show ourselves to be upstanding people. Not chivalrous gentlemen. But people who are about the business of transforming.

So that’s one metric. The other is a little bit harder to measure, but we hope that through our work that people will start to see transformation — one of the things I say that I hope to be is a person who evolves in public. I’ve been on the record of saying some stupid stuff before, that I’m not proud of, but that’s how I felt at that time. I’m not proud of feeling that way. But that’s who I was, and now I’m a different person, and I’m gonna show that evolution in public, and people are gonna see that, and they’re gonna remember, “damn Phil you used to be saying some stupid shit, or you used to be wiling out”. And so it is my hope that people see that [evolution] amongst Black Men Build brothers. “Oh, yeah, you know, those brothers. They’re different. They behave differently in public and in private. And they’re reflective of the ways that they are and try to change to meet those. And when they learn something new, you see it in the culture of the organization. And they’re learning something new and now their organization is responding to that. So that’s the second one that’s harder to measure, I think.

Absolutely. Evolving in public. I don’t want to give too much of my backstory, but I feel like the desire is there. The void is there. The desire for community is there. And I feel like in the back of our minds, we know that we have something to give. I know that I have something to give. And I know that’s true among my friends and my cousins, etc. So, I feel that, and I think this is a great time. Obviously, you already know that. But this is inspiring to hear.

And I read the Wartime magazine volume 2. The cover was fire, by the way. I’ll just start off by saying that.

Phil: [Laughs] Thank you, thank you. That’s Damon Davis, who’s on our team and is like the creative lead/artistic director for the Wartime.

It was very freeing to read. And I think art is so important. It’s important in any movement, and it’s important in society.

And so [your cofounder] Tef Poe is a rapper, and I noticed that you have “artist” in your [email] signature, what role does art play in your work?

Phil: Art is essential. I’m an artist, something that I don’t talk about enough, and I definitely don’t show enough. But from the age of four, my grandmother put me, my three brothers, and my three cousins in classical music school. So I played classical music from the age of four all the way to the age of about 16, 17, or 18. I played gospel music from like five until 18. I played jazz from like 12 to 18. Also, I won poetry contests in Chicago when I was younger. So, to me being an artist has always been a part. I think people who enjoy hearing me speak, enjoy it, in my analysis — for one, there is a gift that I have that the universe gave me — but also they’re hearing me being a musician, basically. Like I understand cadence and, you know, so I’m kind of tricking people a little bit. I’m just doing music stuff, right. So, being an artist is the center of what has made me a successful, or at least a decent, leader. Learning how to work in groups in that way, find harmony, find disharmony and all of those things.

And same with everybody else. Everybody else on the leadership team of Black Men Build is an artist; I can go down the list. Aaron, who’s our digital strategist, is an incredibly accomplished dancer. Like she’s a real dancer, went to Columbia. Steve, who heads all of our creative stuff is a graphic artist, a graphic designer…He’s a person who understands computers and is an early adopter of new technologies, etc. You got Tef, who’s our content lead and an established rapper. Our Co-Director Asa…who’s a writer, an incredible writer. He wrote a short story that’s in [Wartime] about boxing. Josh, who’s our field director produced the music for the boondocks, Season One and Two. He’s a jazz trombonist and did his thesis on jazz, on Black music, and has like his doctorate in music, and he’s our field director. So, you know, just run through the whole list. We’re not just talking about people who are like, “Oh, yeah, that’s a hobby.” Like these people are artists who are organizers too. And just because this is recorded, I want to make sure I didn’t forget about anyone. I didn’t even go through the coordinating committee that we have, that includes poets, rappers, artists, people who can draw. Damon, who I mentioned, is on the team, he’s a filmmaker, sculptor, multihyphenate, all of this stuff.

So, for me, I come from a tradition, and belief that…Harry Belafonte, who is somebody who’s a guiding light for me, always quotes Paul Robeson where he says, “artists are the gatekeepers of truth”. And so any movement that doesn’t have artists at the core…is not going to grow. It’s not going to grow, it’s not going to develop. So every revolutionary organization of note that we remember, we mostly remembered them because of their art, because of their aesthetic. Some because most of us don’t even know their politics, right, because we didn’t study them enough. But we know the Black Panthers because of that aesthetic.

Yeah, I could definitely feel your art in pretty much all of your publications, the Survival Guide and Wartime issue vol 2. And art changes something [in you]. Like personally, I think working in the corporate world, to be honest, can be draining. So I go to art to balance myself out.

Growing up, I felt the most free when I was listening to say, Nas or AZ. And I would say I had a similar experience when I listened to your talk with Talib Kweli. Your conversation, as it went back and forth, was lyrical. It felt like an art from

Phil: A cipher.

Yeah. A cipher. Exactly.

Phil: It’s a dream to be in a cipher with Talib.

Right. A dream come true, I’m sure.

I think I want to end this with just talking about the concept of freedom, because that’s what keeps coming back to me. I noticed that y’all have touched on that as well. I know the crow is an important symbol to you. And there’s an aspect of freedom involved in that as well, right?

Phil: Yeah. That’s Damon. Damon brought that to us. Oh, and I didn’t even mention brother Randolf. Brother Hiram. I’d hate to miss anyone. Every person in the organization…it’s not just me with this org. But brother Damon brought that to us initially. And I brought up brother Randolph because it was so funny, once Damon presented it like “I think this should be our symbol for Black power.” Randolph, who was just kind of coming into our space…had already written a multi-page paper on the importance of the crow. It was just crazy things separately, and even stuff we didn’t put in there. Like do you know what a group of crows is called?

No clue.

Phil: A murder.

[laughs] Woww.

Phil: And I don’t even know why [laughs]. It’s called a Murder of Crows.

But anyway, freedom: I think there’s a lot to be said. I think we actually say that freedom is power. And we’re not scared of power, we think power must be in the light, it can’t be hidden, and the power to determine what your life looks like.

For me, what I would say in the shortest way, is that it’s self actualization. It’s community actualization, and self is a part of community, you can’t lose it in there, and you can’t be too self centered. But, you know, we talk about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And at the top of that is self actualization. And I think it’s that ability to feel full, in and of yourself. And to do that, as a community is what we’re talking about. It’s full actualization of a community of people — I say working people, black people, Latino people, poor people, white people are included in there in my conception of it — to actualize what our lives look like without it being the design and the imagination of 5, 6, or 7 families, who’ve run this country and the Western world for a generation or so, and so many generations. And that’s what it looks like for me. And I think we will see it in our lifetime — maybe not with the destruction of those families and their power, but absolutely in our building of like, alternative institutions, etc. The only caveat I would say is we can’t get too self deluded in those alternative institutions, that we forget that we are at war and until we can make those alternative institutions the norm and not the exception, then we still have a fight on our hands. But I still do believe in those little spaces that we can build together.

Absolutely. It’s gonna be a battle for sure. But a lot of people are hungry for the vision that you just laid out.

And [lastly], how do you, personally, stay balanced?

Phil: I have a four-fecta right now. That’s what I call it. Meditate, Read, Write, Workout. If I can do each one of those every day, I at least have a balance…That’s where I know I’ll be good. And then like I said, the icing on the cake is like, I do want to start getting back into my music. And going to different places. I mean, I’ve only seen probably like 3% of Miami and I’ve been here since 2012. You know what I’m saying? I go to the same places. If I find a restaurant I like, I eat there five days in a row, the same thing every day. I got to break myself out of these little molds and start kind of going around the city and doing different things.

Many thanks to Phil Agnew for taking the time to speak with me.

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