Photograph by Kena Betancur/Getty Images

How did you initially become interested in grassroots political and social movements?
When I was in junior high school, I was actively involved in the sanitation worker movement in Memphis, Tennessee. I got to be in Martin Luther King’s last march. That was a very profound experience, to be in that march, to be a part of something larger than myself.

Did your experience inspire you to teach this course, or was it something else?
As a scholar, you look for the gaps in literature. There wasn’t much out there about African-American women in politics. I found three areas of activism for African-American women nationwide, but I delved into environmental justice. There were so many layers. I knew it was something I’d have on my research agenda for a long time.

In your research, have you found movements that particularly inspire you and inform the direction of your work?
In the 1950s, a chemical company sold land from a chemical waste dump in Niagara County, New York, to the city for a dollar. It became a neighborhood called Love Canal. Lois Gibbs was a Latina housewife who realized stuff was bubbling up in people’s yards, and she wondered if her son’s epilepsy and urinary problems were related to that. So she began organizing the women in the neighborhood. We shouldn’t leave that movement out of the conversation.

More broadly, what are the movements that you focus on in your class?
We look at the coal miners’ strikes in West Virginia and the industrial unions’ efforts to organize. We look at the civil rights movement and the welfare rights movement. We are studying the factors that go into formation of a social movement. Why do some movements succeed and others decline?

So what does it take for a movement to succeed?
It is very difficult for the powerless to wrest power from the powerful. You only get concessions by steady, meaningful protest strategies. And if I want you to support me in my issue, you have to know my story, believe in my story, and be moved by my story.

On the other hand, how does a movement fail?
Well, you can’t let the issue get out of the public’s mind for a long time. Black Lives Matter, we haven’t heard from them in a long time. So now you see more movements honoring public servants and police. But you also need to be clear about what needs to be done. With Black Lives Matter, I can’t give you a clear policy.

What’s different about contemporary grassroots movements?
We are back in a space in our political culture where we are less tolerant of disruptive tactics. But there is a tremendous shift in the mindsets of the students I teach. They are not willing to sacrifice their morals to succeed. They’re saying, “What can I do to make other people’s lives easier?” They’re never going to be extreme in their pronouncements, but they are still passionate.

With that in mind, what do you tell them is the importance of grassroots movements in this political moment?
We need to talk about what policies mean for the people affected by them. We are deeply fractured right now, but I’m optimistic because sometimes fracturing can lead to growth, and you can come out better than you were before you were broken. I feel that way, that we’re going to come out better than ever.