The movement builder
How do we get free? Richard Wallace tackled that question in 2007, when he joined activist rap group BBU (he called himself “Epic”), and he’s still engaged with it today. That question has been the driving force behind every rally, every riot, every teach-in, sit-in, die-in, peace march, and community forum for decades now, and Wallace is building a movement that asks it with fresh urgency. Wallace’s nonprofit, housed at the Westside Justice Center, is called Equity and Transformation (EAT), and the name itself offers one answer to the question—a question Wallace has been led to again and again by his own interactions with the carceral state and his mama’s lessons. “None of us are free until all of us are free,” as she taught him. How do we get free? Step one: Bring everybody together. Step two: Everybody gotta EAT.
Interview by Matt Harvey
Photos by Eddie Quiñones
Reverend Doris Green, my mom, started a prison ministry in the 80s. Dixon, Menard, Stateville—I would go into those prisons at five, six, seven years old. She instilled in me that we are as free as the least of us. We literally have to all get free. For her that meant that we had to go back behind the prison walls and get the people we left behind. I think that really is where I began my organizing journey. This was my foundation of knowledge for EAT.
I was at the Workers Center for Racial Justice and a few other places over the years. One of the shorties that I’d been working with was previously incarcerated, and we were trying to get him lined up for work. He found part-time work at a staffing agency. When he got to 90 days, they let him go. He ended up being right back in the streets. When I saw him, I asked, “What’s going on with you, man?” He looked me dead in the eye and said, “Man, I just gotta eat.”
That hit me so hard, because at its core, that’s why he was engaged in what you would call illicit or illegal activity. He had children. His partner had fallen ill. He was up against the wall trying to figure out how he can keep food in his children’s bellies and keep the house over their heads.
It’s the simplest expression of need: “I gotta eat.” At the time, we were talking about equity a lot in the national dialogue. If equity is what we’re fighting for, transformation is what has to happen. I’ve watched a lot of people that I worked with transform from their “get rich or die trying” perspective of the world into thinking about centering community. I was transformed through the work myself.
When my three siblings and I were shorties, my mom got a Section 8 voucher. She moved us out to the burbs, Downers Grove. So I was like the ink drop in a glass of milk. While I was going through that, she had me reading The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois. She instilled in me the need to be in service to people and community—but I think, being othered by the community, I began to mask-wear. DuBois talks about it—the double consciousness of seeing myself through the eyes of the people I was around.
The people I was around, mostly white folks, deemed me as criminal before I even got involved in the streets. It’d be parties where everybody’s running from the police, right, and I’m the only Black kid there and they’re like, “Richard Wallace, stop!” I slowly began to lean into that thug-life mentality. I ended up catching a robbery charge. I went in when I was 15 years old; I came out at 18.
For my mom, there had to be a letting-go moment. When I went in, she cried. I cried. It was a lot for my mom to see that, but she never left my side. She flooded me with books, poetry. She wasn’t going to let my development stop because I was incarcerated.
That’s my commitment to the people now. A lot of people walk away from people before the change happens. “We gave you the tools, so change right now.” But that’s not how people change. You got to be slow and consistent with it.
It’s on me and folks like me to begin to build the tools. Like, how do we get Eric Garner and Rekia Boyd and Alton Sterling and dozens of others into movement before they die? Their lives, which we revolted over, are often spent in economic conditions that we didn’t focus on. If you’re in survival mode, you don’t really got time, necessarily, to go to no damn teach-in.
I think if you ain’t been there, you can’t tell nobody how to get free from it. I’m able to connect with these younger guys that’s getting into the streets. They see themselves in me. “So you was in IYC St. Charles [a juvenile detention facility]?” And I’ll say, yeah, man. “And you’re doing this right now?” Yeah, and let me tell you what else I did. Sometimes they’ll think, “Oh wow, well, I think I could do it too,” just because I did it.
I also then explain that it wasn’t easy to transform from that bad lifestyle to this. It took real discipline. It took a commitment to learning and unlearning and taking, like, a step back from the day-to-day, seeing the full picture. Asking myself, Why? Why were so many of the youth inside of IYC St. Charles the same color as me? What were the connecting lines? Most of us in there had a host of financial challenges, didn’t have attorneys or people who showed up to pay our bills, to pay our fees and fines.
Once you see it as a societal issue, you’re open to the idea that we can change this. When it’s just me against the world, it’s really hard to change things. When you realize there’s massive movements around the world aimed at changing what you experienced, the load gets lighter.
It wasn’t until I graduated from Roosevelt University at 30 years old that the Richard Wallace you see now was introduced to the world. In 2014, when Mike Brown was killed, I ended up going down to Ferguson to protest. One night, we’re fleeing across a field. On my left is my professor Inhe Choi, and on my right is Dr. Cornel West. We ended up taking over this university campus. It’s me, West, Choi, and people from all over the world. I thought, “Oh, this is what community organizing is.”
I landed a cushy job doing inclusive procurement work—basically, negotiating contracts coming out of the city’s spending and creating community benefits on the opposite end. I was wearing a suit and tie, going downtown. And I just felt empty. I felt like, “I know that I didn’t go through everything I went through to be putting on a suit and code-switching every day.” That can weigh on you.
We did some good work. We brought railcar development back to Chicago for the first time since the Pullman porters. There’s an actual railcar development facility in the Pullman community—about 300 or so jobs.
But I still felt like we were missing the mark. The folks who needed to be in these jobs the most weren’t eligible—people with records, things like that. In national movement spaces, there was this similar challenge of getting formerly incarcerated folks, folks in the streets, into movement space. I was like, “How about I build it?”
In 2018 I got a fellowship through Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity, and I was excited—but my job was like, “You can’t do both.” So I chose the fellowship. They ended up cutting the check, $7,500, so that I could start to build Equity and Transformation.
We build, we empower, and we grow. We do cookouts, mutual aid, service, community cleanups. Whatever we do, we do with community. We talk about health, introducing our folks to healthier food options. Free yoga. We can get you free therapy.
We understand the economic condition. We built out this thing called the Chicago Future Fund, which is a guaranteed-income pilot project for formerly incarcerated people in West Garfield Park. Upwards of 70 percent of young African American men ages 18 to 35 in West Garfield Park are unemployed.
How do you create the space to engage deeper in the organizing work if you ain’t got no money? We believe that our folks will use that guaranteed income to free up time. And through that freeing up of time, they can engage deeper in local community activities and their own personal drives. Folks want to go back to college or whatever they want to do. We’re trying to build our vision of a world where people are fully free.