As a third grader, Meme Styles didn’t understand why the only milk in her school cafeteria was white.
The daughter of a Black Panther who "raised me as a person to ask questions," Styles started a petition to add chocolate milk to the cafeteria lineup.
"Living with this radical dad, in my brain, I thought, ‘Why should all milk be white?’ That was my thought process," Styles said. "I started a petition and gathered data and was able to push hard enough within my elementary school to get chocolate milk. They said yes because of the data. That was super powerful as I grew up, knowing that there was power in numbers."
That early lesson in activism — and the importance of using data to make a point — had an impact on Styles. These days, the 39-year-old mom of three spends her time using data and education to mobilize communities to eliminate racial and social disparities as the founder and president of the nonprofit MEASURE.
We recently spoke with Styles, who has received numerous local accolades including a 2019 Austin Under 40 Award for Nonprofit Service, about her lifelong dedication to advocacy, MEASURE’s impact on Austin and the recent surge of activism following the death of George Floyd. The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
This past month has seen protests and anti-racist activism across the U.S. How has this time been for you?
There are so many changes happening. It almost feels like you’re now drinking from this huge hose, because we’ve been asking for a lot of these changes and suddenly people are empathetic to them. It’s like, "OK, now you’re with me. This is what we need." It’s truly exciting to see this pivot and this change of empathy.
Have you always been interested in advocacy?
Advocacy was in my DNA. My grandfather in the ‘60s and ‘70 was a public safety commissioner in Pasadena, California, that created communication between the community, especially between the local Black Panther movement and the police department. Growing up in that home I’m sure was really odd, because my uncle and my dad were both Black Panthers.
What was your early adulthood like?
I’m a military kid, so I grew up on Camp Pendleton in California, married a military guy and moved around. I lived in Alaska for quite some time, and I was a news anchor there. I was really interested in unpacking data-driven stories that help to tell the truth. I moved to Texas, to El Paso, in 2009 and worked for the Department of Defense, working under several colonels and brigadier generals. We conducted this pretty amazing test called the Network Integration Evaluation. I really got a lot of my strategic thinking and community mobilization training through the Department of Defense and through the Army.
What brought you to Austin?
In 2014, my husband was retiring from the Army, and we quite literally had the choice to go west or farther south. In a split second we decided, "Let’s go to Austin." One of my best friends lives here, and we always loved it every time we’d come to visit. There was no job here for either of us, we’d only visited a few times, but something drew us to coming here and living here.
You and your husband have three children and one on the way. How do they impact your advocacy work?
My son Cliffton is in college at San Diego State University. He’s this big football player, dreads, very dark skin, tattoos everywhere, and I literally worry about him every single day of my life. He’s gotten pulled over several times by the police just for being who he is and having the color of skin that he has. For me, the fear of him not coming home has definitely informed my activism. I have another beautiful black son, Zion, who is 14 years old, almost 6 feet tall and who I can’t imagine to be a threat, but I know that he could just by being who he is. He’s also the reason why I do this work. And then I have this phenomenal daughter, her name is Jalisa, and she’s studying psychology at Huston-Tillotson. She’s 20.
How did MEASURE form?
I had been helping to revitalize the Miss Juneteenth Austin Scholarship Pageant, and I wanted to do more with the Black community in Austin. I started working under Chas Moore with the Austin Justice Coalition, and he pretty much threw me on a panel in 2015 about community policing. When I got on that pane,l I looked around and I realized I was the only "Black woman activist" on that panel. I knew this was the height of the Black Lives Matter movement and I was supposed to be that angry Black woman. … I was thinking to myself, let me take some of my training from the Army and use that as my mode of advocacy, so I started asking questions about data on that panel, before data was sexy. I started asking, "What are the key performance indicators that are actually assessing community policing in Austin? If we’re saying community policing should be a priority, how do you define it through the budget? What are the targets, and what are the measurable outcomes?" Quite honestly the police department was unable to answer, and the mayor literally encouraged this rhetoric by saying, "Like Meme said, ‘What’s the data?’" To me, that was evidence that we need to do some work around data.
What is MEASURE’s mission?
Our mission is to use data and education to mobilize communities to eliminate social disparities. What that means for us is really articulated through our theory of change, which is if data reflecting the lived experience of marginalized people is compiled and examined and used by community-led teams who understand and are equipped with organizational support, evaluation and tools, then communities and institutions can work together to design and implement equitable solutions to address economic disparities. It’s really about the use of data-driven tools to bring communities together to have strategic conversations and planning around social justice. And we’ve seen it work.
Austin tends to consider itself a progressive city. Do you perceive it that way?
There is hope in the way that Austin perceives itself. I want to make that extremely clear. But the data shows a very different reality for Austin, and we have to also understand that when we talk about Austin, we need to talk about all of Austin. If Austin is going to be progressive, it needs to be progressive for not just dogs. … It needs to be progressive for everyone. Unfortunately, if we’re talking about the data, and unfortunately, if we’re talking about the evidence behind progressiveness, it does not support a progressive Austin. But again, it’s so encouraging to hear that people have this conception of themselves, that they can see themselves as progressive. We need the policies and we need the equitable outcomes in order to prove that.
How do you view the wave of interest in anti-racism efforts in recent weeks?
I’m so optimistic about what the social vibe is now. I’m so optimistic that everyone is starting to have this sense of empathy and understanding in ways that they haven’t had before. We’re seeing corporations come out with declarations of support for the Black community. We’ve never seen anything like that. That, to me, gives room for real policy change.
RELATED: Austin area police chiefs talk racism, reform in community forum
What recommendations do you have for people who want to get involved in the anti-racism movement?
No. 1 is to educate themselves. There is so much unlearning that still needs to happen in order to really break down the experience of the Black community. We’re talking about 400-plus years of systemic, historical trauma that has happened to the Black person. But here’s the thing: It’s not just to the Black person. This 400 years of trauma has also impacted white bodies. That sense of privilege is traumatic. For anybody to think that they’re better than another human being is, to me, traumatic. Recognizing that and understanding how to break down those systems of trauma that have happened is step one. After you do that work, the next step is to get involved and start using your privilege and expertise to further this moment into a real movement.
What are some of your favorite organizations?
I love Undoing Racism for my white brothers and sisters. That’s one method of unlearning. The Community Advocacy and Healing Project led by Fatima Mann is extremely informative for both white and Black people. Of course MEASURE for those who are interested in using data activism to break down systems and understand systems of oppression. And there’s this really cool group called Educators in Solidarity — this is a group of teachers that are committed to anti-racism.
What was it like for you to see the surge of advocacy following the death of George Floyd?
I have two different reactions that are very contrary to one another. When George Floyd called for his mom, I completely broke down in tears because I could see my brothers in him. I’ve always been able to see my brothers and my family in every single black body that has been murdered by police. When I started seeing it all bubble up, I felt that people that don’t look like me are finally able to empathize with the experience of what I’ve seen and felt this whole time and what Black people have felt this whole time. We internalize every single death that we see on the news. It’s our family. And it feels like people who don’t look like us can finally get it and can finally feel, which is really, really important. The other part of me was disgusted. David Joseph was killed by a police officer a few years ago here in Austin, and he was 17 years old, and he was naked, completely naked. So it makes me disgusted and angry that it’s taken several more years for radical change to become popular and for the preservation of Black life to become popular. It’s my hope that we don’t use this as a popularity contest between corporations that are going to give or between neighbors that are putting up a sign in solidarity, that we really use this as a moment to reflect on the many, many years of pain that Black people have experienced and that we use that as fuel for this movement and to move really toward policy change and true, actable outcomes for Black communities.
Some white people who want to act as allies have said they are worried about saying or doing the wrong things. What advice do you offer?
Fail forward always. Nobody is going to get it perfect ever. I get it wrong all the time as a Black woman. But I think that it’s the willingness to say something, and it’s the willingness to ask questions. So if they feel like what they’re going to say might not be exactly right, ask, "Is this OK?" The other piece is sometimes I kind of find myself hiding behind the numbers and hiding behind the data, but that’s a great way to start. You don’t have to worry about messing up because you have numbers and data to say, "This is what’s happening." Start with the truth.
How have COVID-19 and the recent protests impacted MEASURE?
Very quickly we’ve realized the value we provide and what’s really, really needed from MEASURE. It’s really about us supporting other Black- and brown-led organizations in fighting systemic racism through data and evaluation tools that we’ve proven and innovated. Our strategy has become different at MEASURE. We’ve positioned ourselves to scale in a way we never thought that we could do before. That decision came partly because of the new wave of doing things virtually. Now MEASURE’s main programming is all around training up who we call CMEs, Certified MEASURE Educators, that we’ll train to use our tools that can support other Black and brown nonprofits in data and evaluation support. We realized we can do that worldwide now. It’s actually such a blessing to have that revelation. That’s the pivot.
Are you concerned that the current momentum is not sustainable?
Everyone else that has come out to support this movement just recently, thank you. But I haven’t based my organization on that support. It’s been encouraging to see, but it definitely will not impact the operations at MEASURE. We’re going to continue to do the work that we’ve always been doing. I would love to see the policies change based on the energy that the community is giving it, but either way, we’re going to continue to do the work we do best.