In Memory of Lisa Sullivan

On October 1, to the shock of most of her friends and supporters, progressive activist and youth leader Lisa Yvette Sullivan passed suddenly due to congestive heart failure. She had just turned 40 only a few weeks earlier. Not only did I lose someone I embraced as a sister and a political ally, but the black community, young people, and the nation as a whole lost one of the most gifted radical organizers and thinkers of this generation.

Lisa was the founder and executive director of LISTEN, Inc., a dynamic youth leadership training organization based in Washington, DC. This was the culmination of a lifetime’s commitment and effort to bring forth a new generation of activists and scholars who would see politics clearly and fight to implement a society of justice, fairness, and prosperity for the majority of us. Built from scratch, the organization has flourished expanding its reach to Europe and Africa as well as across the states.

But this was not Lisa’s first foray into leadership. In the mid-1980s, she made the pivotal personal decision to leave Yale University’s political science Ph.D. program to pursue her goal of making the city of New Haven, where Yale is located, responsive to its black, poor, and working class citizens. To this end, she and others built a grassroots movement that helped to elect in a number of key offices, including eventually the mayors, young progressive black leaders. This work led her to be tapped by the Childrens’ Defense Fund to head up their Black Community Crusade for Children (BCCC) program that outreaches to the poorest and most needy children in the black and Latino communities. In a very short time, Lisa was promoted to Director of the Field Division for CDF.

For most, this work alone would have demanded more than full-time effort. But Lisa could not be contained, and she helped to found, guide, and nurture the Black Student Leadership Network in the late 1980s and 1990s. The BSLN, in the tradition of Lisa’s hero, the irrepressible civil rights leader Ella Baker, created over 200 “freedom” schools where youth activists were trained in the history, theory, strategies, and tactics of political and grassroots organizing. Today, several thousand of these activists, who were mentored by Lisa and the BSLN leadership, are distributed around the country working in community organizations. She did not hesitate to call upon old heads to come in and do lectures and share experiences, but she never lost focus on the need to spawn the next generation of radical leaders.

After a stint at the Rockefeller Foundation, where she developed a fellowship program for young people with leadership potential, she decided to found the Local Initiative Support, Training and Education Network(LISTEN) in 1998. LISTEN was not only the name of her organization, but her belief in what policy-makers and civil rights leaders needed to do if they wanted support from her constituency. Her aim of politically mobilizing the under 30 crowd was relentless. As she stated in an interview earlier this year, “Urban youth must be organized to define their own problems and to find their own solutions.” It is a testament to her style of work and leadership that the LISTEN staff continues to prepare for their annual conference even in the midst of grieving for their fallen director.

Although she will be remembered by many for her organizing talents, Lisa was also a profoundly insightful thinker and visionary. She was in the process of completing her book on political thinking and organizing when she died. She was determined that the Hip-Hop generation be mobilized and politically educated. In a number of articles, discussion groups, and other forum, Lisa strongly argued the need for black political activists to move past the Civil Rights paradigm and forged innovative means of achieving political redress.

I doubt that any of her achievements would have been as successful if they had not also been accompanied by Lisa’s winning manner and compassionate humanity. She never asked anyone to do what she would not, and always demonstrated genuine concern that peoples’ basic need for encouragement, support, sympathy, and love were met. Her heart was as big as the world, but unfortunately not able to sustain her physical being in the end. At her funeral, she was described perceptively as gentle, optimistic, generous, confident, vibrant, creative, and courageous. We all lost a great warrior; I also lost a great friend.

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