Can you tell us a little bit about your role at Faith in Action?
Yes. My name is Heather Cabral. I am the Managing Director of Communications at Faith in Action. In my role, with the support of my team, focus on earned media and storytelling for not just Faith in Action National staff, but for our network as well.
Tell me a bit about your story. What has your journey looked like so far?
I probably came into movement work by accident. It’s always been rooted in who I am and my DNA. But I think that I was called to this work in a lot of ways. I had been doing communications for many years and this opportunity presented itself and I feel like it’s really what I was called upon and meant to be doing.
I think that just watching my grandparents and great grandparents and what it took for them to create a better life for their children and then for my parents to create a better life for me. None of my grandparents spoke English as a first language and that never leaves me. I think about it in the work that I do. My mother’s Mexican and my father’s Cape verdean. So I think that coming from an immigrant background, particularly a black immigrant background, immigrant justice work, racial justice work has just been ingrained in my whole being.
But I think a big turning point was probably Ferguson that I remember texting a colleague and saying, things are going to be different. And I think we definitely saw a shift in the way that we do racial justice work. There had been peak moments leading up to before Ferguson, but certainly when Mike Brown was killed, that completely changed the trajectory of racial justice work in this country. Another experience that significantly shaped me was working on the Flint water crisis. I was going back and forth to flint a few weeks in a row to help do some storytelling and some earned media. And it was that experience that was also another life-shaping experience. I still text some of the folks still to this day.
I think that we do movement work to create change and it deeply impacted me to feel like we had done so much and saw almost no change. There are still people in Flint who will have the impacts of the water crisis for the rest of their lives.
Are there any people that have helped you walk into your culture or racial identity?
Yes, when I think about such a good question, because just this week I transferred twelve vhs tapes from my childhood to digital files. And in those videos were then elders who were now ancestors. And I feel like they always had gems to share with the next generation and the next generation. And going back and looking at those videos just felt so salient in a way. They shared so much of their struggle and the importance of us creating a better life. So surely watching their journey and listening to their words of wisdom have helped shape my whole life. I remember one of my great uncles saying, “Heather, you have to work twice as hard to get half as far.” I was probably twelve at the time. And that I can still hear in his voice and see his face sitting in my kitchen telling me that, and my twelve-year-old self probably only half absorbing it. And now, at a very different juncture in my life, doing movement work as a mother. Those words sit more heavily with me now.
There are so many people who have been a part of walking in my culture and walking in my racial identity. Certainly my grandparents. None of my grandparents spoke English as a first language. So I would say my elders, my ancestors, but definitely also some of my college professors. Howard University was the first time I had a Black educator in my life. And that certainly shaped the way that I viewed myself as a student and my transition from being a student into having a career. And then I’ve had a host of really amazing mentors along the way at almost every stop in my career. So certainly mentors who some are now, I consider friends and allies in this work.
When you were told, you said you have kind of digested it. Was there a moment, another moment where those words finally kind of like, fully hit you?
Yes, I think those words hit me. Probably not until well into my college career. I remember interning at ABC News at 2020 and sitting down with Olivia Bundles and her sharing her journey in the industry with me. What it’s like to be a black woman in the media and I think that was probably a big AHA moment. Like hearing her words sitting at her desk in this one of the largest news outlets in the world, and then hearing my uncle’s voice kind of in the other ear. I think I had this moment of, oh, you’ve got a lot, you’ve got your work cut out for you.
What does being Black mean to you? How has that evolved over time?
Being black means to be beautiful. It means to be brilliant. But unfortunately, it also means feeling targeted, needing to be resilient when what you actually want is rest. So I certainly sit in this tension of all of the things that I love about blackness and all of the things that pain me with the experience of moving through the world as a black woman.
I think a big part of my journey in doing movement work was my time at Howard University. I graduated in 2003. And it was there, really, that I learned Black history in an in depth way. Black history, as we know, is not taught robustly in our k-12 public education systems. So it was really Howard that I learned more deeply about black history, especially coming from a black immigrant family where cape verdian history was my black history. And at Howard University, we really run on this motto of truth and service. And I feel that now doing movement work, I’ve had an incredible career. But it’s really in these more recent years, with faith and action, that I really feel that I’m living into the idea of truth and service. And that was, of course, a big part of my journey.
Going back to kind of like, media and representation in media, why do you think it’s so important for there to be spaces for that representation, especially in, like, communications and in media, in your background?
It’s so important to see yourself in the work. Growing up in the 80s, I can’t remember seeing any local black journalists on television, and very few. I think Carol Simpson was probably one of the only primetime black women on television. And so if you can’t see yourself in it, how can you aspire to those things? It’s much harder. So I think representation paves the way for other people to say, I can do that. Whether it’s being a producer, a camera woman, an on air reporter, there has to be tangible examples of what it is.
Why do you think it’s so important, for example, at organizations like Faith in Action, for all roles to kind of step into that same value system?
I think that the hiring and promotion and investment in women of color should not be something that organizations are just checking a box for, but it should be a representation of their values. So to invest in women of color, whether it’s through professional development trainings, says that I value you. I see you; I believe in you, versus these diversity hires that are meant to appease, board members, executives. So, yeah, I think that it’s important not to just be seen, but to be valued.
Could you explain the role of your faith and how it informs your day-to-day and your activism?
I probably fall under the bucket of folks who are spiritual but not religious. I grew up in a pretty traditional Christian home, and have gone to a unitarian church off and on for more than a decade. But I think that my relationship with God will always be bigger than any place that I would consider a church home. And I think it’s that spiritualism and my own relationship with God that probably drives a lot of my work. There’s just so much like if we are rooting ourselves in text, there’s so much in the Bible or in the koran or in the torah that says, this is how, as a Christian, as a person of faith, you should be moving around the world. And I think that drives a lot of how I operate.
What does faith offer to the Black diaspora?
That’s a tough one. I mean, a roadmap of sorts. A guide; a place to root your heart and your compass. Yeah, I would say faith can be a tool, a compass, if you will, for folks.
Faith can be either used as a tool to empower diaspora communities, but it’s also historically been used to weaponize and to oppress the Black community. So I think it depends on how faith is being used, because historically faith has been used to validate slavery. It’s been used to validate Jim crow laws; it, it’s been used to validate to oppress entire swaths of people, particularly Black people. But faith is also something that is used as a tool to gather people. When you think of 11:00 on Sunday morning, for me, I think of a church home where it’s a place that’s safe, it’s a space to pray; it’s a space to build power and build a community. So it can all depend on how faith is used. It can be used for good, but it can also be weaponized and used for evil.
What do you do when you feel that discouragement? How do you navigate that sometimes.
Doing movement work that will surely be a part of Black history moving forward, it can be really hard to navigate spiritually, emotionally, physically, you feel the impact of taking on trauma. So prayer and therapy are probably the best ways of building community with other folks doing this work. So you don’t quite feel alone at the end of the day when you feel like, I gave this my all and you’re not seeing a change. So, yeah, it can be tough to navigate, but it’s certainly prayer and therapy.
What advice or words of wisdom would you offer to young black organizers or people new to the space who are interested in getting involved in faith-based organizations?
Depending on the state you live in, there’s often trainings that are happening across the country that we’re always looking for folks in the community to get engaged with. But it can also start if you do belong to a church, it can also start by organizing in your own community, your own community, your own church community.
What brings you hope? What keeps you in this fight?
I think what keeps me in this fight now is that I know that the work that we do at Faith in Action will be history for the next generation. I truly believe that my grandchildren and great grandchildren will read about the work that our Rise and Vote program is doing, that our immigrant justice program is doing. We have the power to change policies that are directly impacting our communities, and those are the policies that we’ll read about in our history books a generation or two generations from now. So I think that certainly keeps me in this work.
What also gives me hope is young people. I realize I’m no longer a young person, but I think about just, like, the young people on my team doing really amazing work that’s creating change, and there’s so much energy and excitement and hope in them that things can be better and different. And seeing that excitement and energy from them gives me lots of hope.
Young people bring fresh ideas. They bring energy, they bring excitement. They bring a whole digital skill set that I know I don’t have. I think that young voices are often discounted, but some of the best ideas and some of the best organizations are coming from folks who don’t feel like they have anything to lose. They’re like, why not present this idea to my team? They’re not overthinking things. They’re just sharing ideas, the first thing that comes to them. And sometimes those are the best ideas. So it’s definitely just this young, fresh energy.
Why is Black history important?
Black history is important because it is our truths. We know now, just watching any news cycle on any given day, how important it is for us to tell our own stories, to document our own histories, and to pass them down from generation to generation. So it’s not just the telling of Black history, but it’s the creating of Black history. So I think we have to view Black history not just as a reflection of the past, but what are we creating that will be historical markers in 50 years, 100 years, 200 years as well.
My dad’s family is from Cape Verde, and we are related to Amilar Cabral, who was assassinated for his work in liberating Cape Verde from colonialism, from Portugal. And my great uncle, my grandfather’s brother, used to always say, “don’t taint the family name. Go out there and do great things.” And that really sat heavy with me when I went to college, when I went to Howard University. Amilcar Cabral, one of his most famous quotes, is “hide nothing from the masses, tell no lies, mask no difficulties or failures, and claim no easy victories.” And I recently went back to read one of Amilcar Cabral’s books before the 2020 election because I knew that there would be gems in there that were relevant to my work. And so I would say to young folks: read the history of movement work because there’s so many lessons to learn that are still relevant to today. So when I went back and watched old speeches that Amilcar Cabral had given that are still on YouTube reread one of his books, there’s so much, so many gems in that work that he poured.
He was an anti colonial. He was battling combating colonialism, trying to get Cape Verde out of under Portuguese rule. And it feels like movement work today. It doesn’t feel so different. So history repeats itself, and there are lessons to be learned from the paths that our historians paid for us.