A Conversation with Quentin Mays, Director of Partnerships & Community Engagement, Analyst Institute

Quentin Mays.Quentin Mays is the Director of Partnerships & Community Engagement, where he leads an amazing team that serves the greater progressive community by prioritizing accessible and digestible training content and resources. He loves all Black people and actively fights for Black liberation. Originally, from Augusta, Georgia he vibes to Big K.R.I.T. and aims to own a farm one day. Pronouns: he/him/y’all

Field Notes recently sat down to have a deeper conversation with Quentin about organizing and centering community in that work.

Transcribed from a recorded conversation between Seth Pinckney, Partner Success Specialist, Action Builder and Quentin Mays, Director of Partnerships & Community Engagement, Analyst Institute

Seth: Welcome Quentin! Could you tell me about the Analyst Institute, what do you do there and what are your key work areas?

Quentin: The Analyst Institute is a research organization that partners with literally everyone in the larger progressive ecosystem to run experiments that inform evidence based best practices. We then synthesize and translate that research into evidence based best practices for training that we then distribute out to the same community. Ideally, there is a rotation of research being conducted, research being distributed, which is then being utilized. After that, we then go back again to test the program that folks are running.

We center our partners in everything that we do. Our organization is nothing without the partners and we're very clear about that. It is our mission to ensure that our research, our recommendations, and that our best practices are more accessible and digestible than at any time before. What good does the knowledge do if it is not reaching the folks that can actually do something with it? I'm reminded of that often when I connect with folks.

Seth: The capacity building is so key, at least in my experience. But sometimes capacity and burnout issues are very real issues. Could you share how you connect the dots between the communities you currently serve and your career trajectory?

Quentin: Yeah, for sure, for me, I continue to serve the same community I came from, and I understand how critical it is to continue to serve the Black community. And as I work, I understand that my ultimate goal is to organize myself out of a job, to organize the organization out of a role in the space. I want to make sure that others are effectively equipped to do this work. I'll carry that with me regardless of place or position.

As this connects to my current work, at AI we have an intentional undertaking to ensure that we are---especially in this version of the organization---reaching out and prioritizing partner engagement of those who historically have been underserved by the larger community.

And so that means that we are rethinking and reconstructing what it means to engage folks, what it means to communicate effectively and what it means to find success in terms of the outcome of partnerships. Specifically, we do wellness checks, which I think is new to the organization, and a wellness check is simply talking to folks and communicating with them. We check in when we actually don't need anything. We just want to be present and to be serviceable. Like, if I'm in a city, I’m going to pull up! I bring the same mindset that I had in the field to the work that we're doing now.

From my experience as an organizer, I know that the more folks that we service, the more times we get out of the way, the better we're doing our job. In my role, I work really hard to continue to center the same community as always and to let those folks know that you actually have everything that you need to do the work. For example, there are certain terms I don't use. I don’t believe in using the term “empower”. We don't “empower” anybody; that immediately sets up a hierarchy. But instead, we can work with people, and partner to build more power together.

Seth: What is the difference between how you're connecting and offering services now versus from when you first started working as an organizer in the field?

Quentin I think a lot of times we talk about resource allocation. For example, you're making a request from the field and you're very clear about what you need. And as an organizer with lived experience from the communities I represent, I often have nuance specific to the communities that I’m organizing and serving. Whereas, sometimes national stakeholders, folks that are not that turned, not in that community, they provide robust, but general resources. And it's too cookie cutter. In comparison now, in my role and work, there is more nuance that can be applied specifically to the ground.

Like as a black man from the South, the way that you message to me is very much different in the way that you might message to my Caribbean sisters who live in the Bronx. Right, but on paper, we're both black. So how are you taking those nuances into account and how are you looking at the differences in intra-community by socioeconomic status and what that means for people? Now we can provide organizers with evidence based research and ensure that we are sharing everything that we've seen and know to be true from a meta level.

But when I get a partner one on one conversation, I'm going to give them some game. Like, we know that for GOTV making a voting plan must be a part of the conversation at the door. We have research on it, we know that it actually works. At the same time, as an experienced organizer, I know that if you see a van in the yard or you see toys in the yard, you better ask, who's going to watch your kids when you cast your ballot or are they coming with you?

So overlaying actual real life experience with quantitative research is imperative. Just because it’s on paper, it's not black and white.

Seth: That makes sense. It's eye opening because, in my experience, people start organizing in and for communities they come from because they want to help make things better. I never knew research institutes like AI existed. That's not something that I realized could be a job option for an organizer; in research.

Quentin, you are someone that's been an organizer, but now you're at this research institute and you are now also launching a fellowship at the Analyst Institute. Would you say that this fellowship is a way for organizers to shift or advance their careers?

Quentin: Yes, for sure. At AI, we are in a unique position to be able to offer networking opportunities that come from our role in the progressive space. There's a lot of folks who will offer younger people in the work, to “come talk to me about how you get ahead in this position,” when in reality the real answer is like, they know somebody, right? Or they bumped into someone who gave them opportunity. And that part of connecting people is critical to me. And I'm also, as I said previously, that folks already know what to do. That part is inherent and natural to us, it’s already coded in our DNA. You know what to do. Growth in this path is about getting out of our way, not denying ourselves with the imposter syndrome and being connected to opportunity to show what we can do.

So we can teach you some lessons from evidenced-based, and I can give you some best practices, but at the end of the day, I’m going to reaffirm what you already know.

Seth: Thanks for that thoughtful answer. I have a few more questions for you. You and I work in this progressive space together where people are working to advance somewhat mutual social, economic and political ideals. So if you were to, in your workplace, meet your mission, what would that look like? Then what kind of fundamental change would impact your work dynamically that there would be no longer need for your role?

Quentin: For me it's actually pretty simple. Every organization, if they chose to of course, would have the funding capacity and opportunity to have their own internal research infrastructure. That would facilitate folks running tests of their own program in-house. When it comes to the organization, it would be us organizing ourselves out of organization by helping to equip a large number of people with everything they need to run evidence based research experiments.

Seth: Out of curiosity, because I haven’t done any extensive research into it or anything beyond reading a few articles, but do you think about the other side or the opposition in respect to how they leverage research? Additionally, what harm can happen to the progress that we've made and what steps do we need to take to counter that?

Quentin: I believe we have to continue to center communities because, like I said before, the reason it isn't super groundbreaking. What we understand to be best practices, haven't changed a whole lot in the last decade.

Of course, there is nuance there and there is some pivoting, like right now were in a pandemic that limits in person organizing. But we know what to do for the most part. I think that there is going to be a real exercising of the muscle that concerns power building and how integral the role of power building is to the electoral outcomes that we desire.

I know people make the best of the bad, but in reality we don't achieve any of the electoral outcomes desired without liberated communities and without abolition and freedom in a real way. And I know those words are scary for some folks of the movement who may not be as progressive, but it's true. We're not going to change minds based on even the perfect messaging. And politics does not remove or erase racism. It just doesn't. So how we are attacking that through our own community building and then using that to build power, and then welcoming liberation. And if we're not focused on that, then we're kind of spinning our wheels. We're setting ourselves up for the pendulum swinging of the oppressor.

Seth: Centering community is key. The work is hard and the arc is long, but liberation is on the other end. What are some practices you find helpful in sustaining you in your work?

Quentin: Setting boundaries is always really important. My labor does not define me. So I'm very clear that when I can't do anything else, I have permission to stop completely. I don't feel bad about it and I do unapologetically.

I’m also intentional about my “why”. To define why I’m doing the work motivates me. This is important because, as an organizer, you're going to get tired and you're going to run out of steam. But having that ultimate motivator is critical at times. For example, when it's tough, your “why” doesn't allow you to lose sight of the ultimate vision.

Also I try to pay attention to my overall wellness. I have a mental litmus test that helps me with this. I ask myself, ‘what I'm doing right now that is helping black people today?’ If I cannot make that connection, I should be spending my time doing something else. So for me, this test eliminates a lot of activities that would tire me out or take more capacity, and allows me to be proactive and not reactive in my work.

Seth: That's some good parting advice. Well the last question I have for you is; what advice do you have for someone that's getting started as an organizer?

Quentin: Encourage that person to gain a sense of the landscape and act without fear. Practice your courage. Obviously, there are people who are more reserved. But remember, there's always room for the doer and sometimes, like in our progressive movement, like there is a lot of room.

Praise is often given to a philosopher in our community, and that's great, and at the same time we are not going to whiteboard our way to freedom.

There's a plan to freedom. What are you going to do? Get out of your own way, get out of your own head, act up and act out. Be bold, be curious and be ambitious, and just go for it.

Seth: It's good to see a lot of the new organizers who are coming up that are energized and bringing new perspectives. Organizers who just might be coming through your fellowship at the Analyst Institute at some point! So thank you so much for your time, your thoughtful answers, and the work you do to center community.

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