New to this year’s BlackLight is a weekly feature: Change Maker Monday! Today, let’s take a look at some Black change makers in the realm of governance, protest, and journalism. We’ve been reading about how systematic oppression of Black people in areas like voting and journalism continues, but also how protest– either in the form of bodies or words in these spaces– challenges racism head on. Naturally, BlackLight is full of change makers: yesterday, for example, Brian discussed the powerful resistance of Mr. Kaepernic. On Change Maker Mondays, however, we take the opportunity to highlight a few more activists who are pushing for change in their communities, and at both the local and national level.
Community organization has long been at the heart of change, working at the local level to better the lives of people who are most affected by the concrete, day-to-day expressions of racism (e.g. police brutality). The essential nature of community organization is collective action, centering the strength of the community, rather than focusing on individual, or personal, change. Collective, community-based action formed the basis for the Civil Rights Movement here in the US, and its relevance shines just as brightly today as a force against the tidal wave of white supremacy. While history tends to focus on certain heroic figures (e.g. Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X), we must remember that they were part of a movement much larger than any individual.
Community-based organizations take many forms, from those that focus on addressing single issues (e.g. the lack of quality food in food deserts), to those that work to put forth policy platforms or demands they want potential government representatives to address. Some, such as Baltimore United for Change, are coalitions of organisations with many different focuses, from political leadership (watch out for a video from thinktank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle later this week), to math and science education (e.g. Baltimore Algebra Project). Together, these organizations come together to empower, strengthen and support each other and their communities.
Just as we look to community activism and grass roots action, having national political leaders who push for change is essential to fighting institutional injustice. Senator Kamala Harris is one such fighter, whose voice has been an irrepressible force for change within the Democratic party. As she writes here for a Popsugar article for Black History Month, her story is one of fighting the voices that suggested she wouldn’t make it, and going ahead anyway, believing that change is too important. Ms. Harris has played an important role in pushing for independence of the Mr. Mueller and the Russian probe (and been at the center of what is now a rather well-trodden ‘was she hysterical or just doing her job’ trope), and I continue to be grateful that she’s not content to accept the status quo.
Nikole Hannah Jones is an investigative reporter who writes on civil rights and injustice, and a recent recipient of a MacArthur genius award. One of the subjects she’s written about extensively is on racial segregation in schools. Here’s a great interview she did recently talk about her work and the complexity of school integration, but you should listen to her audiobook. I’ve been particularly interested in her views on charter schools and how bussing Black children to charter schools in White neighborhoods re-enforces the ideas that the only way Black children get the same educational experiences is by ‘bringing Black children into white spaces’, rather than uplifting and investing in low income schools, or zoning schools correctly to remove the financial bias against low income, segregated schools. It’s a multi-layered problem, and she’s written about choosing to send her own daughter to a segregated public school, and one that recently became part of a battle over integration in Brooklyn that highlighted a lot of these problems that occur even in places usually seen as ‘progressive’ (and how segregation continues when we value personal choices over public change). Her work was also featured in a This American Life article we highlighted last year. Give it another listen.
The Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) was formed in 2013, at a conference of Black youth activists from across the country. The timing of this gathering happened to coincide with George Zimmerman’s acquittal in Trayvon Martin’s murder– the announcement of which galvanized the will of those gathered. BYP100’s membership is made up of youth between the ages of 18 and 25, and they are a driving force for protests of state violence against Black youth (e.g. protests in solidarity with those in Ferguson MO, and also against the shooting of Laquan Mcdonald by Chicago police). The BYP100 was instrumental in advocating for the removal of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez after her handling of Laquan Mcdonald’s murder– a case in point that activism is not only marches, but advocacy for specific government change (either in the form of policy, people, or both). Last year, BYP100 published “The Agenda to Build Black Futures”, building on 2014’s “Agenda to Keep Us Safe”– operating through an explicitly queer, feminist lens, BYP100’s central focus is economic, as they state: “The liberation of all Black people rests upon achieving a greater margin of economic justice for our families and our communities. Our long term goal is to realize an economic system that does not rely on exploitation, and places human needs before individual greed.” The BYP100 also shares memberships, approaches and values with the radical Black feminist collective Assata’s Daughters. Assata’s Daughters believes in the importance of direct action, civil disobedience, and the assertion of rights for Black women-identified individuals, as an essential part of the Black Lives Matter movement. You can read more about their policies, community-based programs, and actions here.
From the streets, to the halls of Congress, Rep. John Lewis embodies both the historical and ongoing struggle for Black civil rights as few people alive today can. As the youngest speaker on stage at the March of Washington (23!), Lewis had already been leading non-violent direct actions for several years. In 1965, as one of the leaders of the marches from Selma to Montgomery, Lewis was amongst those severely beaten by Alabama state troopers on “Bloody Sunday” (while racism leaves invisible scars for many, in Lewis’ case the literal scars from his attack are still written on his body). Lewis has served as a representative (GA-5) for over 30 years, and is remains an outspoken defender of justice and equality. Just over a year ago, he boycotted the Inauguration (for which he was ignorantly and laughably referred to as “talk and no action”) and has continued to stand strong against white supremacy, as personified by (but not limited to) the President. Over the past several years, Lewis’ has told his story as part of the March comic book series, which we recommended on BlackLight last year— this series was inspired by Lewis’ childhood encounter with a short comic called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, wherein he read about the Montgomery bus boycotts, learned of nonviolence, and became inspired to fight for true freedom.
We conclude this Change Maker Monday with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), a group of Congresspeople devoted to positive advancement for Black Americans and other marginalized groups. Historically, they also played a major role in the founding of the anti-apartheid Free South Africa Movement. Most recently, the CBC attended the SotU with the stated intent to “stare racism in the face”, to quote the CBC Chair, Rep. Cedric Richmond. In solidarity with Haiti and the entirety of the countries of the African continent, which were recently declared to be “shitholes countries” in a clear-as-a-bell racist statement by Trump, members of the CBC who chose to attend the SotU wore kente cloth, and round pins bearing the name “Recy” (the latter in remembrance of Recy Taylor, who never saw justice after being gang raped by 6 white men in 1944). Some members chose instead to boycott the SotU, such as Maxine Waters, who rightfully asked “What does he have to say that I would be interested in?” Good question, Rep. Waters.
P.S: Change is always happening now, and is also on the horizon: in this important election cycle, why not check out this list of Black women running for office?