“Revolution starts within. And never ends.”
Most know the great Leslie Mac from her ferociously educational and takedown threads on Twitter. Or her groundbreaking work with the Safety Pin Box initiative and subscription service, in response to the uselessness and inaction of white allies who simply thought to slap on a safety pin to alert marginalized people that they are friendly. Or her Twitter thread of carefully assembled and pieced-together testaments from Black women about how “activists” can be virulently predatory toward Black women and queer people in modern liberation movements.
But that’s the thing, though. Many know Leslie Mac the activist or know her work. But never her, the person.
She’s happy to set the record straight on that.
While hailing from a family of Jamaican immigrants, Mac herself is a first-generation Jamaican American who was born and raised in the United States. She counts this as a colossal part of her identity that cannot be separated from her organizing background. She was the first person in her family born in the U.S.; all of her older siblings were born in her family’s homeland. Mac’s family called Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood home, and she considers that place an inseparable part of her upbringing and organizing background. It’s that experience that instilled in her the values of what it means to be Black, in a way that is unapologetic and free of remorse.
One might think that this upbringing immediately set up Mac for a life in organizing and advocacy, but that could not be further from the truth. In fact, Mac did not start out as a grassroots organizer, and was actually on a totally different career path.
“I started organizing later in life. I had, like, three other careers before I became a full-time organizer, and where I have really spent most of my time kind of situating myself is lifting up and ensuring support for people that are doing grassroots work around the country,” Mac tells ESSENCE.
This little-known fact about her happens to be the most interesting, mainly because you begin to see how it may still have laid the foundation for her future activist work. Before becoming an organizer, Mac had dreams of becoming a writer and reporter and attended journalism school at Northwestern University. However, she quickly found out that this was not her ministry and switched gears.
She found herself wading into the corporate side of the service industry, training people and opening restaurants all over the place—including Japan and the Philippines. After traveling became semi-tedious, she returned to her base of Chicago and settled into an operator role as a general manager for a number of restaurant companies. This would eventually lead her to transition into event planning, in both the physical and digital realms, with some early and important work in digital conferencing.
The combination of all three of these intriguing career paths proved to her that being a connector and facilitator of people just made so much sense, particularly where digital conferencing was concerned, and also helped break down big problems into little problems that could be solved with a little teamwork.
“So I have really been a connector in the work that I do. People will just call me or text me or email me: ‘Do you know someone in Topeka doing work?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Hold on! I do know a woman,’” Mac says. “The thing that I’ve come to understand is that amazing Black women, non-men [and] gender-nonconforming Black people are doing incredible work in all centers of justice and equity and anti-oppression work, and they’re doing it all over the country. And so, the thing that I continually go back to is just, somebody’s doing the work that you’re interested in, wherever you are, and how can I help you find who they are, and make sure that you know how to support them best?”
Mac makes it clear that even with a career background that set her up to be great and do great things one day, her transition into organizing work would not have occurred had it not been for the help and encouragement she received from the activist, advocate and social worker Feminista Jones.
Although the two did not know each other outside of Twitter back in 2014, Mac recalls how the two started to organize after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—putting together vigils in places like New York and Philadelphia, to an overwhelming response. That tragic killing also led to the creation of groups like the Philadelphia Justice Coalition and the Ferguson Response Network. Mac makes it clear that her faith factored into things, too.
“I credit Feminista Jones often with kind of kick-starting my earnest organizing work. But I had been doing work in faith organizing for quite some time. I’m a Unitarian Universalist by faith. So I had been doing work around specifically criminal-justice reform and legislative work through my faith in New Jersey for quite a bit of time. And then, of course, Mike Brown was murdered and the Ferguson uprising happened, and that was definitely a moment for me to say, ‘OK, I’ve been doing this legislative work, but clearly there’s some grassroots work that I also need to be aware of and supporting,’” she says.
It was during these moments that she began to grasp the collective organizing power of Black people. She also saw how many entities, including the police and news and other media outlets, realized it, too, and sought to downplay it, with some going so far as to fudge the number of people who would show up to protest, or underreport how many people were standing in the gap for Ferguson.
This disregard for facts led Mac to create the Ferguson Response Network (FRN). Ironically, for years many people didn’t realize that about FRN’s origins, even after Rachel Maddow covered the network and its corresponding Tumblr account.
Mac laughs about such things now, mostly because she stresses that she does this for the people. And it is this belief in the power of the people that pushes her to continue her organizing work, to evolve her organizing efforts so that they reach even more people, and to be part of a revolution that truly refuses to end.