In the woke era, no label is overused more than the word “activist.” Many describing themselves as such simply lack the receipts, which is why Mariame Kaba’s work is so important.
Kaba has fiercely fought for Black women and girls since she was a young child. More recently, she made headlines for her work with Bresha Meadows, a teen who fatally shot her abusive father. While she is an activist in every sense of the word, her decades-spanning career is more deserving another term: Abolitionist.
“I guess, I’m a P.I.C., prison industrial complex abolitionist,” she told ESSENCE. “I have been for a long time… I grew up thinking that it was possible to reform these systems; that the cops could get better training. We could have cops living in the community and community policing would be the way.”
Now, Kaba understands the full scope of the prison industrial complex and beyond. Her world revolves not around fixing prisons but abolishing them entirely. “Since those are institutions that are inherently violent, then a world without policing, prisons and surveillance means less violence,” she said about her work.
For this reason she’s remained devoted to those who’ve fallen prey to the legal system.
In 2016 the then, 14-year-old Bresha “Breezy” Meadows was taken into custody after killing her father, Jonathan Meadows. At the time, details surrounding the shooting were in short supply, though, one thing was certain: Jonathan was abusive and there were records and witnesses of his violent behavior toward his children and wife. Bresha was initially charged with aggravated murder, which could have placed the young teen in jail for life.
For Kaba, and the many who’d seen the proceedings pan out in headlines, the ordeal was a case of self-defense. “[I asked] can we help with fundraising, or with letters of support, or letters to Bresha herself?” she said. “Let’s reach out to the people in Warren, Ohio [where the Meadows family lives] or in the Cleveland area to see if they’re willing to rally support for Bresha and her family.” Soon after she and other activists birthed the #FreeBresha hashtag, which, as they’d planned, went viral.
Kaba’s sense of duty was sparked as a child growing up in New York with parents who had emigrated from Africa— her father from Guinea, her mother from the Ivory Coast. Those roots shaped her worldview.
“When I was young and I would see things on television about kids who were hungry around the globe… or in Africa because of famine, I took those things seriously,” she said. “I asked my parents for ways that I could help.”
And help she did. While most children were out trick-or-treating for Halloween, filling bags with candy, Kaba was out collecting donations for UNICEF.
“Anytime there was something that was related to being more empathetic about what was going on to other people, instead of my parents saying don’t think about that, or you can’t do anything about that, they would always say, well, what do you want to do?” she recollects.
Her father worked for the United Nations and prior to that, was involved in the in Guinea’s struggle for Independence. At age 12, Kaba had already read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Unsurprisingly, she saw the world through the same revolutionary lens as her father. “When I was about 15 years old, I began to earnestly be part of protests that were occurring in my area around racial violence,” she explains.
By the time the young activist reached her mid-20s, she’d already had a decade of advocacy notches on her belt. After relocating to Chicago to study sociology at Northwestern, she either launched or been part of numerous anti-violence and anti-racists organizations including has co-founded multiple organizations and projects over the years including the Chicago Freedom School, the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander and the Rogers Park Young Women’s Action Team (YWAT) among others. The windy city was the perfect location to cut her teeth as an activist-turned-abolitionist.
“I was always doing work around young people, leadership development, both as a young person myself I was involved in that, and then as an adult,” she said. “I got interested in supporting young people who wanted to take action in their communities.”
Sadly, there have been countless stories mirroring Bresha Meadows. Stories about Black women, girls, men and boys who’ve been sucked into a system that isn’t broken but highly functioning just as the powers that be intended. Yet Kaba explains that survivors ensnared in the system aren’t alone.
“People will show up for young people; they will show up for Black, young girls. People have,” she said. She isn’t so much a staunch optimist as she is simply… hopeful.
“You’ve got to wake up in the morning and choose to be hopeful, which is not the same thing as saying that you’re an optimist,” she said. “Being hopeful is the belief that when we put our effort together, that it’s possible for us to change the trajectory of things that are unjust. It’s just putting in that notion.”