Black women helped launch the Civil Rights Movement in 1955. Today, we are still leading the charge. Meet six activists who are as fearless as our forebears.
Rahiel Tesfamariam: Urban Cusp
Rahiel Tesfamariam traveled to war-torn Darfur in 2005. While there she asked a local boy how he had managed living under such harsh conditions. He told her it was because he knew God loved him. “That was a turning point,” says Tesfamariam, “seeing the power of the mind. That boy, because of his faith, was able to endure; what he had in his mind allowed him to make it.”
The experience led Tesfamariam, 33, to found urbancusp.com, a site that publishes lifestyle, faith and entertainment articles designed to combat negative images of African-Americans in media. “What young people internalize daily shapes who they are,” she says. “The music they’re listening to shapes their understanding of Black masculinity, or sexuality, and part of launching Urban Cusp was to provide an alternate reality that depicts African-Americans in an intellectual, spiritual way.”
The youngest of eight children, Tesfamariam was born in Eritrea during the Eritrean-Ethiopian War. When she was 5, she moved to the U.S., and was raised by her brother and sister in the Bronx and Washington, D.C. At an early age, Tesfamariam was keenly aware of class inequality and how people are segregated. As part of her school’s gifted and talented program, she had access to opportunities that her peers in the remedial program, which was housed in the school’s basement, did not. She also witnessed the fallout of the crack epidemic that swept through D.C. in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. “I didn’t understand why people lacked compassion for others’ realities,” she says.
After graduating from Stanford University, Tesfamariam moved to D.C., where she worked at grassroots Black publications, such as Experience Reality magazine and The Washington Informer. But after her trip to Darfur, she wanted to do more than write about the problems she was seeing, so she quit to pursue community activism. She worked on antiviolence conferences and participated in D.C.’s 40 Days of Increased Peace initiative, which sponsored a wellness fair, hip-hop summit and block party. “The idea was to pack the summer with events so kids would be so busy they couldn’t do anything to harm themselves or others,” says Tesfamariam.
In 2006, Tesfamariam became a licensed minister. She attended Yale Divinity School, focusing on liberation theology—the intersection of spirituality and political issues. Starting Urban Cusp was a way for her to combine her journalistic skills, her faith and her activism to empower young people to change their communities. The site gained an instant following when it launched in July 2011, thanks to her connections to Black ministers and their congregations. Today, Urban Cusp is read in more than 200 countries. “Social consciousness empowers people to change their reality,” says Tesfamariam. “Keep them informed so there’s no way people can be apathetic. Create a sense of righteous anger, and people will be compelled to do something.”
Ciara Taylor: Dream Defenders
Shortly after Ciara Taylor transferred to Florida A&M University in 2010, Gov. Rick Scott decreased funding for the school, so Taylor’s foreign language program, along with 23 others, were cut. “I was so angry,” says Taylor, 25. “When I realized that young people didn’t have a say in the decision, that infuriated me. So I connected with other students and started organizing, trying to save our programs.” Though Taylor and her fellow students held protest rallies on campus, sat in on trustees’ meetings and marched to the state capitol, they ultimately failed in their mission. Still, she says those efforts opened her eyes to the fact that young people are often not educated on the issues that affect them most: “It really sparked this fire.”
Today, Taylor is the political director of Dream Defenders, a Florida-based organization that fights Stand Your Ground laws and focuses on a number of other issues affecting young people of color, including the school-to-prison pipeline, police brutality, voting rights and access to education. The group was founded in April 2012 by Taylor and 39 other students after the killing of Sanford, Florida, teen Trayvon Martin. Taylor and other FAMU students were outraged that, weeks after his shooting, there had been no investigation into Martin’s death. The students walked for three days to Sanford, and the morning after they arrived, a small group of them decided to block the doors to the police station. “We were basically saying that there was no use having a police station if they couldn’t arrest a criminal like George Zimmerman,” says Taylor. “I was so scared. I was a senior and was, like, Oh, no, I am going to get arrested. Still, I knelt outside and prayed for something to happen.”
Instead of arresting the students, local officials and law enforcement met with them and listened to their list of demands: one, for Zimmerman to be arrested; two, for the chief of police to be fired; and three, for there to be an investigation of the Stand Your Ground law. Three days after Zimmerman’s acquittal, the Dream Defenders held a 31-day sit-in inside Florida’s state capitol, and were eventually invited to the governor’s office to discuss issues affecting young people of color.
Of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, Taylor says, “We’re trying to raise awareness about police brutality around the country, to make sure that people aren’t looking at Mike Brown as an isolated incident. We want people to look at cases of police brutality in their own communities.” Currently, the Dream Defenders are working on an online tool kit to help young people plan their own civil disobedience events.
“In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, I could just go to law school, have a simple life,” says Taylor. “But I think about my younger siblings and the family I want to have in the future. I want to create a world in which they can live without fear. I want my generation to be free, to live and to really flourish.”
Monica Simpson: SisterSong
When Monica Simpson was an undergrad at Johnson C. Smith University, a friend asked her to accompany her to a clinic to have an abortion. “I’d heard about White girls getting abortions, but it wasn’t something that we talked about in our communities,” says Simpson. “She asked me to go because she knew I would have no judgment. Seeing folks outside the clinic with huge pictures of torn-up fetuses was the most horrifying thing; I can’t imagine what she felt walking through the doors pregnant and out not pregnant.” Today, Simpson, 35, is the executive director of SisterSong, a nonprofit composed of 80 grassroots organizations dedicated to the preservation of reproductive rights for women of color.
Simpson grew up in Wingate, North Carolina, and says that there were very clear lines that separated Black and White people. “I was put in situations where I was ‘the only,’ like being the only Black child in honors classes,” says Simpson. “Those instances really started me on the path to activism, fighting for the rights of Black people, fighting for women’s rights.”
Simpson began working at SisterSong (where she’s currently the executive director) in 2010, around the same time that the antiabortion group Georgia Right to Life erected billboards in Atlanta that read, “Black children are an endangered species.” In response to the inflammatory ad, SisterSong established a group, Trust Black Women, that created media campaigns and worked with the NAACP, churches and other organizations to counter the billboards’ message.
Simpson has found that African-Americans are reluctant to talk about sex and reproductive issues, which include a range of topics—abortion, health care access and domestic violence. “There’s no comprehensive sex education platform for our youth,” she says. Simpson works tirelessly so young women don’t feel the same shame her college friend did.
Simpson’s friend now has two children: “She had the opportunity to choose when and how to start her family,” she says. “It’s so important for women to have the freedom to make those decisions.”
Nicole Porter: The Sentencing Project
Nicole Porter’s twin brother, Nicholas, had run-ins with the law as a teenager. At 21, he was convicted of drug possession and jailed for a year and a half. Porter, who was studying at Johns Hopkins at the time, feared for her brother’s safety, as his letters were very emotional, describing fights and other challenges of prison life. “His case politicized me,” says Porter. “I knew my brother and my friends who’d been to jail had messed up, but I didn’t see them as criminals. I didn’t think of Nicholas as a bad person; he was more than the worst thing he ever did.”
Porter, 36, carries that ethos into her job as director of advocacy at The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that works toward criminal justice reforms. “It underpins a lot of work that I do, to emphasize that though someone might have committed a serious crime, they are much more than what that crime was,” she says.
Before joining The Sentencing Project, Porter was the director of the ACLU’s Prison & Jail Accountability Project, where she monitored the conditions at Texas prisons. Today, Porter and her colleagues at The Sentencing Project work to change laws that determine the rate of incarceration and the length of confinement. They fight for the rights of the formerly incarcerated, some of whom are denied voting rights, and others who face lifetime bans from receiving food stamps and pubic housing.
“Criminal justice practitioners make assumptions about whether a Black defendant has a future,” says Porter. “There are low expectations for young African-American men. From a very early age, that shapes boys’ views of what is possible.” Porter knows, from her work and her experience growing up around neighborhood boys who would ultimately end up in prison as men, that the focus should be on intervention rather than imprisonment. “Public safety isn’t just about locking people up,” she says. “It’s about providing targeted services for at-risk children—access to early childhood education and models for how to resolve conflict.”
Opal Tometi: The Black Alliance for Just Immigration
Opal Tometi’s interest in immigration reform was born out of personal experience. Tometi grew up in Phoenix—”ground zero for the anti-immigration movement,” she says—and is the child of immigrants. Her parents moved to the U.S. from Nigeria in 1983, and Tometi, 30, was raised in a close-knit community of Nigerian immigrants.
When Tometi was 16, her classmate’s mother was deported, and the girl came to live with Tometi’s family for a period. Shortly thereafter, Tometi’s uncle was detained briefly by immigration officials. Both incidents were discussed in whispers, and no one really explained to Tometi what had happened and why. She started searching for answers on her own, and, in learning about anti-immigrant initiatives and their parallels to Jim Crow laws, Tometi was moved to fight against what she saw as a grave injustice. “It was very personal,” says Tometi. “Because people I loved were at risk; I was at risk.”
As a student at the University of Arizona-Tucson, Tometi volunteered with the ACLU to monitor and report the activities of vigilantes who were stopping immigrants as they tried to cross the border. “I was in school during the day and at night listening in on the vigilantes on their walkie-talkies,” she says.
In 2010, Arizona Senate Bill 1070, a strict anti-immigration bill that stipulates that police officers can stop individuals and ask them to produce documentation to prove their immigration status, was passed. “SB1070 is basically racial profiling,” she says. “If we don’t come together, we’re going to see the gains of the Civil Rights Movement fully gutted.”
Today, Tometi is executive director of The Black Alliance for Just Immigration. “As the global economy becomes more dire, we see more Black people from the diaspora brave the U.S. borders looking for what they think will be better terrain,” she says. “What people often find are harsh conditions, relentless discrimination and criminalization.” Tometi has helped develop a network of Black immigrant organizations around the country. Her hope is that more African-Americans will join in the struggle for immigrant rights.
Je-Shawna Wholley: National Black Justice Coalition
Though Je-Shawna Wholley had come out as a lesbian to high school friends when she was 16, she hid her sexual identity from her mother and the Army, which had recruited her with the suggestion that she apply for an ROTC scholarship to Texas A&M University.
“I knew I couldn’t be out in the military,” says Wholley, 25, who was part of Naval ROTC in college. “I was the only Black woman in my fleet, and one of two Black people, period. I felt invisible and silenced, having to deal with sexism, homophobia and racism at the same time.”
Wholley eventually transferred to Spelman, and thought that being in a new environment would allow her to be her authentic self. But when she received the orientation letter, she noted that it required students to wear skirts that week. “I had to purchase enough skirts to meet the requirement,” says Wholley, “and I was wondering what would have happened with my girlfriend, who identified as masculine, if they made her wear a dress or skirt.”
At Spelman, Wholley joined and helped reinvigorate the college’s LGBT association, Afrekete. The group sponsored AIDS walks, had a drag fashion show, and, when Wholley became president, hosted a pride week.
As programs manager at the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering Black LGBT people, Wholley travels to universities to help them become safer and more inclusive for LGBT students.
Mainstream LGBT groups have made strides in the fight for marriage equality, but Wholley says they do not address the issues that most directly affect young people of color, such as homelessness, HIV/AIDS and violence. “I don’t believe the mainstream LGBT movement is made with us in mind,” says Wholley. She thinks there also needs to be open dialogue and acceptance of LGBT people of color within their families, and within the Black community as a whole. “It took me a while to feel I could speak up, and I want to help the people around me to be their authentic selves.”
Lisa Armstrong teaches journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism and at New York University.