In the fourth installment of the Visionaries Project, we speak to activist and community organizer Ebony Ava Harper.
The Visionaries Project is a new subsection of The Liberty Project dedicated to highlighting the lives, passions, and work of radical activists currently working towards social justice and liberation from oppression. We aim to uplift the perspectives of diverse voices working in media and activism today—and not just the faces who make headlines, but the real people on the ground every day, working towards their visions of a better world.
Ebony Ava Harper is an activist, philanthropist, writer, creator, life and world-changer, advocate for marginalized communities, and a tremendous inspiration to many. As an openly Black and trans woman and an advocate for environmental justice, prison reform, and so much more, she has done incredible work to fight for her communities, forging a path to a better world in the process. She is currently head of California TransCends, a statewide organization that works to promote the health and wellness of transgender people in California, and she's the recipient of the 2019 Stonewall Four Freedoms Award and the among other achievements (none of which could come close to adequately recognizing all of her marvelous work). We spoke about resilience, environmental justice, community organizing, and more.
1. Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Where are you from, and what were and are you passionate about?
I was born in Prince Georges County, Maryland, to a family of Jamaican immigrants. I believe I'm the first American born in my family. My parents migrated from Maryland to Los Angeles, CA when I was just a baby, so all I know is growing up in Los Angeles. I spent the first 27 years of my life mostly in Los Angeles, and then I moved to Sacramento. I've been in Sacramento for some time now, and I consider this my home city.
I'm passionate about dismantling systems of oppression and dismantling my own oppressive behaviors. I'm passionate about loving the unlovable. Flipping that negative into a positive and improving not only my quality of life but the quality of life of all living beings (plants and trees included).
2. How did you first get started with activism, and what movements are you most involved in now?
I'm a Black trans woman that came out early in life, so I always say I came out fighting for survival from the gate (from the start). I was born an activist. I had to fight and speak up for myself to simply be... I'm a decedent of Jamaica, and if you listen to our music, you'll hear a lot about love, peace, "getting up, standing up, fighting for your rights." I would say I hit the ground fighting with all these intersections I embody. I also hit the ground loving and having empathy for others. My inner indignation against injustice and my tender Jamaican roots inform who I am today and my activism. My activism has transitioned along with me. I feel like we're all transitioning in some way. I have transitioned away from just relegating myself to being a trans activist, I'm a human rights activist. I fight for all oppressed peoples. Social oppression is even showing up through this current climate crisis.
I'm involved in Gender Justice, Climate Justice, Disability Justice, and Race Equity!! They all interconnect in my life.
3. A lot of your writing seems to focus on internal and community-wide restorative efforts and resilience, whether in terms of health, the environment, or the spirit. What does human resilience mean to you, and for you?
I love this question! It's a big question. I came from some harsh beginnings: All I know is resilience. I'm an introspective person, so as I have aged, I think about resilience on a much larger scale than the marginalized groups that produced me or my sole experience. I think about all the times life itself was on the brink of total catastrophe, and boom.... It rebounds. Resilience means to rebound from something that could've taken you out. It means hope for the future, it means another chance, another road, another shot. I'm a descendant of slaves and a descendant of those that have walked this trans path: All I know is resilience. I wish to share my struggle with others in hopes that they may be inspired not to give up. You know, "If that big ole queen can make it, so can I." That's the seed I want to plant when I'm sharing on any platform.
4. You wrote an amazing piece for Forbes in which you discuss feminism's failure to address "inequities of human injustices caused by colonial, capitalist, and social oppression." You also addressed this in your Sacramento News and Review piece in which you wrote, "Trans people, particularly our black women and femmes, were on the front lines of the Stonewall Rebellion, yet we're on the back lines of the gay and lesbian liberation." Feminism and many, or really most, social movements suffer from such a lack of intersectional and trans recognition. Where do you see that need for change manifesting itself?
I think social justice movements don't always think in terms of intersections, or they fight for things that will serve them in that particular moment, never really seeing how all this suffering intersects. They'll have all the language right, but their actions will be about that one topic. We need to remove the berries and realize an injustice to a Black trans woman is the same as an injustice to a cis woman. An injustice to a Black trans woman is an injustice to the Black community as a whole. There's no separation; Black trans issues are multidimensional and are relatable to any social justice issue today. You have to be radical and intentional about inclusivity to Black trans women.
5. Are there any trans leaders, writers, or figures you're particularly inspired by at the moment?
Too many to name here, but I'll name just a few. Valerie Spencer inspired me as a young trans kid. We have Black trans philosophers, and I would say she's one of our great philosophers. Aria Sa'id is a young Black trans woman that has contributed so much to our movement at such a young age. She's Executive Director of the first Trans Cultural District in the nation, and she's smart as hell... Daroneshia Duncan-Boyd, from Alabam leading the charge for trans health equity throughout the South. Elle Hearns, one of the founding members of Black Lives Matter that just so happens to be a Black trans woman. Omega West, a Black trans man who, like me, came from some rough stuff and is out here fighting for our rights daily. Last but not least, my translatina sister, Bamby Salcedo, who's a national treasure in our community fighting for our freedoms every day.
6. You're vocal online about a lot of environmental issues. Do you see the environment as intertwined with queer, trans, and Black and Brown community issues? What does environmental justice mean to you?
It's absolutely intertwined! The factories in impoverished neighborhoods, access to clean food, clean water, information around health all are linked to poverty. Extreme poverty is linked to these marginalized groups that live on the fringe of the fringes of society. No resources, so capitalism exploits them. We have to look at what's affecting those at the bottom and work from there, while fighting these big corporations that are siphoning the life out of the planet.
7. What changes (spiritual or societal or both) would you like to see most in the near future? What does your vision of a better future look like?
Green renewable energy. No more wars. The end of capitalism! Love abounding on the earth like never before. Total freedom to just be without judgment.
8. Are there any organizations or initiatives you'd like to promote?
I'm the leader of the new statewide initiative, California TransCends, in partnership with the California Endowment and California Public Health Advocates. California TransCends promotes the health and wellness of transgender people throughout the state of California. I'll be doing a statewide assessment of the needs of trans people living in rural communities, trans people of color, and our trans elders. We'll be working with local policymakers to see what we can do to make trans lives a bit more bearable. We're engaging other trans organizations that are leading statewide work to form a statewide and national coalition that will work in one accord on issues that need our rapid response. Lastly, we'll have micro-grants available for coalition-building conferences for trans people of color. I'm also one of the directors for the newly formed Employment Equality.
9. You're doing so much amazing work—how do you balance it all? What do you do for self-care and for fun?
I take a couple of days a week off and recharge. I have a small circle but good friends I can call when I'm going through a tough time. I have a spiritual community, The Center for Spiritual Awareness, that loves and supports me. This is my combination for staying afloat.
10. Do you have any advice for activists, or any lessons or mantras that you follow?
Don't become the same evil you're fighting! It's easy to fall into the trap of anger and vengeance. When fighting injustice, you have to make sure your approaches are balanced, or you'll perpetuate the same injustices you're fighting.
For the third installment of the Visionaries Project, we spoke to Sara Gozalo about capitalism, fighting ICE and the prison industrial complex, combating burnout as an activist, and her vision of a better world.
The Visionaries Project is a subsection of The Liberty Project dedicated to highlighting the lives, passions, and work of radical activists currently working towards social justice and liberation from oppression. We aim to uplift the perspectives of diverse voices working in media and activism today—and not just the faces who make headlines, but the real people on the ground every day, working towards their visions of a better world.
Sara Gozalo is an organizer currently based in New Orleans. Originally from Madrid, she describes herself as a "queer immigrant who believes in a world without borders and without jails, where everyone has the right to live in dignity." She currently works as a Unanimous Jury Specialist at the Promise of Justice Initiative, co-founded Students for Peace and Justice, and was formerly the Supervising Coordinator of the New Sanctuary Coalition and a member of the Worcester Global Action Network. We spoke with her about the insidiousness of capitalism, her work fighting ICE and the prison industrial complex, combating burnout as an activist, and her vision of a better world.
LIBERTY PROJECT: I was wondering if you could give an overview of your experience in activism and organizing.
SARA GOZALO: I have been organizing for a long time. I've only been organizing professionally for the past three and a half to four years, but I organized when I was at UMass against the war in Iraq. We did a lot of workshopping and teachings about free trade agreements, and how capitalism was destroying the planet.
It seems like that was such a long time ago, and we're still dealing with the same issues. I think that a lot of organizing is understanding that you're running a marathon, and it's never going to be a sprint. It's going to be a lot of small victories along the way, but you're going to fight the same issues constantly. That can be pretty demoralizing, but it also means you can never stop.
I come from a family that's very political. My dad is an attorney in Spain, and when he was a student he got arrested and kicked out of school for organizing against Franco during the dictatorship. My mom was always very political, and I remember hating that when I was a little kid.
While I was going through my own immigration case, I realized how hard it is for someone with a ton of privilege, and I started to look into what it was like for people who aren't as privileged. I got very involved in the immigration issue. Since I moved to New Orleans, I've seen the same patterns in the criminal justice system.
I think New Orleans brings these issues together. It has been very impacted in terms of climate change. Louisiana has the highest numbers per capita of incarcerated people [in the US], and one of the highest numbers of migrants in detention. The city brings everything together, and ties in all the different aspects that I have organized around in my life. In the end, it is important to remember that they're all related to each other.
Where are you at now?
I moved to New Orleans this summer. My wife was born and raised here. I'm working at the Promise of Justice Initiative, which is an organization that does a lot of criminal justice work.
It's clear that all these issues are very interconnected. Lately it seems that there's been a particular resurgence of anticapitalist sentiment, though that was always there…Is that affecting your organizing at all?
I have been organizing with these anti-capitalists since the late '90s. It feels like the "resurgence" has been a long time coming.
When we were organizing around the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003, we were very much organizing under the capitalist lens. Grassroots movements like Occupy and the movement for Medicare for All have ignited something even bigger now. It's become more mainstream.
The fight against capitalism is decades long, and its roots are in the people who are directly impacted, especially indigenous people all around the world. They have led that fight, because they know in their bodies what capitalism is doing to the world. I think it's important that now that conversation is part of western countries, especially the United States, which in many ways is the belly of the beast in terms of capitalism. Anti-capitalist organizing has been there forever; it just now feels like you can talk about it and people won't immediately discard you as someone crazy.
I want to make sure that [in spite of all the] now-mainstream groups that are taking this fight on—which is super important and necessary—we recognize how many people have been fighting this fight for so long and leading the efforts.
I first met you through New Sanctuary Coalition (an organization that provides legal support to immigrants in New York City). You were doing so much for them at once, and I was wondering what your reflections on that experience are.
NSC is one of the most powerful organizing groups that I have ever known, in terms of the numbers of people who are involved. Post-election, after Trump took power, it became very obvious that immigration was going to become one of the issues that he was going to attack the most. NSC grew because there are very concrete ways that people could get involved, and I think that is incredibly powerful. It's led by people who are directly impacted, but it really utilizes the number of people who want to fight alongside people who are directly impacted. That was a beautiful thing to see.
I've worked with other groups where there isn't a clear way for volunteers to get involved, and I think NSC recognizes that people can fight against the system with the support of others with more privilege. It's a great way to utilize the privilege that US citizens have. The [idea] that the people who are impacted lead, and you're showing up for solidarity—not to help or save anyone—is really important.
The accompaniment work, in particular, was hard for volunteers in that it was so boring, but it's such a good example of how much privilege US citizens have, and how important it is to show up and not feel like they're saving or leading. They're just standing in solidarity, which is an incredible exercise for everyone.
It did feel at times overwhelming, which obviously leads to a lot of burnout and the sense of, oh my God, I am never doing enough, because everything is an emergency.
It felt at times that I was just pouring oil on the machine as opposed to throwing a wrench in it. For instance, if a judge said, I need an asylum application in three months as opposed to the year, we became so good at meeting those demands that it felt like in some way we were contributing to them.
I think that's a constant in organizing. There's a big difference between asking, what can you today to help a person who's going to be deported unless they show up with an asylum application, and what can you do to dismantle the system? Of course you're gonna support the person who's dealing with something today and not think in bigger terms, and so those were some difficult moments.
I don't have the answer. Maybe we need organizations that do more direct impact service work, and other organizations that only do the disruptive work; maybe that's the balance that we could work towards.
When I was leaving this summer, a lot of people finally went out on the streets, and people got arrested by the hundreds. I think that's the energy we need in the streets, while organizations like NSC do the day-to-day work that's helping people stay in the country and not be deported.
Speaking of those larger systemic changes, are there any visions you have of changes that you would like to see happen on a large scale?
Yeah, so many.
First of all, we need to realign our belief system. Our bones, our insides, are so ingrained with this capitalist system of oppression. We make decisions on a daily basis that are informed by that upbringing. I admire Decolonize This Place and other groups that are really going to the roots of the problem, recognizing that unless we deal with those root problems, we're never going to affect systemic change.
For instance, we can't deal with climate change from a capitalist perspective. My friend was just fired for his job—which was to install solar panels—because they tried to unionize. We can't keep moving forward from the perspective of putting capital before humans and before the planet.
I really would like to see us having very honest conversations in which we start seeing, within ourselves and within our communities, how colonized we really are. We need to look at the root causes of the problem, if we really want to achieve any change that's going to make a difference, for our planet and for the survival of our communities everywhere in the world.
For instance, in Chile, I love to see the women who are protesting with everyone else and also bringing up the fact that the patriarchy is one of the biggest problems we have. Everything we see as an injustice has a root problem that's attached to racism and capitalism, and we need to address those, otherwise we're really not going to achieve the change that we want to achieve. Having these issues come into the light is an important step.
Women in South America sing against gender violence www.youtube.com
I think I would like to see more compassion in our organizing. I think we're all very angry. We're all very quick to attack each other while not understanding that organizing is hard. Organizing is the hardest thing you can ever do, because there are no models for the world that we want. We have to reinvent the world.
Because we don't have those models, even nonprofits and some of the most progressive groups continue to replicate the systems of oppression that we are fighting against. [We need to ask], what does the world that we want look like, as opposed to fighting against something with means we learned from something we're fighting against.
I've read a lot about how organizations can replicate the systems they're trying to take down—people will be like, let's change ICE, but it really needs to be abolished, and I feel like that's symbolic.
I also really admire abolitionists; their clarity about what they're fighting for could be used by all nonprofits and all other organizing groups.
Do you have any advice as to how to keep going in this long fight?
In your struggle, you have to allow yourself to be led by the people who are directly impacted, because in a way, people who are directly impacted don't have the privilege of giving up. When you surround yourself with people who have to keep fighting, it helps you keep fighting.
I would say surround yourself with a supportive community, with people that you trust and people you can confide in and talk with when things get hard. And I would say be compassionate with yourself. You're going to make a lot of mistakes. That doesn't mean you're a terrible person. Everybody makes mistakes, and learning from those mistakes is the only thing you can do; don't beat yourself up so much that it paralyzes you.
And take breaks. I have been planting trees, I started a compost bin in my backyard, and I am learning how to plant vegetables. Putting your hands on the earth is actually incredibly therapeutic, and it brings everything back to what matters the most, which is life and sustainability and love for each other and our planet. When you bring it back to those core values of what really truly matters, then it allows you to breathe a little bit easier.
In our second Visionaries Project installment, we talk to sex workers' rights activist and writer Elsie B.
The Visionaries Project is a new subsection of The Liberty Project dedicated to highlighting the lives, passions, and work of radical activists currently working towards social justice and liberation from oppression. We aim to uplift the perspectives of diverse voices working in media and activism today—and not just the faces who make headlines, but the real people on the ground every day, working towards their visions of a better world.
For our second installment of the Visionaries Project, we're featuring Elsie B., a writer and activist who can be found on Twitter at @NotSuperIntoIt. Elsie is an out and proud member of the bisexual community and an active participant in the fight for sex workers' rights.
Sex workers, as Elsie informs us, often face unique legal constraints and social stigma that can prevent them from accessing adequate healthcare and opportunities. As sex workers' rights have been threatened in the United States and across the world by new laws that constrain their ability to work and share online under legal protections, the need for information and action has grown.
As Amnesty International implies, criminalization of sex workers' rights almost always puts them at a disadvantage. "We have chosen to advocate for the decriminalization of all aspects of consensual adult sex - sex work that does not involve coercion, exploitation or abuse," reads the organization's statement on the matter. "This is based on evidence and the real-life experience of sex workers themselves that criminalization makes them less safe."
Or as Elsie writes, "It's long past time to demand fair and equal treatment for sex workers, and the consequences of delayed action by civilians and lawmakers will be lethal."
We spoke to Elsie about how she became involved in the fight for sex workers' and LGBTQ+ rights, what kind of activism work she does, and how she unwinds after a long day of fighting oppression and injustice.
LIBERTY PROJECT: Can you tell me a bit about your background? How did you get interested in activism?
ELSIE B: I'm fortunate to have grown up in a family that values social justice. I was raised as an ethical vegetarian and attended circus protests as a child. In middle school, I printed animal rights literature and ordered a pack of stickers from Peta2 that said "cut class, not frogs," which I slapped on every table in the science room when the dissection unit began approaching. As I got older, my dad and I would attend political rallies for Democratic candidates. During college, my politics became more radical than those I was raised with, thanks to some incredible professors. I was involved in social justice clubs, including the campus LGBTQ+ outreach program and an animal rights group of which I became VP.
In graduate school, I met a group of activists who shared my radical political beliefs and were doing meaningful, grassroots work for social justice and to end animal suffering. As I befriended these folks, I began to widen my interests in regard to my activism. I met my friend Emily during this time who is a stripper. Her influence changed my understanding of feminism and women's rights.
After graduate school, I started a small organization that helped connect feminist women and worked for the Sanders 2016 campaign.
How did you first start getting interested in sex workers' and LGBTQ+ rights?
A: From the time I realized LGBTQ+ folks were treated differently, I've been interested in the rights of non-hetero folks. I grew up with gay and lesbian culture as a constant in my life. And, at about the age of eight, I realized I myself am interested in more than only the opposite sex.
My official foray into LGBTQ+ activism started in college, but I saw myself as an ally at that time. However, after the Pulse shooting, I began to see my role in the LGBTQ+ community not as an ally but as a member of the community. I had quietly come out as bisexual many years before but had never felt comfortable identifying as someone in the LGBTQ+ community. However, after the gut-wrenching experience of watching what I realized was my community face such horrific violence, I decided it was my responsibility as an out bisexual to fight for destigmatization, especially of bisexuals who are at the highest risk for suicidal ideation and attempts.
Around the same time, sex workers started to experience attacks on their primary methods of advertisements, especially on Backpage. As so many of my friends are sex workers, I saw the panic these workers experienced. This is when I began to incorporate sex workers' rights into my activism platform. Then, in 2018, FOSTA/SESTA was introduced and passed. During this time, I dedicated all of my activism to fighting FOSTA/SESTA. During that year, I marched, helped plan harm reduction meetings, petitioned, and contacted government officials. The energy during 2018 was one of terror and excitement as sex workers rallied to fight against these new laws. It was electrifying to be a part of the first International Wh*re's March, but that euphoric buzz of being with other activists was quelled as the reality of a changing internet landscape for sex workers sunk in.
From 2018 to present, most of my activism has been based online, since sex workers work mostly in isolation. Through online communities, I have been able to continue my work in harm reduction, petitioning, and community organizing. I've also written under various pseudonyms (since even working as an activist carries stigma). I've had viral writing, which has given me some hope that sex workers' rights are beginning to creep into the consciousness of civilians, the term for non-sex workers.
Are there any challenges you've faced in activism work? Any particular successes, favorite moments, or pieces you've written?
A: Activism is draining, but there is no better feeling to me than having someone reach out to let me know how I've helped them. This has been especially true of my work as an activist for bisexual individuals. The number of messages I've received from people telling me I gave them the courage to come out or that reaching out to me is the first time they've admitted their attraction to more than one gender has been simultaneously heartbreaking and the most rewarding feeling.
Working as an activist for sex workers has unique challenges in that even associating with sex work as a topic comes with stigma. I usually work under pseudonyms, as I don't want my work in sex work to affect my other activism (I've worked in activism for education orgs which serve younger students).
Activism as a bisexual cis-woman has also been challenging, as biphobia and stigma are often just as hostile, if not more, in the community. Bisexuals have a unique fight, in that they are shunned from straight and gay communities for not being straight or gay enough. It can be painful to watch people choose to repress their complex sexual orientation in order to feel accepted by one group.
Coming out very publicly was one of the best feelings as an activist. It was such a personal act, and the number of friends and acquaintances who reached out to me during that time to tell me their stories was so touching.
What would you suggest people do if they want to start to get involved in the fight for LGBTQ+ and sex workers' rights?
A: For most people, the most effective activism they can do is within their own communities. Talking about sex workers and LGBTQ+ rights with family and friends may seem menial, but it is some of the most important work we can all do.
To talk to folks in your circles though, you need to be armed with correct information about those you are hoping to help. It is important to avoid savior complexes. Listen to people in the communities you want to fight for. Trusted sources are SWOP chapters, the ACLU, the LGBT Center in Los Angeles (or local chapters to you), and actual LGBTQ+ folks and sex workers.
Of course, you can volunteer and leaflet with local chapters and organizations, but it is also important to support community members directly. You can do this by supporting a business owned by LGTBQ+ folks and sex workers or by tipping them directly!
You do a lot of challenging work. What do you do to take care of yourself and have fun?
A: What's been so great about my current work is the wonderful people I have met. I have never had more fun with a group of people than my sex worker comrades. We take trips, drink wine in the backyard, and gas each other up constantly.
Personally, I go to the gym almost every day and try to spend some time there with my phone off. Turning your phone off is very important for activists (and all workers at this point). In 2019 we can be constantly reached, and it's hard not to engage when you are so passionate about your work helping others.
I also got a fully functional TV for the first time in my adult life this year and now understand the benefits of winding down watching TV (even if I mostly watch The Office).
In the first installment of our Visionaries Project, we interview brilliant writer, activist, and horror buff Sherronda J. Brown.
The Visionaries Project is a new subsection of The Liberty Project dedicated to highlighting the lives, passions, and work of writers and activists currently working towards social justice and liberation from oppression. We aim to uplift the perspectives of powerful, diverse voices working in media and activism today—and not just the faces who make headlines, but the real people on the ground every day, working towards their visions of a better world.
As our first installment of the Visionaries Project, we're beyond honored to feature Sherronda J. Brown, an incredibly eloquent and brilliant journalist and activist currently doing vital work in the media sphere.
Where did you grow up? Was there an activism or writing background in your childhood?
I grew up in a small town called Tarboro in Eastern North Carolina. I don't have an activism background from my youth, but I have always been a writer. My mom still has a stack of little books I wrote as early as Kindergarten and first grade.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into writing and journalism?
I don't think writing was much of a choice for me. I think it's something that just lives in my bones and my fingertips. If I wasn't writing about systemic oppression and its multiple arms, I'd almost certainly be writing in some other capacity, probably in entertainment media or true crime. Definitely true crime. Hell, I might still do that one day.
My foray into journalism was more like being pulled into it. I have always shared my views on social media, specifically Facebook, and eventually people started to follow me and root for me. To my surprise, my words touched people. I wrote briefly for a now-shuttered, indie feminist website (for free!) while in college many years ago, but my presence in this world really became solidified when current Managing Editor at Black Youth Project (BYP), Hari Ziyad, gave my writing a home at RaceBaitR and later encouraged me to write for BYP as well. Then, the Deputy Editor position came along, and Hari encouraged me to take another step. The next step was Wear Your Voice (WYV), where I was promoted to Managing Editor by founder Ravneet Vohra before I even knew what hit me. And here I am. Other people recognized my talents and potential before I did. They knew I could do this before I even knew it was an option. Shout out to imposter syndrome, and shout out to the people who helped me get here.
How did you get involved with Wear Your Voice? What work do you do for it, and what's the publication about?
Lara Witt, the current EIC, posted a call for pitches on social media and I submitted a piece about an indie film I had been really impressed by, The Keeping Room. This was just after the release of Sofia Coppola's remake of The Beguiled, and I argued that The Keeping Room—while an imperfect film—succeeds where Coppola's film fails, specifically in her erasure of an enslaved Black woman character from the Civil War era South in order to ensure that the Confederate white women are seen as indisputable victims within the story, rather than cruel enslavers. The essay did very well, so much so that the writer and producer, Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz, reached out to thank me. That was a surprise and, of course, hugely flattering. From that point, I continued to write for WYV as a freelancer, until I got the courage to ask Lara if she needed any editorial support. She advocated for me and helped me become a part of the team, beginning as a part-time Social Media Manager. I will always, always be so grateful to her for that, especially because WYV is such an amazing publication to work for. I now get to say that I serve as the Managing Editor of a bold magazine that wholly embraces me and gives QTBIPOC space to talk about our experiences without tone policing or censorship. It's incredibly rewarding and therapeutic work for me.
The bio for Wear Your Voice cites Kimberlé Crenshaw's definition of "intersectionality." How would you define intersectionality? Has your understanding of it changed over time?
A lot of people misunderstand or wrongly define intersectionality, and I suppose I used to do the same. Once upon a time, I thought of it as a literal intersection, with multiple roads meeting and touching at a particular point, with each road being a different aspect of a marginalized identity. So, one road would be Black, one would be woman, one would be queer, and so on, and they would intersect with each other. In this visual representation, the points where they intersect would be the nucleus, where all the layered oppressions one experiences are most concentrated, for lack of a better phrase.
Now, I understand how wrong I was. Because, for a queer Black woman, Blackness is never separate from woman, is never separate from queer, and so on. More specifically, Kimberlé Crenshaw developed this theory and coined this term thirty years ago for Black women to think and talk about how we experience misogynoir. Intersectionality is specifically for Black women's benefit, and Crenshaw herself has told us not to use it as a blanket term for thinking about oppressions.
What do you mean by "digital activist," as you say in your bio? What potential do you see in digital activism going forward?
It's funny, I didn't realize that I was a digital activist until someone told me I was. I guess, I didn't really understand the true impact that my words were making. One of my favorite anecdotes—or maybe it's a testimony—is from a woman who said that my writing helped her get her teenage daughter to stop bleaching her skin. That made my heart sink and sing at the same time. People reach out to me periodically to share how I've helped them to think about things from a new perspective and better understand how oppressive systems work and even how they have participated in and benefited from them. That's the best reward for me. A lot of people don't consider digital activism to be valid. People like me often get called "armchair activists" as an indictment of our supposed laziness, which is quite an ableist sentiment. There is tremendous value in digital activism, whether or not people are physically or mentally healthy and able enough to contribute to "boots on the ground" work, and I don't just say this because I consider myself one. Think about how much information gets shared across social media by marginalized people that might not otherwise be reported on by the mainstream media. Digital activism can and does enact change in its own way, and there are plenty of examples.
If you see yourself as a resource for awareness or inspiration for activists and radical thinkers, what would you recommend to others looking to get into the type of work you're doing?
I know this is easier said than done, but take the leap. Shoot your shot. Send that pitch email. Read other people's work, digest it, process it, live in it. And then, find the gaps. With any given subject, there's always someone who has already written about it, of course, but there are always things left unsaid, views left unexplored. No one person can tackle every possible angle. Find the gaps that other people inevitably leave in their work and fill them. Address the unaddressed. That is how writers can set themselves apart, in my opinion. That's what I really appreciate as an editor and a reader.
Are there any projects or current topics you want to promote?
We are currently wrapping up our Summer of Sex campaign at WYV, a series that highlights perspectives of QTBIPOC [Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, People of Color] on the subject of sex and the things surrounding it. The piece I contributed to this is rather personal, maybe more personal than anything else I've ever written. In it, I do what feels for me like heavy lifting on the subjects of unhealthy sex, asexuality, celibacy, and fawning as a trauma response, as all of these relate to my personal story and life experience. These are topics I rarely see talked about openly and I would like to see others engaging with them as well.
You describe yourself as a "reformed Blackademic." What was your experience in academia and why did you choose to move towards digital media?
I had no idea I would end up here. For a long time, I thought I would be an academic, and I had plans to pursue a doctorate. The bureaucracy and high pressure of the institution turned out to be something I wasn't cut out for, and I'm perfectly fine with that. I call myself a reformed Blackademic because stepping back from academia allowed me to see how elitism and inaccessibility can sometimes be a barrier to connecting with our own communities. If my work isn't accessible to those outside of higher education, then I don't think it's actually doing as much work as we might assume. This isn't to say that there isn't value in academic thought and high theory. Of course there is, and the things I learned while pursuing my degrees absolutely continue to inform my current work. I'm just more intentional about making my work accessible, as much as I can, and I will hopefully continue to make more progress in that arena through digital media.
What are your favorite writing projects or stories you've covered over the years?
My favorite projects are the ones that allow me to blend my passion for entertainment media with my radical, leftist, Black feminist, anti-capitalist philosophies. I'd say I'm currently most fond of my analysis of Thanos and his flawed Malthusian logic system about overpopulation and my laments on the unfortunate pattern of Black horror stories and Black time travel narratives that seem to only contemplate white violence as a constant fixture in our lives.
You've written a lot about your interest in horror and haunting narratives. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
I became interested in hauntings in grad school, in terms of how the ghosts of history continue to haunt our lives everyday and how we see those ghosts manifesting in oppressive systems, and these things often show up as literal ghosts in cinematic haunting narratives, like literally any film that uses a "Native American burial ground" as a way to convey danger and terror for white protagonists only to ultimately subdue the ghosts rather than truly acknowledge and hold accountable the violent white colonialism that created them.
Candyman (1992) is also a prime example with the vengeful ghost created from a lynching, and it is one of my personal favorites, despite it ultimately being yet another story of a frightened white woman being lusted after by a Black man. Choosing favorites is always difficult, because it changes every few years, and I love so many. Train to Busan (2016), Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017), Hereditary (2018), and The Babadook (2014) are some of my contemporary favorites, but Psycho (1960), The Exorcist (1973), Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) are longevity faves.
When you say "new voices" in horror, I immediately think of Jordan Peele, of course, who has two amazing horror entries already, which are among my favorites as well, and is sure to bring us more. He's tapped Nia DaCosta to direct his Candyman "spiritual sequel" expected in 2020, and I am ecstatic about a Black woman directing such a huge mainstream horror film. It would be a dream to see more Black women, more queer folks, more trans folks, more disabled folks at the helm of these stories. I want to see people who have historically been largely relegated to monstrosities in horror giving us innovative tales that subvert the status quo and rattle us in new, challenging ways.
You write a lot of content that challenges hegemonic, white supremacist narratives and ways of reporting and understanding current events; for example, the idea that climate change is new/just beginning to show effect, or that BIPOC women's bodies haven't always been byproducts of white supremacist violence. What writers, sources, or strategies have helped you challenge these hegemonic narratives? What kind of anti-oppression work do you see coming to the fore and/or still needing to be done in terms of this?
My first piece of writing that went viral viral was "White Women In Robes" on my personal blog, werdbrew. It was a critique of The Handmaid's Tale's use of harms committed against BIPOC in a story that centers white women and white feminism's historical connections with white supremacy, among other things. Dorothy E. Roberts' "Killing the Black Body" greatly informed that piece of writing, and anything else I've written about the reproductive control of and expectations for Black people. I also carry Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Angela Davis with me daily, and the spirits of Harriet Tubman and Zora Neale Hurston. The voices of Patricia Hill Collins, Nina Simone, and Toni Morrison are always with me when I write about Black womanhood. Some more recent entries that have inspired me include Tressie McMillan Cottom's "Thick" and Sabrina Strings' "Fearing the Black Body," both amazing and important works. I just think Black women are so brilliant and so uniquely able to Illuminate ugly but necessary truths about our world. Black women are already doing crucial anti-oppression work, and always have been. People just need to listen.
You write that white dystopian narratives align with the "destruction of the dominant white society, the disruption of the white heteropatriarchal family unit, and the downfall of post-colonial civilization as a whole" in one of your reviews. What kind of disruption would you like to see, and are there any images of the future that you imagine seeing through and beyond this disruption?
That is the kind of disruption I like to see. In a perfect world, we would finally get to see all the remnants of white colonialism gone, but unfortunately that is not our reality. I don't mind at all that dystopian narratives involve this kind of destruction in the fantasy world, especially because the destruction of a society where white supremacists hold political, economic, and social power only creates possibilities for the rest of us. My issue is that these narratives—with the exception of The Girl With All The Gifts (2017)—never explore those new opportunities or acknowledge the fact that QTBIPOC already live in a dystopia in the real world.
Still from "The Girl With All the Gifts"pressinfo.com
Are there any particular voices or groups you'd like to see highlighted in our current cultural moment?
I absolutely want more QTBIPOC voices. More fat, disabled, neurodivergent folks being heard and respected and humanized. More sex workers, more undocumented immigrants. I want to hear more from the younger generation, too. The people who get silenced the most are the ones who need to be elevated the most.
What's your everyday routine like? Where do you like to do your work or write?
I'm actually working to embrace my nocturnal nature these days, and I'm fortunate enough to have a career that allows me to do so. What are considered "normal" sleeping hours often serve as my writing time. Some of the best things I've written have come pouring out of me between the hours of 3 and 6 am. I'm either writing in bed or on the couch, and I always write on my phone. I sleep as best as I can, if I can, for a few hours and then I'm up and working again by noon. For BYP, I might be publishing in WordPress and/or desperately searching for good stock images of Black people. For WYV, I might be taking care of daily social media management duties, doing secondary edits or final checks on a piece before Lara publishes, creating graphics, and/or designing and sending out our weekly newsletter(s). For both publications, I might be hopping on a staff video or phone call, brainstorming new content, reading and catching up on the day's news so far, answering emails, evaluating pitches, responding to Slack messages, drafting calls for pitches, organizing my editorial calendar, conducting interviews, checking in with writers, and addressing anything else that requires my attention. The late afternoon and evening is when I rest, recharge, meditate, exercise, and eat. Sometimes, I will do some in-depth editing work on writers' drafts during this time, but mostly I don't start doing that kind of work until around midnight. Then, I plan for the next day/night. I admit, sometimes it's hard to keep track of what day it is.
You do a lot of challenging work. What do you do for fun, and to take care of yourself?
I'm proud to say that I'm much better about taking care of myself now than I used to be. For self-care, I watch horror game play on YouTube because I think it's more fun to watch other people do it—plus it's cheaper and less time-consuming. I spend quality time with friends virtually—ironically, all of my closest friends live far away. I SnapChat with my little sister. I take myself to 4 pm matinees in the middle of the week. I laugh with my co-workers. I support and mentor Black kids. I lift weights. I hit my heavy bag. I eat peanut butter fudge sorbet at 3 AM. I write happy things. I listen to podcasts and audiobooks about true crime, folklore, and history. I laugh at nonsensical memes. I block white people with dreadlocks. I drink plenty of water. I take selfies. I spend entire weekends naked, and I don't let myself work on Saturdays anymore.
Want to be featured on The Visionaries Project, or want to nominate someone you think should be? Email us at email@example.com or message us on Twitter at @LibertyThis.