Trust Black Women: Black Womxn Activists with Ties to the Bay Area
Written by Minali Aggarwal
Since Trump’s election in 2016, headlines have made it clear that black women are consistently showing up and leading the change we need in America. In the 2018 midterm elections, black women came out to vote in staggering numbers -- 92% of black women voters voted for democratic candidates nationwide compared to 73% of Hispanic women, 72% of Asian women, and 45% of white women. Moreover, black women were able to turn “electoral power into political power” in a series of political upsets, electing more than 20 badass black women to congress.
But, #BlackGirlMagic isn’t new. And, black women fighting for systemic change definitely isn’t either. In 2016, Trump ignited a new sense of anger and wave of resistance in communities across America. Because of this, people like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian have emerged as “faces” for justice and reform. While it can only be good to have more powerful people fighting on the right side of history, it’s important to recognize that black women across America have not only played an essential role in the resistance, but were also its founders. They have been the consistent and dedicated activists and leaders in organizing and campaigning on the issues that most deeply affect their own families and communities.
This Black History Month, Women Sound Off wants to thank all incredible black women activists and give a special shout out to a few who have ties to our home base in the Bay Area.
Oakland-born Alicia Garza has been a civil rights activist in the Bay Area for almost 20 years and primarily serving low-income Black communities. In what was later called a “love letter to black people,” Garza coined the phrase “Black Lives Matter” as a response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal after Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2013. She later founded the chapter-based movement with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, and has been a leading activist and voice in protests since. In 2014, Garza, along with other Bay Area BLM activists, planned a protest against Michael Brown’s murder. The activists formed a long human chain extending from the platform onto a BART train headed to San Francisco with the goal of causing a delay that would last 4 and a half hours - the amount of time Michael Brown’s body was left in the street after his murder.
Garza has had a number of achievements since then, including becoming one of Root’s 100 Most Influential African Americans in 2015 and Politico’s 2015 Politico50 list of people transforming American politics.
San Francisco-born Lateefah Simon has been a lifelong Bay Area women’s and civil rights activist. At age 15, she started working at the Center for Young Women’s Development, an organization that helps young women turn their lives around with assistance in the form of job training, child care, and mentorship. By age 19, she was named executive of the nonprofit, an accomplishment that brought her to national prominence. By age 26, she won the MacArthur fellowship, and was one of the youngest women in history to do so.
In 2005, Simon was was hired by Kamala Harris to develop and lead San Francisco’s first re-entry service division, which had the goal of keeping low-level offenders from committing new crimes. This led to a career as Executive Director of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights. Simon is currently running the Akonadi Foundation, an Oakland nonprofit that seeks to eliminate structural racism that leads to long-term inequality in America.
While many people know Michelle Alexander for her 2010 best-selling nonfiction book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, she’s also had a lifelong career as a civil rights lawyer and activist. Alexander served as the director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California. While she was there, the project primarily focused on educational equity and criminal justice reform, and it was during this time that she began to learn that the United States’ criminal justice system functions more like a caste system than a system of crime prevention or control. This led her to become passionate about uncovering the inequities in the criminal justice system. She launched a major campaign against racial profiling by law enforcement called the DWBB Campaign or “Driving While Black or Brown Campaign.” She also served as a litigator at a few Oakland law firms where she specialized in lawsuits against race and gender discrimination.
Elaine Brown is an Oakland-based activist, writer, and singer, but is most notably known for being the first and only woman to serve as the head of the Black Panthers. Since her tenure as Black Panther chairman, she has dedicated her life to prison reform and re-entry programs. She is now CEO of a nonprofit in Oakland called Oakland & the World Enterprises (OAW), where she helps formerly incarcerated and other economically marginalized people launch for-profit businesses. Last year, OAW successfully launched its first business called West Oakland Farms. West Oakland farms is an urban garden and prison re-entry program where each worker owns their plot of land and is paid at least $20 per hour for work on the farm. While the scope of West Oakland Farms program is currently focused on skills and entrepreneurship training, Brown hopes the farm can be used to address broader issues in the neighborhood, such as lack of supermarkets and availability of fresh produce. She also plans to use West Oakland Farms as the center for a complex that will consist of other businesses as well as 80 affordable housing units.
Janetta Louise Johnson
Janetta Louise Johnson is the executive director of the TGI Justice Project, a group of transgender, gendervariant, and intersex individuals inside and outside of prisons and detention centers who are working together to fight human rights abuses, imprisonment, police violence, racism, and poverty. Johnson herself was incarcerated for four years for selling drugs during the 2008 financial crisis, and realized during her time in jail that trans people faced a unique form of violence both inside and outside of prison. While in jail, she worked as a referral liaison to the TGI Justice Project. Through this role, she learned that many trans people she talked to faced constant misgendering by correctional officers, which led her to write to a federal judge explaining the mental health impact such language has. The judge eventually wrote back and forbade marshalls from using misgendering language in prisons. Small wins like this carried her through her time in jail, and when she was finally released, she decided to dedicate her life to developing strategies and interventions to reduce the recidivism rate within the transgender community. These strategies range from aiding access to mental health services, housing, and government assistance, to skill training and and mentorship.
We hope you’re as inspired as we are to not only stand up and take action in your communities, but also to recognize the silent warriors that have worked to make the world a better place for years to come.