In the decade ahead, a generation of Millennial changemakers will turn 30 (if they were born in the 90s) and 40 (if they were born in the 1980s) – as Boomers begin to retire, and frontline Gen Xers give it more serious thought. What lessons can we learn as we pass one another in the revolving door? As a young, first-generation person of color, I’ve straddled multiple realities and cultures in my day-to-day life. I learned fairly early to pull inspiration from a wide pool of sources, though it was always more of a challenge to find this knowledge from people who looked like me. As we wrap a month of celebrating and honoring Black History, here are three activists who inspire my day-to-day work, and I hope their wisdom strikes a chord with you, too.
Chance The Rapper
I’ve listened to Chance’s music since high school, partly because of the novelty of having such a talented artist who was only a couple of years older than most of my friends and I. The other side of it was, well, just listen to one of his albums! Dude’s a poet. In 50 years, assuming there’s still a planet to live on, we’ll remember the great turn-of-the century poets: Ginsberg, Muldoon, Chance the Rapper. Chance has proven himself to be an adept political playmaker in his native Chicago. His charity, SocialWorks, has supported Chicago Public Schools for about three years. On top of that, he’s won three Grammys while still being an independent artist, lifting up other independent and up-and-coming artists and changemakers without the barriers of restrictive record contracts. And he only turns 27 in April! What I admire most about his activism is that he shows that a changemaker shouldn’t have to “choose” what level they operate on. He can rub elbows with the big wigs of Chicago, work alongside intermediary organizations like city networks and local franchises, and hunker down with everyday independent social entrepreneurs. He’s a bit of a changemaking chameleon, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Janet is one of, if not the most visible trans person of color (aside from perhaps Laverne Cox) in the United States. One of my frustrations in college activist circles (that were attended by mostly white upper middle class people) was the dichotomy of language and terminology – the scene often being that my peers would use language, terminology, and social concepts that I knew were not accessible or readily available to communities of color. At a talk Janet participated in at the University of Chicago a couple of years ago, she reflected on Audre Lorde’s call to turn “silence into words and action,” saying that education of the self, and the group at large, is imperative for an enduring and inclusive social justice movement. Recent figures estimate the number of trans-identifying people in the U.S. is about .6% of the population, but as Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color Coalition research shows, the number of trans people who have experienced violence, or who have been murdered, is well above the rate for most other demographics. That same research also showed 87% of trans people murdered between 2013 and 2015 were trans women of color. A 2015 survey revealed 58% of trans people who interacted with law enforcement experienced some degree of mistreatment, from verbal harassment to sexual assault. The nonprofit sector often feels compelled to have exact knowledge of a certain issue, with a pinpoint diagnosis and three step call-to-action. But especially when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, it’s entirely possible that our changemakers, our leadership have not had these experiences, or accrued the knowledge to be able to navigate their complexity. To that end, we’d do well to heed the advice of Janet Mock. When we don’t know something about issues of race, gender, sexuality, class, and neurodiversity, we listen. We validate someone’s experience, and learn. Then, we act.
Freeman Hrabowski III
I grew up less than 20 minutes away from UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County), which you may have only first heard of when they beat the University of Virginia in the NCAA playoffs in March of 2018. Dr. Hrabowski, who was always a bit of a local legend, found himself and the university where he’d served as president since 1992 with superstar status. He’s a self-described nerd and mathematician by trade, and he shows this side of himself in how he strategizes and plays the long game. In 1988, with the help of philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff, Hrabowski co-founded the Meyerhoff Scholars program, a now nationally recognized model for increasing under-represented minority participation in the fields of math, science, engineering, and research. I’ve seen for myself the impact Meyerhoff Scholars can have on their communities, how just one positive interaction carries a cascade of changes. I firmly believe that the example of Dr. Hrabowski and UMBC can show that even when it comes to making bold, structural change in a specific space, (and one as static as academia at that), such rapid change isn’t just possible, it is necessary.
With the news of the passing of NASA pioneer and mathematician Katherine Johnson, I’m reminded of one of the harsher realities of this new decade. We will see further loss of the people who experienced the Civil Rights Movement firsthand. It is an unfortunate reality of the passage of time. Our charge as changemakers is to ensure that their messages and their experiences stay fresh in the minds of civil society and the body politic, but we must resist twisting and parsing the real pain and the real struggles these people endured for the sake of our own missions and agendas. The feeling of loss, persistence, and struggle is a valid and necessary part of our collective changemaking history, and we should present it as such.