Time stopped being real for me in 2020. Weeks slurred together as the barriers between day and night dissolved. This past summer, as the world around my little apartment in South Shore, Chicago burned with deferred dreams manifested as rage, hatred, uprising, and deep separation, I was forced to confront my demons and console my angels because there was nothing left to distract me from myself, my past, or my future. I was left with one question — now what? — and the words of an old teacher: “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve.”

As organizers, we recognize that our stories are always part of a collective narrative. However, while we’re building power to shape a new world, if we don't unpack the trauma and internalized oppression that we carry within us, we can become tethered to their offspring: burnout, isolation, and exploitation. Too often, I’ve seen us replicate capitalism when we work ridiculous schedules because “la lucha sigue” — while paying folks minimum wage. I’ve seen white supremacy slither in when organizations throw BIPOC leaders into the fire without training and then fail to offer grace when they miss the mark. 

If we keep pushing through trauma in order to politicize pain, we can’t get to a healed world. We have to be honest with ourselves about how the “why” behind the work and the “how” of the work can sometimes be rooted in an experience of oppression that we haven’t yet healed.

I have been in organizing spaces for nearly twenty years now, working on issues like housing, education, economics, drug policy, and the non-profit industry. Racial trauma has deeply informed my experience of self, but I have often been unaware of how my trauma has impacted those around me. For me, 2020 presented a “year zero” opportunity — and 2021 is the year I can reboot my whole system, embody the fullness of my values, anchor myself in a story of self that serves the future, and act from the center of my soul. 


The “why” behind my work always begins with my family. I grew up in a weird triangle of western Pennsylvania, southeastern Ohio, and the West Virginia panhandle. The region is abundantly and predominantly white, and I was raised in a town of about 5,000 people that was over eighty percent white. My Black family has lived in the south eastern Ohio part of the area since the mid 1800s. I have pictures and records that trace my family back to just before the end of slavery (thanks U.S. Census!). All of my ancestors were determined to build a life for their futures and their families’ futures. They built houses, ran numbers, bootlegged, farmed, raised pigs, sold ice, worked in steel mills, and joined the military. They made the local newspaper as often for their parties or “informal” economic activities as they did for their more socially acceptable and commercial accomplishments. My mom worked multiple minimum wage jobs and put herself through college to earn a degree in Broadcast Communications. My father had cerebral palsy and was a gifted vocalist and a home childcare provider. They raised me to believe that anyone could do anything if she put her mind to it and that race should never get in the way of success and resiliency. We mostly kept to ourselves and built our lives. 

I was taught not to let my race define me, but how could I do that when everything around me seemed to be defined by race? The predominance of whiteness, including plenty of racism, followed us everywhere we traveled in the tri-state area. I was told by a pastor’s granddaughter that I was cursed because of the color of my skin. I was chased off of a playground by white men explicitly threatning to rape me because I was Black. And I can’t even count the microaggressions. I internalized those traumatic moments as the liability I had to pay because of the skin I was born in. But I was taught to believe that if I worked hard enough, smiled brightly enough, or made enough jokes about Blackness, white people wouldn’t use my race against me. I spent most of my childhood steeped in self-hate. I was preoccupied by race even as I worked to become smart and invisible so that no one would notice I was Black.  

I was thrilled to get the opportunity to leave my small world and go to college at North Park University, a Christian university on the north side of Chicago. I left for North Park a Republican — I had planned to cast my first vote for John McCain — but college changed me. At North Park, I was exposed to Liberation Theology, my first Black teacher, and community organizing. My friends shared stories about racist incidents that happened on campus, from the dean who said that all the Black men on campus were animals because they played with water guns to a biology teacher who promoted eugenics in class. That dean and teacher were gone before I graduated, and the school has made an effort to address racism on campus. But my experiences there — both the good and bad — changed me. I began to realize that racism was more than just “mean white people”; it is a web of programs and policies. A whole new world of thought opened up for me. I was inspired to work towards addressing race-based social inequities. 

I started working at ACORN in 2004 and stayed for a few years before going back to Pennsylvania. I returned to Chicago to work at Action Now in 2009, and I stayed for a decade. In the early days, I was exhilarated by doing work that was bigger than myself. Through organizing, my lived experience of race became a powerful tool towards changing the world. I didn’t have to be invisible anymore. I remember knocking on doors in North Lawndale, on the west side of Chicago, and talking to my parents in between blocks just so that they could know I was okay. North Lawndale was infamous for street-level violence, and I heard my first urban gunshots on the corner of St. Louis and Douglas Boulevard. I remember the first time I got a bank draft membership and how a leader who barely opened the door for me at first grew to speaking to the press and large crowds within a few short months. Everything was hard, but it was also beautiful. 

Eventually, though, it was all just hard. I got sick of fighting for the sake of “the good fight.” I was often pouring myself into the work at the expense of my self-care and family. At some point, I forgot to be part of the liberation I was fighting for. I could feel myself becoming more cynical and less connected to the “why” that inspired me to begin the work in the first place. In 2016, I got to go to the political Super Bowl – the Democratic National Convention — as a delegate for Bernie Sanders. I was interviewed by MSNBC and said something to the effect of, “I don’t want to drink the kool-aid of the system that I’m working to dismantle.” I meant that I wanted to make sure I used my vote critically instead of blindly following “party lines.” Nonetheless, I got hate messages and violent threats on social media, mostly from people who supported Secretary Clinton. This blew my mind and broke my heart because my values were on their side.

Later that year, I took a sabbatical because I was disillusioned by everything connected to politics. A little over a month after my return to work, my treasured Auntie V., a passionate Democrat and one of my only family members who understood my political views, died. I struggled with a host of health issues and deep depression for most of the next two years. 2018 started with the death of a close friend’s father and, by its end, nearly a dozen friends and family had passed on, including my dad and his mother, both of whom were iconic forces in my life. It was like the rapture happened, and I got left behind. So many people that I loved were gone.

The sudden absence of my dad was unspeakably jarring. I got the call while I was at a direct action that was already filled with tension. My mind stumbled through memories of sending my dad's calls to voicemail over the years because I was at an action or talking to him while I was commuting to knock doors. My dad was with me every step of the way in my organizing journey. He didn’t always understand why door knocking was important, but he understood that people had to come together for change. It “clicked” for him when he saw video from an action I helped organize. He said “you’re helping people remember that they’re worth fighting for.” While he didn’t always agree with my tactics, his paradigm shifted; he supported the mission.

As I worked through grief, I realized how many organizing circles lacked space for healing. Some organizers offered grace, but many were exhausted by me. I was not acting like my best self and plenty of communications and relationships were interrupted by my inability to cope. By the time my grandmother died in August 2018, I was barely functioning. I couldn’t do my job anymore, and I had to radically reboot my system.

I decided to take some time off. I felt like fighting a nameless “system” did not really solve the problem of racism. The wicked problems created by people who continued to make racist decisions regardless of what a policy says made me feel like my work didn’t matter — it just shuffled the problems around. I realized that I was making decisions about policy from an echo chamber that promoted political expediency and limited my vision for what was possible. I was replicating systems of oppression because my trauma limited my beliefs about my own possibilities. I came to believe that the true theft of the system is that it rips away our agency to determine our own path. A system that convinces us that our limiting beliefs are the only way to see the world keeps us repeating the same strategies and tactics. 

As I was about to walk away from social justice spaces, an opportunity came for me to work with Blackroots Alliance. BlackRoots Alliance is a network of organizations and individuals committed to providing each other with the capacity-building support that makes for strong organizations while also working to expand the conversation around what it means to work towards the wellness, safety, education, economic empowerment, and democratic engagement of Black communities. Sometimes that support looks like help with a grant proposal or public policy analysis. Other times, it looks like a sounding board and a shoulder to cry on. We create space for everyone to lead from their strengths, lifting all of us to greater heights of impact.

BA was formed to create a space for Black people to reach their fullest human potential, to support the safety and liberation of Black people, and to heal from their trauma while uplifting and supporting Black leadership towards social change. Watching someone grow from a meowing kitten to a roaring lion has always been the juiciest part of organizing for me, and I wanted to be part of that transformation for all Black people everywhere, despite the many ways that white supremacy, capitalism, and trauma try to steal our roar. At BA, we get to experiment with what’s possible and tell stories of our liberation while we are working towards that world. 

I am still healing, but I have hope now. Oppression does not have to be our story. It will take some imagination to create a system that works for everyone, but I believe we can do it if our efforts are fueled by authentic, unwavering love and an audacity to think new thoughts about the systems that we all have come to accept as normal. We are all part of the systems we’re trying to dismantle. And if we’re not careful, we become the systems too. We have to have a disciplined, radical shift in our thinking and start practicing the world we want to live in on the micro level if we are ever to change the macro. Change like this requires an acceptance that we are all connected in really uncomfortable and complex ways. If we want people to stop working us to the bone, we have to stop working ourselves to the bone and expecting our staff to do the same. If we want people to center the most marginalized, we have to make sure our organizations are led by the most marginalized. If we want everyone to have living wages, we have to demand that our work be funded equitably and pay people well. If we want to celebrate Black Joy, we have to find the joy in our lives first. If we want to dismantle capitalism, we have to stop measuring people solely by what they produce. 

I’m still organizing, but I'm organizing people to cultivate new conversations about who they are and how they fit into the collective. I’m organizing to incite worldview shifts among Black people so that we can level up our socio-political consciousness, and then continue in that new perspective to work together to change the system. 

I am convinced that we are at a flashpoint in human history where our actions and reactions to our collective circumstances will ignite flames that will burn a path towards a new world. If that new world is to be one where there is a system that works for everyone, it’s important to challenge the ways this current system has shaped our identities. We have to decide on what story we want to tell in the future and start living it out today. I am telling the story of how everyone, including me, is doing the best that we can do, and that everything that we are is enough to do everything that we need to do. I am telling the stories of grief and mourning to create opportunities for people to heal, to hope, and to share in each other’s humanity. I am telling the stories of Black people who have survived and thrived and who will continue to do so long into the future. I am telling stories about my ancestors, who imagined the liberation that I now experience, and telling stories that radically imagine a world yet seen so that any who come after me can experience the liberation I still seek. 


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