Organizing is what Opal Tometi does best. Here, the Black Lives Matter co-founder talks about inclusivity, creativity, and what she’s working on next
It was the summer I turned 27 that I called my husband a racist. I laid it all right there on the cracked hardwood floors of our Brooklyn brownstone late one evening. The word projected through my gapped-tooth mouth, like vomit. Staring back at me, his eyes welled up with tears. In that moment, I was just another black woman, and he was just another white man who had walked through the door at the wrong time. It was the same summer, of 2016, that Philando Castile, a black man, was shot in the abdomen by a police officer in a suburb of St. Paul, MN. The killing was caught on camera by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and I had watched her documentation four times that evening. While I was crying racist to my husband—who, by all facts of life and intention, most certainly is not—and succumbing to that collective and confusing heartache all black women feel in one instance or another, Opal Tometi was organizing, creating, and attempting to dismantle the systems that keep racism, injustice, and even death in constant circulation. A New York–based writer born to Nigerian immigrants, Tometi helped form the largest movement of our generation: Black Lives Matter. It’s a movement she co-founded with Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza in 2013, during the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed, black, and 17 years old.
It is one of the many things she’s done in her expansive career, which includes social work for domestic abuse survivors. Now, with her current position as the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, she focuses on the intersection of immigration and race. “People tend to hear the word immigrant and they often think non-black Latino. They typically don’t think Caribbean, African, or even black from any part of the Americas,” she says. “My work with BAJI is meant to shed light on the black experience in the immigration system.” Though jetting across state lines to support immigrants’ rights takes up much of her days, the dedicated activist has something new up her sleeve, even as she strives for greater balance. “I’m trying to make more time to write and launch a new initiative with black women in the arts,” she says. “And ultimately, I’m trying to behave as though my black life matters too, so I’m making more time for my boyfriend, my family, and friends.” Tometi is the woman who reminds us that we are always more than just black women. She teaches collective action, demonstrates joy, and recommends creativity “in spite of” and ultimate self-care. She is the woman to be inspired by.
How would you describe the mission of Black Lives Matter?
Black Lives Matter is a political project, a network, and a broader movement to end anti-black racism and affirm the beauty and dignity of all black lives. We challenge the status quo. We resist. We exercise our rights, and we organize for the future we deserve! Many people know BLM as a hashtag or think we may be solely engaged in online activism around the ways police murder black people with impunity. But we are now a network of chapters across the country and even in Canada and the U.K. Members of official local BLM chapters are working with a variety of black groups, like Million Hoodies, Black Youth Project, Dream Defenders, and the organization I work for, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and building multiracial coalitions with our allies throughout the country to advance a human rights agenda to ensure we have a democracy that works for everyone.
All three co-founders of BLM, the most visible black activist organization in the U.S., are women. Yet, despite my support for BLM as a woman of color, I didn’t even realize this. What are your thoughts on that?
Ha! Patriarchy tends to invisibilize the work of women. Add to that racism, and there you go—a recipe for erasure of black women’s work. It’s no surprise that it’s not widely known that three black women started the Black Lives Matter network. However, what is unfortunate is that it’s taken for granted that black women have been behind every liberation struggle. We have so many women who are deserving of much celebration. Think just in U.S. history: Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Ella Baker, Marsha P. Johnson, Shirley Chisholm. Even now, I can think of hundreds of black women in the U.S. and around the world who are doing such incredible work.
At the time of our interview, eight transgender women of color have been killed this year, and black queer women continue to be left out of the dialogue about racial parity. What can be done to address this?
As an ally to the trans and queer community I feel deeply saddened. Black transwomen are being brutalized, and it’s important we do the vital work to end the type of toxic masculinity that feels threatened by trans and even cisgendered black women. It’s quite literally killing us. What I do is actively support the leadership of black trans sisters. I donate to and encourage the building of institutions that affirm transwomen, like the Marsha P. Johnson Institute that my dear friend Elle Hearns is launching.
You are a woman who wears many hats and travels all over the world. What has been your biggest accomplishment?
The only way I can answer this question honestly is to say that I feel accomplished when I feel like myself. When I feel I’ve lived my values on a day-to-day level, knowing that I did my part. As a human being I believe we are always evolving. This life gives us so many opportunities for growth, in our character and capacity to love and learn. The more I feel like myself—living my values, and owning my potential and not running from it—that makes me feel like I’m on the right track.
And what’s been your biggest obstacle?
My biggest obstacle as a woman is more external than anything. There’s nothing more magnificent than being a woman. I love our strength, our beauty, our incredible bodies, our intuition, our intellect…so much to love! The obstacles often manifest at interpersonal and systemic levels, so I do what I can to partner with women, men, and folks from all walks of life to institute changes that address the sexism that has saturated our society.
I find myself wanting to create and write more under this new political regime, while also resisting and fighting for black lives. Do you have any suggestions for women who are on their creative and artistic paths during this time?
I love all things creative! In fact, I view myself as a creative as well. I am a writer, I curate, I plan events, actions, et cetera. I used to play the bass guitar and piano. I design everything in my life as much as I can, from the pillows in my living room to some of the clothes I wear, and work with a Senegalese brother in Brooklyn who sews my designs.
I think for those women who are especially trying to express themselves creatively, it’s important to use the fire you have from the struggle for justice to inform your art. It’s okay to incorporate it. Art is meant to reflect the times, but also to inspire us to see and be different. People trying to unleash their inner creative should just take care like all of us do: breathe, drink plenty of water, get some sleep. We are all so much better when we come fresh and well nourished. We aren’t all able to do this all the time, but to the degree that you can, I encourage people to take care of themselves. And the insight and motivation to release what will hopefully be a moving body of work will come naturally.
In just a few words, what does the 2017 survival kit look like for black people?
Self-care for resilience!