In 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the U.S. justice system sent a message to the black community: You don’t matter.
The black community responded to that message by organizing a powerful movement that is forcing the world to acknowledge that black lives do matter.
Black Lives Matter is more than just a hashtag or a political hot button. It is a multilayered movement, pushing back against the systematic racism in this country that harms people of color. While many of us are familiar with some of the great work consistently led by more high-profile activists, beneath the radar are those often unrecognized by the mainstream, but who share the same passion and are fighting against the same system of oppression.
This list (although shorter than it could be) is a salute to them, the unsung heroes of Black Lives Matter.
Where hip-hop and activism come together, you’ll find Memphis, Tenn., native Marco Pavé.
In his game-changing TEDx talk, “Hobbyist to Lobbyist,” he takes the audience on a journey, using rap lyrics to tell a story of life in inner-city America. He talks about funding for the arts in schools and how art can make a difference in social change.
Pavé is the embodiment of the message he conveys. From colleges to inner schools, he teaches students how to utilize their artistic talents to navigate difficult feelings in the face of injustice. In fact, he has taken his activism a step further by creating scholarships for local high students who have a passion for art and a willingness to learn how to use it as a bridge to reach any desired destination. As Pavé said, “I am a full person … I use every part of myself for social activism. I also believe in a proactive approach. Connecting with youth and teaching about systematic racism and navigating those difficult emotions is my way of being proactive.”
Terryl De Mendonca
Founder and executive director of the Misunderstood Youth Development Center, Terryl De Mendonca, a Queens, N.Y., native, has been an activist for more than 10 years. Her passion is demonstrated through her body of work. Long before the mass incarceration of people of color was receiving mainstream recognition, De Mendonca was a champion for the cause.
In 2005 she established a relationship with the Queens District Attorney’s Office to develop the first alternative sentencing program in New York City’s borough of Queens to offer a comprehensive, 12-month program to youthful offenders who plead guilty to low-level felony crimes. Upon their successful completion of the program, their criminal records are sealed and dismissed. As advocates of “Ban the Box” can attest, this can greatly affect their chances of gaining meaningful employment after involvement with the criminal-justice system.
Similar to De Mendonca, Taina Vargas-Edmond is a champion in the fight for criminal-justice reform. As state advocate for the Ella Baker Center, Vargas-Edmond works to advance the goals of the Truth and Reinvestment Campaign, building the capacity of communities throughout California to prevent and respond to state violence and mass criminalization through community organizing and coordinated rapid response.
Her body of work also includes co-founding the Coalition for Jail Reform in Monterey County and working for the California State Assembly. She played a crucial part in drafting legislation targeting state prisoners, helping them reduce their sentences while greatly lowering their chances of recidivism.
Janaya Khan’s work is a concrete example of the global impact of BLM. Known as Future in the Black Lives Matter movement, Khan is "a black, queer, gender-nonconforming activist, staunch Afrofuturist, social-justice educator and boxer based in Toronto." As the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, Khan and the rest of the group are “committed to black liberation, transformative justice and indigenous sovereignty and operate through a black trans-feminist lens.”
What started from a tweet made out of frustration after the killing of Michael Brown became a huge call to action. “Staying still is becoming too painful” is how Aurielle Lucier, then 19 years old, described her feelings after learning about another police killing. She tweeted her personal phone number with a call to do something and used the hashtag #ItsBiggerThanYou. The response to her rallying cry? She called it “overwhelming”: She received hundreds of responses on Twitter and through voice mail from individuals who felt as she did.
After some grassroots organizing, Atlanta’s first massive protest was born in August 2014 outside the CNN Center. Since then, Lucier has turned #ItsBiggerThanYou into an organization with an executive board that has established six chapters outside Atlanta with a collection of young activists fighting for social justice.
In the wake of reports of 20 transgender women being killed in 2015, most of whom were women of color, black transgender women and gender-nonconforming leaders partnered with Black Lives Matter and other black movements to organize a National Day of Action on Twitter and in at least 14 cities. One of the leaders was Aaryn Lang. In an interview with Fusion.net, Lang stated, “Black trans women have been strategizing with the leaders of this movement, but when we get killed, there’s no outrage. Now is the time to shut it down for black trans lives.”
As indicated in her bio at the National LGBTQ Task Force, since coming out as a trans woman, she has “witnessed firsthand the struggles #girlslikeus have to go through on a daily basis.”
Nancy “Momma Nia” Wilson
Nancy Wilson, or “Momma Nia,” as she is affectionately called, is the current executive director of Durham, N.C.’s SpiritHouse. SpiritHouse consists of a group of artists, teachers and activists inspired by the black liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Their purpose “was to create and develop grassroots programs that aimed to eliminate the negative impact of illiteracy, poverty, and racism as it impacts the Black community.” Described as a “mother, poet, performer and storyteller,” Momma Nia uses her gifts to empower community members to express and address their own needs. She is a living hero who is helping to build a generation of activists.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Alexis Pauline Gumbs is the co-creator of a queer black intergenerational experiential archive on wheels called the Mobile Homecoming Project and the founder of Broken Beautiful Press. As her bio indicates, Gumbs is “a queer Black trouble maker and a beacon of revolutionary love.” In 2010 she earned her Ph.D. in English, Africana studies and women’s studies from Duke University and was named one of the 50 visionaries changing the world by Utne Reader. Gumbs has dedicated her life to “collecting and amplifying the social organizing herstories of black women, trans men and gender queer visionaries who have been refusing the limits of heteronormativity and opening the world up by being themselves in the second half of the 20th century.”
Jitu Brown, Anna Jones, Irene Robinson, April Stogner, the Rev. Robert Jones, Marc Kaplan, Monique Redeaux and Prudence Browne
On Aug. 17, 2015, these brave leaders led a hunger strike that lasted approximately 35 days in protest of the closing of Walter H. Dyett High School in Chicago, which had been the only remaining open-enrollment high school in the Bronzeville neighborhood. In June 2015 the neighborhood school was shut down because of low enrollment rates and poor academic performance, but the protesters didn’t want to see the school closed; they wanted it saved and improved.
“What school district in their right mind would demonize and run away from parents that are activated to improve their schools?” protester Jitu Brown told the Huffington Post. “They just ignore us because they were hell-bent on closing this school and several other schools in this neighborhood, as if there’s no hope for black kids in neighborhood schools, and that’s just not true.”
Activists organized families, former teachers and students of Dyett to form a hunger strike. After several weeks of consuming only water, the protesters yielded results. Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool said that the district would work with community partners when deciding the future of the high school.
Born and raised in Chicago, Jessica Disu, also known as FM Supreme, “uses language as a tool for positive change.” As indicated in her bio, she is “a three-time international performing poet, artist, activist and educator who describes herself as a ‘humanitarian rap artist.’” A two-time champion at Louder Than a Bomb, the Chicago youth poetry-slam festival, Disu has served as coach and youth leader in that slam and others.
Traveling around the world as part of her mission to mentor youth, Disu has toured Southeast Asia, visiting Thailand and Myanmar, as co-founder of the Peace Exchange: Chicago-Asia 2013—a community-based, educationally focused and young-adult-led effort to understand violence and to foster peace in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods.
Shanita Hubbard is a mom, writer, social-justice advocate and Nas stan and is also the lover of a great twist-out and good books. Follow her on Twitter.