Opal Tometi, Black Lives Matter Co-Founder, on Self-Care and Social Movements

In honour of this year’s ongoing Black History Month celebrations, we sat down with the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement, Opal Tometi, after her incredibly moving talk at King’s College earlier this month. We chatted about everything, from her experiences as a woman of colour to maintaining self-care and kickstarting a social movement. 

HCW: Often people refer to BLM as a radical movement that has changed racial perspectives in society, yet prior to the movement, Africans have always been self-determining people. So as someone who identifies as an African woman, and a Nigerian woman in particular, how does that relate to you and what can you say about that?  

OT: This question is so important because it allows us to recognize that the issues that we are seeing right now aren’t happening in a vacuum and they didn’t happen overnight. What we are experiencing day in and day out is quite literally generations, decades and various administrations in the making. And it’s so important that ...  we recognize that the injustices we are experiencing are that way, but at the same time, our resistance has been going on just as long. We have always been resisting, and I think it’s so important, especially in a month like Black History Month, for us to celebrate our resistance, celebrate the fact that we’ve survived, and celebrate the fact that we have been able to create communities that have stood the test of time. We have been able to pass on our histories, stories and traditions onto other generations and we still continue to do that. We continue to connect with our black siblings across all sorts of geographies and that to me is so important, powerful and encouraging. For us to remember that we are self-determining people, we have to continue to encourage one another in seeing, celebrating and fortifying that, and not to water it down because we need to be even more powerful than we are even in this moment.  

HCW: What is it like being a woman in such a powerful position and how do you handle those who try to debilitate you due to your gender?  

OT: I don’t know any other way of being, other than through my experiences and what I have been taught. My mom, my aunts and all the Nigerian woman in my life have been so fierce and strong. I have only grown up around powerful women so I have a strong sense of self and our power. However, when people try to undermine me and my leadership, which happens more often than I like to admit, I end up engaging more and more of my sisters in resisting whatever it is that I am up against. The other thing I would say is that it’s not solely men who adopt these values of patriarchy. We are living in a world where people value men and white voices more than [those of] women of color, so I think it is also important that we understand the nuance of it and understand that sometimes our sisters will have some kind of animosity towards us. So I’d say try to have a more nuanced understanding of what is going on and, at the same time, I’d say be around people who affirm you, find your resilience in that, encourage it more and more, and help mentor others in the same position.  

HCW: In 2013, the BLM movement really took off—it’s been about five years now. What can you say about the changes that have happened, positive and negative, and what advice can you give to people living in the diaspora to move against that?  

OT: Though we have seen some changes over the years, the first thing that we’ve seen that has been critical is that we finally have a public that is dealing squarely with anti-black racism, that is taking it seriously, that is a part of public and popular culture, as well as discussion. So I think that is a night and day difference. We have transformed from a society where we are not talking about race, where we are supposedly post-racial and colour-blind, to a society that has now said no, we are going to discuss this, we are going to discuss policies, we are going to push that. And what is powerful to me is that it wasn’t some kind of creative communications branding project, but it was quite literally the embodiment by millions across the globe that made that happen and you can’t just point to one sole leader of the movement. I think specifically for immigrant communities and black communities, in this country and across the diaspora, it’s important that we know our place. We need to know that immigrants have always been a part of our social movements and know that we enrich the types of conversations that we can have about colonialism and oppression. It’s really powerful for us to bring our knowledge and experiences of oppression in those contexts and have a nuanced expression to fight the US and Canadian systems. That is one of the most powerful things that we can do as folks who [look like us].   

HCW: What is one thing that you want to say to black students across our campus?  

OT: You’re beautiful, you’re necessary, and I would say to self-care. I think ultimately [self-care] is so important because not only are you experiencing the acts of racism or microaggressions day in and day out on campus, but you’re likely also watching on the news and hearing stories, or you have family in other contexts so you are hearing about their different challenges. So I encourage people to check in on each other, take time for themselves no matter what that looks like and prioritize that. [The movement] needs you for the long haul and this might look like working at a different pace. It might not look like mobilizing a black lives matter movement because a lot of us are doing that.  

I go to a lot of campuses where students tell me that “we are doing this, and doing that” and I am like “amazing! AND take care of yourself,” because this work is big, it’s deep and I have seen a lot of burnout. I’ve seen a lot of harm that people cause themselves and each other because they are overwhelmed and don’t necessarily have an adequate outlet to process. And so, I would say particularly for black students and students of colour, take care of yourself, practice self-care, practice communicative care, check in on each other and be accountable about it.  

Let me touch on spirituality real quick because it is also something that is really important. The work that we are engaged in and the times that we are in don’t just drain you intellectually. It’s not just political powers and all that. What’s going to carry us through this time in a different type of way is likely going to be your spiritual and emotional well-being. And so I encourage people, no matter what kind of spiritual or self-care practices, to be very serious about them. Whatever you need to do to get your spirit grounded and fired up for that day, do it, because we are being inundated by a number of stories and we are engaged in a system that doesn’t love us. The system is not looking out for our best interests, particularly because we are grappling with global issues and it’s so dehumanizing on such a fundamental level. So we do need to give ourselves and one another emotional care in order for us to make it through this time.  

HCW: What is one way that Western, and universities across the world, can implement the values of BLM into our campuses and support the black community as we move forward?  

OT: I think the most important thing that campuses can do right now is listen to their students and take their demands seriously. So, if the students are demanding more space on campus to have their meetings—do it. If they are demanding more professors that look like them—hire them. Implement those affirmative diversity programs on our campuses. I think it’s so important to make sure that students feel safe because we are seeing a rise in white supremacist groups on campuses all across the Americas and it’s scary. It’s a really disconcerting time because at the same time, of course, we are seeing vibrant social movements across so many campuses. So we’ve got to have administrations and professors who are affirming of justice and of the dignity of all the students on campus, particularly the students of colour.  

HCW: How do you respond to those who approach BLM with retorts like “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter”?  

OT: The challenge with those types of retorts is that it is so dishonest and divorced from reality. I always think when people say these things: “What world are you living in? What facts are you dealing with? What stories are you hearing that allow you to not see reality?” This isn’t a philosophy; we are talking about what is materially happening in our world today showing that black lives don’t matter. Black people are being murdered in the streets and people are experiencing disproportionate everything. For people to know that and still sit there and say anything other than the fact that they agree with you is alarming, but more than that I think it speaks to the fact that they’re not committed to justice. They are being confronted with something that they know is wrong, but they don’t want to engage in it, they want to shut down the conversation. Whenever I see that, whenever I hear the notion “all lives matter,” “blue lives matter,” it just reminds me that there are some times in history where folks will do the most to avoid necessary sets of actions and discussions. We have to confront it, see it for what it is, and keep moving. I hear those types of retorts and I oftentimes think that people are acting as though we are saying that our lives are superior. There is just all of this other stuff that is going on that speaks to the level of disconnect and disdain with black people having the “audacity” to say that black skin is not a crime, that our lives matters.  

We know what we mean when we say it and we knew what we meant when we said it the first time. I actually believe that all lives matter, that is why I created Black Lives Matter—I am the one who actually believes that. So the fact that I have to explicitly name this as an issue should tell people something. If we don’t name it, if we don’t share it, if we don’t act, then we see these types of injustices. It’s a rhetorical thing, but it is obviously deeper and unfortunately we have those experiences. We have to be an affirming community that stands on the side of justice, that stands on the right side of history, that is courageous enough to deal with real issues in our communities.  

To touch on the “blue lives matter” piece, which is also equally disturbing because we are talking about state-sanctioned violence against communities, and in the US-context specifically, every 28 hours, an unarmed black person is being murdered by law enforcement, by vigilante, by a security guard. We are talking about very quantifiable, real people being murdered almost every single day and the same thing is not happening with law enforcement. The framing is completely off. There is not war on police—that’s not happening—and the fact that people will organize themselves and say “hey, we want accountability, we want justice, we want to live in a world where we are not being profiled, targeted and killed by people who are supposedly there to protect and serve” shouldn’t be a lofty plan. What we are oftentimes reminding people of is the fact that the history of police in the US was that they were slave patrols. They were quite literally created in order to capture enslaved Africans. You see the evolution of law enforcement, so no wonder we are seeing what we are seeing today. What’s happening is that there are investments being made that are aimed at criminalizing people and locking them up. States are created in a fashion that implies that we “need” to have a certain amount of people behind bars because there is a financial incentive. That’s what happening, so it’s so important that we understand that, that we speak the truth, and that we don’t apologize for it.  

HCW: How do you stay inspired to continue doing your work?  

OT: I stay inspired by folks like everyone [at this talk]. Truly, the fact that I can come to a place that I have never been to before, and that there are people here standing up for black lives or organizing for any kind of social justice issues is profoundly encouraging to me. Knowing that there is a community of people on every corner of this planet that believes in justice, that is willing to sacrifice, and that is willing to take a stand is the most heartening thing. I actually believe that the majority of people are with conscience and that we just have to connect more with each other. If we have the opportunity to encourage each other more, I believe that we will have the power to transform our world. Right now things are skewed, but honestly, I can go almost anywhere and I can find people who are like “yeah, we are organizing” and to me that is so inspiring.  

The last bit is the babies! I have three godkids that are just so gorgeous, I love them dearly and they keep me going. I want to create a world where they don’t even have to think about this stuff, where they just live their free, beautiful lives and don’t have to think about any kind of oppressive nature. That keeps me inspired, that keeps me working, and that keeps me focused because the next generation is coming up and they’re seeing what’s going on. Many of them have friends of all different backgrounds, but they’re coming into a time where there are still structures that don’t match their reality. They might value being in a community that is fully diverse, yet they may have a president on television that is quite literally saying to them “your life doesn’t matter,” “your community doesn’t matter,” and so to me, it is so important to work diligently to create a world that actually appreciates and celebrates the diversity and breadth of our humanity.  

HCW: What is one moment, within the movement or your own life, that you felt you were really making a difference?  

OT: That’s such a hard one, but I feel like those moments are happening almost every day and I may take it for granted from time to time because things are moving so quickly. But honestly, when I come to campuses like [Western] and I meet people who say to me “hey, I’m from this place/school/country and this is what I’m doing there” or “I went to my first rally” or “I finally got involved with an organization”... that to me is so heartening—it makes me feel like we are doing something of significance. It feels like we are a part of the change that is so necessary and when I can inspire even one person to get plugged in, understand something a little bit better, and understand it to the point where they actually move to action, it’s the most encouraging thing. 

As Black History Month comes to an end, we remember those who have been harmed, marginalized or oppressed by prejudices within our systems—today and every day. To learn more about the BLM movement and become an ally, check out their website here

Connect with Opal: 

Website: http://opaltometi.com 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/OpalTometi 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/opalayo   

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