Black History Month: Today’s Changemakers

*We do not endorse any political party or candidate. These are the personal opinions and stories of others.*

We got a chance to check in with a few Black changemakers. We got to ask them some questions about their work. We’re honored to feature these 5 powerful changemakers and even more honored to build community with them. Read up on MaryPat Hector, from Rise Inc and a HeadCount board member, Richard Wallace, from EAT Chicago, Marla Louissaint and Dimitri Moïse, from Claim Our Space Now and Nicole Poole, from Take a Leap Foundation!

 

When you imagine the world you’re working towards, what does it look like? 

Marla: A just and equitable world where Black, Indigenous and all POC can go to bed at night without wondering where the next meal will come from, if they can afford a visit to the hospital, if they’ll be fatally stopped by a police/military officer. I want a world where there won’t be a “first” Black person to make strides in any industry. A world where our excellence and brilliance will outlast and supersede the centuries of oppression that will soon cease to exist. A world where Black people will not have to defend our birthright to live and claim space unapologetically.

Richard: I imagine a world without cages. I imagine a world where the needs of the people in need are prioritized over the needs of people in power. So that means that if you don’t have six children then why would you need a six bedroom mansion and why is the person with six children in a two bedroom apartment. It’s more or less about using the earth’s resources at need, not at scale for no reason. And I think Black people are in it. That’s one of the revolutionary things you could say that I imagine a future that Black people are in it. And that they’re free. We don’t have to worry about school choice or what schools we are going to send our kids to because their culture is reinforced at every institution. Those are some of the things that I dream about.

Nicole:  A diverse world where people intentionally and thoughtfully communicate, and consider perspectives beyond their own.

Dimitri: The world I am working towards is one where the work I do no longer needs to exist. A world where we are all seen for who we really are, without fear, free of judgement. I see a world where our experiment of American democracy actually works for all people, where politicians meet their constituents where they are, and involve communities in the policies they are building. I see a world where Black lives finally matter — a world where we stop losing our Trans siblings too soon, and where all people who have been made to be historically disenfranchised are empowered and have power.

MaryPat: The world I am working towards is equitable. It offers opportunities to those that never believed they would have a seat at the table. It encourages people to speak up, instead of shaming them when they do. It encourages young people to speak up now instead of “wait their turn.” 

 

Tell us about your first time voting or engaging civically?

Marla: The first time I voted was in the primaries last year. I was raised in a conservative home where civic engagement was preached against so exercising my right and learning the ins and outs of the voting process to then share with our community during our Claim The Vote initiative last summer/fall was exciting and fulfilling. I took plenty of selfies to commemorate the first time voting and you can tell I was grinning pretty hard at my poll site ha! 

Nicole: I could not wait until I turned 18 so that I could vote. Election day was always a special event and I was ready to finally cast my ballot. I had just turned 18 a few weeks before the mayoral election that year and remember being so excited to vote for the Mayor and the candidate won. I did not take voting for granted [and] helped to register many of my friends after that election.

MaryPat: The first time I voted, I was so proud because I had the opportunity to mobilize almost my entire student body to participate in what would be a VERY MEMORABLE election. It didn’t go the way I had hoped. But I was happy that I was able to make my voice heard. 

Dimitri: My first time voting was for Obama’s second term. Ever since I’ve engaged in the political process, I’ve had the privilege of easy experiences as a voter, which is why I care so deeply about voter rights for all. If ease and access to vote can happen for one, then it can happen for all. Claim Our Space Now launched a voter initiative in partnership with Headcount, Claim the Vote. I believe it’s important we speak truth to power and guarantee equal access to the polls. 

 

What advice would you give a younger Black person that wants to get involved in activism or politics?

Nicole:  My first piece of advice would be to actively listen. Your constituents want to be heard and your job is to understand. Next, be prepared to be selfless. The work is not about you – it is about your constituents/community members that you will serve. And be well-prepared yet flexible. You can prepare all day and everything can change. Be graceful during any changes and keep the first two pieces of advice in mind.

Richard: I think activism has given way to a new sense of popularity due to the influx of capital that’s assigned to it. I think the term “organizer” has been overused in a lot of ways. There are some people that think that organizing is just online. If your analysis is great but you have an inability to move people, you still serve a purpose but you need to make space for people who are actually willing to get out and do the work… The other part for me is that you’ve got to find joy in the work. If this is not something that brings you joy, there’s other places for you to be. Don’t let it consume you. I come from an era of organizing where it’s in everything that we do all day, everyday. And that means a lot because in certain ways you’re erasing joy and you’re erasing happiness and you’re erasing friendships who don’t necessarily agree with your politic. You’re erasing things that might have mattered to you. You’re kind of in the contradiction! … Just embrace the contradictions you might exist in and don’t take yourself so serious. This work is perpetuitous. It was here, your ancestors left it. There’s nothing new under the sun. And so you’re really just picking up where other people left off.

Marla: We all have a voice and we get to choose what we ‘d like to do with it. I’ve chosen to use it to uplift, build, and empower the community with the help of my fierce network – that’s how Claim Our Space Now (COSN) came to be! You can do the same if that’s what you feel compelled to do – don’t let fear of not being well versed in activism or politics scare you off, I’m only 8 months in and I have a nonprofit and I’m actively learning it’s ok to learn along the way! Your community will always have your back.

MaryPat: DO IT! Our ancestors fought for progress, and there is still so much work to be done. It is important to realize that our voices are needed in every space. Whether that’s in corporate America, in entrepreneurship,  in politics, or at the grassroots level. There are so many ways you can get involved, You just have to find where you fit.

Dimitri: The first thing I would say is that this work is based in a lot of personal trauma. We need to come to the table with our full selves when it comes to activism or political discussions. Because we are all born into an inherently white supremacist system, the issues we are addressing affect Black communities at disproportionate rates. That being said, it’s is so important that you come to the table as your full self, because you get to represent communities that are forcibly excluded from the conversation. That’s a lot of power. Own that and lean into it.

 

What keeps you motivated and inspired, in a field of work that can lead very quickly to burn-out?

Marla: I cultivate joy as best I can and am learning to ask for more help. I’m innately a caregiver so there are days I spend a lot of energy pouring energy into others but finding the balance of treating myself has been very important in this work and I had to learn the hard way. I hit a wall when I was gearing up for finals at Fordham University around election season and had to make a decision to take a hiatus to finish my degree in one piece without putting my mental and physical health at risk. My cofounder Dimitri Joseph Moise stepped up in the biggest way when I asked for help and led the organization while I finished up finals, making sure daily operations and planning for future initiatives were intact while I was away! Since then, I’ve learned more ways to stay motivated like finding times in the day to dance, workout, get creative and make art alongside my fellow revolutionary artists bringing in the Black renaissance we are in the midst of. Leaning into my art helps me carve out time for myself and find modes of collaboration beyond organizing that shed light and bring joy to myself and others who interact with my stories!

Richard: The people. The people keep me inspired. When we do a lot of our work, there will be some days where I’m feeling miserable about my email. Like “I have a million emails and a million things I’ve got to do…” And then I’ll unplug from the digital world and then I’ll go out and just be with the people, the people that we serve. And I can see them smiling. Someone who’s homeless or a victim of domestic violence or whatever, they’re smiling and laughing and having joy and I’m sitting up miserable… You get a chance to be with the people and then you see that what is bogging you down is really some high class sh*t. And then it’s a lack of gratitude. When I get back plugged in with community, my gratitude levels increase. Because if they can be grateful and they can have joy, then why am I denying myself joy.  They also force me to not take myself so serious. 

Nicole: Hearing from the people that we serve always inspires me. I don’t get to personally meet everyone that we impact but it’s always extra special to hear how the work that I do with Take A Leap supports others and always is extra motivation for me to continue the work.

MaryPat: The friends I have gained from doing this work. When I see them get things like reform or advocate for issues impacting their communities … I get soooo proud because I can see where they started and how far they’ve come.  I also get motivated by the people in the community that I have yet to meet. 

Dimitri: The people I work with, the many who reach out to me on social media, the ones who support me. Having the privilege of such support in the work that I do keeps me inspired every day.

 

Who are some of your favorite revolutionary leaders, past or present and why?

Richard: I’ll start with my mother, Doris Green, who founded a prison ministry in the 80s and she began organizing behind the prison walls in every state prison in Illinois. She is someone who is fearless. She got ordained as a minister. She wanted to preach at a church but they wouldn’t allow her to preach at a church. But she did not give up on her dream to preach and minister. So she ended up finding solace behind the prison walls and started ministering back there. I watched her rearrange her politic to meet the people where they were. She read the Quran. She read about Buddhism. She read about all of those things and then approached her organizing through a universal praxis where everyone was validated. She realized Christianity was blocking her ability to move people so she adjusted her life. The result was that she had organized almost every heavy in Chicago. Heavy’s is what we call gang chiefs in the state of Illinois who are incarcerated. She could stop violence in the city of Chicago with a phone call. That is the power of organizing but also, for me, that is the humility you need to carry as a movement person or an activist… Remaining mendable is something that I feel like she led with and is something that I try to carry with me today. Outside of mama Reverend Doris Green, I’d have to say Dr. Barbara Ransby as a University of Illinois Chicago professor and also affiliated with the Panther party and a long time civil rights activist. What she shows me is the power of transgenerational dialogue. She’s in space with the youth that are leading movements today and she used to be that youth that was leading movements in the past. She’s able to provide some historical analysis like, “I’ve been where you’ve been and this is what happens next, these are the tactics that come.”… She lives that practice of being part of transgenerational dialogues and movement building. And lastly, Fred Hampton, Mama Akua, and Fred Hampton Jr.. The whole Hampton Family have really been anchors in my life since I was a shorty. They stay committed to the ground game. They could’ve easily been bought out by billionaires. But they’ve stayed committed to their politic to their line regardless of how fast the movement went. They were like, “We’re gonna stay down here. We’re gonna do this work for these people.” That is a commitment that we all need to hold: Once it stops being popular, can you continue to hold your line. They are some people who I feel like have done that historically.

Marla: Fred Hampton – he had a profound love of community and I have found so many parallels in our missions to bring change. He also dreamed of an intersectional movement to galvanize in opposition of the capitalist system built on the backs of slaves that continue to perpetuate Black oppression while finding unity in our demands for change. Angela Davis- her contributions are expansive: in time, in her writings, what came out of her lived experience as a political prisoner chased and made an example of for identifying capitalism as the root of racism in this country, and so much more. I hope to meet her one day! Her example is one we are very lucky to see carry over into this generation as we fight actively against the systems that white supremacy perpetuates. I attended a radical feminist futures panel that she and another revolutionary leader I admire Adrienne Maree Brown changed my life with fiercely abolitionist ideals I’d like to incorporate into our work at Claim Our Space Now. Imagine what would happen if we shared space in real time!

Nicole: Fawn Sharp and Tamika Mallory are two people that immediately come to mind. They are both passionate about human rights and equity and are unapologetic in their approach. I have a great deal of respect for their commitment and fortitude and always learn something new when I hear them speak.

MaryPat: Melanie Campbell, Tamika Mallory, Helen Butler, and the countless Black women that work so hard to ensure our voices are heard. 

 

What books or music do you listen to?

Nicole: The Four Agreements is my forever go-to book. I read it at least once a year to realign my intentions and thoughts. And one of my favorite artists to listen to is Rudy Currence. I have been a super fan of his since about 2004.

Marla: A lot of neo soul – Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” changed my life and understanding of Black art transforming the consciousness of our community towards radical self-love and confirming that our exasperation with the centuries of oppression we have faced as a people is warranted and should never be questioned. Neither should our joy and light through all the persecution – our resilience is so beautiful and transmutes best through our art. I have a growing library of revolutionary texts that excite me! My next task is getting through them alongside the work I’m doing as President of COSN and creating professionally as a multidisciplinary artist.

MaryPat: AFROBEATS, Trapsoul (Brent Faiyaz, 6lack, Jhene Aiko, Khalid), any female rappers.

 

How do you maintain your mental health/self-care while also contributing to this work? 

Nicole: Great question! This is important and so hard to do because it seems each moment is focused on how to serve others. I try to do a few things to maintain a healthy mental and self-care balance. I take at least a half day off each week to do something that I enjoy. That is usually watching a few movies on my sofa. I turn off the phone and laptop and am present in the moment. I also get up early every morning to spend at least 15-20 minutes to meditate. That quiet time is really important and although not a lot, helps to balance my day.

Richard: This is a very, very, very important question, as a parent, as an organizer, as a partner in a marriage. During the pandemic, which has shifted the way that we communicate, the rate we communicate, the platforms that we communicate through, you can hurt yourself. My commitment is consistently to love myself as much as I love the work. That is a consistent reminder to check in with yourself. I meditate in the mornings and in my meditation, I include mantras around self-love because the most revolutionary think you can do as a Black man, as a Black person in America, is to look in the mirror and love the sh*t out of your reflection. That’s part of my healing journey. Sometimes I can lead with “I’m formerly incarcerated” but what did that do to you? … In the last year, during this pandemic, I’ve come to face to face with my scars or my trauma and I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t owe anybody anything. Which is something I feel as formerly incarcerated, system-impacted people we often feel like we owe a debt to society even if it’s unspoken. We lead and do so much work because we feel like we’re paying off a debt. For me, the mantra and the healing work, the meditation, the reading, the physical workouts, all things I do so that I can look myself in the mirror and say “I love you”… This question is important because it signifies that balance that is necessary to be in the long fight. And stepping away from work that you don’t need to do. No is a skill that you have to learn because there will be demands. So say no when you can, lean into yeses, and lean into nos. Comit hard to yeses and assess and know when to say no.

MaryPat: I am still trying to find the balance. I am just now understanding the importance of self-care and making time for myself. I am also learning the importance of making time for my relationships. Whether it is my relationship with my family, my friends, or my significant other.

Dimitri: The way I maintain my mental wellness and self-care is a lot of structured time for myself. Because the pandemic has pivoted society to a virtual world, we are more connected than ever before. Over exertion of screen time and social media is definitely detrimental to my personal wellness, so my phone goes on ‘do not disturb’ every afternoon until the next morning. Also, I try to focus on the things in my life that fill up my energy tank and release the things in my life that deplete me.

 

What’s something you want people to know about you or what drives you? Or when did you realize activism was something you wanted to do? 

Richard: What drives me is that my story is not unique. There’s a drive within this work for you to feel like you’re unique. That you made it out. And then where’s your direction after you make it out? Where are you supposed to go? If anyone knows anything about me, my commitment is to the streets, first. That is me. I know I’m not unique, I know there are people who are ten times smarter than I was who just didn’t have the investments they needed in order to achieve the things that I was able to achieve. I got lucky. I know I got lucky. And I put a lot of work in behind that luck. Those are the things that continue to drive me. I can’t move until all my people get free. So I’m forever going to be committed to that cause. The people drive me. 

Nicole: I love surrounding myself with good people – I think that is essential to my work. I am very selective about my daily conversations and interactions. And while I have had success in several industries and lived in Europe and several cities across the country, the most rewarding part of my life is my best friend and husband, Artless, and the people that I love and that love me. That daily dose of goodness is what keeps my cup full, so that I can serve others.

Dimitri: Activism has been in my blood. As a first generation-born Haitian American, I’m proud to come from a family line of strong political voices who were focused on Haitian reform. I went to university on an activism scholarship as well — that being said, I think I knew I wanted to do this for a long time. I’ve always led my life with a mission to empower others, all the while being marginalized for who I was. That lived experience spoke so loudly in my soul I knew I wanted to do something to change that. Today, I’ve taken my decades of work to create Claim Our Space Now and spearhead organizations across the country in diversity, equity, inclusion, and transformative justice. I’ve dedicated my life to healthcare equity as an HIV advocate in the Black community. I feel my purpose has led me to all of this work, and I definitely tried to run from it. The more I leaned into my passions, the more I realized this was the work for me.