Standing up and speaking out: Four Black activists reflect on advocating and organizing with purpose through a virtual discussion

David Matos, Associate Arts & Life Editor

Illustration by (Connor Lawless)

In 2020, many activists appeared as the world witnessed the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, kick- starting protests across the globe in favor of social change. The reality of racial inequalities and police brutality associated with Black individuals finally got notoriety, pushing the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront.

Something many new activists may not consider is that Black activism existed long before the monumental events that occurred only two years ago. In commemoration of Black History Month, the Department of Cultural and Global Engagement invited four Black activists on Feb. 22, to virtually discuss their individual journeys, substantial advocacy and their motives behind the fight for social equality.

“(This event is) an opportunity for us to learn about meaningful activism, challenges and successes as we disrupt the status quo and the importance of care and resilience through the work of activism,” said Veronica Jacobs, associate director of multicultural education.

Harmony Edosomwan is a Nigerian-American activist raised in the Bronx by two Nigerian immigrants. She is a chef and cannabis advocate. Recently graduated from the University of Vermont, Edosomwan is the owner of two businesses, Harmony’s Kitchen, a soul food catering business and Heauxs Defense, a self-defense tools company.

She champions Black women, Black queer women and racial justice. She has recently explored environmental justice with a more urban perspective due to her roots in the Bronx. Throughout Edosomwan’s life, when she witnesses something she has to speak on it. To her, activism means standing up for what you believe in and “causing good trouble.”

“Like I remember just even back in sixth grade,” Edosomwan said. “When I see people getting bullied on the bus, I’d be like, ‘Hey, don’t do that’ … I was always causing good trouble throughout my entire life.”

Edosomwan said she was always “activist-minded” and stood up and spoke out on what she believed in. The summer of 2016 was particularly impactful for her as it marked her initial encounter with the BLM movement. That summer, she and her sister joined a BLM protest in Union Square.

Edosomwan said this was one of the biggest protests that New York City had up to that point. Seeing how the police handled the protest shook her to her core, specifically when she had to run away from the police while it was raining that night. This experience was eye-opening to her and fired up a passion to devote her life to activism. A few months later after this encounter during her first semester of college, she organized her initial protest.

“And just the things I saw that night, the rage that I saw from our people, the anger, the sadness, the community,” Edosomwan said. “There were people coming up to me and telling me like, ‘Hey, in case you get sprayed by pepper spray, here’s what you have to do.’”

Like Edosomwan, a healing facilitator and storyteller Rachel Greene studied at the University of Vermont as a graduate student. Greene witnessed Edosomwan’s activism work as an undergrad which motivated to her own work as a Black educator.

“I got to just witness so much of the amazing, incredible leadership of (Edosomwan’s) activism,” Greene said. “It’s something that has always inspired me and I may be older, but there was just so much that I learned from you and your leadership. And so it’s really awesome to see (Edosomwan) on this panel.”

Growing up in a predominantly white school, she felt as if she held a lot of privilege. It wasn’t until she was an undergraduate at Loyola University Chicago when she realized that her clouded experience was not grounded on her identity as a Black queer person.

“It was really hard for me to make space for my rage,” Greene said. “And I think I found that in activism and I found that in identity exploration and obviously so many of the things that were happening with the BLM movement at the time.”

During her first year of college, she took part in many rallies in response to Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012. These rallies were personal to her as she had thought about all the times she was in spaces with her white friends and felt unsafe.

“It was years and years of anger and frustration that I think had been hidden that kind of just exploded all at once,” Greene said.

One thing that Greene learned from this is that both rage and anger have a space despite being taught she should suppress it her whole life. She has witnessed the most impact when she incorporates her animosity when she leads.

Greene’s efforts in activism and social change are grounded in organizing spaces of community and healing for people who identify as LGBTQ. She also found personal healing in creating sanctuaries of refuge for people of queer and trans identities.

“When I think of activism, one of the first things I think about is self- observation,” Greene said. “Specifically thinking about the communities that I work with and serve, but also thinking about what it means to advocate and create resources and be a part of solutions to folks for the future.”

She published her second poetry book, “Heartstrings: From My Heart, To Yours,” on Jan. 13, which showcases her spiritual journey, grief and relationship with intergenerational trauma.

Greene champions community healing as intergenerational trauma regularly impacts Black communities and advocating for social change can unknowingly affect one’s mental state negatively.

“I think for me, I’ve learned that there has to be actively folks organizing,” Greene said. “But there also has to be people holding space for those folks who are doing that work … when I was an undergraduate student, I had no idea how that was impacting my mental health when I was doing a lot of organizing and activism on my college campus until I got into my professional career.”

Scholar-activist, Kat Morris experienced domestic violence growing up which kick-started her advocacy when she had no choice but to start speaking out for the safety of herself and her siblings.

Similar to Greene, Morris also grew up in predominantly white spaces but much of the racism she experienced was interpersonal and not systemic as she did not face a lack of infrastructure. However, her time in foster care is when she was introduced to systemic poverty and a “new layer of interpersonal racism” because her foster parents were “white and racist.”

When she moved in with her mother in Bridgeport, Connecticut, she experienced systemic racism in the forms of environmental racism, police brutality and structural degradation for the first time.

“The first time I went to high school … I had to get patted down by police and go through my detectors,” said Morris. “ But it’s been normalized in Black and brown communities. That kind of built-up an anger in me. And I started to get more and more aware of the environment and climate change, just the different sources of pollution that I was seeing around me that I’d never seen before … And so that was really what inspired me to get into action.”

Morris earned a master of public policy degree from the University of Connecticut where she founded the UConn Collaborative Organizing as an undergraduate. UCCO is a community organization that aims to boost solidarity, intersectionality, social fairness and environmental justice.

She also shared some wisdom of advocating for social change in her TEDxUConn talk, “How to collaborate for environmental justice,” where she goes in-depth on how to go about coming together for calls of action like environmental justice and racism, health inequalities and organizing in your community.

Julian Rose’s activism and passion lie in Black feminism, centering the most marginalized, gender-based violence and those affected by both state violence and patriarch violence in Black communities.

He is involved in Black feminist and abolitionist organizing efforts in Atlanta. For Rose, activism is “like an individual choosing a certain political engagement to bring about social change, like serving as a change agent.” Rose said organizing in a community builds “connectedness” to its citizens and gives more power to its people and sustainability.

Ana Allen, a senior political science and psychology double major, reflected on the opportunity to learn from the four panelists on what it means to be an activist and the mental impact it can have people don’t often consider.

“I think that is absolutely amazing to kind of hear from people who are activists, but also are differentiating from activism and community like involvement,” Allen said. “I think, especially for myself, trying to navigate that area between trying to be an activist, trying not to be performative and then also trying to work with the community, especially a community that is not necessarily my own … definitely is hard to navigate.”