7 Ways Black Activists Are Keeping Up Their Work From Home

published Feb 1, 2021
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2020 is a year that will go down in political history. The Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets across the globe to demand justice for police brutality; criminal justice activists called for prison abolition; activists rallied for an end to the senseless killings of Black trans women; and whistleblowers shed light on egregious human rights violations being done to undocumented immigrants by Immigrants and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

All the while, the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the nature of political organizing for many activists, who now had to contend with home offices, Zoom calls, and children doing remote schooling — in addition to mitigating the risks involved with gathering in-person during a highly contagious pandemic. 

Apartment Therapy spoke with Black activists and community organizers about how they remained on the frontlines of change, often from their homes.

They’re navigating how to balance family and the fight for change all under one roof.

Fifty percent of parents with children under the age of 18 have reported some difficulties in doing their job without interruptions since the coronavirus pandemic started, according to the Pew Research Center. However many activists have successfully risen to the challenge in their own way.

Kimberly Bernard, co-founder of the Black Women’s March (BWM), said that her children are also “a constant reminder” of why her activism is so important. She and fellow activist Caroline Gombe founded BWM as a space in BLM where Black women could lead and be heard in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and organizing while her kids attend school from home has demanded a lot of improvisation. 

“My home office is wherever I’m standing or sitting at the time,” she said. “I’ve organized many marches from my kitchen table, many from my bed or while making dinner, phone in hand. I’ve had to do Zoom meetings to plan a week of action for Breonna Taylor while walking my children in the park or during bath time.”

Similarly, Amber Starks (aka Melanin Mvskoke), an Afro-Indigenous activist from Portland, Oregon, whose work focuses on Black liberation and Indigenous sovereignty, said that working from home with kids requires adaptability on her behalf.

“My child is young and I’m the primary caretaker for the most part,” she said. “I’ve been my child’s everything including best friend for all of quarantine which has meant that carving out time to do ‘work’ and being there for her has required flexibility, patience, scheduling, and creativity. All of which I’ve both failed and succeeded at multiple times.” 

They’re further harnessing the power of digital organizing.

Tamika Spellman, a longtime advocate for sex workers, homeless members of the LGBTQ+ community, and the incarcerated in Washington, DC, said that COVID-19 has caused her to take life-saving precautions in her work as a mentor and monitor in a No Justice No Pride building for transgender women facing housing insecurity. She said that her health problems mean that she has a strict no in-person meetings policy, and uses video conferencing, phone and email to communicate with city council, coalitions and cohorts. Spellman also does community outreach work with constituents by handling crises through social media, messaging services, e-mail or text.

“This has been a transformative year for us all as we navigate this deadly pandemic safely, and not one member has been ill with COVID-19 because we are a family that understands each member within could have exposure risks and have all modified our behaviors accordingly to survive this crisis,” she said.

Voting rights organizer and Chief Executive Officer of the New Georgia Project, Nse Ufot, said that the pandemic forced her organization to adopt a completely new strategy for registering voters in the state. Because it felt unsafe to go door-to-door to register voters, they began utilizing digital platforms to encourage civic engagement. 

“We learned about Twitch and started talking to gamers and building relationships there,” said Ufot, noting that the push resulted in “ bringing on a bunch of professional game players [and] esports players to host these live chats with young Georgians about why their vote matters, what the issues are that are on the ballot. We gave away the hottest sneakers to drop in 2020. And we registered 9,000 young people to vote on National Voter Registration Day.”

Ufot said that carrying the New Georgia Project’s policy of meeting their staff and volunteers’ basic needs as humans from their physical workplace into the virtual world, has also helped greatly. 

“With our volunteer nights, we could have 500 people on a Zoom call, calling Georgia voters to remind them about the registration deadline and remind them when early voting starts,” said Ufot. “And we will take periodic breaks, so 15 minutes of calls and then a five-minute dance party. So we’ll hire DJs to hop on Zoom [for] our phone banks, our text banks.”

They’re rallying people to take action, even from thousands of miles away.

Organizing remotely proved to be an obstacle for Jean Montrevil, a defender of immigrant rights and the co-founder of the New Sanctuary Coalition, which provides legal aid and training to immigrants vulnerable to ICE prosecution. The activist first moved from Haiti to New York City when he was 17 years old; the federal government revoked his green card status as a result of a felony conviction but ultimately allowed him to stay in the country. ICE deported him in 2018, but he hasn’t let the distance slow down his advocacy work. He is currently organizing in Haiti, while his former wife and four kids still reside in New York.

Montrevil cites internet problems as a major obstacle to his organizing work. Even so, he has organized a Jericho Walk, where people march in silence and pray in solidarity with ICE detainees, around Washington Square Park and has been spearheading a campaign to bring him back to New York, a place he has called home since 1986.

“My kids, they are the main reason I became an activist, just to fight to stay with them,” he told Apartment Therapy. “Family unity is the greatest human right there is, that no government should dare to violate that right.”

They’re meeting the community’s needs while keeping people safe.

LaKia Williams has also found ways to keep volunteers safe and engaged as they work together. A reproductive justice advocate who works with SisterSong and the Students United for Reproductive Justice, she also runs a campaign called Big Easy EC that provides free access to emergency contraception and other sexual health supplies on her Tulane University campus, she has devised drops that respect distancing guidelines while staying connected with her team.

“I run EC from home by having virtual meetings with the volunteers and scheduling time to drop off EC to them before their volunteer shifts,” she said. Now, Big Easy EC allows the person in need to choose a location; a volunteer then drops the supplies off in a manner consistent with social distancing guidelines.

They’re keeping the underlying realities of working from home in full context.

The changes these community organizers have made to their home and virtual workspaces are reflective of the new professional lives of 71 percent of working Americans. Regardless, working from home successfully, or at all, is still a luxury, as 76 percent of lower-income individuals report not being able to work from home, versus 44 percent of upper-income workers.

“Working from home has shown me another example of class privilege,” said Williams. “Simply being able to work from home says a lot about my socioeconomic standing and then you add on all the things you need to work from home: reliable high speed internet, a laptop or desktop, a presentable background, and a quiet space free from distractions.” 

They’re protecting their own mental health, and celebrating their personal surroundings.

Williams said that having to meet responsibilities as both a Resident Advisor on her campus and as an activist from her dorm room was draining. The intensity of her work schedule in combination with the cramped space was taking a toll on her physical and mental well-being.

“I lived in a dorm room that was about 8-9 feet square where I had very little space to actually move around,” she said. “That small space plus the jobs’ working conditions made it nearly impossible for me to do my work while being mentally and emotionally sound, so I made arrangements to move and get my own place.” She has since moved to a one-bedroom apartment and touts her self-decorated office as a space of joy. 

Starks also cites her home office being a space of refuge after moving. “Being in my office definitely gives me a sense of purpose and I love it!” said Starks, who champions the Land Back movement for Indigenous people in the U.S. “I was intentional when decorating: a picture of my father and me from when I was a baby to remind me of our shared love for one another, Mvskoke art to connect me to my people and our culture, lovely décor because one must have lovely decor, images of Black and Native ancestors because they give me life, drawings from my little one because she is my heart, and pretty little accents to bring a little magic into the hard work.” Her window view of the trees connects her to nature. 

For Ufot, her backyard is a sanctuary where she can pace up and down barefoot to brainstorm ideas or rest from Zoom fatigue. Spellman’s must-have for working from home is her decaf coffee from McDonald’s.

And community organizers are pushing even harder against racial inequity this year.

As these activists continue the fight against systemic injustices from their homes in 2021, they ask for allies to carry the same passion for political justice from last year into this year.

“In 2021, I pray we’ll all keep the pressure on,” said Bernard. “Because oppressive systems are still in place and the police are still killing black people. A progressive president has never meant freedom and liberation for black people in this country so we must continue to fight.”