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Queer women are shaping Chicago's Black Lives Matter movement

They're stepping to the forefront in a struggle once dominated by charismatic men.


From left: Kristiana Colón, Charlene Carruthers, Rachel Williams, Janaé Bonsu, and Veronica Morris-Moore - PHOTOS BY DANIELLE SCRUGGS
  • Photos by Danielle Scruggs
  • From left: Kristiana Colón, Charlene Carruthers, Rachel Williams, Janaé Bonsu, and Veronica Morris-Moore

Black women, and queer and trans people, have always been part of efforts to combat racism. Yet the struggle's most celebrated narratives and most recognized faces have belonged to black, cisgender, heterosexual men—the Martin Luther Kings, the Malcolm Xs—who occupied high-visibility leadership positions in the broader civil rights movement.

But as another generation of young black people march in Chicago's streets, its emerging leaders represent a change from previous archetypes. Perhaps most significantly, black women, many of whom are queer and/or transgender, are leading and shaping the movement, whether at a Laquan McDonald protest or a #ByeAnita action. Their very presence underscores that black people experience connected but distinct forms of prejudice—misogyny, homophobia, transphobia.

This generation of leaders believes that building a movement means keeping the experiences and issues of the most marginalized people front and center, whether or not they themselves personally identify as part of those groups.

"No one is free until we all are free, and that includes those who are employed, unemployed, those who are incarcerated or in gangs, or who are sex workers," says Aislinn Pulley, chapter coordinator for Black Lives Matter Chicago. "What we are fighting for is a world where our full humanity is honored and protected and valued, and that includes all of who we are."

These women cite role models such as civil rights movement pioneer Ella Baker, who played key roles in the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and who pushed back against charismatic male leadership. Other influential figures include Marsha P. Johnson, a trans activist who resisted police during the Stonewall Riots, and the Combahee River Collective, a group of black feminists and lesbians who between 1974 and 1980 gathered in retreats that resulted in a collective political statement that has since become an important text for contemporary black feminists.

The Reader spoke with a few of the many young black women organizing in Chicago. It's a movement that has no central figurehead or spokesperson but is built on the understanding that many leaders make up the whole, and that their collective responsibility is to ensure that power is shared. Their personal stories and experiences offer a window into the various perspectives of black women and queer leaders working in the movement.

  • Danielle Scruggs

Rachel Williams, 25

Organizer, Black Youth Project 100

Rachel Williams's passion for activism developed during her time at John Hope College Prep, a public high school in Englewood. In addition to serving on the student council and competing with the policy debate team, she helped organize demonstrations tied to current events.

During her junior year, in 2007, she put together an action connected to national rallies for the Jena Six, a group of black teenagers in central Louisiana who were charged with attempted murder after severely beating a white classmate. (The incident followed a period of racial tension and violence at the school that included white students hanging nooses from a courtyard tree and attacking a black student at a party.) Across the country these charges were seen as excessive and racially motivated; students at Williams's school wore small black ribbons to show solidarity with their southern peers. The moment, she recalls, showed that black students lived through similar struggles even if they were hundreds of miles apart.

"I was at a CPS high school during a time when we lost more than 50 to 60 students each year to violence. And I thought, 'How can I do the work to make change for my community while being a student?' " she says. "As I got older, I realized there were many avenues to go about doing that."

Her dream was to graduate from college and do community work in Chicago, because she originally believed she couldn't be an effective organizer without a more formal education. She attended Kentucky State University, but felt she wasn't getting the enrichment she desired despite her earnest efforts, so she left in the fall of 2013. (The school, which is among the nation's historically black colleges and universities, is now on the verge of closing.)

Williams connected with Chicago activists after returning home, and today serves as an organizer with Black Youth Project 100. Her community work is like a full-time job, on top of the six-plus-hour shifts she spends with students daily—Williams coaches debate at a west-side CPS high school, where she encourages students to connect their personal experiences with racial disparities to the policy discussions that happen during debate rounds.

"I do movement work when I leave work, or do it en route to work, or even when I'm supposed to be actually sleeping for work," Williams says. "I'm consistently working, if not talking with other young people about it."

“Let's be real: Most of the work is being led by black queer women. We're not going to be put in a box or left out.”

—Rachel Williams­

Williams has concentrated much of her activist work on the #SayHerName campaign, which seeks justice for women like Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, and Mya Hall, a trans woman killed by police in Baltimore in April 2015. And for all the other black women and girls—queer or straight, cis or trans—who are subject to police and state violence but whose stories aren't often told.

"Let's be real: Most of the work is being led by black queer women," says Williams, who identifies as queer herself. "We're not going to be put in a box or left out. We're putting our bodies on the line day in and day out."

Williams also emphasizes the importance of inclusion for people with disabilities, drawing from her own experience with cerebral palsy—a chronic condition that affects muscle coordination. Not everyone who attends a rally is able-bodied, Williams says, but they can still be included and instrumental. As an example, she cites a group of Bolivian activists who recently suspended themselves from a bridge in their wheelchairs to raise awareness about how people with disabilities are treated in their country.

Her compassion has served her well with grieving families who have lost loved ones to police shootings. After spending Christmas Day with a few close friends, Williams learned that 19-year-old engineering student Quintonio LeGrier and 55-year-old Bettie Jones, a mother and community activist, had been shot and killed by police. She rushed from her family's home on the far south side to the Austin neighborhood home where the shooting had taken place; in that raw moment she saw the fresh bullet holes etched into the wall near the front entrance.

Just a few hours later, Williams and Chicago Black Lives Matter coordinator Aislinn Pulley went to Jewel to pick up a cake. The occasion was a birthday celebration for Dorothy Holmes, the mother of Ronald "Ronnieman" Johnson, the 25-year-old whose death at the hands of police had been made public just a few weeks earlier.

Waiting at the grocery store, the reality of the day finally hit her. Williams sought the privacy of a bathroom, where she broke down in tears. "Other days, I'm able to put up this hard-ass exterior, because I have to be strong for the families," she recalls. "But that day I had a hard time. Part of me on the inside was screaming, because another two sets of families joined [Holmes] in mourning. Meeting these families affects you, even if you don't allow it to show in the moment."

Although the work takes a personal and emotional toll, Williams says she sustains herself through her friendships with other activists, and by working to inspire the next generation.

"I don't want to be some 40- or 60-year-old organizer doing work for youth, and there not be any youth doing it," she says. "I see kids who think through ways we can change our community, in conversations, and in debate classes. They want to make an impact, and I want them to be able to see themselves in the work."

  • Danielle Scruggs

Janaé Bonsu, 25

National Public Policy Chair, Black Youth Project 100

Janaé Bonsu didn't see a bustling activist community in her hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, despite the area's sometimes overt racism. She remembers passing restaurants proudly flying the Confederate flag, a sight she says can still be seen today—even after Republican governor Nikki Haley signed a bill last year to remove the flag from the grounds of the state capitol following the tragic shooting in Charleston.

"Living in that type of environment without seeing people in a really visible way resisting against it" put a fire in her belly, she says.

Bonsu, who was born to a black American mother and a Ghanaian father, also developed an understanding of colonialism, global capitalism, and the struggles of people across the African diaspora through occasional visits to her father's home country.

She wasn't sure how to solve many of the problems she routinely witnessed, including "the real-time effects of criminalization and mass incarceration" that plagued members of her own family. A number of her relatives endure constant unemployment because of past convictions—one uncle lives in a day hotel because he can't get an apartment, Bonsu says; other loved ones work two or three jobs, barely able to scrape by, and manage a range of substance abuse and mental health issues.

But during college at the University of South Carolina, Bonsu began figuring out how she could help.

"I was a psychology major and a criminal justice minor," she says. "I thought I could go to the direct practice and clinical route, and help people cope at an individual level—because my kinfolk and people who look like me are dealing with so much shit."

“I embody resistance.”

—Janaé Bonsu­

Bonsu planned to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology and applied to several programs, but was devastated after Fordham University, the one school where she was granted an interview, didn't offer her admission. Instead, Bonsu took a research job with MDRC, a poverty-focused New York nonprofit sponsored by the Ford Foundation, where she learned how public policy affects the access disenfranchised groups have to jobs, early childhood education, and other resources.

"I learned that I don't have to take a clinical route to get to the heart of the matter," Bonsu says. "There are social workers who are community organizers, who are policy makers, and who are trying to get at the root of our problems. So I wanted to go to the best school of social work that I could."

Bonsu moved to Chicago in September 2013 to pursue a master's degree at the U. of C. After arriving and starting classes, she realized that even in her social work program, there wasn't as much attention paid to race, class, and privilege as she thought there would be. The elitism and lack of diversity on campus, she says, were also palpable.

But shortly after she arrived in Hyde Park, Bonsu attended an millennial-oriented event for the Roosevelt Institute think tank. There she had a chance encounter with a few activists from BYP 100. Encouraged by conversations with them about black liberation and visions of a world without prisons or police, she knew she had to join—and did, in January 2014.

"This is was what I was looking for when I was in South Carolina. I can effect change through advocacy and political education," she says, describing this community as her chosen family. "I hit the ground running."

Bonsu, who's now studying for a PhD in social work from UIC, says her identity as a queer black woman is central to her activism. "It is the intersection of these [identities] that I feel has been historically overshadowed," she says. By finding strength in blackness, womanhood, and queerness—identities all targeted by prejudice—"I embody resistance."

  • Danielle Scruggs

Charlene Carruthers, 30

National Director, Black Youth Project 100

A college trip to South Africa in 2004 proved to be one of Charlene Carruthers's most formative experiences. She'd grown up in Chicago's Back of the Yards and Gage Park neighborhoods, attended Senn High School, and had faced financial barriers to affording college. But after her first year at Illinois Wesleyan University, Carruthers spent the summer studying contemporary politics in South Africa. To finance the trip, she took out a student loan—one she just finished paying. Ultimately, she says, it was worth every penny.

"I was coming to a political consciousness around that time," Carruthers recalls. "Going out of the country for the first time was very transformative for me."

She and her peers visited Cape Town's District Six Museum, a memorial to the forced relocation of more than 60,000 people under apartheid, when black homes were bulldozed to make space for whites. They also traveled to the original District Six community, now a national heritage site. The trip made Carruthers consider the situation back at home.

"It was pivotal in my thinking about what segregation looked like in Chicago growing up, and the impact of institutional segregation in South Africa," Carruthers says, noting that she connected Chicago's racial stratifications with what she learned about South African apartheid. "That stood out to me."

It was then that Carruthers made a commitment to movement work. In the years that followed, she became a student activist, focusing primarily on racial justice at her school. Carruthers went on to earn a master's degree in social work at Washington University in Saint Louis, and worked with a variety of national organizations, including the black political action group Color of Change and the Women's Media Center. At 23, she had something of an aha moment while staffing a Generation Change program for emerging leaders, during which she attended a training focused on organizing.

"The trainer talked about building power and relational organizing, which means organizing has to be based in strong relationships," Carruthers says. "That's when I decided to go after a grassroots apprenticeship" based in northern Virginia, "and become a community organizer."

“Black liberation isn't going to be won by one or two people, it's going to take many of us.”

—Charlene Carruthers­

In 2013, she helped plan a national summit at the University of Chicago, attended by 100 young black people and organized by the research-focused Black Youth Project and its founder, U. of C. political science professor Cathy Cohen. The gathering would eventually give birth to the activist group Black Youth Project 100. It was during the conference that a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin; the verdict affected the remainder of the group's time together.

"This was a very painful experience to, yet again, hear a reinforcement of the lack of compassion that the state has for black people," she said. "On the other hand, it was a moment of clarity around the necessity to do something . . . around building power for black people and in the service of liberation."

Carruthers says fellow organizers "agitated" her into applying for the job as BYP 100's national director, even though "I had a job at the time and did not plan on leaving," she says. She took the position because "it was really the opportunity to build the type of organization I wish I had growing up."

Locally, BYP 100 has one of the largest member bases of young black activists and organizers, who share and often collaborate with members of a variety of similar groups. Carruthers says this is intentional. "None of us are powerful enough on our own," she says. "Black liberation isn't going to be won by one or two people, it's going to take many of us. . . . We work with each other because we care for each other, we love each other, and share many of the same values."

Carruthers, who also self-identifies as queer, admits that it's taken her several years to feel confident in her leadership abilities. She credits other black women organizers who have supported her in her journey, and says she feels fortunate to live at a time when more activists favor operating from a black queer feminist perspective. "We're in a moment of evolving past the cis male charismatic leader, and forms of that leadership still exist," Carruthers says. Still, she notes, she and her peers are building upon the work of their predecessors: "The best way to fight against the things that didn't work are to build things on sound values that are radically inclusive."

Some of those values, as articulated in the BYP 100's Agenda to Build Black Futures, include advocating for an end to health and wealth disparities in black trans communities, and a divestment from prisons. Although some may consider this approach too radical, Carruthers says it's necessary.

"If what we put out there runs counter to people living in their full dignity, then I'll entertain that opposition," she says. "If it's a matter of whether it's too risky . . . living in America is risky for young black people—so we have to live boldly and articulate a vision [about] the world we want to live in."

  • Danielle Scruggs

Veronica Morris-Moore, 23

Organizer, Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) and the Trauma Center Coalition

As a high school student raised in the Fuller Park and South Shore neighborhoods, Veronica Morris-Moore spent much of her time playing alto saxophone, recording songs, and writing poetry about growing up on the south side. Around the time she graduated from Hyde Park Academy in 2010, her energy began shifting towards activism. Morris-Moore became acquainted with Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) through a friend who was already working with the group.

She accompanied FLY on a trip to Detroit that summer to attend the U.S. Social Forum—an annual gathering of social justice activists—and joined the organization soon after. It was during the event that Morris-Moore met Damian Turner, one of FLY's leaders and cofounders.

She would only know him for a short time. Two months later, Morris-Moore texted one of her peers to ask about upcoming meetings; she was instead invited to a gathering of grieving friends and family.

"I asked her why, and she said it was because Damian was killed," Morris-Moore recalls. "I remember thinking, 'Damn.' That year, he was the third person that I knew of who was shot. And it hurt because even though I didn't have a close relationship with him, he cared so much about the community . . . and he lost his life like that."

Turner died after being caught in the cross fire of a drive-by shooting. The University of Chicago Medical Center was only a few blocks away, but because the facility lacks a trauma center, he was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, more than eight miles away.

Had there been a trauma center nearby, his life might have been saved—traveling more than five miles by ambulance greatly increases the risk of fatality after a shooting, according to a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Public Health. At that meeting, Turner's family members and close friends expressed their wishes for a trauma center on the south side.

“We’re told to be seen and not heard, submissive and not aggressive, to follow and not lead. . . it’s very unique how committed to intersectionality this movement is becoming.”

—Veronica Morris-Moore­

"We knew we needed to fight, because he would've," Morris-Moore says now. "That inspired me, because growing up around gangs, when something like this happens, you're used to hearing conversations about retaliation, not about what actual justice looks like." Seeing the family's resolve encouraged her to join the fight for a trauma center. And in doing so, "I became dedicated to this movement."

Since then, Morris-Moore has worked as a part-time paid organizer for FLY. During direct actions and demonstrations, some of which took place at U. of C., she says police officers have dragged her through a gravelly construction site and kicked her outside on her back when she attempted to stage a sit-in. "I accept that someone's going to want to hurt me because I want to see black people get free," she says.

Morris-Moore accepts those risks as she fights for the movement's rewards; in December, she and her peers got the news they'd been waiting for more than five years to hear—the University of Chicago would add a Level I adult trauma center to its Hyde Park hospital.

"I cried," Morris-Moore says. "I felt so relieved—and powerful."

"And I felt like a human being," she adds with a cathartic chuckle, saying that the news caught her off guard. "We often have to defend ourselves and our existence, and for once I felt like we won the debate of whether or not the hospital should be saving black lives. That made me feel human."

Morris-Moore has now spent nearly six years fully dedicated to organizing and activism. (She attended Harold Washington College for a short time, but withdrew because she didn't see herself or her goals reflected in the education system.) That includes the #ByeAnita campaign, which contributed to the defeat of Cook County state's attorney Anita Alvarez in the March 15 primary.

"This is my life. This is all day, everyday," Morris-Moore says. "I try to take time to take care of myself, but I also just love supporting other young black people."

She adds that her participation in the movement is especially meaningful because of the visibility and presence of other queer black women like herself. "We're told to be seen and not heard, submissive and not aggressive, to follow and not lead. It's very unique how committed to intersectionality this movement is becoming, and it's important for me to be a part of that."

  • Danielle Scruggs

Kristiana Colón, 30

Codirector, #LetUsBreathe Collective

Engaging in political discourse through creative expression has become second nature to Kristiana Colón, who's been performing and writing since she was old enough to hold a pencil. At the tender age of six—a time when her favorite film was Malcolm X—she penned the first of her many poems, titled "I Am Stronger Than Hate." Colón, who grew up in Beverly, Englewood, and Logan Square, says literary pursuits during high school at Whitney Young helped nurture her politicization and her craft.

"Activism is an act of creativity and imagination, and curating a more liberated future is an artistic act," Colón says, noting that creativity is necessary to envision social change. "So it is natural that artists will be the forward guard of revolution."

Like her activism, much of her poetry and performance work—honed through her studies at the U. of C. and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—are influenced by her Afro-Latina identity. "It's important for me to embrace the African diaspora in Latinidad, both because of the rampant antiblackness and colorism in Latinx communities [a gender-neutral variant of Latino/Latina], and to deconstruct the privileges afforded to me because of my presentation as an exotic, fetishized version of blackness," she says, alluding to her light skin and long wavy hair. "I also think it's important to build power with all indigenous, displaced, and colonized people of the earth."

Like millions of others, Colón sat at home, terrified and angry, as she watched Ferguson, Missouri, protesters being met with riot gear and pepper spray from a militarized police force. But one Friday night in August 2014, after consuming countless hours of the footage, she decided that she'd had enough.

"I felt the same way after Trayvon—that I'm going to have to drive to Florida and turn up because this just can't keep happening," she says. "But Florida is 30 hours away." When she google-mapped the drive to Missouri, however, she realized that Ferguson was only five hours from Chicago. She decided to go. "I wanted to turn that feeling of rage into something productive," she says.

Colón reached out to people on the ground in Ferguson, who expressed the need for gas masks. After launching a crowdfunding campaign, Colón called her younger brother, fellow artist and activist Damon Williams, to organize a trip. (Williams is now a chapter cochair for BYP 100.) It was the unwitting start of many such weekend trips, and ultimately became the moment the siblings formed the #LetUsBreathe Collective.

“I felt the same way after Trayvon—that I’m going to have to drive to Florida and turn up because this just can’t keep happening.”

—Kristiana Colón­

The online funding campaign raised thousands of dollars, more than the siblings needed for the gas masks. So Colón and Williams sought the best way to use the extra money, and through that process met Lost Voices, a community group that sat outside in the protest area for 47 days until Ferguson police officers forcibly removed them. "We dedicated our resources to making their camp livable and sustainable," Colón says, "and to amplifying their story in a way that the media wasn't nuanced enough to convey."

They eventually worked together on a documentary film and speaking tour that took the Lost Voices story to various communities and college campuses. The combination of community care and arts-focused activism continues through their present work in Chicago.

Colón recently launched the Black Sex Matters campaign, which explores how pleasure shapes ideas of liberation, and how artists and activists navigate sensuality in social justice spaces. The idea, she says, is built on the belief that reproductive justice, sexual autonomy, and healing in intimate spaces are paramount in achieving a complete vision of liberation.

Colón has what she describes as a complicated relationship with her queerness, and usually chooses not to publicly identify as something other than hetero. "But I do feel that I am a part of the LGBTQ community, and that it's important to organize through a queer feminist lens," she says, "because folks fighting for liberation cannot do so while reproducing oppressive power structures."

The #LetUsBreathe Collective also organizes Breathing Room, a monthly event that serves as a dynamic mix of an open-mike performance space, political education forum, community service hub, and a space that shares services such as guided meditation, writing workshops, painting, and massage without charge, plus food and a "free store" filled with everything from books to clothing and cooking utensils.

"Day-to-day movement work can be very reactionary and is constantly responding to the injustices of the state, which is never-ending and draining work," Colón says. Having a community space focused on creativity and service, she says, helps build capacity for organizers and opportunities for marginalized people to heal.

"One of our core values is the universal law of abundance—that communities have everything they need from within to liberate themselves," she says. "The exchange is the value you bring to the space. Whichever gifts and talents you bring, that's your price of admission." v

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