BY CHIDERAH MONDE
With her new ‘Diaspora Rising’ newsletter, the BLM co-founder says the next phase of the movement for Black Lives aims to unify the global black community.
Heralded as a feminist freedom-fighter in the U.S, and now a global icon, Opal Tometi is Black Girl Magic at its best. As one of the three women co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, her name is etched in American history. That’s a big deal for the daughter of Nigerian immigrants from Phoenix, Arizona, but to those that know Opal, it’s not a stretch.
Opal’s story of heart, passion, and justice starts in her childhood. As a young girl, she launched initiatives to tackle homelessness in Phoenix. In school she led student advocacy and council groups, showcased her Blackness on a competitive step team, and argued passionately on a debate team. As she got older, and as her eyes were opened to the realities of the human condition, Opal’s voice grew stronger and louder.
Before BLM, she spent eight years as Executive Director at the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), an organisation that helps black immigrant communities mobilise and advocate for social and economic justice. Opal worked on the reunification of families in the wake of the Haitian earthquake in 2010, and boldly challenged unjust deportations. She went on to speak on behalf of immigrants to the United Nations, and testify before other governing bodies about the effect of their policies on migrant communities.
We know what happened that led to the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag taking over the Internet in 2013, but now, with the momentum BLM has gained in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Breonna taylor and countless others, with a COVID-19 Pandemic, and as people all over the world reconcile their social consciousness with the reality of our present suffering, Opal is setting her movement sights on an even bigger struggle: unifying the global Black community.
Being a Black woman activist comes with its challenges–and consequences. Opal represents a level of courage and leadership that most of us only read about in Black history books. Faith and family are her pillars of strength through the heartache of witnessing and fighting for justice, but she also draws from her African heritage, and her identity as a Nigerian woman.
This is why she saw the need for a platform like Diaspora Rising. The curated newsletter digest focuses on pertinent issues of blackness around the world. Ahead of the first edition, Opal launched an inspiring video teaser, shot in Ghana by filmmaker Wael Gzoly, that solidified the new call-to-action. She stands confidently in front of Ghanaian monuments and landmarks reminding us that our ancestors also fought these freedom battles, and won.
What paved the way for your activism?
I was born and raised in Arizona, which is a rather conservative state, with some of the worst laws in the U.S. for people of colour. I didn’t particularly know much about laws and policies growing up, but I certainly witnessed the impact on my community. I saw some aunties and uncles get racially profiled for being black, but then running into additional problems because of their immigration status. This led to some serious trials for our tight knit community. But because we all had so much love, joy and pride in our culture, and faith in God, I was able to witness how our families and community came together to make sense of it when loved ones were locked up or deported. I also witnessed my dad attempting to brush off the pain when he was continually racially profiled for “Driving-While-Black”, and endure many other close encounters with the police (which we know can be a matter of life or death for Black people in the U.S.). So, while hardship made me more aware of the flaws embedded in the system, the foundation of my world has always been our community. And not solely my Nigerian community, but the diverse set of friends I had growing up. In fact my best friends from grade school were from Jordan, Sri Lanka, Puerto Rico and Germany. Somehow I seemed to become close with peers who shared a passion and respect for their culture. And so I knew early on that the world was more diverse than what I was seeing in American textbooks and on TV, and all those relationships instilled a confidence and pride in me. I also had a desire to see what I felt was just as valid, and important, and to see people be respected in a more systematic way. While most people know my story of creating BLM, most don’t know that these personal experiences from my life early on really solidified my commitment and provided me with the tools I needed. I saw I could support my community, even if the government or other entities didn’t think our lives mattered.
In your opinion, why is it important for Nigerian women to pay attention to the Black Lives Matter global movement?
The Black Lives Matter movement is important for all of us because it’s rooted in the spirit of protecting, celebrating, and honoring all Black lives. We’re all seen as Black regardless of our culture, nationality, or origin. Our goal is to ensure that all people of African descent are treated with the dignity and the respect that we deserve. It’s about justice for all of us, and this includes those of us who live on the Continent, and throughout the diaspora. We need to repair and rectify the harm and trauma that has been done by colonialism and the legacy of it, which has led to the injustices we see today in the Americas, across Europe, but also in many African countries. The Diaspora Rising video we created centres around African Liberation Day because the date holds historic significance for people of African descent. It’s important for us to remember the contributions of people who came before us, and find inspiration from them. I’m personally inspired by the victories of our African leaders in fighting against colonisation. I’m equally inspired by the Pan-African nature of those struggles. During those times it was evident that people in the Black Freedom Struggle in the U.S. were exchanging ideas, sharing tactics, and stood in active solidarity across continents. And imagine, all of this happened before the internet! It’s my hope to inspire Africans in the diaspora to remember these African liberation leaders and the rich history of resistance that we have, too.
“Being a Nigerian woman influences everything for me, personally and professionally, and informs all of my passions. I am most proud of being a Nigerian woman.”
Why create a platform like Diaspora Rising now?
Millions of people were already living at the brink of hardships, but the pandemic proved devastating for millions more around the world. Over 120,000 people have died in America alone, and many more are infected with COVID-19. But in the midst of this health crisis, Black people continue to be abused and murdered. There’s still little regard for Black livelihood, and we are thoroughly fed up. As a result we’ve seen that the African diaspora and our allies around the world are rising up. Diaspora Rising was created to equip Africans who are newer to the diasporic identity — for example, 1st & 2nd generation immigrants — and allies and friends, with information about the social issues of our day. More than just the information, the digest is packaged in a way that is actionable. I personally believe that information without action is meaningless. When we have knowledge, we have a responsibility to act, and so my hope was to create a newsletter and support a community of Africans who are growing in their consciousness about their Black identity and our global connections and power.
How does being a Nigerian woman influence the ways in which you champion causes?
Being a Nigerian woman influences everything for me, personally and professionally, and informs all of my passions. I am most proud of being a Nigerian woman. When I look at the strength of my aunties, or my grandmother being an entrepreneur, or the women in my family who are business women, pastors, and ministers, I see real empowerment and change. It all starts at home and with the women in my family. I’m inspired by their ingenuity and creativity. And I am using those same attributes in my way, for my time.
What does the major issue of violence against women in Nigeria tell us about our culture? What do you think can actually be done to combat gender-based violence?
I take my cues from organisations like Mirabel Centre, the first sexual assault referal center in Nigeria, and the likes of Pathfinders Justice initiative, which is committed to combating sex trafficking. There is so much work to be done in this area, but these organsations have heped to destigmaise some of the cultural issues that come with sexual abuse and beign a victim in Nigeria. It’s clear that these organisations are invaluable, and their work should be well funded and lauded. I was appalled to see the CNN Africa headlines say that there has been a noticeable increase in rape during the COVID-19 lockdown, but I know it’s not a stretch. I have several Nigerian girlfriends with stories of their assault, and that’s both at home and in the diaspora. I’m outraged and I am saddened. It’s clear there is another pandemic, and it’s high time that we address sexism and misogyny in the culture.
Many of us are tired. Where do you draw your strength from? What do you do to recharge/renew that strength?
I am inspired by all of the young women and girls finding their voice, taking a stand, and demonstrating their leadership. We will not be silenced. But I do take time to recharge. I am rigorous about my self-care; I’m not always perfect, but I take it more seriously. I stay grounded in spiritual practices that fuel me–like prayer and meditation–and address what my spirit, mind, and body require. It’s imperative that we are in tune, especially during times when we are clearly being faced with an onslaught of attacks. As we witness people we love in different geographies being harmed, it can be very difficult to grapple with all the trauma and pain. So for Black people, taking care of ourselves is paramount.
We’re looking for more leadership like yours. Can you name a couple of Nigerian or African women change-makers that you admire?
In the Southern African spirit of ubuntu, I often think about those who are present and those who have passed, as they have made it possible for me to be. My mother is also the most generous and loving woman I know. She has never shamed me for my hair, body, choices, or anything else, and has always celebrated our Blackness, and always affirmed me. She has taught me to see the beauty in all people. Although she is rather fair in complexion, and I’ve witnessed other people make that aspect of who she is important, my mother has never let colorism become her worldview, or change how she interacts with people. I’ve learned from that. And there are of course so many other inspiring African women, who are icons of strength and beautiful Blackness inside and out. While some of these women are still here and some have since gone to be with our ancestors, their fire and spirit remain my inspiration.