BY LEAH WILLINGHAM ’17
Black Lives Matter activists Janaya Khan and Opal Tometi spoke at Smith College on Oct. 14 on the progression of what they described as a “hopeful and challenging movement.”
Khan is the co-founder and international ambassador of the Toronto chapter of the organization, and Tometi is the cofounder of the movement and executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Friday’s event, “Black Lives Matter: A Dialogue on the Movement,” was the climax of a day-long symposium on feminism, race and transnationalism.
The board of Smith alumnae and the 31 members of the board of trustees were in the audience, as well as former Smith president Ruth Simmons and current president Kathleen McCartney.
Professor of Africana Studies Paula Giddings, the editor and founder of Meridians, Smith’s interdisciplinary journal for women of color, introduced Khan and Tometi and Barbara Ransby, professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, moderated their conversation.
“In my 15 years at Smith, I have never seen such a wide representation of our campus in one place,” Giddings remarked, as she surveyed the packed John M. Greene auditorium.
Khan, Tometi and Giddings discussed the movement’s founding, which was largely on social media, its international efforts and future goals. The speakers requested that no photos or video recordings be taken of the event. Questions were chosen from a student survey beforehand.
“#BlackLivesMatter” was created on Twitter in 2013 after George Zimmerman, member of the local neighborhood watch, was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old.
Co-founder Alicia Garza wrote a Face- book post titled “A Love Note to Black People,” in which she wrote: “Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter." She has said she was struck by the similarities of Trayvon Martin to her younger brother, feeling that it could have been him killed instead.
She and Tometi were later two leaders of the 2014 Freedom Ride to Ferguson, Missouri, after 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed.
Since then, chapters of Black Lives Matter have been founded all over the country.
The movement isn’t limited to the U.S., however. Tometi reflected that the mainstream media often narrows the movement to the United States, but it actually has a growing international presence. When she spoke at Smith, she had just returned from a stay in Colombia, where she was promoting the movement.
Mount Holyoke student Arielle Derival ’17 said she was eager to attend the event, as she is hoping to write a thesis on black immigration and detention. She reflected that it is empowering to see a movement led through a feminist lens.
Khan is queer and gender-nonconforming, and Garza is a queer woman, while her spouse is biracial and transgender.
“Black women are constantly marginalized, and constantly put on the back burner,” Derival said. “Especially with these types of movements, where we always see black men. And yeah, people like Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin are important. But at the forefront of this movement it’s queer people of color and black women, and I like that. It’s nice to know that those people are at the front of the movement working for you.”
Khan emphasized that social activism and change can sometimes begin in unexpected ways.
“You make a Facebook post, or a tweet, and you don’t know what it’s going to turn into,” Khan said. “You plant seeds, you don’t know which ones will grow.”