Black Joy

Who helped the Justins get justice in Tennessee? | Black Joy – April 21 2023

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Who is your favorite ride-or-die?

Is it a parent who has always been your loudest cheerleader? Your best friend from way back when? No matter the blood or the bond, everyone deserves a village. And one thing I love about us, we’re gonna pull up and show out for our own.

What happened in Tennessee over the past few weeks is a good example of this. When Nashville Rep. Justin Jones and Memphis Rep. Justin Pearson were ousted from their seats after demanding better gun control laws following a mass shooting, the community basically said, “Aw, hell naw.” The air roared with freedom songs and chants for justice as support swelled around Pearson and Jones. Seemed like everyone made signs and grabbed shirts declaring “No Justin. No peace,” and outstretched their hands for prayer.

All of this energy was warranted. The group now infamously known as the “Tennessee Three” includes Rep. Gloria Johnson, a white woman representing Knoxville, Tenn. Exiling the two youngest Black lawmakers from the chamber but not the white representative sent a message that Southern folks – the elders and children of movement workers  – weren’t going to let slide.

Jones and Pearson have since been reinstated, but only temporarily. Both lawmakers will have to win a special election to secure their seats once again. What we saw in Tennessee isn’t a reinvigoration of a movement, but the continuation of one. The legacy of using people power to keep lawmakers in check when their actions don’t align with democracy and equality is still strong down here in the South.

So send this to your friends and fam as we give flowers to the folks who have  boots on the ground fighting for justice and give you the rundown on how you can support these groups.

P.S. We got something special at the end of the newsletter for fans of Abbot Elementary. Hint: You may need your tissues for this!

– Starr

Don’t be afraid to make some noise

Memphis is a city that ain’t afraid to make some noise.

Roots of blues and rock n’ roll can be found there. It’s where many hip hop artists discovered their beat and flow. But one sound Memphis should get more credit for is the resounding roar of resistance.

You can hear it in the retellings of the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike - a fight for economic justice that still exists today. You can hear it in the streets and chambers of city council as activists pushed back against police brutality both through policy and protests. You can hear it as Memphians call out environmental racism after stopping an oil pipeline that would have endangered the water supply of Black neighborhoods.

Memphis is a crescendoing chorus in the South’s freedom song. The activism is why Tikeila Rucker goes hard for her hometown as an organizer with Memphis For All.

“My love for Memphis is our heart – our spirit of perseverance,” Tikeila said. “We don’t give up. We continue to fight in spite of the many challenges and adversity that we’re facing, and we will overcome.”

Created following the 2016 presidential election, Memphis For All, and its statewide coalition Tennessee For All, aims to increase political engagement while standing in solidarity with freedom fighters challenging status-quo politics that leave Black and brown communities on the backburner. So when Memphis For All got the word that Pearson was being pushed out of the House – the “people’s house” — Tikeila knew they needed to load up a bus and head to Nashville. They also asked folks to pressure the Shelby County Commission, which unanimously voted to reinstate Pearson last week. Tikeila said they set aside bail money, unsure of the energy awaiting them in Nashville.

The region Pearson represents leans more Democratic than the rest of the state. The attempt to expel Pearson reflected the disrespect Memphis receives at the state Capitol, which has a Republican supermajority in both chambers, Tikeila said.

“Memphis is considered the stepchild of Tennessee,” Teikila said. “So, it isn’t shocking to go into those spaces and see that we are underrepresented, underappreciated, or the lack of respect they try to display towards the citizens of Memphis.”

After winning his election earlier this year, Pearson walked into his position with a target on his back. He isn’t the one to play the game of respectability politics. he played a vital role in shutting down the pipeline in Memphis and wore a dashiki when he was sworn in. Just days after reclaiming their seats at the House, both Pearson and Jones hauled kid-sized caskets to the Capitol as part of a gun reform rally.

Tikeila said it was important for the people to rally behind Pearson after his expulsion because it sent a message that even though he’s one man representing many, he’s never alone.

“Standing in solidarity with the students that stormed the Capitol that day should have been what every individual in that House did because those individuals were simply saying, ‘Protect kids. Not guns,’” Tikeila said. “So it felt important for us to let him know that it’s OK to stand against the status quo. We’re gonna support him and back him because a lot of times I know they’re on the floor fighting and they’re being belittled, demeaned, mistreated and disrespected day in and day out.”

Witnessing Pearson’s reappointment was exhilarating for Tikeila. The atmosphere outside the county commission building was reminiscent of a church sermon on the cusp of a praise break. The people kept that energy as they traveled back to Nashville and congregated around Pearson during his swearing-in ceremony. People were holding each other as they cried. Musicians were leading songs in the crowd. Tikela felt the love and care people shared with one another during that moment.

“I just started walking around the space, and tears were rolling out of my eyes because, in that moment, he was the hope we all needed,” Tikela said. “He was who we have been waiting for. I’m 45 years old and I’ve never heard anyone speak this level of zest and zeal in my lifetime.”

It was a monumental moment that showed how hope is not lost in Tennessee, Tikeila said. And there is plenty to fight for in Memphis, such as a controversial school superintendent search or the fight to hold police accountable following Tyre Nichols’ murder. Tikeila encourages citizen to use this momentum to find their role in the fight for justice, whether that’s participating in phone banking, canvassing, or sending emails to elected officials. Tikela said people can sign up for volunteer opportunities on Memphis For All’s website.

“The work is plentiful. There’s a lot that we can shed light on in the community to keep people engaged. It’s just a matter of people showing up and getting involved,” Tikeila said. “I want to see us continue to build momentum in this moment and that our appointed leaders understand that we’re calling them to a higher standard to go against the status quo. You know how a smile is contagious? Let this disruption of the status quo be the next thing that’s contagious.”

Don’t let the valleys scare you away from the mountaintop

If an injustice is brewing anywhere in the nation, best believe DeJuana Thompson is going to be there with boots on the ground.

A native of Birmingham, Ala., DeJuana is the founder of Woke Vote, a program that has increased voter turnout by implementing long-term community engagement strategies while empowering a spirit of activism in Black Gen Zers and millennials. She was concerned about how lawmakers punished Jones and Pearson even before the expulsion vote. Their ID badges were deactivated and their microphones were cut off during debate in the chamber. They were kicked off their committees and had no access to their emails.

DeJuana believed this retaliation not only silenced Jones and Pearson, but also their constituents. She alerted Woke Vote’s Rapid Response Team, which included Birminghamians Alexus Cumbie and Dee Reed, and they pulled up to help Jones out. Alexus, who is 26, worked side-by-side with Jones as his emergency communications strategist. She and Dee set up alternate email channels so Jones could communicate with the community and media. Although they were rippin’ and runnin’ around Nashville, Alexus posted that they took time to enjoy the small things - like discovering different ways to style Jones’ four suits and trying out every green tea in the Music City as Jones tried to soothe his voice.

DeJuana, Alexus and Dee talk to me about the joy that kept them uplifted during the historic moment, their thoughts on how citizens can use this momentum to create a better nation and other grassroots orgs you can support.

Starr: What were some of your favorite moments of joy during this moment in the movement?

Alexus: Definitely going to have to be Easter Sunday at Watson Grove Baptist Church. My grandmother, she’s 97, has no concept of what I do politically or professionally. I told [Jones] that my grandmother called me and said, “No matter what you do, I need you in a pew on Easter Sunday.” Justin and I share that sort of spirituality path…So watching him go back to his home church and be prayed over and being in this sort of Black joy and celebration – just seeing the reverence that they had for him because he used to be an intern at that church. So people shared stories with me about watching him grow up from an intern to being this sort of national hero. It meant a lot to see him go back to his roots. I think it was a grounding experience and it just reminds me of the power of the community that makes you.

Those of us who are sort of on the front lines of social justice issues or concerns, we have to be deeply steeped in community for moments such as this because what sustains you in the middle of the night when you’re writing talking points, or in the morning when you’re talking to media, or even in the afternoon when you’re leading the organizers, is the love, joy and the hopefulness of the community that you’re fighting for. If you’re not deeply rooted in remembering your “why” this sort of work can overtake you.

Dee: When we marched from the [Nashville Metro Council] where Representative Jones was reinstated to the Capitol, the initial plan was to pull the elders and Jones out at a certain point because we needed to make it to the Capitol in time to be sworn in and make it to his sessions. It wasn’t a super long walk, but there was a hill that was relatively steep. Representative Jones said, “No, I want to take the walk. We will make it in time.”

I was walking ahead of the crowd and when I looked back. It just seemed like the crowd was growing by leaps and bounds. So you had this beautiful picture of young folks, old folks, Black folks, white folks, Hispanic folks and trans folks. I mean, you name it. So when you think about how this situation in Tennessee impacts us in Alabama, it’s because all of our liberties are tied together. This isn’t just one group’s struggle. This isn’t just about two legislators. This is about the entire South. That moment was a reminder for me that we shouldn’t allow anything to stop us from taking the walk from the valley, which is the low point where we started, to the mountaintop.

Starr: DeJuana, you mentioned in your Facebook post that you were in Tennessee fighting for justice while your parents were celebrating their 41st wedding anniversary. You thank them for teaching you how to be a freedom fighter and now, you are teaching others to be freedom fighters as well. What’s a lesson your parents taught you that you will always keep with you?

DeJuana: I don’t know that people would see my parents in the way that we think about activists. My mom is a lifelong educator and homemaker who has a wonderful business mind. As a student, she was a worker on Richard Arrington Jr.’s first campaign [to be the first Black mayor of Birmingham]. My dad is a pastor who also served his country in the military. So they are layered individuals who used whatever platform, resource, whatever they had to make a difference. What was consistent throughout my childhood, and even throughout my adulthood, is that we are responsible to community. We are responsible for being the change we want to see. So they have always made room for that responsibility and for that beloved community.

Starr: How do we keep this momentum going?

Alexus: I think we sustain it by investing in Gen Z, and sort of building this intergenerational community of political organizers and social justice changemakers. When I talk about holding the baton, we have to make sure that everybody’s in the room and everyone is at the table during this conversation of what our democracy could look like. That starts by making sure we’re investing in this sort of intergenerational model of power building.

DeJuana: I think what keeps movements moving are people, number one, and in that the issues keep us moving because until we see the systemic change that we need, there will always be a cause that keeps us moving. The day that Justin Jones was returned to the House of Representatives, there were two mass shootings in Louisville. So we have to remember, part of the reason why they were expelled is because they were pushing for common sense gun reform. So one of the things I’m reminded of is yes, we got them back in, but the work that they were advocating for, we’re still having to push for that. The movement has to continue moving because if we stop, we are leaving the next generation in a critically unfair place.

Starr: What’s your advice to those who want to be more active in their communities?

Dee: I think a lot of times we have to be careful because we will miss a moment by waiting. And I think what this season is requiring from us is to seize the moment, seize the opportunity, and to not wait on permission, but to show up and be moved to action. You may not even have all of the strategy but sometimes if you could just take the first step like the first step may be to create the poster. The second step may be to go to the rally and then you may receive the third step once you’re there. So encouraging people to take those necessary steps towards creating whatever change they desire.

DeJuana: Before you get out and be an external voice for change, you need to do the research and understand where you stand on matters because if you’re going to engage with others, there’s a responsibility to be accurate. The information is critical for people to make good decisions. Also, be intentional with your activism. So, if you care about food disparities or the lack of access to grocery stores and fresh food, you would need to work with groups and people who care about that.

Since you are based in Alabama, are there social justice organizations in Tennessee who you want to give flowers to?

DeJuana: Equity Alliance, which is run by a Black-woman named Tequila Johnson and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC). The reality is that a lot of the activism, particularly in minority communities, are off the grid so that they can be effective. So you really do have to connect in a grassroots way to sort of find out

Woke Vote is molding the next generation of movement workers during its 2023 Summer Fellowship. Anyone 18 or older has until April 28th to apply for an opportunity to be a catalyst  of change in their community.

The magic of Black educators

Karla Foy, Seneca Foy and Phyllis Byrd - Three generations of Black women educators discuss Philadelphia schools and Abbott Elementary.

School may be out for “Abbott Elementary” after the show’s season two finale on Wednesday, but we know that the passion of an educator never takes a break.

A daughter of a school teacher, Quinta Brunson created the show as a love letter to educators who work tirelessly to create a better environment for their students despite their circumstances. The show itself is named after an educator who impacted Quinta while growing up in west Philadelphia. While “Abbott Elementary” tugged on the heart strings of millions of viewers every week, the show struck a poignant chord with our social media producer Mackenzie River-Foy, whose soul was shaped by the importance of education and social justice.

MacKenzie’s grandmother, Phyllis Byrd (AKA “Bubbie”), a 35-year elementary school veteran and a product of Philadelphia schools herself, is the reason behind MacKenzie’s reputation of reading a book a day in second grade. MacKenzie’s mother, Karla Foy, is an expert in civil rights education law, which added a fierce determination for justice to her family’s dedication to education. MacKenzie watched their sister Seneca struggle through math problems in tears as a kid. That experience helped Seneca relate better to her students as a math teacher in a southwest Philly neighborhood. MacKenzie teared up as they talked about their sister’s journey of getting her master’s in student counseling and therapy.

“I cannot describe my admiration of her with a dry eye,” MacKenzie said of their sister. “The youth who she serves are blessed by her presence, and I wonder if they know her soft power is a legacy of our family’s many educators.”

MacKenzie spent hours interviewing three generations of educators in their family about how “Abbott Elementary” reflected their professions and the joys of teaching and learning in Philadelphia schools. You can read MacKenzie’s poignant piece on our site.

Keep on spreading the Black joy by making good trouble. See y’all next time!

Jonece Starr Dunigan

Jonece Starr Dunigan |

Jonece Starr Dunigan (She/her/hers) is a journalist who gives the microphone to communities that are often ignored by mainstream media. Guided by empathy, her reporting centers the stories, movement work and voices of Black, brown and queer people. Her writing strives to amplify and empower readers instead of exploiting them of their traumas.

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