ActivismBrooklynSolution Sessions

solution sessions live: what ‘taking up space’ means

August 25, 2019

There may have been two distinct parts to the live program that AFROPUNK Solution Sessions produced Friday night, but there was a definite throughline to the discussions — and it wasn’t quite the connection in the evening’s title, ‘We see You,’ but the need for Black women to care for themselves. 

The incredible cast who joined Solution Sessions podcast hosts, Bridgett Todd and Yves Jeffcoat, on the Roulette Brooklyn stage — ex-Black Party Panther chairman Elaine Brown; journalist/author Elaine Welterworth, #OscarsSoWhite founder April Reign; 2017 Women’s March organizer Tamika Mallory; disability activist Denarii Grace; and art curator Kimberly Drew — were there to discus “Those Who Have Remained Unseen.” The phrase ‘Taking Up Space’ was also clearly present in the backdrop, and throughout the talks. Yet the focus of their words was much more on how Black women must practice self-care for their own well-being, a message that resonated in a variety of ways.

“You know how, when you’re flying, they tell you to put the mask on yourself before putting it on your kids,” said the opening speaker, April Reign. Her short opening remarks were less about #OscarsSoWhite, than a setting of the tone for conversations that followed. She was making a clear analogy about how, in advocacy, Black women sacrifice themselves in order to help others, “dedicating lives to get people out, but not standing in the light themselves.” Remember, she said, “you are the light…we are the light.”

Danarii Grace, whose long resume includes both creative work and a decade of activism on behalf of bi+ identity issues, disability and fat acceptance, opened with a great example of their broad array of talents: an acapella blues song. “They’ve got the cold, I got the remedy/ This is how we get free” went the chorus of “Call and Response,” easily qualifying as the evening’s anthem. In telling their story, Grace focused on how the power of the arts not only fuels their activism — or “artivism” as they called it — but also how financial reciprocity towards arts creators, and the need to find artists amongst your own people, is one of the defining engines of community building. When Bridget asked Grace, what are the tools for self-care that they use, Grace was blunt, naming “Venmo, PayPal, Patreon,” among other money-transferring services. Artists, Grace was saying, got the “remedy,” but they need your care.

Elaine Brown deviated slightly from the program — and as the only woman to become chairman (“not chairwoman or chairperson,” she pointedly told the crowd) of the Black Panther Party in 1974, she had every right to. Still living in Oakland, and still involved in both community building and Black power activism, Brown delivered a 25-minute address with the knowingness and the presence of someone who is skilled at this, and has the bawdy anecdotes and the lyrical receipts to prove her words. (“Revolutionary auntie,” a co-worker called her; this tracks.) Two undercurrents ran through Brown’s powerful talk: One was the dismissal of the Panthers’ legacy as somehow misogynist and homophobic (she talked of the party’s support of gay liberation after Stonewall, and put herself forward as an example of the Panthers’ support for radical feminism). The other was the need for the people’s revolutionary agenda to supersede capitalism and individual identity. “You don’t have to love everybody,” she said — adding “and you know I hate some of these motherf*ckers out here” to a rollicking response — “but we have got to love one another.” In Elaine Brown’s world, self-care and -advocacy is a given, and it’s part of a broader plan for all the people. If you ever have the chance to hear her speak, run don’t walk.

After a short break, Bridget and Yves were joined on the couch by Tamika Mallory, Elaine Welterworth and Kimberly Drew, women whose accomplishments regularly reverberate in today’s headlines, but whose different fields, approaches and personalities make for contrasting models of what “Taking Up Space’ means. It made for a fascinating conversation. 

Mallory is a sharp activist whose pointed engagement with the new white justice warriors in the 2017 Women’s March presented her in the media as the outspoken face of old-school radical liberation work amidst those newly discovering their need for involvement. She does not suffer fools. And as the conversation progressed, Mallory saved some of her most pointed criticism for conservative Black folks unwilling to sacrifice their position in Amerikka for the liberation of all: “Get out of the way,” she said addressing them. “Leave the work to people who are not scared.”

Welterworth, on the other hand, has always worked inside institutions, and she recounted the stories of being a “spy” at those big industry jobs. Foremost, this was at Teen Vogue, where as Editor-in-Chief, she revolutionized the magazine, giving it a Black lens and bringing on many young creatives of color, while helping tackle social justice issues, alongside the regularly scheduled content. At a huge media company like Conde Nast, getting to that seat of power meant assimilation, and looking for role models who will help find your voice in that corporate environment. Welterworth’s story of taking up space was about bidding her time quietly, but then knowing how to use the power when she had risen to the top.           

Kimberly Drew’s story as a young art historian, activist and former online community manager for the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a little bit of both. On the one hand, she said that her primary tactic at taking up space was “being myself first…be your own litmus.” Yet she also understood that working in a 150-year-old institution meant figuring out how to get shit done, or as she put it, “context and precedent.” So she did what a good historian does: go into archives and interview people to understand how she could achieve what she needed to do. And sometimes, she said, it meant bringing her energy into projects that were off the institution’s own grid, such as art education for kids on the Lower East Side.

It was Mallory, though, who brought back the common thread by the end: “It is so much easier to advocate for others than advocating for ourselves…we need to reframe fighting for ourselves.”