In the summer of 2013, after George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a movement began with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. The movement was co-founded by three black community organizers: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi.
Black Lives Matter is an international activist movement, originating in the African-American community and it campaigns against violence and systemic racism towards black people. Its mission is to build local power and to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.
I had the opportunity to catch up with one of the co-founders, Opal while she was in Ghana in December 2019. During this time, I had the chance to have a conversation with her about her work and passion for social change.
The New York-based Nigerian-American writer, strategist, and community organizer gave the background to Black Lives Matter, the historic political project launched in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin to explicitly combat implicit bias and anti-Black racism and to protect and affirm the beauty and dignity of all Black lives.
Opal is credited with creating the online platforms and initiating the social media strategy during the project’s early days. The campaign has grown into a national network of approximately 40 chapters. In 2016, in recognition of their contribution to human rights, Opal Tometi and the Black Lives Matter co-founders received an honorary doctorate degree, BET’s Black Girls Rock Community Change Agent Award, recognition among the world’s fifty greatest leaders by Fortune and POLITICO magazines and the first ever Social Movement Award from the Webbys.
Our conversation touched on the issue of gender inclusion and the concept of women empowerment. She indicated that “it is very important we value women and girls the same way we value men and boys. We need to put a premium value on women, if not for women we all wouldn’t be here. We all need to give them the support they need and importantly recognize their inherent rights and dignity. Women have always been at the forefront of social movements in almost all initiatives, something we know through history. I believe the work being done to support equity and equality for women is to recognize what already exists and should affirm the dignity that should have been affirmed”.
On the issue of feminism, Opal said “I am a feminist and I think sometimes feminism on the African continent and in other places comes with a negative connotation. There is a lot of confusion as to what it really means but in simple terms, feminism is just the equality of gender. I stand for women and girls being treated with the respect they deserve rather than being abused, sold into prostitution, and being given the fair chance. I think women are doing a double job – making things work at home and pushing their professional careers so they deserve to be praised for the incredible jobs they are doing to make societies survive”.
Opal is convinced there is a need to have hard conversations about the disparities in society in order to ensure everyone is effectively contributing to the growth and development of Ghana as a whole. “As I witness many outstanding women in Ghana who are already leading and making impact, it only suggests one thing, that women are more than capable. Women are capable of holding high office and on a practical level, there should be affirmative action for women for admission into schools, access to certain types of jobs and positions. Programmes designed to achieve equity is what I will always go for in order to correct some age old practices in our societies”.
Asked about the argument made by opponents of affirmative action on quality as against quantity, Opal wondered why people will always want to judge women when they have not been given the opportunity to prove themselves. “We need to realize the importance of identifying some of the damages that we have created in the society and having specific programs to correct them. I always ask the question whether the candidates have been interviewed, spoken to, their credentials critically examined? Some women who enter an interview are at times fully and more qualified than their male counterparts. It’s sad to hear people dismiss the need for such pragmatic steps and I think it is a bias perspective”.
There is a widely held perception that women are their own enemies which is the main reason for the unwillingness of women at the top of their careers to elevate other women, thinking they will become their competition. Opal thinks that shouldn’t be the situation. “I think women’s friendships, communities, clubs and groups are very important. Encouraging sisterhood and embracing those spaces for mentorship – shared knowledge, skills and networking overall is really important and I see these types of things happening which we must all encourage. We also need men as champions of women – endorsing the works of women, recommending women for jobs and other roles. Let us not forget this same type of competition also exists among men in our society”.
A transnational feminist, she further stated that “we seem to have the situation where it seems like just a few people can occupy certain kinds of roles so I understand how people within the minority in a group will see each other as a competition. A similar thing happens in the United States where Black people are in the minority so they may feel like another person of colour is competition when they are really not. We can rather support each other and I will say it is a lie that has been sold to us that a few people can stay in a space. But in reality a lot of people can do that as there is plenty of work, there are plenty of opportunities and there are many things the societies of Ghana needs so everyone will have something to do using their gifts and talents”.
Opal, who holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and a Masters of Arts degree in Communication and Advocacy is optimistic the future for Ghana and the rest of Africa is bright and there is an important role to be played by the African diaspora. Opal is a daughter of Nigerian immigrants who grew up in Phoenix, Arizona and currently resides in the Republic of Brooklyn, New York where she loves riding her single speed bike and collecting African art.