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BLM co-founder talks justice, persistence and following your heart

by Chuck Gordon

Opal Tometi turned her exasperation over what she perceived as an injustice into a nationwide movement. At Wingate, she told students to hone their skills and follow their heart.

Like the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, Sabra Jordan felt punched in the gut in 2013 when George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the fatal shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin.

“That was a pretty difficult time for me,” she said, “because in a world that likes to claim that we are equal, we’re really not. It was my moment to be faced with that.”

Jordan, who graduated from Wingate in December and is now serving as a residence director at the University, was one of 125 people in the Batte Center’s McGee Theatre last night to hear from Opal Tometi, one of three founders of the social-justice movement Black Lives Matter. In a Lyceum discussion with WBTV’s Dedrick Russell, followed by questions from the audience, Tometi provided a thought-provoking mixture of outrage, exasperation and inspiration.

Tometi said the BLM movement started “as a love letter” to black people shortly after Zimmerman’s acquittal. BLM co-founder Alicia Garza posted a message on Facebook calling for action and coining the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” and soon after that Tometi began using online tools to get the word out.

It grew into a network of local protest organizations focused on combating “implicit bias and anti-black racism.” The movement gained steam after the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

Opal Tometi speaks to WBTV's Dedrick Russell


“We wanted to share something with us first, with black people,” said Tometi, a Nigerian-American who leads the Black Alliance for Immigration Justice. “It was a message of love and a reminder to each other that we matter.”

The anger and frustration Tometi felt six years ago was evident at times in McGee Theatre last night. She said that “change can’t happen fast enough,” and she railed against the dehumanizing of black people, particularly the young.

She said that “hyper-policing” in black communities is having a detrimental effect and that what’s needed is more investment in jobs programs, mental-health facilities, social workers and education. “When all you have is a hammer,” she said, “everything looks like a nail.”

Tometi’s voice wavered as she talked about how difficult it is to hear about another shooting. “I personally try not to watch any more videos,” she said. “That’s what I’ve had to do for my own sanity and mental health.”

The message turned more hopeful when Tometi began answering questions from students. When asked by one student whether she should go into social work, Tometi was unequivocal.

“I have to say go for it,” she said. “Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. We need all of us, if we’re going to make this thing work. We need people to do what’s actually in their heart. Do what actually makes you come alive. Do that, and you’ll always find your way.”

She also emphasized persistence and thinking for yourself and encouraged everyone to join some type of organization.

“Organizations are how things change,” Tometi said. “Building powerful institutions are how we change the levers of power. And it’s important to hone your skills. Iron sharpens iron.”

Tometi added that it’s important to make sure someone has your back. Jordan took that message to heart.

“Now that I’m a graduate, I don’t have the Black Student Union anymore,” Jordan said. “I’m not surrounded by like-minded people all the time like I was. I’ve been told, ‘You’re probably a little too sensitive,’ and ‘it’s not that deep,’ and ‘you’re probably overthinking it.’ Those things hurt me. I have to think for myself. I don’t want my feelings to be invalidated. It was really important for her to let me know that it’s OK to keep going.”

Ultimately, Tometi said, Black Lives Matter is important because it is reframing the discussion about justice.

“I know it’s working,” she said. “I know it matters. I know people know exactly what our movement is about. I know that people understand that when black lives matter, all lives will then matter, and all lives will be improved.”

April 24, 2019