Everything And More: On the Makings of Bunny McKensie Mack
Bunny McKensie Mack discusses growing up in Chicago and becoming a trilingual facilitator, educator, activist, researcher, artist, and founder of the MMG EARTH.
When the ground is softening and shifting beneath you, where do you turn? Do you put pen to paper? Or turn to a short stack of worn out books and marked pages that provide guiding words? Do you immerse yourself in the humbling beauty of nature? Or do you turn inward and seek stillness? Do you grab a megaphone and take to the streets, whatever your literal or metaphorical streets might be? Or do you turn to the people you love and the best advice givers of your confidante circle?
Personally, over the past two years, I’ve spent time taking stock of the anchors and lighthouses that have been essential to keeping my undoing at bay. Although it’s always changing, my arsenal includes all of the above and more, with my ‘and more’ including people like “Bunny” McKensie Mack, the trilingual facilitator, educator, activist, researcher, and artist who founded the change management firm MMG. For those who know McKensie, you know exactly why.
I first met McKensie in 2018 when we at Sixty were organizing the Chicago Archives + Artists Festival. They were at the helm of Art + Feminism, an organization committed to closing information gaps related to gender, feminism, and the arts using Wikipedia. Although that weekend was a whirlwind for me, I made a point to sit in on their workshop titled Wait, What’s a Wikipedia?: An Edit-a-thon Training for Chicago Culture. It was everything I thought it would be…and more. I left with an even clearer understanding of how much both archiving and record-keeping are entangled in conversations about power dynamics, self-determination, community care, and a collaborative approach to history evolution and maintenance.
After that, I continued to find myself in McKensie’s presence, whether that was from a digital distance through social media or through unexpected run-ins at one of the less cringe-worthy diversity, equity, and inclusion day-of-learning events for the cultural nonprofit and philanthropy sectors. Or, while I was sitting through their talk for the Association of College and Research Libraries where, as part of the lecture, they included a slide that read in bright orange font, “Audre Lorde was a Black lesbian librarian from Harlem.”
Watching McKensie speak truth to power with such style, tenderness, grace, honesty, and humor — with absolutely no apologies — is a glorious experience. It’s everything. When I’ve crossed their path, I’ve been challenged and changed. I’ve been affirmed within sectors, a country, and a world that has often felt antagonistic towards me and the people I love.
My words are insufficient when trying to describe all that McKensie is and has been in the time I’ve known them. Channeling the lyrics of Chicago’s own Curtis Mayfield, “they’re close but not quite.” When I find it hard to fully describe and want to deepen my appreciation of someone who’s made such a profound and unexpected impact on my thinking, I am usually compelled to go straight to the source. Although no interview could truly hold all that they are, at the other side of the following conversation you will find yourself with the gift of being better acquainted with the makings of the one and only Bunny McKensie Mack.
This two hour interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tempestt Hazel: I want to start by asking you about your style. You’re someone who I’ve long been in awe of, and the versatility of your style is definitely part of that. I’m curious to know who your style inspirations have been over the years and what has led to the development of who you are when it comes to your aesthetic presence?
McKensie Mack: Recently I was looking through instagram and one of my friends Captolia, who is an incredible brand strategist, had posted a prompt for their followers. The post asked people to describe their aesthetic. The example Captolia gave was something along the lines of “I give people encouraging reflections while always being dressed in purple.” I messaged them after I read it because it was such a perfect description of themselves. They asked me what mine might be and I said I tell people what they don’t want to hear with a hood punk doll aesthetic. When I think about my aesthetic, I think about architecture. In some ways, when it comes to my personal style, architecture inspires me almost as much as music does. When I think about what I want to communicate through my style, I think about open concept spaces. I think expansive, liberated, present and I’m drawn to wear things that make me feel big, expanded, and beyond societal expectations that fit within a container to make people most comfortable.
I can’t stand binaries, and I’m not a fan of dressing in ways that other people find most appropriate, especially in light of the kind of justice work that I’m most drawn to. It’s emotional work and it requires digging very deeply, with consent from those involved, into the most vulnerable and intimate places of people’s lives. Because what’s more intimate than liberation?
I like to step outside my house and feel like I’m presenting myself in a way that makes me feel best, first. That, for me, is changing my hair color every week. It’s wearing bodycon dresses one morning and hoodies and heavy duty Bottega boots at night. It’s being open about loving my body and embracing myself even when the love for my body isn’t always front and center for me, or something that I can feel. But I enjoy going out into the world and presenting what I want that love of self to look like even when I struggle to feel it — which we all struggle to feel sometimes.
Then, of course, using the words of one of my close friends who comes from the same place I do, I’m a hoodrat from the South Side of Chicago. As someone who grew up in Chatham and Roseland, I looked up to Black women wearing the long pastel acrylics and going into administrative jobs, not caring about what people were going to say or think about them. I grew up staring in awe at Black women in the late 90s/early 2000s and I remember thinking that french rolls were so high they could meet heaven. That’s how I would describe my style.
TH: What was your experience like being born and raised in Chicago? Who was young McKensie?
MM: I was raised off of 79th and Chatham and 115th and Racine in what people in my community lovingly call “the wild hundreds.” My mom was and still is a nurse. At the time, she was an evangelical Christian and a single mother raising four children. I was the middle child and grew up in a family where the expectations for me were very high.
Every time I share this story I ask for her consent in advance. When we’ve had some heart to hearts, I talk to her about how having so much pressure on me as a child added a heavy weight to my life. It made me hardened to relationships with other people because I was so focused on succeeding, achieving, and working my way out of poverty — being the best, the most responsible. She once said to me, “When I saw you as a kid, I would sometimes view you as an adult because even when you were upset about things, the way you manifested those feelings was in such a serious and emotionless kind of way. I used to define that as maturity, but that was you repressing your emotions.” So, when she asked me what I needed in order to heal, I knew that I just needed to talk about it openly, without shame and condemnation and just speak the truth. I’ve learned that when we’re not honest about the realities of how our oppression is replicated and manifested in our families, we begin blaming ourselves for things that go beyond our control. And it makes sense that I grew up having some of the experiences I did because my mom also grew up in a family where she was the responsible child, the executor, the caretaker. That is often what happens to Black women and Black femmes in families contending with centuries of white supremacy culture and anti-Black oppression. By talking about it, we give ourselves a chance to change it.
I remember being very young and hearing folks talk about Tupac and the idea of a rose growing from concrete. As someone who loved writing and being read to from a very early age, that was a concept that really stuck with me. When we went outside into our backyard, we didn’t have grass. All there was was concrete. I remember thinking about that and wondering what was the rose and what was the concrete? I would be looking up the lyrics to Tupac’s songs and thinking, “There are things in here that relate to my life.” But at that time, [I was finding ways] to survive and cope with my experiences with childhood harm and my experiences with witnessing Black people be harmed in our neighborhood every day. Living in an environment like that, sometimes you would go out to play or your mom is hurrying you out the door to get you to church on time and there are ambulances everywhere or police up and down the block and you have no idea why that is or where it’s coming from.
Sometimes, we would go out of the house and there would be signs that someone had been hurt right on our front stoop. My mom would go into the house, get a steel bucket and wash the reminders away just before ushering into her red Jeep so we could get to where we were going. There was a lot of experiencing or witnessing violence in our community at a young age that made me turn inward. Books were a place of safety for me. I would live vicariously through these characters. I remember at age nine or ten reading “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” [by Maya Angelou] — a book I found at my grandmother’s house while I was in her book room. I remember reading it in the closet — hiding it from my mom that I was reading it. I remember feeling like I was having an out of body experience reading about this Black woman, as a child, and having so much in common with her. I remember feeling so much empathy towards Maya Angelou that I didn’t yet realize was empathy I could also and would also feel for myself.
Growing up in the Roseland area and in the Chatham area, where my dad lives, those households were very different. My dad and my mom are beautiful and brilliant human beings who did the best they could with what they had and worked hard to break free from their own generational traumas as parents of Black children. The ways I experienced relationships with my extended family on my dad’s side was difficult. They reinforced the repression, in explicit and implicit ways, and taught me early on something that I will be unlearning for the rest of my life: the way you deal with hard things is that you don’t deal with them. You pray it away. And if it’s something that’s really bothering you, then you must be doing something wrong or inviting some kind of harmful activity into your life. Both my parents helped me see beyond that and helped me to realize, in their own ways, that this wasn’t true. I will forever be grateful to them both for that. Just by challenging systems, their families, their communities, and themselves they taught me how to be my own person and how to love myself as a free human being.
TH: I’m curious how you see your upbringing folding into or informing your approach to your work now. When I read your words or experience your work, it feels like you’ve been doing this for lifetimes. I don’t know if you think about it in this way, but from my perspective, it feels really whole and full. It’s thought through. You have foresight and it’s clear that you’ve thought about things deeply. You’re always several steps ahead [of everyone], catching things before many people see the holes, identify the connections, or see the patterns.
How have your experiences growing up shaped or informed the work that you currently do now? Hearing you speak, I begin to have my own thoughts on how they’re related, but I think it’s important to hear from you about the ways and areas where you feel these things are connected.
MM: I know what it’s like to be just a few feet away from people who love you deeply, but who haven’t been given the tools to really thrive. That kind of frustration and overwhelm over an extended period of time does change you. It literally changes the way your brain is shaped, the way you feel and experience emotions. It changed me. One way I was able to cope was by knowing that I never wanted other people to experience the pain that I’d experienced. But in order for me to become an interventionist, I actually had to confront my own pain. bell hooks once wrote about this in “Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics” where she writes: “True resistance begins with people confronting pain…and wanting to do something to change it.”
MM: When I was young, depression wasn’t something that was considered valid or affirmed — especially if you were Black. Depressed? Feelings? Not possible. Seeing and experiencing that cyclical domino effect, metabolizing it and internalizing it definitely informs my work now. When I think of systems of oppression, organizing and campaigning, or when I think about research and data justice specifically, I think about how we can see these situations and develop an understanding of them in the most holistic ways possible. How can we get to the root of what is actually causing the harm?
I think all the time about what Toni Morrison said about how [racism] is a distraction.
[“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” – Toni Morrison]
I return to this quote as a meditation just about every other day and I connect it to my life and challenge myself to ask: what is the racism, homophobia, classism, transphobia, etc., distracting me from and why? When I was a kid, there was all this racism that my mother was experiencing, it literally took her away from her family and from being able to actually build strong emotional bonds and relationships with her children in the ways I’m sure that she’d wanted to. Having frameworks to understand how oppression works and can be stopped informs my politics, my values, my principles, because I’m constantly interrogating the connecting lines? What does it mean for me to do everything that I can to be a person who is able to intervene in harm when I’m seeing it? What does it mean for me to heal and to refuse to be a distraction to other people, especially Black queer and Black trans people healing? This means that I have to think of it not only in terms of how I am impacted individually or interpersonally, but I also have to think about it institutionally and systemically too.
TH: What has the process looked like for you? And what has gone into you developing your own methodologies within this work? I hear you say often how this work requires not just looking outside of yourself or within the community to work toward healing or do some of that hard, deep community work and relationship work, but it also requires that you wrestle with some of your own things simultaneously. All of us have our own experiences and things that we need to work through in order to get to the places [mentally, emotionally, and spiritually] that we’re trying to get to in our lives and in our communities, but for you, what has it looked like to work through and unravel your own experiences while also being steeped in doing that work for other people?
MM: I find having conversations in my Black community with my family, my friends, my partner about healing, about care, about liberation to help me a lot in grounding myself in the reality that I am, that we are all deserving of care, of protection, safety, accountability, justice, and joy.
Therapy helps me a lot, for sure. I’ve had a few therapists, too, over the past several years. When people share beautiful graphics on social media that say real convenient things like, “Just go to therapy” I’m like, ummm finding a therapist is actually not very easy.
In my very early twenties, I took a complete break from my former community for about two years. I moved away from the South Side, got a little apartment in Logan Square, and started working at an [education] tech company where I was managing people remotely from home. All I did [at that time] was work, think deeply about the experiences that I’d had in the past and about my trauma, go to therapy, and do things that made me happy. I was hardly communicating with anybody at the time, besides myself.
Just before I started therapy, at that time in my life, I was going through one of the most challenging times. My life was filled with so much noise of extended family, former friends, and colleagues all telling me who it was they wanted me to be. That kind of weight is not only immobilizing but if you sit under it too long and you can easily get lost in pitch black places where you have no idea where you begin and where others end. It was at that point that I went and found a therapist. Therapy helped me find the quiet I needed so I could re-learn the sound of my own voice and really hear it, really listen to it. Up until that point, I lived a life for two decades of constantly having other people tell me who I was. I got to a place where I needed to really not talk to anybody but me. I needed to figure out how I was feeling and how I was being impacted. What was I experiencing? I found myself researching books, essays, autobiographies focused on Black folks who had experienced trauma like I had, who were looking to heal. I [wanted to know] how Black queer people, Black trans people, Black people interested in transformative approaches to justice and liberation were thinking and feeling. Going through that experience helped me to get on a path towards healing. Of course, I’m going to be on that path for life, and the beginning parts of that path included me separating myself from the community that was stifling my growth, my self-compassion, my honesty, and getting a therapist.
TH: What was on the other side of the quiet? What was the outcome at that point?
MM: Have you ever been to see a movie at an IMAX theater? You know they have this moment when it starts off really quiet and then they blare this sound at you as an intro to several minutes of ads before the movie actually starts. Things went from being quiet to extremely loud. I found what I was drawn to — a particular kind of focus in my life and a particular kind of work. A particular kind of writing on the Internet, writing my music, including my first EP, The Letter B. That inner voice became clearer and clearer, and I felt more confident in my path and in my purpose. Spending that much time alone to think and speak to myself, to develop that relationship and care of self helped me to hear my voice over the comfort and convenience of other people in a white dominant, cisheteronormative society. My purpose continues to evolve and it’s my role to embrace that and to not allow the fear of vulnerability that comes along with change to keep me from continuing to know myself and to listen to myself.
TH: I love that so much. And the idea of your purpose evolving. That idea deeply aligns with and sometimes counters the conversations that are happening right now and have historically happened around rethinking how we live our lives.
I want to go back to when I first encountered your work, which was when you were working with Art + Feminism, but before we dive into our mutual love of libraries, information, documentation, and us being the authors of our own stories, I want to go back to something you said. You’re an artist — you’re a musician! I want to hear more about that, because I definitely know you best as a writer of articles and essays, and a creator of content.
MM: Most people do know me for my writing on Instagram. I’ve always had a love of music, which is probably true of most Black people on Earth! I consider it to be a sort of inheritance, a kind of ancestral legacy, for Black people globally. My mom had an intense love of music — she wanted to be a ballerina [before she decided to become a nurse]. And as soon as we could walk, she put us into dance. I was in every form of dance that you can think of. She also put me in an orchestra when I was in 5th grade.
TH: What did you play?
MM: I played saxophone. And now it’s been 15 years — I still play jazz, I am also a singer and a rapper. I make music under the name Chicago Bunny. I released an EP a few years ago and I’m working on an EP now called They Never Believe The Kid. So, when I’m not writing on the internet, and leading MMG, I’m writing, producing, and performing music.
TH: Why the saxophone? Did you fall in love with it as you learned to play it?
MM: The first thing I fell in love with was not the playing of the saxophone. What I fell in love with was the way that Black people’s hearts opened up and the way I could see it speaking to Black people. That made me realize it was valuable. I went to the Merit School of Music. I also played jazz at the University of Chicago. Then, I just continued to compose and improvise. Now, it feels less about the external impact it has on other people, which I still love, and more about it being a healing practice for me.
TH: You were playing saxophone while studying linguistics?
TH: I’m always so amazed at the people I meet who study and work in linguistics. Why did you decide to study that?
MM: When I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to be an interpreter. I have six brothers and one trans sibling. I have a younger brother who wouldn’t talk as a young kid. He could talk, but for an extended period of time he just refused to say anything. He would nod, point to things, and if he ever did talk he would whisper something to me and not talk to anyone else. I remember liking how it felt being an intermediary. And even though I couldn’t conceptualize this at the time, I liked affirming the fact that he did not want to speak and that that for him at the time was a boundary he wanted to be respected. When older adults would ask if I was his little interpreter, I wanted to learn more about what that meant.
I went to the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. I was the studious kid who would show up to my French classes and Spanish classes with all of my homework done. I always had a fascination with words and communication and I caught on to things very quickly. Around that time, I decided that if I went to college, I wanted to be an interpreter and work for the United Nations. I went to the University of Chicago and in my first year I decided that I wanted to go to Europe. I traveled internationally for the very first time when I was 19 years old. I went to Spain — I loved that experience and especially enjoyed being immersed in the language. Then, toward the end of my program I decided that I wanted to go to France. I worked for a summer at DuSable Museum and saved up all my money to go. I lived in Lyon for a year and was in a teaching program. When they asked where I wanted to teach, I told them to send me where no one else wanted to go, which ended up being a banlieu in Venissieux, a neighborhood where (I was told by the people who lived there) was a ghetto for poor folks of color who did not have access to wealthier areas of Paris, Lyon, and Marseilles. I worked at three schools with students who would often tell me that their white teachers didn’t care about them and some of those same teachers who would confirm this to me directly, explicitly “We’re here because we have to be, not because we believe in these students.” [My time in Lyon] also changed my view of working in close proximity with government entities as an interpreter. After I finished my program, I didn’t want to work for government in that kind of capacity anymore. I wanted to change government.
TH: How did your work as an interpreter evolve into what you’re doing now?
MM: When I came back [to the United States], I started working as an interpreter and translator for the State of Illinois, working with an early childhood intervention program doing interpretation for children under the age of three and their families. I came in contact with some of the same dynamics I experienced while teaching — working with white women who were mostly upper middle class and being sent into the homes of Black and Brown families. Many of them didn’t attempt to educate themselves about the cultures of these families and were very colonial in their approach. Like when I was in Lyon, I saw this as an opportunity to be an interventionist and advocate. I found myself challenging elitism, classism, xenophobia, and ableism often.
There was a point when I realized that although I was working as an interpreter, this wasn’t the impact I wanted to have. I took some time to think through what I wanted to do and started a communications firm that focused on translation and interpretation. I thought that maybe I could offer the gift of helping people understand one another through localization — that maybe that could address some of the issues of power, privilege, and injustice that I had witnessed early on in my life.
I ran the firm successfully for a few years. I knew the impact I was having, but I wasn’t at my purpose yet. After a few years, I closed my firm and took some time to decide what I really wanted to do.
Someone pointed me to a Black educator by the name of Desiree Adaway. I got on the phone with her, told her what I was looking for, and she mentioned that I should attend a retreat she was doing to help people figure out the next steps in their impact — and she was doing it through a lens of equity and activism. I had asked my ancestors to show me a path and so I went. And it was life-changing for me. [After the retreat] I was invited to facilitate discussions about power. The invitations weren’t what I was anticipating. But holding the space in the ways that I was, made me feel restored somehow. It felt right to me.
From there, I did more organizing and campaigning as the digital campaigner with Art + Feminism and later became the inaugural executive director.
TH: Hearing this path gives so much clarity to your work and who I understand you to be. Your work is so much more than I could have ever imagined. We’ve talked in the past about your love of libraries, where does that come from?
MM: I remember my mom taking me to Carter G. Woodson Library on 95th and Halsted as a kid. When she would take me, I would literally do the little Black kid is about to get some ice cream dance. It was joyful for me. It was about the books but also about being surrounded by Black people who also loved learning and reading. It made me feel like I was connected to every Black person — especially Black librarians — I would meet and see in the space. It felt like community and it felt very safe.
TH: Your love and hunger for language was there from the beginning. I first met you through your work with Art + Feminism, which is contributing so much to documenting artists and making them searchable online. Why did you start working there and why is that kind of work important to you at that time?
MM: It combined so many of my interests and motivations with my politics. I played the role of the interventionist, the leader, the artist, the sage. There were opportunities to kick ass in this space — especially in a space where the writing is dominated by white men. For me, to actually go into a space like that and organize around representation of women, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming folks felt like an opportunity of a lifetime and it was. It came at a time when I was in another state of evolution and was ready for the next chapter. It was exciting to step into a supportive community that supported my development as a leader and to take that leadership and learn from organizers and knowledge equity activists all over the world.
TH: Since they were supportive of your evolution and growth, you obviously evolved and grew. You left after three or four years of working at Art + Feminism. What did you do after that?
MM: I wanted to focus more on my teaching, writing, and my music. I stepped into a role that focused on honing in on what I needed. I took a break and took a pause from campaigning. That’s when I moved to South Africa and started a Master’s program in organizational anthropology.
TH: You’ve lived so many lives!
MM: I feel like that too. I love anthropology because it’s the study of human behavior and its one of the few social sciences where you can speak openly about your positionality as someone engaging in the research as opposed to easily falling into objectifying the people you are learning from. You can actually place yourself in it and talk about the ways the research is informed by you, but also how you inform the research. I went to Africa because I wanted to focus on the shared experience of racialized trauma between Black Africans and Black Americans, and Black immigrants in the United States. This experience was very freeing for me.
I was only supposed to be in South Africa for four or five days for a Wikipedia conference. But when I went to leave, something in me said that it wasn’t my time to go yet. It felt like something drew me there. I was already considering going back to get my master’s, so I went to University of Witswatersrand.
TH: What drew you back to Chicago?
MM: My grandmother had Alzheimer’s. Her name was Marjorie Davis. She was born in Macon, Mississippi and moved to Chicago in the 1950’s. She worked at a factory that made medical parts for hospitals for fifty years. She bought her own home on the South Side of Chicago with that minimal salary. So, she’d been sick [while I was in South Africa] and one day, a friend who worked in a coffee shop I frequented predicted that I would be heading back home to Chicago by the end of the week – I kid you not. I went to a coffee shop I used to work from every day and there was one of the baristas who looked at me and said “Oh Thulani [a friend who also worked in the coffee shop] told me you were going home on Friday.” I told that same barista that that didn’t make sense because I hadn’t told anyone I was heading home, I was in the middle of a semester after all. Literally, at the end of the week, my mom called me and told me that my grandmother had passed away. And I went home that week.
After I was back in Chicago and settled, I had a dream that I was in my grandmother’s basement. In the dream, I heard a knock at the door and the door opened — it was my grandmother. She asked me, “What are you waiting on? It’s time for you to get up. Stop waiting.”
Shortly after, I told my mom that I wanted to take on my grandma’s house. I told her that grandma came to me in a dream and she didn’t want the house to leave the family, and that I wanted to inherit it and keep her legacy going. I’m going to start renovating that same house this year.
TH: As someone who has been collecting my family stories and learning about the homes that have been held and lost in my family, I really appreciate this story and celebrate your efforts to keep this home in your family’s inheritance. I know it’s been hard to trace the circumstances that led to several homes in a range of states to no longer be in my family.
MM: I’ll say this: it hasn’t been the smoothest thing.
TH: I want to ask you about MMG. You’ve been talking publicly about and doing work around healing practices, DEI, anti-racism, and LGBTQIA+ advocacy for quite some time, so I’m wondering what the past year has been like for you with all of the increased attention on these topics and systemic harms that are tied to them. What I’ve been seeing over the past eighteen months is an overwhelming amount of requests to folks like yourself. Are there ways that this particular moment where we’re navigating multiple pandemics has increased people’s understanding of your work?
MM: MMG is a global research and change management firm that is informed by principles of social and racial justice. For me, it’s a kind of a social experiment that seeks to answer the question, “Is it possible to create an anti-capitalist entity under capitalism?”
When I first started doing organizing work, I wanted to be accepted within the DEI space, but I never was. There were a lot of divergent views I had, especially ones that diverged from the views of cis women, even cis women of color. Over the past two years I’ve realized why I’m not accepted into those spaces. It’s because I don’t do DEI work. I’m not the person to call when you just want to perform caring about the livelihoods and wellbeing of Black, Brown, queer, and disabled folks. [Not being accepted in those spaces] was a blessing in disguise that I figured out later.
At times, I feel like an old head or an elder. There are people engaging in conversations that I had over a decade ago. I create firm boundaries so that I don’t recreate past offerings because most of the work I’ve done over the years is free and publicly available. If you want to know what I think about these things, you can see where I wrote about it years ago. Go look through my Twitter, public Facebook page, or Instagram. Please feel free to go back and get that knowledge.
In the meantime, I’m moving forward. We’re often told to meet people where they are. In many cases, yes we should meet people where they are, but in certain cases we shouldn’t. In certain cases the learning curve needs to be steeper because if you’ve had the privilege to ignore something for so long, it’s not on me to come to your level and guide you through the place we’re all at now. You actually need to ride that curve up.
Six years ago when I was referring to myself as an anti-oppression consultant I had folks in the DEI space who told me not to call myself that because it was “too negative.” And now, I see so many people calling themselves anti-oppression advocates, strategists, practitioners, etc. This is something I contributed to. But now that people are in a similar place I was a few years ago, I’m now in a different place. I’ve evolved from that which is what we should all be so lucky to experience – evolution and growth. Now, I want to talk about economic justice, about classism, climate change, capitalism, and how systems of capitalism do not serve us. I want to talk about how it’s not possible for us to reform capitalism and think that within a capitalist system we can create a global society where all folks of color — Black folks, African folks, Latinx folks, Indigenous folks, Asian folks, and other People of Color — can experience justice because in order for capitalism to thrive Black and Brown people (working class and at and below the poverty line) are often required to be paid very little to the point where they can’t build lives for themselves.
Now, again, I’m being told that that’s too negative. I was told that same thing when it came to anti-oppression work six years ago. So, that’s a sign that I’m in the right place today.
TH: Hearing how you’re expanding the fronts that you’re working on and the things you’re incorporating into your thinking, it reminds me that there’s a liberation in even having the chance to evolve. Also, this shows what it means to be in a present moment where you recognize the dominant conversation but are in a different place than where many people are now. What does it feel like to be in a different place while the dominant conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion — the ones you were having years ago — are at the center of so many conversations? And to be clear, I’ll say they’re at the center of institutional conversations because on a community level or movement level, these ideas and conversations around climate, economic justice, and the harms of capitalism have been happening literally for generations.
MM: It feels like I am making a commitment to myself to refuse to be distracted.
There’s a resource from the Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice that talks about the seven core principles of organizing. The first is that organizing is always better than activism because activism is a personal declaration of values and beliefs. Organizing is the action. Strategies can be built around activism that push people to engage in movement building in a way that actually changes culture and legislation — it can change people. But alone, activism cannot shift and dismantle systems of oppression.
I don’t want to create content and engage in data justice, analytics, or research work that is just focused on pushing a dialogue. There’s actually more important work than that, and there are Black, Brown, queer, trans, and disabled folks who deserve to be on their own path of evolution and iteration. And that requires confronting really difficult mythologies around identity — who we’re told we should be and who we actually are. That requires action and organizing.
TH: While you’re out here educating everyone else, being a mentor and being a teacher — who are your mentors and teachers?
MM: Many are folks whose books I read when I was younger. One is Mariame Kaba, an abolitionist, organizer, and educator from New York. Others are Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. At a time when I needed to recognize the fact that my queerness was not something I should be ashamed of, but something to be celebrated, Audre Lorde’s work has been life-altering.
TH: Toni Morrison’s words, through books and her speeches, have ripped me open several times throughout my life. One of the many things I appreciate about your work is how you find a way to insert humor in your conversations. I’ve experienced presentations and workshops of yours where hard conversations are cut with comic relief. Can you talk about the role humor plays in your work?
MM: I love humor as a tool of subversion. Growing up, that was also something I depended on as a coping mechanism. But when I started to heal, I didn’t want to use it in that way. It then became more of a way to connect with myself and how I really feel about things. I can find out how I really feel about something through what I laugh at and what I don’t. We can’t control laughter. It provides a mirror that is so incredibly honest about who we actually are. And, also, the forced performance of laughter tells us a lot about who we aren’t.
Growing up, humor was a way to connect with family. Some of my best memories are connected to family and laughter.
TH: Yet another thing that comes back to family. And what you said about humor being a mirror is a word. Finally, is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that you’d like to end with?
MM: I like to remind myself of just how messy and complicated our lives, politics, and relationships really are. There’s such a beauty in being able to say “Yeah, not everything that happened was planned or ideal but it all belongs to me. It’s still a part of my life and I honor and appreciate what I’m continuing to build brick by brick, day by day. That, too, is art.”
About the Author: Tempestt Hazel is a curator, writer, artist advocate, and co-founder of Sixty Inches From Center. Find more of her work at tempestthazel.com.
About the Photographer: Ireashia M. Bennett is a storyteller, filmmaker, and writer whose work aims to create worlds, and document moments, where Black queer, disabled folks can exist in ease, complexity, and pleasure. Their work takes the form of new media, short and experimental films, as well as written and multimedia essays. They are a recipient of the two-year RaD Lab + Outside the Walls fellowship at Threewalls and the SPARK Grant from the Chicago Artists Coalition. Their artistic work has been exhibited in art spaces such as the Sullivan Galleries, Arts Incubator, Stony Island Arts Bank, and Chicago Art Department in Chicago as well as nationally at the Museum of African American History in Boston, MA.