How two young Black Chicago women are using art and activism to change narratives about Black communities
“Fighting the system is a very big burden to take on” – Martinez Sutton, “Another Life”
The future of Chicago often seems uncertain as two factions within the city battle for power. The current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and his supporters are continuing to push a narrative which supports the divestment from Black and Brown Chicagoans while many young activists have emphasized a narrative of people over profit. In that respect, two young Black women, Morgan Johnson and Eva Lewis, are working to recognize how uplifting others, creating space for marginalized groups, and embracing authenticity are just a few of the ways that The People can reclaim power over their lives and communities.
These actions, in the long run, are what bring us the world we want to see. They are also the embodiment of the principles of the Movement for Black Lives.
Both Johnson and Lewis recognize that the personal is political, and vice versa. By making connections between storytelling and activism, the two young women are using creative approaches to achieving justice and equity.
Illuminating Another Part of the Story
There is a growing need for Black people to tell their stories and own them. In an effort to address this urgency Johnson, a documentary filmmaker, created The Triibe. Through this organization, Johnson is using her platform to tell the stories of the aftermath of gun violence in Chicago. The video series, titled “Another Life”, thus far has four episodes that follow Martinez Sutton, Amanie Foster, and Perrick “Moon” Robinson as they walk through life after losing a friend or family member to gun violence.
“How can we tell this story about gun violence in a constructive way?” Johnson cited this question as part of her thought process in conceiving the “Another Life“ video series.
This inquiry rests upon a backdrop where gun violence in Chicago has been a core focus of the 45th POTUS. This narrative has been used to push an agenda forward that would increase policing and militarization around the country. President Trump’s threats to send the Feds into Chicago frames the issue as one that is beyond local control and past due on a solution, leaving Federal involvement as the only option rather than more funding for education, mental health, and employment in neighborhoods that need it most.
“It’s almost scripted in the way they [mainstream media] tell these stories,” Johnson said, “We made a distinctive choice to cover the aftermath of violence from people who have lost someone. We’re going to be the first generation in this ‘gun era’ where access to guns is so easy, and there will be a whole generation of lives lost. We wanted to get ahead on that narrative.”
For Johnson and the series’ producer, Tiffany Walden, getting ahead on the narrative means looking at the ways young Black folks are dealing and healing from trauma as a parallel movement for Black lives is growing.
“There’s this narrative coming from our people – Black people – every time someone dies to gun violence, asking ‘where’s #BlackLivesMatter now?” Johnson said, “That narrative is so disturbing to me… The story of Amani is so inspiring to me. She’s only 21 just lost her cousin and she’s channeling all that into public service.”
Johnson pointed out that Amani, featured in the video series, doesn’t have the resources that Mayor Emanuel has, but she’s using her resources to address the issue in a more constructive and innovative way that doesn’t carry out more harm to her community.
The Movement for Black Lives is much broader than policy changes and abolition of punitive discipline practices. It’s also about how we keep ourselves safe, keep our community in-check, and ensure that our people are politically and socially aligned with each other. As Johnson’s work shows, it’s about everyone in their own lanes working to change the culture.
Making Room for Intersections
For 18 year-old Eva Lewis, her lane has been to use art and various forms of expression as an avenue for her activism.
“[The killing of] Trayvon Martin was a big eye opener for me,” said Lewis, “History wasn’t just history, it was the present.” In the eighth grade, her mom took her to a protest in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder, which was one point of Lewis’s politicization; she was impacted by seeing the “anger across cultures”.
Since then Lewis has gone on to co-found the Youth for Black Lives collective, a group of eight young Black femme folks in Chicago that works to uplift messages of intersectionality – a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to explain the interconnected oppressions faced by marginalized people.
Earlier this year, Lewis and the Youth for Black Lives collective hosted an event as part of The Chicago Community Trust’s On the Table series to talk about social media and activism and where Black women and the push for Black women and girls to the forefront of movements.
The event was a conversation among young Black Chicagoans. The goal? Moving these young people towards a political analysis that will result in a more equitable society.
According to Lewis, “Every time you educate a Black woman on womanism and tell her there’s a movement for that, it’s really powerful.”
For Lewis, intentionally making space for these conversations to happen is part of her role in the movement. She said it’s about, “coming up with those ideas that really get you going and thinking about those things and applying previous knowledge” and having “holistic conversations”.
There’s no one angle to achieving liberation, just like there has never been just one method to oppress or exclude Black people. Therefore, transformative justice is about breaking cycles and breaking tradition.
Young people like Johnson and Lewis are helping move us into an era where the dominant narrative, and the society built from it, will be one rooted in the struggle of Black folks. A society where we have used our collective strength to build an inclusive and anti-oppressive world around us. Through these projects, young people are bridging the gap between mainstream narratives and grassroots activism.
For Johnson and Lewis, addressing the issues facing groups at home and in their communities is just as necessary to the national conversation about Black lives as the federal policy that shapes so much of our daily lives. These young women instill hope and possibility into the continued effort to positively transform society.
This report was made possible by a generous grant from the Chicago Community Trust.
Photo courtesy of Eva Lewis, pictured middle left.