August 9 marks the one-year anniversary of a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, that rocked a community and bolstered a festering anger over police brutality and its racial dynamics in the U.S. The anniversary carries the memory of black teenager Michael Brown, whose killing by a police officer is deeply seared into the hearts and minds of Americans and sparked extended protest in the community. But even after the news crews left Ferguson, people there continued demonstrating and advocating every day.
Many of these people are unfamiliar to major news outlets and the public. That’s because they’re a part of a grassroots movement, the kind of people who have always been involved in activist spaces but often don’t get the recognition they deserve for their efforts. Ever since that tragic August day, black female activists in Ferguson in particular have been raising awareness — writing, speaking, and supporting initiatives to bring light to important discussions about police brutality, hope, faith, and healing.
One of those Ferguson activists is Angel Carter, a writer and social justice event planner. Beyond keeping a blog called “Liberated Souls” about her work with the community, she coordinates with several groups, including Millennial Activists United, and supports activists by making connections to therapists and counselors.
It’s that connection work that bloomed into Ferguson Self-Care Night. Carter is the main organizer of the initiative, which aims to address the burn-out that can drain social activists. Organizers and volunteers on the ground often find themselves too exhausted from their engagement in a crisis or ongoing struggle to care for their own minds and bodies. According to Eugene Simpson, dean of students at Jennings Senior High School in the Ferguson area, “if you’re looking into the grassroots situation that’s here, you have a lot of people who want to heal and who want to move on but you can’t move on because of the racism that is here.” Carter explains that self-care is necessary to prevent physical and emotional fatigue, which “has been partially responsible for past causes and movements abruptly dying out, even though the work was still needed.”
Historically, she says, protest efforts have fallen to “small groups of people who give this work everything within them.” Activist burnout occurred during the civil rights movement, according to Carter, but was not properly addressed. In January, Ferguson Self-Care Night was hosted at a St. Louis community center, complete with different forms of healing: free massages, yoga classes, and mental health services. On June 30, Carter helped to organize a second self-care event.
In the past, the daily toil of social justice work often took place in the shadows, in the communities hardest hit by the events that demanded action. Now, thanks to social media, the voices of otherwise-marginalized activists are amplified. Black women organizing during the civil rights movement had a low profile despite the revolutionary work, and were often written out of history. Carter notes that “Black women back then didn’t have a social media equivalent platform to tell their own story in a way that it could spread quickly across the masses within a matter of minutes.”
But it is not enough, she says, to represent a certain subset of black lives, because if the activism is “not intersectional, there is no point.” She seeks greater inclusiveness in activist culture itself. Different identity markers — race, gender, sexuality, national origin, economic status, immigration status, and more — lead to different lived experiences, often in connection to privilege and discrimination. While Carter tends to focus on black people and women, she’s been examining LGBTQ, immigration, and disability issues, too. This is where “allyship,” collaboration between groups that don’t necessarily identify with each other, is important. Carter mentions that she is “not representing all black lives; what I want is true change, and it can only come if we care about one another and respect one another.” It is not enough, she believes, to highlight one-dimensional understandings of mainstream leadership.
She is not alone in this thinking. Reverend Osagfeyo Uhuru Sekou, a prominent pastor in the St. Louis area, has been on the ground in Ferguson for three months participating in protests and leading trainings on peaceful civil disobedience. In an interview with YES! Magazine, he has recognized that he, too, is part of the “pundit” class, which writes books and gives speeches but doesn’t engage on the ground for extended periods of time. Reverend Sekou recognizes that that he is a follower in the Ferguson movement — one of a diverse coalition of activists.
The anniversary of the death of Michael Brown brings with it community events featuring high-profile speakers and the attention of national media once again. But after the camera crews and news vans leave, and the dust settles again, intersectional activists like Carter will keep doing the heavy lifting in Ferguson.