Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Leslie Mac and Marissa Johnson, two black female activists, started working on development of the Safety Pin Box which — unlike the viral solidarity campaign of wearing a safety pin from which the project took its name — provides guided tasks for white allies who want to fight to end systemic oppression in society.
While many celebrated the project as a useful and innovative approach to activism, others have been skeptical, even angry. In the midst of Leslie and Marissa dealing with both praise and criticism as they launched Safety Pin Box, I had the chance to chat with Leslie about the controversy, why allies should be accountable to their commitments, and why we should pay black women.
Ijeoma Oluo: What has the last three or four days been like for the two of you as this project has been picked up by high-profile people who take issue with it?
Leslie Mac: It’s been interesting, but also super predictable. We went into this with eyes wide open, knowing what eventually would be coming our way. Nothing was shocking, but [the outrage] has been wholly unnecessary — it’s interesting the level of scrutiny that we’ve been having. There are businesses that have been around for hundreds of years with no scrutiny, but little ol’ us — everybody wants to know everything right now and if we don’t have an exact answer, it’s a problem.
When Marissa and I first started this, the only measure we had as to whether or not this was a good idea was what black women thought. For us, it’s been really clear — we’ve had really great support from black women. Of course we’ve seen the “ultra-left” have a problem; all of a sudden, making money is a problem — when black women are the ones doing it. And, of course, we’ve seen a lot of white fragility — many white women in particular are taking issue with having to pay for our content, our work, our energy, our time.
Marissa herself is often a target, ever since her disruption of Bernie Sanders in Seattle. For me, personally, I get very defensive when this criticism is coming from people because they feel a certain way about her and her actions from over a year ago.
Ijeoma: I think it is really funny, the grudge that people who claim to be all about social justice will have against a black woman who dared interrupt a white man. This has been a year and a half long grudge against a young black woman for interrupting an old white man giving a political speech. The levels of cognitive dissonance . . . this is not a good look.
Leslie: It’s the opposite of radical. We hear things like, “Why aren’t you a 503c?” What the fuck is radical about that? What’s radical about giving to organizations? We’re trying to do radical things, because we can. How can we embody something different? How can we have a different way of doing this work and a different way of being in business with each other and the community?
Ijeoma: What really motivated this project? I know that the name is of course linked to the current talk of wearing safety pins for solidarity, but I’m assuming you didn’t just hear safety pins and say “I’m going to come up with this box.” What motivated the product that you’re offering?
Leslie: Marissa and I were both on vacation when we came up with this idea. We left the country shortly after the election. We were in this idyllic place with friends and loved ones for an entire week. The safety pin fever really started the day we all left. We were watching it happen, but because we weren’t here, we weren’t the ones dealing with these white women fighting for this pseudo-symbol of solidarity. From our perspective, because we were in this place with likeminded people having general conversations, it started sort of jokingly. We started asking, “Wow, what is it about safety pins? What is drawing people to this?”
We realized that: 1. People really do want to do something, but in the moment they feel hopeless and helpless. And 2. these people who want to do something come from a segment of the population that has absolutely no idea how to show true solidarity. They’ve never had to show it, and so have no true skill sets in doing it. And so, of course, what comes out of that is something as completely useless as a safety pin. It’s like, “Oh, what’s the least we can do? Let’s do something right below that.”
Because Marisa and I were in a situation where we weren’t having to argue with people about safety pins, we were able to just ask questions. Out of that distillation of people wanting to do something but who were ill-equipped to do it, we had this idea: What if we gave them something to do? What if we said, “You want something to do? Here, do this.” What would make them do it?
I’m a big proponent of transformation being an equation, with commitment and consistency on the other side. So the idea behind a subscription box and a monthly fee is really about consistency in allyship. Too often allyship means “I’m here when something pops off.” Or, “I’m here when something really big happens, and then I’m gone.” Part of the idea was: Give people something they can do, and put it in a model that makes them show up over and over again. We are integrating their lives with allyship. It’s not separate from them, it’s something they do regularly.
Ijeoma: Can you give me an example of a couple of the tasks that you would send people to do?
Leslie: Sure, the sample project we have on our site right now is about power-mapping. It involves guiding folks through exercises to learn what power-mapping is — how to define power, learning to evaluate power structures in their lives personally, then taking it a little wider and evaluating power in their community. We ask them to go to some sort of community meeting, whether it’s a city council or a school board meeting, and take notes: Who holds power in the meeting? Who talks first? Who talks longest? Why is that?
The fourth week in this particular task we ask them to take three things that they identify in the power structure that they personally have some say in, and to evaluate how they can shift power to more marginalized people. Then we ask them to make a commitment to do that and share that commitment with others who are also going to be doing this work.
This month we have a special Holiday Box that’s going out. The theme of it is radical compassion and the tasks going out are focused on that. One of the items we’re going to be talking about is: Are you a safe place? We’re going to take people through an evaluation of whether they are a safe place for marginalized people — are they equipped to respond when those folks need help? — and how to get ready to be able to respond.
Ijeoma: What would you say to people who say that you shouldn’t be charging for this service?
Leslie: I think we’re actually offering a pretty good deal for folks right now, to get the content that we’re putting together. I don’t understand this notion of not getting paid for it. I know that it’s rooted somewhere in this notion that 1. Black labor should be free and 2. that any work you do toward liberation or activism becomes worthless if it’s not free. I don’t subscribe to that model myself. I don’t believe in scarcity models. I don’t believe in this notion of not compensating people for their work — especially black people, who are the least compensated, generally speaking. And I also need folks to understand that, while we fight capitalism, we live in a capitalist society. So, we need to eat, we need to be secure in our lives in order to do this work.
I have in the last two and a half years watched activist after organizer burn out, lose their homes, lose their livelihoods, and leave the movement. I don’t want to be on that path, I don’t want Marissa on that path, and I don’t want any of the other women that do the work to be on that path. So part of this project is to really embody and model a different way of being. A different way of doing this work with integrity, with fair compensation, and with an eye toward giving back to others who aren’t compensated for the work that they’re already doing.