If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that there is so much work to be done when it comes to racial equity. The fact that the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is controversial—what’s less controversial than the word “matter”?—shows us just how far we need to go. But finally, we are seeing health and wellness advocates, alongside the general public, understand and acknowledge that racism is a public health crisis. Governors (in Michigan and Nevada) have signed declarations of the fact, and a shift towards equity is happening (or at least, many of us hope).
It’s a shift history has seen before, but this time people are working to make sure that this spark of change starts a fire. At least, that’s the impetus behind the Black Independence Project, a nonprofit organization that works to support and sustain community-focused initiatives actively working to advance and protect Black lives.
“Everything that’s happening around BLM [Black Lives Matter] is not necessarily new, but it’s starting to feel new because we’re starting to have these conversations from scratch again,” says Black Independence Project co-founder Markiesha Patrice. “And so the point is that we didn’t want to miss this moment, we don’t want it to fade, we don’t want it to be another conversation to start from the beginning every year or two years, any other time when a Black life is taken.”
The mission of the Black Independence Project, which Patrice co-founded with her longtime friend Lawrence Montalvo, is to center systemic problems in Black business, education, public health and wellness, and more. This kicks off with a series of virtual panels and events on Black Independence Day, August 15. We chatted with the two co-founders to understand more about the mission of the project and Black Independence Day itself, and how racial inequality affects all facets of being well.
Well+Good: Where did the idea of the Black Independence Project come from?
Markiesha Patrice: I grew up in New Hampshire, and so growing up in New Hampshire there’s not that much diversity there; at least not when I was growing up there. So I always just felt compelled to talk more about my diverse background growing up. I’m Black American, I’m Native American, and I’m Mexican Indian. So when you’re not exposed to that, you really don’t know how to have those types of conversations, or know how to talk to other folks about it, and that’s always been something that’s fueled me and it’s carried over into my professional life—just wanting to have conversations with other people from different backgrounds. But obviously that becomes a very uncomfortable thing if folks treat it that way.
The Black Independence Project [is] our way of uplifting these voices and realizing that these conversations [about race and diversity] should continue year-round, and it’s about getting in touch with organizations that have always been doing this work. Black Lives Matter has been around since 2016, but the idea of racial equality and eliminating racial disparities has been around since before the civil rights movement. So how do we identify those organizations in our communities and say, “Hey, you’ve been doing the work to try and address the housing crisis in poor communities and in Black communities, how can we help you? What is it that we need to do?” Because that’s something that we also need to address, right? Is identifying what are these different areas that are being impacted by smaller, grassroots organizations and give them a louder voice and also give them the resources to do even more work and have an even bigger impact.
Identifying what are these different areas that are being impacted by smaller, grassroots organizations and give them a louder voice and also give them the resources to do even more work and have an even bigger impact
Lawrence Montalvo: Markiesha and I have been friends for around six years now—we went to Boston University together—but fast-forward to recent months with recent protests and racial uprisings as a result of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black lives, [and] we found ourselves feeling kind of helpless. I am at the intersection of being Latinx but also queer, and I grew up in the Bronx, and I have been surrounded by Black friends, peers, teachers, family members my whole life… the idea of being anti-racist has really permeated the public consciousness, and it’s something that I was definitely conscious about when co-founded this with Markiesha, and I’ve been here to support her mostly and amplify the mission for the organization.
So what is Black Independence Day? What do you hope people get out of it?
MP: With the event [on August 15], that’s our way of understanding there’s so much information out there, and in order for that to be used in an appropriate way, you have to get the tools from the people doing the work. Because like Lawrence said, feeling helpless and feeling like I want to do something, but I don’t know what to do, or I know what I want to do but I don’t know how to do it—those are the things that get in the way of progress.
And so, if we can put together an event to help people get answers to those questions, then we can continue our progress forward. And that’s what Black Independence Day is, and that’s why it’s really called Black Independence Day—it’s this idea that we can take our independence back from who society deemed [more worthy] or who have historically had the power. They’ve had the money, they’ve had the network, they’ve had the know-how and the skills and the knowledge, so how can we get all of those things, bring them back to our communities, and use that to continue to make a change and really gain our freedom?
Feeling like ‘I want to do something, but I don’t know what to do,’ or ‘I know what I want to do but I don’t know how to do it’—those are the things that get in the way of progress
LM: What’s happening now in the public is that, as Black Lives Matter is gaining traction there is more of an awareness that this isn’t just a Black issue but it is a human rights issue. We’ve been very intentional in terms of the organizations and grassroots organizations that we wanted to uplift, making sure that we’re inclusive and including Black trans rights organizations, Black queer organizations, organizations that amplify Black women, and that there is space dedicated to those different communities within the overall Black community, because I think sometimes that can get missed—that there are still different identities within these communities. And so our event is really for everyone, it is not just for one type of Black person, it is for all of the different intersections of Blackness to really rise and gather learnings from these different organizations on the ground.
We, as a society, are finally grappling with the idea that racism is a public health crisis—there have been governor declarations of racism as a health crisis, and a new understanding of the problems of well-being in this context. When it comes to health and wellness, what are the major tenets Black Independence Day and Black Independence Project are working to address?
MP: One of our tracks is called Public Health and Wellness, and the reason why we even identify that as an area of impact is for that exact reason—that racism is a public health crisis, and it’s permeated our system. So how we’re addressing it is bringing in the experts to talk about what public health really is and how it can be changed. This term is just sort of being thrown around these days, and…we don’t even really understand how deep public health goes. Public health is everything from mental health and wellness down to the drinking water in communities, right? It’s, “How do we create environments where people are able to thrive?”
[For Black Independence Day] we have some great experts coming in to speak about public health… [for example] taking COVID-19 and understanding, “Why is it that the Black and brown communities, and low-income communities, were most affected? And how has that manifested?” So it’s looking at this health crisis [right now] but also looking at a state of healing and mental health; it’s about making sure that you know how to have conversations with people in your communities and you know what resources are available to you.
I think some people fail to see how all of these things are interconnected and all impact wellness. It’s not just about blatant health or mental health disparities—voting suppression keeps people from voting and advocating for impactful health care; education and career opportunities keep people from generational wealth and keep people in cycles of poverty; city planning keeps people from green spaces or saddles them with pollution. Everything’s inherently wellness-related. As far as the continuation of the project, what’s the future look like to you?
MP: We’re really working [on building] out our partner network [so that] these community organizations can get the funding that they need, recruit the volunteers that they need, and develop and execute the programming that they need in order to impact their activities.
The other part of it is working with our corporate sponsors and having them understand that it’s more than just donating on the national level. If you have an office in, say, Brooklyn then why aren’t you donating to all of these Brooklyn organizations? Why aren’t you having days of service where you’re partnering with these Brooklyn organizations, if that’s where your employees work and live? It’s really making that connection between the corporate partner and the community.
And then the last part is us at the Black Independence Project working to create programs of our own to put these organizations through cohorts of development, and learnings, and making sure we’re training them up to get the skills that they need to be successful. Making sure that we work with Black-owned businesses to ensure that 1) your business plan works and you’re online and you’re accessible and people can find you but then 2) when it comes to growing and getting funding, that we can connect you to the people that are willing to make an investment in your business; so really it’s not building from the ground up it’s about being a resource, making sure everybody can benefit.
What else should people know about the event on August 15?
MP: We want people to come out and support, but the call to action is really get involved in your community. Find something in your community and donate your time. [And] donate your skills! I think that’s one thing that people tend to overlook. [You can] tap into your unique superpower. That’s why building out this organization was so important to us… [it’s about] using skills to help fuel this moment, so that we don’t have to keep chanting Black Lives Matter, we just made it part of our cultural DNA.
Register for Black Independence Day on August 15 and learn more about the Black Independence Day Project by visiting BlackIndependenceProject.org.
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