CHAPTER 1Three Girls Who Wanted to Make the World Better
Today, Black Lives Matter is a global movement that has rallied millions of people to the cause of ending racial injustice and police brutality. But it began as a conversation among three women: Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors. The trio did not plan to start a mass protest movement. They started out as three young girls who cared deeply about their communities and about doing their part to make those communities safer, more just, and more equitable for all.
Alicia Garza was twelve years old when she became an activist. She grew up in Northern California, the daughter of a Black mother and a white stepfather, both of whom were antiques dealers. Garza and her family stood out in their town of Tiburon. Of its nearly nine thousand residents, fewer than one hundred were Black, and Garza was one of only ten Black students, out of about three hundred, at her middle school. When her school district became embroiled in a debate about reproductive rights and sex education for middle-school students, Garza stepped into the fray. Campaigning on the side of more education and access to birth control for teens, she convinced the schools to make contraception available to students and to offer comprehensive sex ed. The experience of speaking out for what she believed in and seeing her classmates respond positively to her leadership was empowering. “That spurred me to really want to be an asset to my community and to make sure the people I knew and loved had all the tools they needed to make the decisions that were right for them,” she told Vanity Fair in 2020. “It also spurred me to want to do more.”
As a social sciences student at the University of California San Diego, Garza continued advocating for access to birth control, for HIV/AIDS testing, and against domestic violence. U.C.S.D. was also where she started to study politics and began to organize communities as she figured out how she wanted to spend her time and energy as an adult. “It was far enough from home where I felt like my parents couldn’t just drop in on me unexpectedly, but it was close enough that if I needed my mom’s home cooking, I could get home within a day and get a hug and a good meal,” Garza recalled.
After college, she got an internship at the School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL), an Oakland training program for social justice organizers. People study and train to be activists just as they would to become firefighters or paramedics. She began working for Just Cause Oakland, an advocacy group that successfully fought for eviction protections for low-income tenants in the area. She spent the summer learning how to canvass—knocking on doors and talking to more than a thousand residents about the work Just Cause was doing and the resources that were available to them. “I spent countless hours in kitchens and living rooms, on crowded couches and porches, and in backyards,” she writes in her book, The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart. “I learned how to engage other people in the slow process of changing the world.” It was also where she met her future husband, Malachi Garza, a transgender man and fellow organizer.
Alicia was twenty-three when she told her parents that she was queer. “I think it helped that my parents are an interracial couple,” she said in an interview with The New Yorker. “Even if they didn’t fully understand what it meant, they were supportive.”
She started working as an organizer for more community groups, including People United for a Better Life in Oakland (PUEBLO), the UC Student Association, and People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER). At POWER, she led the outreach initiative to the Black community, fighting for both racial and environmental justice. Over the next decade she continued working in Oakland, speaking out against police brutality and fighting for free public transportation for young people.
Opal Tometi, another of Black Lives Matter’s cofounders, followed a different path to activism. Tometi grew up in Arizona, witnessing the ongoing conflict over immigration on the border between the United States and Mexico.
The immigration issues came even closer to home when Tometi’s parents, who are Nigerian immigrants, faced possible deportation for being undocumented. They were able to secure the right to stay in the United States, but others in their community were not as fortunate. When Tometi was in high school, her best friend’s mother was deported, so she moved in with Tometi and her family for a while. The threat of deportation and how it echoed through her community made Tometi passionate about immigrant rights. She would later tell The Guardian, “It instilled in me just how vulnerable [my family was] to the whims of the state.”
Tometi attended the University of Arizona, and in 2004, while taking a class on the Holocaust, she drew parallels between the history she was studying and the perils facing the immigrant community where she grew up. She recalled telling her classmates, “‘Look around us, y’all. Look at what we’re saying about immigrants, the way we’re talking about people being “illegal,” look at the types of laws being pushed . . .’ I remember everybody, especially my instructor, just shutting me down.”
That experience stuck with her into her adult life, when she decided to focus her attention on the rights of immigrants and their families—families like hers. She eventually became the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, an organization in the Bay Area, where she helped reunite families after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 and advocated for Black immigrants before the U.S. Congress and at the United Nations.
“ME BEING THE DAUGHTER OF IMMIGRANTS, ALICIA AND PATRISSE BEING QUEER; NATURALLY OUR OWN IDENTITIES INFORM THE WORK.”
Patrisse Cullors, the third cofounder of Black Lives Matter, grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, an area of great income inequality.
The daughter of a single mother and a father who was in and out of prison, Cullors remembered her childhood as being shaped by poverty. Her mother struggled to make a living, and the closing of the local General Motors plant had a disastrous effect on the family’s income. In her book, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, Cullors writes about how she and her siblings ate Cheerios with water because they couldn’t afford milk, and how the family lived without a working refrigerator for more than a year. “Being hungry is the hardest thing, and to this day I have prayers of gratitude for the Black Panthers, who made Breakfast for Children a thing that schools should do,” she recalls. “We qualified for free lunch and breakfast, and without them I am almost sure we wouldn’t have made it out of childhood alive despite my hardworking parents.”
As she grew up, she became increasingly aware of her own sexuality. She came out as bisexual when she was in tenth grade. Her cousin Naomi, who was already out, was the first person she told. Toward the end of her junior y...