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The Social Justice Advocates

The movement against racism is broad and deep. Here are some of the people making change happen.

Segun Idowu, Queen-Cheyenne Wade, Monica Cannon-Grant, and Sofia Meadows show that revolutionary change comes from working together.

From Left: Segun Idowu of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, Queen-Cheyenne Wade of For the People - Boston, Monica Cannon-Grant of Violence in Boston, and Sofia Meadows of For the People - Boston.
From left: Segun Idowu of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, Queen-Cheyenne Wade of For the People - Boston, Monica Cannon-Grant of Violence in Boston, and Sofia Meadows of For the People - Boston.Philip Keith for The Boston Globe
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Bostonians of the Year are selected by the editors of the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com

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Revolution, no matter what anyone thinks, is not led by a person. Revolution is only as real and strong as the people.

And there is no one path to liberation. From policy makers to powerful creatives to people in the streets with their fists in the air, we need all kinds. The fight for freedom contains multitudes. We needed Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. We needed Ida B. Wells, Bayard Rustin, and Marsha P. Johnson. We needed the many names you don’t know and rarely hear because the gatekeepers craft a palatable narrative that flattens movements in the name of respectability politics.

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So as we write history and mark the moments and movements of this chapter of the revolution, we must not erase community by creating one savior to tell the story through.

Perhaps, if we start with the people and the freedom they fight for, instead of a person to behold, we have a better shot at true liberation and a functioning democracy.

Monica Cannon-Grant knows both what it is to be erased in conversations and community work, and to be deemed the voice of a community. “It’s easy to make one person the revolution, so that no one else has to do the work,” says Cannon-Grant, 39, a Roxbury activist and founder of the nonprofit group Violence in Boston. In addition to organizing the Franklin Park march attended by thousands in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, she recently opened a social impact center in Hyde Park offering wellness services, a food pantry, civic tools, and all things community.

A city as segregated by race as it is by class, Boston is dominated by power dynamics. And as advocates rise to forge a more equitable future, she says hierarchy has no place in their fight.

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When Cannon-Grant first started organizing, as she reached out to potential mentors in the movement, she was met with resistance. People thought they were being replaced. “If you aren’t mentoring and passing power to the younger generation, what are you doing? We aren’t going to solve racism in one generation. The idea that ‘I have the power, I live with the power, I die with the power,’ is the most toxic thing I have seen in the movement,” Cannon-Grant says. “We should pass on the knowledge and do whatever we can to support each other. What happens when you are exhausted and burnt out? If you hold all the power, who do you pass the baton to?”

She’s in conversation with newer organizers like For the People - Boston and Black Boston 2020 to offer solidarity and wisdom. She has worked with artists and policy makers and more. “Revolution looks like exactly what’s happening right now,” Cannon-Grant says. “We have young people on the front lines and the millennials my age on the front lines, too. Everybody is doing their part. For some, that is feeding the communities, for others it is advocating for legislation. For some, art is their way of showing up in the movement. My thing is, I can’t dictate to you how you show up in the movement. Me, personally, I organize. I protest. If we are all shooting for the same thing, we all win.”

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When the young activists behind For the People - Boston started mobilizing in June, they didn’t just lead the march from Nubian Square to City Hall calling for the removal of police from schools and the reallocation of police funds. They built the collective so it would not have one voice or leader, but a mission: to dismantle oppressive systems and build equitable and restorative frameworks for the future.

Protesters gather at the State House where Monica Cannon-Grant (center, hand raised) addressed them during a Juneteenth protest and march in honor of Rayshard Brooks and other victims of Police Violence in Boston, Massachusetts on June 22, 2020. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP) (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)
Monica Cannon-Grant (center, pointing) on June 22, at the State House, addressing a Juneteenth protest honoring victims of police violence.Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

“Collective liberation — it is not about who is the leader. And once they find out who the leader is, they will kill you,” says Sofia Meadows, 21, a For the People - Boston organizer. “We are community. All of our liberation is tied, our souls are tied, in everything we do.”

For Segun Idowu, executive director of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, freedom fighting is a family affair. And for that reason, he not only understands the power of the collective struggle, but the importance of individual paths to freedom. “It’s easier to know about one person or one way than it is to know about all of the people of the civil rights movement, than it is to know about the multitude of people on the ground doing things differently,” he says. “There’s this assumption that things can only happen when there is one person making a decision. Democracy comes from the idea that everyone is making the decision, we as a group are making decisions.”

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At BECMA, economic equity and empowerment is the mission. Its work led to Governor Baker’s recent legislation to diversify state contractors. And Idowu knows economic empowerment is one element of the freedom fight, and even that involves different ways of thinking to work in tandem.

He respects the work the Boston Ujima Project is doing to create a community-centered, community-controlled economy as a vision for a post-capitalist world. People have tried to pit the two organizations against one another. He sees both approaches as necessary. “Until we can wrestle that power away, removing systemic racism brick by brick, BECMA is going to get Black people all the money we can. There is no either or. We can do both,” he says. “Look at the story of enslavement. There was no one way to get free. There were all different methods. At the end of the day, it’s about a shared goal. We don’t have to take the same path to get there.”

The key is making sure when we get there, we lift one another to liberation, too.

Queen-Cheyenne Wade has lived in Cambridge public housing her entire life. And it’s there that she learned the essential need for collective power. “Cambridge is one of the most segregated cities in Massachusetts. Growing up, my parents were very transparent about the system we live in that prioritizes whiteness and wealth over community and over blackness, over what is deemed non-white,” she says. The love she got there is what fuels her organizing spirit and her work with For the People - Boston.

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“What fortified me is my community. I think that idea of the Haitian community in Cambridge doing giant potlucks in the community center, homework hours where the teens would come together and do homework. Playing with the kids in the projects and seeing the beauty in the lives being told they are not important. And my faith as a Muslim, my understanding of that process of justice, I know you can’t do this work without being in community with people.”

Art is as much about cultivating community as are other tools of activism. From the moving murals of Rob “Problak” Gibbs lifting Roxbury to Street Theory and the work being done to give imagery to the uprising, artists play a role, too.

Victor “Marka27” Quiñonez, cofounder of Street Theory and one of the artists behind the Museum of Fine Arts’ recent Murals for the Movement exhibition honoring victims of police brutality and mass incarceration, says art belongs to the people.

True art, he says, “is the voice of the people, it’s pure, it’s not compromised. That goes for the poets, writers, musicians, and visual artists.”

As a native of Mexico, when he sees disparity in communities across America, he remembers the work of José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, artists who used murals to unify Mexico after the revolution. Their work inspired Black American icons John Biggers and Charles White, whose art celebrated and explored Black life well before the civil rights movement.

“We are all doing work based on the same struggle,” says Quiñonez, 42.

He lives in Brooklyn. But the work he does to amplify artists in the activism space is on display in Cambridge, Roxbury, and the South End. For him, it’s important to help artists have that space with their communities and to see its power.

“I’ve always loved that saying, ‘Revolution is evolution.’ People want to criminalize revolution but honestly it’s another form of evolving. Certain people want to divide and conquer. If you tell everyone that they can use their gifts and be activists, could you imagine if everyone knew they could equally make change and all work together for the greater good?”

The revolution would be won.

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Jeneé Osterheldt is a culture columnist for the Globe.