Next up in our Women to Watch blog series, which focuses on women who are breaking down gender barriers, advocating for change, and leading in their fields, is activist, author, artist, and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Patrisse Cullors.
Following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Cullors first used #BlackLivesMatter on social media, and helped spark a movement that has now been challenging racism and oppression in all forms for nearly a decade.
“Black Lives Matter has become what black communities all over the world have needed it to become,” says Cullors. “At times, it is a hashtag; at other moments, it is a declaration, a cry of rage, a sharing of light. It has become a movement that is international, worldwide in its scope of liberation for black and oppressed people everywhere.”
Cullors made national news in May 2021 when she resigned from her position as Executive Director of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation. In the time since, Cullors has shed light on that decision, published a second book, and continues to be a major voice for change and equality.
Growing Up, Patrisse Cullors
Cullors was born in Los Angeles, California on June 20, 1984. She was raised by her mother, Cherisse Foley, who single-handedly raised Patrisse along with her siblings.
Cullors grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, but left the religion in her teens after coming out as queer, and expressing a desire to lead a politcally active life.
“Being a Jehovah’s Witness very much shaped me and my environment and my friendships, and I think the choice to not continue to be a Jehovah’s Witness…was important for me,” said Cullors in an interview with The Yale Politic. “I couldn’t be a Jehovah’s Witness and also be queer, and also be political.”
Patrisse joined the Bus Riders Union (BRU) at the age of 17 — an experience she counts as one of her first activist roles and as her political home. The organization is recognized for its creative tactics to achieve their goals of preserving public transportation in Los Angeles, and keeping services affordable for all community members.
Cullors remained with BRU for 11 years, learning invaluable lessons of leadership, organizing a movement, and building a team. BRU’s position as a project of the Labor Community Strategy Center (LCSC) allowed Cullors to work with the organization’s founder Eric Mann, a civil rights activist that Cullors now cites as her mentor.
Following her time at BRU and LCSC, Cullors received a B.A. degree in religion and philosophy from UCLA in 2012, and attended the Roski School of Fine Arts and Design at the University of Southern California.
The Hashtag that Shaped a Movement
Following the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman and Zimmerman’s subsequent criminal trial, it was evident that there was a national frustration and concern about needless deaths of Black Americans.
A national conversation needed to be started, and in 2013 Cullors — along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi — created the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. It began with Cullors using #BlackLivesMatter when referring to the Martin case, while she also drew inspiration from the experiences of her own brother, who was abused in a Los Angeles prison.
In the years since Cullors’ initial use of the hashtag, the Black Lives Matter movement has become a global symbol for Black liberation and freedom.
The organization strives to eradicate white supremacy and foster a global culture that condemns violence against Black individuals, while promoting Black health, imagination, and innovation.
Additionally, a founding principal of the BLM movement is practicing inclusivity amongst those within the Black community that have been marginalized by previous social and political movements. Those groups include the Black queer, trans and gender fluid community, disabled individuals, undocumented Americans, people with criminal histories, and women.
After its launch, the BLM movement has since risen to the forefront of the discussion around the abuse of power and violence within the criminal justice system towards Black people. From the shooting death of Michael Brown in Missouri, the fateful choking of Eric Garner in New York, and the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, BLM and #BlackLivesMatter have been central to the national discourse.
Creating a Legacy of Activism
As the BLM movement began to take off and shed light on the killings of unarmed Black Americans, Cullors began acting on her vision of reforming systems of oppression that have had disproportionate negative outcomes for Black people.
That vision led her to founding multiple organizations focused on prison and jail reform, including:
- Dignity and Power Now (DPN) — A grassroots organization founded in 2012, DPN strives to build a Black and Brown led abolitionist movement to transform the criminal justice system. The movement was born out of Cullors’ brother receiving a 32 month jail sentence, rather than being treated for his clinically diagnosed bipolar schizoaffective disorder.
- JusticeLA — Formed in 2017 as a response to the $3.5 billion expansion plan that LA County allocated to building two new jails. The plan was successfully stopped, and the organization led efforts to develop LA County’s Alternatives to Incarceration Workgroup report.
- Reform L.A. Jails — Founded in 2018, this coalition aims to reduce the cycle of people in and out of incarceration. In 2019 it passed a bill to stop Sheriff violence and abuse in jails, a historic victory by vote for the people of L.A. against the criminal justice system.
Cullors has also been the recipient of multiple awards for her work towards achieving a more equitable American society, such as:
- Black Woman of the Year Award, The National Congress of Black Women – 2015
- Civil Rights Leader for the 21st Century Award, Los Angeles Times – 2015
- The Sydney Peace Prize Award – 2017
- 100 most influential people in the world, Time – 2020
- Bill of Rights Award, ACLU – 2021
Life After Black Lives Matter: Activism, Authorship, and Artistry
Cullors, in a highly publicized decision, resigned from her position of Executive Director of Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation in May of 2021.
“I’ve created the infrastructure and the support, and the necessary bones and foundation, so that I can leave,” Cullors said in an interview with The Associated Press at the time of the resignation. “It feels like the time is right.”
After holding the position for almost six years at BLM, Cullors would later shed further light on her decision to step away from the organization, citing attacks of misinformation from the right-wing media. More worrisome however, were threats on Cullors’ life, made known to her by the FBI.
“Was the right-wing media trying to get me killed? Of course they were, especially because they are an extension of the police and extension of the very system that I am going after so that we can have a better world,” Cullors said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter.
The incident as a whole had a tremendously negative affect on Cullors’ mental health, and as a result she sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in July of 2021.
In the time since the resignation Cullors has rebounded resoundingly, and appears primed to continue being a voice for social change in 2022 and beyond.
Her second book, An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World, was published in January and aims to provide the necessary tools to the next generation of activists working towards abolishing racism and inequality.
The book also addresses the term “abolition,” and Cullors explains that through her writing she wanted to speak to people who were confused about or interested in the subject.
“Much of the conversation of abolition has a lot to do with the ending of the current criminal legal system, but I believe that abolition is more than that. Abolition has everything to do with how we engage with each other, how we treat each other,” said Cullors in an on-air interview with Democracy Now!. “If we’re living in the current environment of what I call an economy of punishment, where our interactions are really undergirded by vengeance and punishment, then I’m really calling for something else, which is how do we relate to and build an economy of care.”
In the Democracy Now! interview, Cullors also touched on some of the work that will be coming through her partnership with Warner Bros. — a deal that she signed in 2020 in order to help highlight areas of focus in her activism.
“I’m really interested in using the storytelling projects that I’m going to be working on to talk about Black women, Black women organizers in particular, Black women artists, and having us be protagonists in stories that we’re usually not protagonists in. I’m also very interested in aestheticizing abolition,” said Cullors.
Patrisse’s Continued Impact, and More Women to Watch
As issues surrounding race, social equality, human rights, and systemic reform are at the forefront of global political discussion, Patrisse Cullors’ voice is needed now more than ever.
The organizations she works with, her authorship, and her career in television and film through Warner Bros. will all be sources to monitor for her impact in the coming years. We have a feeling the global impact of Black Lives Matter was just the beginning for Patrisse.