From the Streets to Social Media: Authors Explore the Evolution of Black Activism

BU Experts
9 min readFeb 27, 2024


In a new collection of essays, two Boston University professors, one alum, and one student share their perspectives on a wide range of topics, including Black health activism amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of the #BLM movement, and academic activism by Black and White professors.

By Katherine Gianni and Joela Goga

From the emergence of #BlackLivesMatter to the profound impact of social media on organizing, This Era of Black Activism offers a compelling narrative of progress and challenges in the fight for racial justice. In this Q&A, volume editor Edith Joachimpillai, and authors Jennifer M. Gómez and Melissa L. Hector, MS explore the influences of past activism on the present generation, the role of academia in societal conversations, and the intersectionality of movements like #MeToo within the Black community.

Joachimpillai is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Economics at Boston University’s College of Arts & Sciences. With prior experience at the Brookings Institution, she has worked extensively on various topics, including the eurozone crisis, the implementation of a United Nations-funded girls’ education program in Uttar Pradesh, India, and the Paris Agreement for Climate Change. Gómez is an assistant professor at BU’s School of Social Work and faculty affiliate at BU’s Center for Innovation in Social Work & Health. She specializes in research on the impact of violence in the context of inequality, with focus on healing through culturally competent therapy and macro-level change. Hector serves as the Director of Equitable and Strategic Initiatives for the Boston Public Health Commission. She will earn her Social Impact MBA from BU’s Questrom School of Business in May, 2024.

Photo courtesy of Bentley University.

How has Black activism transformed from 2000 to 2022, and what does future activism look like?

Edith Joachimpillai: Black activism has become more intersectional and has more platforms for expression now as compared to the past. Intersectionality is defined as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.” A greater recognition of intersectional motivations played a significant role in catalyzing this era of black activism. The modern media landscape, and particularly the prolific growth of the social media landscape, made it possible to disseminate information, especially around activism and organizing, more quickly than at any other time in history.

In your research, which significant influences from past activism have you recognized as shaping the present generation of Black activists?

Joachimpillai: The Black community has a number of long standing concerns centered around human dignity that have gone under addressed throughout history. This injustice fundamentally drives the continuity of Black activism. Beyond that, the heart of activism relies on community. Recollecting the history of how Black activists have shaped action through community despite the levels of violence and injustice they have historically faced can empower current Black activists to pursue a more just system.

Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash.

How have Black and White professors engaged in academic activism, and what effect has their engagement had on broader societal conversations?

Jennifer M. Gómez: It is becoming increasingly common, acceptable, and even valued for academics to be public scholars or scholar-activists. That is, academic scholars who share their work with the public via editorials, op-eds, podcasts, magazine or television interviews, and more. This is an act of resistance to the liberal model of education that serves to create an “educational elite,” as opposed to sharing the scholarship with the general public, which has implications for transformative change at the level of the individual, family, community, state, federal government, and societal culture at large.

In speaking specifically about Black scholar-activists who do critical research and scholarship that disrupts the status quo by identifying structural and cultural systems of oppression, there are also costs to be a scholar-activist. Some are professional. Not all institutions of higher education appreciate public scholarship, with some academics believing that if members of the general public can understand your work, it must be that your research just isn’t rigorous enough. When granted with power, such falsehoods can undermine a scholar’s career.

Another cost regards safety. The specter of the threat of online harassment, doxxing, verbal abuse, stalking, violence, and death threats is omnipresent. For many Black scholar-activists, including myself, I do my work knowing that at any given point, I may be one editorial away from such violent attacks. That is a difficult and painful reality to sit with. An obvious question, then, is why be a scholar-activist at all?

The answer for me is two-fold: to disrupt educational inequity and, boldly, to try to change the world.

  1. To disrupt educational inequity: It is profoundly unjust that only certain people have access to research and scholarship that could benefit themselves, their loved ones, and their communities. My research with cultural betrayal trauma theory helps explain how racism, sexism, and other inequalities can make the impact of violence within Black communities so devastating. This work has implications for how we understand violence, and importantly, how we heal from–and ultimately prevent–such violence.
  2. To try to change the world: My research has real-world implications for real people. My goal is that my work gets us closer to changing the world for the better. It is why my book, The Cultural Betrayal of Black Women & Girls: A Black Feminist Approach to Healing from Sexual Abuse, has a chapter entitled, “Institutional Courage to Change The World”, where I discuss what our institutions, and what each of us, can do to radically transform our world. It’s also why I published “Is Academia A Dreamkiller” in Inside Higher Ed, which shares some of this same research-based information.
Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash.

To what extent do institutions, both governmental and non-governmental, play a role in advancing Black Reparative Justice, and what challenges or successes have been identified in these efforts?

Joachimpillai: It is important to start by acknowledging that governmental and non-governmental institutional decisions historically created and permeated injustice. As an example, the policies of redlining, the discriminatory practice that denied credit and loans to people based on their race, and reverse redlining, targeting specific types of people or areas to provide credit with unfair terms, were enacted by public and private institutions. Removing these policies is only a first step because it solely prevents further damage. Repair, on the other hand, requires institutions to take accountability through more actively undoing the damage that their policies and structures created.

Can you discuss the intersection of #MeToo and healing within the Black community, as examined in the book?

Gómez: Founder of the Me Too Movement, Tarana Burke, forged the power of saying ‘Me Too’ among Black women and girls who have been sexually abused. Given how intersectional inequalities function, however, the #MeToo movement was re-focused by and for rich, powerful, and oftentimes White, women. Reclaiming the Me Too movement as something that was created for us and thus belongs to us, as Black women, can promote healing within the Black community.

Pulling from Black feminism and the psychological framework for radical healing, critical consciousness and radical self-definition are central in understanding the systems of oppression that impact us, while psychologically and emotionally distancing ourselves from the lenses of how those systems negatively stereotype and dehumanize us. In other words, critical consciousness gives us the tools to identify the systems of oppression. Radical self-definition promotes our own agency in defining who we are in ways that are markedly distinct from whatever oppression and violence we experience. As such, radical healing in action can happen now. We need not wait for societal permission to be ourselves or to heal ourselves and each other. In protecting our souls from the oppressive forces that bind, we are able to forge a way forward that is filled with life, love, connection, and joy.

Photo by Giacomo Ferroni on Unsplash.

In what ways does the book address the intersectionality of racism, poverty, and health, and how does the Black voice play a leading role in navigating these unprecedented times?

Melissa L. Hector: The book addresses the intersectionality of racism, poverty and health by highlighting the historical implications of racism in the United States and connecting those outcomes to the current state of the nation to today–during the COVID-19 pandemic. Current health disparities among Black Americans resemble poor health outcomes of Black Americans in the 1600s, 1800s through 1960s. Take a look at the Boston Public Health Commissions 2023 Health of Boston data reports. In Boston alone, Black women are diagnosed with breast cancer at the same rate as White women. However, Black women in Boston are dying at higher rates from breast cancer than White women in Boston. Take a look at the Life Expectancy report in the 2023 Health of Boston data. Residents living in Back Bay, a predominantly White neighborhood, have a life expectancy of 92 years, whereas residents in Roxbury, a predominantly Black neighborhood have a life expectancy of 69 years. Two neighborhoods, one mile apart, have a 23 year gap in the outcome of how long an individual might live.

Highlighting the intersectionality between racism, poverty and health intentionally draws the reader to understand how systemic decisions and ongoing policies that exclude a population of people create decades, centuries, and generations of holistic stunted growth and advancement of that population. Addressing health among racism and poverty was significant because health was one of the priorities during the civil rights era that took a backseat to reversing Jim Crow laws and desegregation of schools. In the Civil Rights Era it was pertinent for Black people to be able to show up in the same space and advance frontward facing equality and unfortunately that movement forced dormenting certain priorities like health activism.

How did the COVID pandemic affect Black health activism? What advancements were achieved (or halted) and what prospects do you anticipate for health activism, based on your research?

Hector: When we discuss health activism within the Black community as it relates to the COVID pandemic, we must acknowledge that Black Americans in particular, are currently diagnosed and dying at higher rates of almost every disease than most other races. The reason this acknowledgement is significant is because even in the late 21st century, Black Americans and immigrants alike were infected and died at disproportionately higher rates than any other race across the nation.

Community leaders and activists, Black Fraternal and Sorority organizations, and faith based leaders galvanized and created coalitions to hold institutions accountable. In Boston, the Mayor of the City at the time, Mayor Marty Walsh, formed the Health Inequities Task Force, which included current and former Black elected officials, community leaders, and business leaders who have stakeholdership in the Black community. The goal was for these leaders to steer the City in a direction that ensured resources and infrastructure were provided to Black Bostonians. Black community leaders worked hand in hand with the City and State to ensure any decisions made for Boston neighborhoods did not exclude and dismiss Black Boston residents.

In Boston, this grassroots organizing created executive level Black health activism. Presidents, CEOs, and Senior Leaders of hospitals, community health centers, public health entities, and large non-profit health organizations banded together to create the Health Equity Compact. The coalition is composed of leaders of color spearheading executive level work in their industries and leveraging that power to advance health equity and to improve poor health outcomes of Black and Brown residents in Massachusetts.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on X at @BUexperts. Follow Edith Joachimpillai at @edith_joachimp. Follow Melissa L. Hector at Follow Professor Jennifer M. Gómez at @JenniferMGmez1. For research news and updates from Boston University’s School of Social Work, African American & Black Diaspora Studies department, College of Arts & Sciences, and Questrom School of Business follow @BUSSW, @BU_AFAM, @BU_CAS, and @BUQuestrom.



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