As a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Opal Tometi is always there to heed the call. But as she has learned, even activists need a break.

By Opal Tometi
Feb 11, 2019 @ 1:15 pm
Tometi with a young friend before addressing the crowd at the March for Black Women in Washington, D.C., in 2017.

Just over five years ago I entered into one of the most challenging periods of my life. At 28, I had become the executive director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) — a nonprofit that serves black immigrants and refugees, among the most disadvantaged populations in the nation — which was in the red. Around the same time, out of utter horror and frustration, I also started what would become one of the biggest human-rights platforms of the 21st century, Black Lives Matter. 

Black Lives Matter came about after we heard the news of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, an innocent boy walking in his own neighborhood in Florida armed with nothing but Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea. At the time, my youngest brother was a mere 14, and I was disgusted that he would learn how devalued black lives were in this society. First I cried, then I rolled up my sleeves, reached out to fellow co-founders Alicia Garza and Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and got to work. 

I started by designing a website with a yellow-and-black color scheme (yellow, my favorite, representative of sunshine and joy, and black because, well, you know). Then we invited various social-justice organizations to contribute to the blog roll, asking them to share their experiences about why black lives mattered to them and what they were going to do to protect them. Establishing the platform and using the hashtag gave the movement deeper meaning and encouraged people to do something locally, driving them into off-line action. Sadly, as more incidents of racial injustice took place, Black Lives Matter became our rallying cry, our platform. Did I know it was going to be this big? No, but I wanted it to be. I’d always wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself, something that would transform our world into the type we deserve. 

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From launching websites to calling on organizers and mobilizing in solidarity with communities in Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown had been killed, something was always going on. While this movement was finding its legs, I was pulling all-nighters trying to raise funds for the organization as well as lead delegations to Washington, D.C., and to the U.S.-Mexico border, travel internationally to strategize with partners around the globe, coordinate rallies and press conferences, commission reports in partnership with the likes of New York University, deal with managerial issues, and so much more.  

It quickly became too much, not just for me but for others on my team. After a few years at this pace, one of my closest colleagues checked out due to family issues, another because of her health. I felt the need to reflect on my own workload and methods for handling all the responsibilities of being a director. Working for my community at the intersection of Black Women Lead and Black Girl Magic, I felt I had to do it all. And being the daughter of immigrants and feeling the internal pressure that you must succeed at all costs, I couldn’t let my parents’ sacrifices be in vain. However, I knew I had to scale back to adjust to the reality of my limits. The pace was beginning to take a personal toll. 

For starters, I wasn’t taking very good care of my health. I had had a standard operation on my foot, but it didn’t heal correctly because I pushed it too soon. I didn’t sleep as much as I should have. I also got super depressed while dating a guy who was perfect on paper but turned out to be a toxic, emotionally abusive partner. I didn’t recognize it until we were a year in because I was in overdrive mode. Had I been in a better rhythm, I would have thought, “Oh, no, why are you tolerating this nonsense? You need to be in a healthier relationship.” 

I also began to notice that I was missing friends’ weddings and baby-naming ceremonies. I was so caught up in the fight that when they had something great to celebrate, I was on a flight to somewhere else. I didn’t want to be that person. A notable turning point was when one of my best friends was about to give birth and asked me to come see her and I did. It was freeing to realize that I didn’t need to immediately respond to whatever was going on in the world at the time and that I actually had some agency. I figured out a way to be with her for 10 days. The baby, my godson, didn’t come until later, but we had fun. You can lose sight of what is important when you engage solely in the work and not think about the why behind it. 

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After taking inventory of my life, I began to dive deep into the teachings of feminist and civil-rights activist Audre Lorde. One of her most profound quotes is, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” I took this to heart. I knew that to be able to weather the storm and take on a heavier workload, I had to be more gracious with myself. 

Although it does seem that we wake up each morning to some sort of new scandal or crisis, how we respond is our choice. And there is true power in our response. Our response can be life-giving, or it can be life-draining. I often feel as if I’ve been teetering between the two. But here’s what I can offer by way of advice: Do the work from a place of joy. Find your commitment in your love of yourself as well as of those in your community. Keep your family (whether it’s chosen or otherwise) close. Those are ties you’ll need to call upon when the going gets tough. Nourish your spirit as much as possible, be it through prayer or meditation. Take time to work out or just daydream. Stay connected to the people and things that bring you joy. 

My line of work is not just a job; it’s a commitment, a lifestyle, a discipline. Taking time for myself, as I did recently with a trip to Ghana with friends, means that I can refill my tank and continue on the mission. Now, five years later, Black Lives Matter has a dedicated staff that handles the day-to-day duties, and my fellow founders and I are spokeswomen. I’m still the executive director of BAJI, but I soon plan to step back and write my first book. After almost a decade of being a leader, I’m thinking about how I can pause to reflect on what I’ve learned and share it in a new way. Knowing that I’m allowing myself to be transformed by these lessons means I am truly honoring myself and my community. And for this I am grateful.

For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb. 15.