She is respected for her track record of uniting communities and her thought leadership on race, immigration and gender. Along with her fellow BLM Co-founders, Tometi was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize and an Honorary Ph.D., and she received the International Peace Honor in 2021. In 2020, she graced two TIME magazine covers - 100 Most Influential Women of the Last Century and 100 Most Influential People of the Year. She has also been featured in Forbes, Marie Claire, Glamour, USA Today, Essence and Cosmopolitan. For nearly a decade, Tometi served as the Executive Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), the first immigrant rights organization for people of African descent in the United States. Most recently, she founded Diaspora Rising, a new media and advocacy hub dedicated to strengthening the bonds amongst members of the global Black family. Here, she talks leadership skills, warding off imposter syndrome and the pros and cons of utilizing social media to power a movement.
What has founding and being part of BLM taught you about leadership? Especially leading in a crisis?
Follow your distinct path. No matter how different it may seem compared to others, it’s important to trust your instinct, your moral compass and go where it takes you. Beyond that, it’s important to remember that you are never alone. While one’s journey is always unique, when you connect and build with people who share your values - that’s when you can harness your influence and begin to build power.
I appreciate the work of stoicism. Years ago, I found Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle Is The Way extremely applicable to my own leadership journey when navigating various types of crises. I believe each challenge will show you how to refine your strategy in order to be more effective.
I also find that being confident in your track record and that of elders and peer mentors within an organization or coalition is really helpful. I’ve been at this for 20 years so if I’m honest, and usually have had some experience that can provide insight in the middle of a challenge. As a Black woman, in the midst of environments that try to undermine or dismiss you, it’s definitely been some work to fight off imposter syndrome and own my expertise.
Follow your distinct path. No matter how different it may seem compared to others, it’s important to trust your instinct, your moral compass and go where it takes you.
Explain the role of social media in the movement. How has it both furthered and hindered the cause?
Social media is one of the most important communications methods of our day. And just like in the past, when human rights advocates like Dr. King relied on the traditional press to get his message out, we’ve harnessed the power of getting the message out about critical issues using these tools. It has been important to handle it this way because we were being ignored by mainstream media for too long. Talking about anti-black racism wasn’t “cool”, so they ignored the injustice happening against our communities. Social media has been a necessity.
And more than that, it’s a value point -- we reminded ourselves that we wouldn’t wait for external validation, but we will show love and show up for Black lives whether the traditional press covered it or not.
As good as it’s been, social media isn’t perfect. Depending on what one values - you’ll see how they use the tools. If people value white supremacy or misogyny, then you’ll see that in how they use the tools. If a tech company or others value consumerism or authoritarianism once again, it’ll be how they use and even design the tools. So, it’s important we not be naive and act like it’s neutral. We have seen how lethal these platforms can also be -- from spreading misinformation to surveillance of human rights defenders. We need to be informed and active in the decision-making about the future of communications technology and social media.
What would you like to see from businesses that pledged support for the black community?
That’s simple - we need businesses to follow through! We need them to walk the talk. Repairing the harm caused by corporations and poor governance can only be overcome by true investment and equity. This is the way forward. When it comes to the business world, we can’t honestly talk about making things right without addressing the consistent inequality and lack of access to capital that allows for true health and wealth for historically marginalized communities. Black communities and Black business owners deserve access and capital that they’ve been denied for generations.
As a well-traveled woman, how have your trips impacted your view of the US and your views on your impact as a leader?
At the core of who I am - I’m just a curious person who believes in celebrating the diversity of who we are as humanity. I’m enamored by the beauty of all types of people. And that curiosity has led me to travel all over the world. Being able to connect with human rights leaders and innovators across borders has been illuminating. I have learned just how deep the US’s ties are to other countries and how influential our economy and our policies are on the quality of life of our siblings throughout the world. It’s led me to have a deeper conviction about ensuring that we as US residents and citizens are more knowledgeable about the world.
So often we are made to feel like the US is the only country that matters, but the fact is we are part of a larger international community. We need to account for the ways we impact the planet and other people by our policies and choices. At the end of the day this is the most influential country in the world due to our cultural, political and military power. With all that comes a tremendous responsibility, and my hope is that the average person will begin to take a more thoughtful look, and that we will be more cognizant of our influence both culturally through the media, and policy - be it economic, military, environmental etc. -- all of which are intertwined and reinforce one another -- economic policy traveling allows me to tap into my incredibly valuable international community and network of friends and colleagues for knowledge sharing and support. I’m able to visit folks in different parts of the world and glean from their wisdom and nuanced problem solving, taking applicable solutions into my work.
So often we are made to feel like the US is the only country that matters, but the fact is we are part of a larger international community. We need to account for the ways we impact the planet and other people by our policies and choices.
Who are some women on your radar?
There are so many women on my radar: there’s Lena Waithe and the rich and wide-ranging narratives she’s bringing to the screen; Naomi Osaka and how she’s navigating mental wellness, success and being a multi-hyphenate in the public eye; Farida Bemba internationally acclaimed freedom fighter and one of the most incisive thought leaders from West Africa; and Rohkaya Diallo in France who’s a brilliant journalist fighting against racism in French society -- that refuses to acknowledge race. Honestly, there are so many incredible sisters across the globe who I admire deeply and I’m excited for the necessary waves they’re creating in the world.
What’s next for you?
Well, I recently decided to start going by my middle name - Ayọ. That was huge for me and is the result of doing some reflection on my external work and world, but also my own personal journey. Ayọ, in the Yoruba language, means joy. And as a person of Yoruba-descent it feels important to own more of my culture and ancestry and source my strength and insight from this place. We are living in some really challenging times, but I believe that we already have what it takes within us to chart a new course for the world we deserve. And my reclamation of name is helping to nurture the wisdom and strength deep within.
Additionally, my new organization, Diaspora Rising, is an extension of my commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement. We are exploring what it means to engage in 21st century activism across borders. Our geographic location doesn’t limit our commitment to valuing the lives of our siblings in different parts of the world.
In addition to the work there, I am grateful to be able to harness my years of experience to provide advice and consult in the private and public sector, while building out some new ventures behind the scenes. I have some more big news to share later this year. Stay tuned!