Opal Tometi Early Life
Growing up in a Phoenix suburb, Opal Tometi, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, was alarmed when her youngest brother started preschool and began to raise questions about his hair and skin color—questions she knew were triggered by societal messages about race. Opal Tometi is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter. The historic political project was launched in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin in order to explicitly combat implicit bias and anti-black racism, and to protect and affirm the beauty and dignity of all black lives. Tometi is credited with creating the project’s online platforms and initiating the social media strategy during its early days. The campaign has grown into a national network of approximately 50 chapters.
Opal Tometi Biography and Profile
Opal Tometi, born 1984, is a New York-based Nigerian-American writer, strategist, and community organizer. Opal is a co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter. The historic political project was launched in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin to explicitly combat implicit bias and anti-Black racism and to protect and affirm the beauty and dignity of all Black lives. Opal is credited with creating the online platforms and initiating the social media strategy during the project’s early days. The campaign has grown into a national network of approximately 40 chapters. In 2016, in recognition of their contribution to human rights, Opal Tometi and the #BlackLivesMatter co-founders received an honorary doctorate degree, BET’s Black Girls Rock Community Change Agent Award, recognition among the world’s fifty greatest leaders by Fortune and POLITICO magazines, and the first ever Social Movement of the Year Award from the Webbys.
Opal is currently at the helm of the country’s leading Black organization for immigrant rights, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI). Founded in 2006, BAJI is a national organization that educates and advocates to further immigrant rights and racial justice together with African-American, Afro-Latino, African, and Caribbean immigrant communities. As the Executive Director at BAJI, Opal collaborates with staff and communities in Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York, Oakland, Washington DC, and communities throughout the Southern states. The organization helped win family reunification visas for Haitians displaced by the 2010 earthquake. BAJI is an award-winning organization with recognition by leading institutions across the country.
A transnational feminist, Opal supports and helps shape the strategic work of Pan African Network in Defense of Migrant Rights, and the Black Immigration Network (BIN) international and national formations respectively, dedicated to people of African descent. She has presented at the United Nations and participated with the UN’s Global Forum on Migration and Commission on the Status of Women.
Opal is being featured in the Smithsonian’s new National Museum for African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) for her historic contributions.
Prior to becoming Executive Director, Opal worked as Co-Director and Communications Director at BAJI. Her contributions include leading organizing efforts for the first ever Black-led rally for immigrant justice and the first Congressional briefing on Black immigrants in Washington DC. Additionally, she coordinated BAJI’s work as launch partner with Race Forward’s historic Drop the I-Word campaign, working with the campaign to raise awareness about the importance of respectful language and history through the lens of the Great Migration, the Civil Rights Movement and current migration of the Black diaspora.
Opal has been active in social movements for over a decade. She is a student of liberation theology and her practice is in the tradition of Ella Baker, informed by Stuart Hall, bell hooks and Black Feminist thinkers. She has been published in the Oxford Dictionary of African Biographies, was #10 on the 2015 Root 100 list and she was named a “New Civil Rights Leader” by the Los Angeles Times in 2015 and ESSENCE magazine in 2014, for her cutting edge movement building work which bridges immigrant and human rights work to the ever-growing Black liberation movement. She was a lead architect of the Black-Brown Coalition of Arizona and was involved in grassroots organizing against SB 1070 with the Alto Arizona campaign. Opal is a former Case Manager for survivors of domestic violence and still provides community education on the issue.
Nigerian. “My parents being from Nigeria deeply informs all my social justice and human rights work. The Nigerian community in Phoenix [where I’m from] learned to stick together and look out for one another. There was a time when my uncle was in an immigration detention center, and members of our community would take turns visiting him each weekend. That instilled in me the value of taking care of each other even if the systems aren’t working in your favor.”
“I have always felt like I want to change the course of history. I was in awe of previous Black liberation struggle leaders—Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells. I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. Black Lives Matter has been that.”
Opal Tometi holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and a Masters of Arts degree in Communication and Advocacy.
An international thought leader, Opal Tometi notably, addressed the United Nations General Assembly, a privilege only a few US social justice leaders have been afforded. She’s appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BET and her writings have been published in popular outlets such as TIME, InStyle Magazine, Seventeen and the Huffington Post. Her human rights work has earned her many recognitions including the distinction of gracing the cover of ESSENCE Magazine’s inaugural Woke 100 issue, being named “A New Civil Rights Leader” by CNN and the Los Angeles Times. And in 2016, Tometi, alongside fellow BLM co-founders, she received an honorary doctorate, the Glamour Magazine Women of the Year Award, BET’s Black Girls Rock Community Change Agent Award, and recognition by Fortune, POLITICO and Marie Claire Magazines for being among the world’s fifty greatest leaders. A sought-after orator, Tometi has spoken at the Atlantic Washington Ideas Forum, Harvard University, Yale, various conferences and universities nationwide. She even delivered a commencement address at her alma mater, the University of Arizona.
Opal Tometi Awards and Honors and Recognitions
- Frederick Douglass 200
- Vh1 Everyday Trailblazer Honoree
- Sydney Peace Prize
- Witness – 25th Anniversary Honoree
- ESSENCE – Woke 100 List, Magazine cover
- Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute
- California Coalition to End Domestic Violence, Visionary Awardee
- Smithsonian – NAAHMC – Video Feature
- Webby Awards – Social Movement of The Year Award, Recipient on behalf of BLM
- AFL-CIO Executive Council Committee on Civil and Human Rights – Defender of The Dream Award
- Chronicle of Philanthropy – 40 Under 40
- Fortune Magazine – 50 Most Influential People in the World
- Marie Claire 50 – The New Guard: America’s 50 Most Influential Women
- ImageNation Cinema Foundation – Revolution award of For Freedom
- Glamour Women of The Year Award
- Black Girls Rock! Inc – Community Change Agent Award
- Shirley Chisolm – New York City Council – Proclamation by Juumanne Williams
Black Lives Matter
The project is now a member-led global network of more than 40 chapters. Our members organize and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.
As organizers who work with everyday people, BLM members see and understand significant gaps in movement spaces and leadership. Black liberation movements in this country have created room, space, and leadership mostly for Black heterosexual, cisgender men — leaving women, queer and transgender people, and others either out of the movement or in the background to move the work forward with little or no recognition. As a network, we have always recognized the need to center the leadership of women and queer and trans people. To maximize our movement muscle, and to be intentional about not replicating harmful practices that excluded so many in past movements for liberation, we made a commitment to placing those at the margins closer to the center.
As #BlackLivesMatter developed throughout 2013 and 2014, we utilized it as a platform and organizing tool. Other groups, organizations, and individuals used it to amplify anti-Black racism across the country, in all the ways it showed up. Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Mya Hall, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland — these names are inherently important. The space that #BlackLivesMatter held and continues to hold helped propel the conversation around the state-sanctioned violence they experienced. We particularly highlighted the egregious ways in which Black women, specifically Black trans women, are violated. #BlackLivesMatter was developed in support of all Black lives.
In 2014, Mike Brown was murdered by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. It was a guttural response to be with our people, our family — in support of the brave and courageous community of Ferguson and St. Louis as they were being brutalized by law enforcement, criticized by media, tear gassed, and pepper sprayed night after night. Darnell Moore and Patrisse Cullors organized a national ride during Labor Day weekend that year. We called it the Black Life Matters Ride. In 15 days, we developed a plan of action to head to the occupied territory to support our brothers and sisters. Over 600 people gathered. We made two commitments: to support the team on the ground in St. Louis, and to go back home and do the work there. We understood Ferguson was not an aberration, but in fact, a clear point of reference for what was happening to Black communities everywhere.
When it was time for us to leave, inspired by our friends in Ferguson, organizers from 18 different cities went back home and developed Black Lives Matter chapters in their communities and towns — broadening the political will and movement building reach catalyzed by the #BlackLivesMatter project and the work on the ground in Ferguson.
It became clear that we needed to continue organizing and building Black power across the country. People were hungry to galvanize their communities to end state-sanctioned violence against Black people, the way Ferguson organizers and allies were doing. Soon we created the Black Lives Matter Global Network infrastructure. It is adaptive and decentralized, with a set of guiding principles. Our goal is to support the development of new Black leaders, as well as create a network where Black people feel empowered to determine our destinies in our communities.
The Black Lives Matter Global Network would not be recognized worldwide if it weren’t for the folks in St. Louis and Ferguson who put their bodies on the line day in and day out, and who continue to show up for Black lives.
Opal Tometi Family
Opal Tometi was born in Phoenix, Arizona, in the US to Nigerian parents. She grew up hearing Yoruba and Esan spoken at home – and says her first trip to Nigeria as a teenager, changed her life.
Opal Tometi Quotes
“From my youngest brother to immigrant women to black queer folks, those are the people who keep me going,” says Tometi. “When I think about their various acts of courage, it reminds me that I am not alone and that we can do even more and we deserve more, so we have to keep going.… We have built a sisterhood, a community. Friends and people who’d look out for you, who have your back, who inspire you but also challenge you. And you can rise together.”
What others say About Opal Tometi
“[Tometi stresses] that the passion, input and investment of all nationalities and genders are important in the growth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, regardless of how uncomfortable it may be.” — The Baker Orange, February 29, 2016
Opal Tometi Biography and Profile