How We Live is a series centering on the lived experience and thought of black teenagers.
The state and police violence against black people in America has become a national conversation, and a catalyst to build organizations and movements like Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name. The Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100) is one of the organizations that was born out of this struggle. BYP 100 became an outlet for 23-year-old Sana Bell when she joined the organization’s Chicago chapter. Bell is an activist, mother, and student. I had the privilege of discussing the importance of harnessing your energy, using your personal experience to help others, and the importance of self-care.
THAHABU: How did you get into the Black Youth Project 100 and activism in general?
SANA BELL: I went to the University of Illinois in Chicago. It’s a predominately white institution, and I went through this period of trying to understand my blackness and trying to understand my identity, as well as being a young mother within the institution. I was trying to figure out the world. Seeing the killings of Trayvon Martin and Aiyana Stanley-Jones—a lot of black people were being killed by the police—and it didn’t seem to cause an uproar within the nation as a whole, but within the black community it did. The more I learned about blackness, black liberation, black power, and the civil rights movement, the more inspired I became to get more involved with activism. I started having conversations with a few of my other activist friends, and one of them happened to be involved with BYP 100. They invited me to go to the orientation. I was there, and I was like, “OK, this can be an organization I can see myself being a part of.” Being young intellectuals, as well as activists, there were even some people who did not go to college, but it’s still the fact that we each had shared some sort of knowledge and a passion for activism and black liberation.
As someone who is also involved with activism, I know a lot of organizations only stick to college campuses. Some people find that to be elitist, because sometimes college isn’t accessible to everyone. How important is it to have community members in the organization?
I used to be the one like, “Well, why didn’t you go to college? You’re supposed to go there!” When I learned more about my struggles from being in college, and the black community as whole, and oppression, all these other things, I thought, College really isn’t worth it; you can do so many other things. I even did a presentation on why you should drop out of college. [Laughs] I had to do a disclaimer before I presented just to make sure that everybody knew that this is your choice; you don’t have to stay, but if you are here you might as well finish.
I noticed that part of BYP 100’s agenda focuses on economics and wealth disparity in black communities. What role do you think that plays in black liberation?
That plays a huge part into black liberation because it’s just like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X were saying: We need to have our own in order to continue to build ourselves. One of the things that I’ve been noticing with BYP 100 is that we try to do a lot of education around economics. We create asks for what we need to get for our communities, and talk about creating our own businesses because once we rely on ourselves for money, for food, and try to build for our own we will no longer need to reach out to our oppressors. I definitely think BYP 100 has been doing a great job, especially when it comes to [writing] the agendas on Agenda to Build Black Futures and speaking on how we need to divest from prisons and police. The agendas stress divesting from these political structures and reinvesting [those resources] into the communities that really need it, and also say “Buy black,” and don’t ask for discounts from black businesses, because you wouldn’t go anywhere else and ask for that discount. So it really is about trying to build each other up and say, “Hey, I appreciate your craft, I appreciate how you’re trying to help the black community.”
The idea of black people becoming economically independent from our oppressors also intersects with BYP 100’s goal to create economic, social political, freedom for black people. For me as black woman, that sounds like pure bliss. How would you envision a world where you and other black people have those freedoms?
I think I was able to get a glimpse of that freedom when I participated in the BYP 100 national convening. Just being amongst black people, it was like a holistic turn-up—that was the term that was coined there—and it was just beautiful. It felt so relaxing. It was that utopian feel. There were no cares in the world. Even though we did have to turn-up and have a slight action because we were told we couldn’t eat somewhere after we purchased some food, we still had that great sense of togetherness. That’s what I think a world without racism looks like: It looks like happiness. We don’t have to keep looking over our backs, worrying that someone’s gonna try and exploit us for our labor. Black economic freedom looks like,”Oh we’re spending at this local black business, and next thing we know that business is putting it back into the community schools or parks, or a home for individuals who’ve been kicked out of their homes.” I honestly don’t think we’d have homelessness; black people are just too dang loving for that. We’re tough, but at the same time there is a certain love that we have for each other that is there and is present but is too often distracted by outside forces such as this capitalist society always pulling us from which way this way and that. We may still have struggles and issues in this so-called utopian black society but we’ll be able to overcome them without the distractions of outside forces.
How would life in that stress free society affect you mentally?
I think that would help a lot, especially as someone who has stints with depression and anxiety at the same time. I’m a part-time grad student at DePaul University, I work full-time, I’m also involved in student organizations, and on top of everything I do, I also have a son to provide for. With this black radical freedom, I feel as though I wouldn’t have to worry about bills so much. I could enjoy my life. I wouldn’t have to worry about surviving all the time. I could take the time to enjoy the little moments. I wouldn’t be walking around thinking I’m about to get killed. I think, when talking about this black utopia, we also have to address patriarchy, transphobia, and homophobia. We still have to address a lot of those things within the black community, so it’s not going to be perfect. But I think with the layer of white supremacy lifted, deconstructing those oppressive structures will be even easier because then I’d be completely comfortable being like, “Brother, I don’t appreciate you walking up to me and just thinking you can talk to me any type of way.” We still gotta have those conversations. I think mental health issues will be alleviated to a certain extent as well. As soon as we start having those conversations, then there will really be that black joy that’s never-ending.
How do you manage being an activist, a mother, a worker, and a student?
I really don’t have a good answer. [Laughs] It’s more like a thing that I just do. There’s no right way. I’ve probably done [it] a lot of wrong ways, because there are times where it’s not easy to manage at all. So I really have to go off my energy levels. I really have to think about, OK, how am I feeling in this present moment? Am I at the mental capacity to go to school right now? Am I at the mental capacity to go to this action? Am I at the emotional capacity to be at an action and—say the police come and they start getting hostile with us—can I be present in that moment enough to continue in this movement? That’s really what I try to base it off of. Definitely my energy level, and also I’m happy whenever my son is OK. If my son is fine and healthy, laughing and smiling, that means I’m cool and I’m a great person to be around. If my son is sick, I feel sick, I’m worried and I can’t really focus. So it’s not easy at all, but it can be done, because clearly I’m doing it. The only way I can say I really get it done is that I just do it, not to sound like Nike, but things just have to get done. That’s a good thing as well as a burden at the same time. Nonetheless, you just got to keep pushing, and keep going, because if I don’t take care of my responsibilities—whether it be school, my son, or work—who’s gonna do it? It’s either me or nobody else.
Gauging your energy and figuring out what’s worth your time sounds like self-care.
Yes, and it took a long time for me to understand self-care. These past few months have been more so focused on self-care, because I do find myself often overextending myself a lot. I just don’t like to see people struggling. I know what it’s like to struggle. I know what it’s like to not be listened to, or to feel as though you’re not cared about or wanted, so I don’t want anyone else to feel that way. But then I also notice that my kindness can be taken for granted and cause me to be taken advantage of. The whole self-care element helps me say “Whoa! Let me step back, they don’t need me.” I do try to pride myself on self-care. I’ve been putting it more in the forefront than I have been before. I do try to take those days and those moments where its just like,”OK, I just wanna lay in bed today, I just wanna watch TV, or I just wanna sit in the shower for 30 minutes right now. I don’t care about the water bill, I just wanna sit and shower!” Finding alternative ways to just chill. Sometimes I’ll even go to the lake. Self-care is my new best friend.