Interview with Marissa Johnson and Leslie Mac, Co-Creators of Safety Pin Box

"A New Subscription Service Aims to Give White Allies a Way to Do More Than Rocking Safety Pins" was the article on Colorlines that first introduced me to Safety Pin Box and its Co-Creators, Marissa Johnson and Leslie Mac. In the article, Marissa and Leslie recall the masses of people donning safety pins after Trump's election and reflect on the trend's immediate commercialization as disturbing. I too remember feeling put off, and as a white woman from an upper middle class background, I can't imagine how women of color, trans women, Muslim women, immigrant women, historically marginalized, devalued, and brutalized womyn might feel about someone else (more often than not, a white person) sticking on a little pin to "create safe space" at this particularly vulnerable and raw time. While fashion and adornment can be powerful tools for expression and even instrumental in creating unity and solidarity, they are only super small stepping stones. Marissa and Leslie created SPB to step past putting on the pin, and with a monthly subscription service that provides a kit of educational materials, resources to carry out actions, online support and networking communities, webinars, podcasts, and more - they made it incredibly easy to do the work of being a good ally. Plus, a portion of subscription fees goes to helping Black Women/Femmes through their Black Woman Being program. Learn more about SPB, Marissa, and Leslie in the interview I was fortunate to have with them!  

First off, what is Safety Pin Box all about? Marissa and Leslie, can you each tell me a little about yourself and what drove each of you start this project? 

Safety Pin Box is a monthly subscription service for white people who want to be effective allies in the fight for Black liberation. Each month our subscribers receive guided tasks and edited materials to work on with our Safety Pin Box community, and part their subscription fees go directly to financial grants for Black women activists.

We are both driven by the desire to support the work of Black women in this liberation movement, and Safety Pin Box was a response to the performative ally-ship that manifested in droves after the election of Donald Trump. SPB was a way to capture this energy into something useful, while building sustainability for ourselves and other Black women freedom fighters like us.

Can you give us an example of one of the tasks included in a monthly box delivery?

Our theme for March is #MarshaPMarch and we hired Black trans women contributors to write the content. One of the tasks in that box is called "Unpacking Gender Using A Black Lens" and walks people through the basics of deconstructing their white supremacy-shaped views around the gender binary so they can be less harmful to Black trans people.

Tahirah Hairston wrote an article about the "safety pin movement" called "Fashion can be a powerful form of protest. The safety pin isn’t that." In it, she discusses the safety pins in context with other trends associated with activism such as: afros and overalls during the Civil Rights Era, early suffragists wearing white with colored ribbons, and NBA players wearing shirts with "I Can't Breathe" printed on them after no police officers were indicted for Eric Garner's murder. Hairston writes, "At its best, activists can use fashion as a point of connection, to start a conversation..." She also quotes Muslim Girl founder and editor-in-chief Amani Al-Khatahtbeh who said, "For a lot of people of color this is a really ineffective way of showing allyship. It can almost be offensive that there are people that are self-identifying themselves as allies and thinking that putting on a safety pin is supposed to make us safer." Does this resonate with you? What are your thoughts on fashion in activism and/or the value of trends in social justice movements?

We think fashion can definitely be a powerful tool, but we agree that the safety pin fell WAY short. It was an outward display of internal and nitty gritty work that people hadn't actually done. In that way SPB is a sort of test: you talked the talk but are you willing to step up and walk the walk?

On your website you state that every month SPB gives one-time financial gifts to individual Black women who have demonstrated a commitment to serving Black people - how do you find/choose these women? 

Any Black woman can apply through our website, and everyone who meets our basic criteria (Black woman or femme, does something in support of Black liberation) goes into a pool. Each month we choose recipients at random from that pool based off of funds from subscriptions that month.

Leslie, you also run the Ferguson Response Network as well as host a podcast called "The Interracial Jawn" - can you tell us a bit about each of these projects, and also how you coordinate working on multiple projects simultaneously? 

Ferguson Response was born out of the response to the murder of Mike Brown & the nationwide protests that erupted to support the #FergusonUprising. I saw a need to allow people to connect together and to show the widespread response that was happening all over the country. Since then we have listed over 2,500 actions and are followed by over 30K people. My podcast is more of a labor of love and a fun way to connect with people on a personal level. I’m just my regular self vs “activist Leslie Mac”. I don’t see all my work as separate - they build on each other. Ferguson Response serves Black organizers, Safety Pin Box serves Black Women. It’s all connected.

Marissa, you are currently working on a book - correct? Can you tell us about that? When did you discover you wanted to be a writer?

Yes! I can't reveal anything now but you can likely expect at least one book or more some time in the next year. I don't know that I ever discovered I wanted to be a writer, rather after my high profile work with Bernie Sanders, writing and political education seemed like the next step in my work.

My solo book is really about wanting to document in first person what it's like being in the movement and how we all became radicalized in such a historic moment.

Speaking of writing - who are some of each of your favorite writers/books?

Leslie: I love Octavia Butler of course, and I’m a sucker for Walter Mosley mysteries. 

Marissa: I actually read a lot of blogs and articles, and I really love all the work at RaceBaitR.

In addition to obviously subscribing to your box, what other advice do you have for individuals looking to become more involved in activist work and creating safe spaces for marginalized folks?

Look at the power you hold in your life & communities. Mine those areas for places to leverage your privilege in the service of marginalized communities. The first revolution starts within - that means you have to look INWARD before you can effectively ACT OUTWARD.

Last but certainly not least, who are three womyn each of you look up to/have been influenced by in your lives?

Leslie: My Mom is top of my list, but in addition to her Black Women who have supported me in my work that I circle back to for sustenance are Monica Patrick Lewis from Detroit, Feminista Jones, Pam & Ramona Africa from MOVE in Philly and Ava the GAWD DuVernay.

Marissa: There is a woman in my community named Marchella. She is an elder and showed me spiritual and emotional support during my Bernie Sanders action. I'm also moved by women like Ella Baker, who struggled with people even though being with people is a struggle of itself. And then lastly, though it may seem cliche now, Beyonce has always been a major influence in my life since I was a girl. Her music and artistry gives me a particular way to understand myself.