Walden It was 2017. The Triibe had only been up for a month, and I wrote a response piece to an op-ed by Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell about a child support controversy going on with Chance the Rapper. Mitchell was saying that the messy battle with his girlfriend would overshadow his recent $1 million gift to Chicago Public Schools. The Sun-Times ran the piece on the front page, and it felt like this salacious clickbaity thing, like, “Oh, look at Chance the Rapper being a terrible father,” despite the fact that he was doing so much for people in the community. I wrote that this was an example of a larger problem in media, and especially in Chicago media, of not crafting full narratives around Black people in the city. As I’ve gotten older and understand the dynamics of power more, I realize that Mary Mitchell may not have had any power as to how that story was laid out in the newspaper. But she was a staple in the city, and for us to critique the work she was doing was a powerful moment for me.
Johnson When we started our site, the Reader seemed like a natural partnership. We pitched a series to them, called the Block Beat, which would chronicle Black musicians and the places in Chicago that matter to them. The Reader tried to get us to sign regular freelance contracts, and I said, “We’re not going to do that. The Triibe is going to maintain ownership and the trademarks for this series.” That shook the whole structure. The series ended up being stalled for about eight months, with us going back and forth. It just kept going up the chain of command. One day I answered the phone, and it’s Edwin Eisendrath, the publisher. I’m like, Oh my gosh, what do I do? He starts telling me it’s out of their wheelhouse to draft new contracts because they don’t want to pay lawyers, blah blah blah. On the spot, I just had to explain to him that we are an organization that is about Black ownership, and anything that we create, we’re going to own. I don’t remember if it was decided during that conversation. I just remember we won.
For my first really big press event last year, they sent a Showtime photographer to take my pictures. My agents sent me the photos and were like, “Hey, you want to go through these? You can hit the kill switch on any of them.” On our show, I’m a fat 50-year-old woman who’s masculine-presenting, gray hair. And in my life, a lot of my pain came from being fat and being shamed for it. Growing up, I never saw a fat woman that was respected or seen as worthy in print, on TV, in movies. Fat guys could do anything, could have power, they could have conventionally beautiful women attracted to them. But the fat woman was always, like, the joke or, you know, a bitch, or rude, or unhappy and just needed to get laid. But when I saw my photos, I was like, “No, don’t kill any of them,” because that’s what I look like. Maybe it’s not that strong a statement because, you know, it was a Showtime photographer, so they’re not going to put out the worst ones! But I don’t know — there’s something powerful about not hiding.
One of my employers was a large financial institution — lots of systems, lots of capacity, billions of dollars. They hired me to improve their diversity, equity, and inclusion. On my first day, they asked me to change my last name because their computer system was unable to fit two surnames. Like many people with Latin American roots, I have my father’s and my mother’s. It’s awkward on your first day at work to be hired for that and then to be told, “By the way, our system will not accept your name.” When I asked them to fix it, they had me fill out all these forms. I had to talk to my boss and then to my boss’s boss, and then the CEO got involved. This was a global institution — you would think they’d have known better. So here was a situation where I realized I could benefit from my power: I was supposed to help the bank with diversity, equity, and inclusion, and now they were in a pickle. If I had been hired for something else, like as a branch manager or IT professional, I may have had to bend. But instead I was able to tell them, “Stop it. You hired me to help you with this, and the first thing you do is to erase my name?” It was one of my first big “No, that’s not gonna happen” moments.
Watch five Chicagoans from our ranking talk about what standing up to power means to them