BLM and Beyond

    Kailee Scales is probably best known as the first managing director of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, but that high-profile role is only part of her longtime involvement in matters of social justice. Through almost two decades leading efforts to effect meaningful change, she has challenged the status quo in a variety of sectors, from health and education to race and gender. But there is a common thread to her activism.

    “I believe this is all equity work,” she says. “I believe that, as human beings, we were all born free and I believe that freedom is the freedom of opportunity, freedom of access, freedom of movement, freedom of knowledge.” However, “there are barriers put in our way of freedom… many of us do not have the same access to survival and thriving that others have… As a freedom fighter, as someone who is always working towards collective freedom, it is my responsibility to help everyone access their human rights…”

    That commitment has taken her most recently from BLM to Pencils of Promise. She became CEO of the nonprofit which champions access to quality education for children around the world in July last year. The organization builds schools and provides teacher training and support.

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    She first became aware of the level of global inequalities on a visit to Ethiopia some years back. She saw that “talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. The people I met were brilliant, they were warm and loving, and it really fostered my commitment to removing any barriers to anything that suppressed the self-actualization of those communities.”

    Spotlighting hate
    Scales’ involvement in different aspects of justice work illustrates the interconnectedness of issues that keep people marginalized. “I think it’s really important for us to recognize that we are all very multifaceted human beings,” she says. “I don’t think that one issue impacts human beings as individuals. I think there are a multitude of issues that make up the human condition that impact us.”

    The idea that “we will move the needle in one area at a time overlooks a lot of who we are as individuals and a lot of other individuals,” she believes. “There is no one thing; when you pull the yarn, which I love to do—I always want to find the source—you understand that if you address certain issues of oppression, of socioeconomic standing, of colonialism, when we can address some of the systemic issues, we will see the ripple effect will improve a lot of things that will allow us access to be able to not just survive, but to thrive as a collective and address collective freedom.”

    During her time with BLM, Scales was able to help build an infrastructure around the organization that had been born out of a hashtag, amplifying its voice and multiplying its impact. She was pleased to be part of “calling attention to violence against Black bodies while also celebrating Black joy, while also embracing allies and giving them the opportunity to understand why those words were so impactful and so important for an entire community.”

    While George Floyd’s 2020 murder may have been something of a watershed moment, much remains to be done. What that means for people will depend on their situation and circumstances. Some will “have to continue to stand up for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters, others of us have to step back and recognize that the world is not a meritocracy, which is a myth that we’ve all been given… We are in the positions that we are in due to the randomness of our births.”

    And then “some of us have to acknowledge that where we are in the world at this time is a result of years of brokenness, of years of problems, of years of systemic construction to keep some people down and a very small select few uplifted. And some of us continue to benefit from that privilege, and we have to acknowledge that, and we have to be aware of that.”

    Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.

    Seeing hope
    Scales’ activism was born out of her New York City upbringing and education. “Growing up in Queens really laid the groundwork,” she says, noting the area’s eclectic mix, with lots of immigrants and significant wealth disparity. “It’s really difficult not to be politicized when you grow up [there].”

    Those seeds were cultivated when she went to Hampton University, where she felt empowered. “I was taught to feel important and not be held back… to make sure that my voice was heard, to be empowered and proud of my history as a Black woman. Those experiences really shaped who I was going to be and who I became—who I still am becoming.”

    If those experiences fueled her activism, the match that lit the flames was the inequality she saw. Attending an all-girls high school where she felt “really nurtured and empowered to follow my dreams and to expand and explore my gifts,” she realized that wasn’t the case for everyone.

    And then there were relatives caught in the poverty cycle. Though not well-to-do, she grew up in a middle-class home: “I knew that just that tiny shift in the socioeconomic landscape made the world of difference for me as I was cultivated, curated and nurtured to become a woman.” She was struck by the randomness of her good fortune.

    “I knew that no one deserved the lives that we were living, and I wanted to understand why some of us had opportunities and some didn’t, some were caught in a cycle. And that led me to understand how these systemic issues impacted human beings and impacted our outcomes and limited many of us, and it made me angry at a young age because I recognized that it wasn’t because of anything that we did or deserved… that just didn’t seem fair to me.”

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    After years at the sharp end of social justice work, Scales remains positive and optimistic—in part because of what she sees in young people. “I’m really proud of what I see as their ability to just not take things at face value anymore,” she observes.

    “They’re not really just entering this world, continuing the mistakes of the past. They’re interrogating. They are questioning. They’re going back to the source…” They seem to understand that we live in a global world, she goes on, that we are connected as individuals and that we come together and that we are strong together.

    “They are looking after those that have been traditionally overlooked, and so this brings me a lot of hope for our future. I see that they are steadfast; they’re not discouraged. They understand that this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. They recognize that we have to incrementally work towards change, and they are not deterred.”


    My waymakers have been plural; it’s been like a relay, [passing] a baton. Growing up as a teenager in an environment where I needed to know where and how to explore my gifts and dreams, I had waymakers to guide me and shape me and show me… Then, when I entered my professional career, I had people who saw me and saw who I was supposed to be or who I was going to be, or who I had the potential to become, who gave me advice and opportunities… I think what’s important when it comes to understanding your waymaker is to know that sometimes it’s not one person. Your waymaker is embodied in many people who will pass the baton to guide you through life.

    From an interview with Samira Baraki

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