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WINDYCITYMEDIAGROUP

Activist Janae Bonsu talks BYP100, queer Black identity


by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2016-06-29


Black Youth Project 100 ( BYP100 ) National Public Policy Chair Janaé Bonsu's journey as an activist began about three years ago. However, the seeds were sown during her childhood in Columbia, South Carolina, where she learned what the Confederate flag was and what it represented—hate and white supremacy.

Bonsu was 9 years old at the time, and attended a march on the South Carolina Statehouse with her mom during the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in 2000.

"A mass of mostly Black people in Columbia marched on the State House demanding that the Confederate flag be taken down," said Bonsu. "I still remember the chants and the speakers saying, 'We won't start shopping 'til the flag starts dropping.' I knew then that this flag had to be important to galvanize thousands of people together in the way that it did, to resist the white supremacy of where we lived. It was a powerful moment; that's when the flag became a part of my consciousness."

Bonsu explained that she saw the Confederate flag flying above a restaurant every day on the way home from school as well as in front of people's homes and Confederate stickers on the back of cars.

"It's worn or flown as an unspoken badge of wanting what I think about when I hear people like Donald Trump talk about making America 'great again,'" said Bonsu.

Bonsu came to South Carolina by way of Brooklyn, New York, where she was born in 1991 to a Black American mom and Ghanaian immigrant dad. When her parents separated, Bonsu and her mom moved to Columbia to be with her grandparents and the rest of her mom's extended family.

"My dad stayed in Brooklyn, so I traveled alone on a plane every single summer to spend it with him and the rest of my dad's family," said Bonsu.

Bonsu made most of her childhood memories at her Nana and Grandpa's house, from Sunday dinners after church to doing homework at the kitchen table after school. Her mom bent the rules and used her grandparent's address to get her into a better school district.

"Every day I lived the paradox of living in an all-Black neighborhood while going to a predominately white school," said Bonsu. "School was where I excelled. I made straight A's, loved to read, write poems and short stories. Not going to my zoned school may have contributed to my early battles with identity politics. Throughout my elementary years, I wrestled with how my peers conceptualized blackness—frequently teasing me for 'talking white'—and how I didn't fall within that realm for them, but when I looked in the mirror, I loved my blackness and I couldn't understand why they didn't."

In addition to attending her first rally in 2000, Bonsu also traveled to Ghana for the first time with her dad that summer. It was during that trip to Accra, Ghana where Bonsu got her first taste of what privilege means. Bonsu observed unpaved roads and kids selling goods to people in their cars because they couldn't afford the fees to attend school. She also noted that this was the first time she saw so many Black people in one place.

"My visit to Elmina Castle was very transformative," said Bonsu. "I broke down and cried at the Door of No Return, because it hit me that so many people from this land where shipped through those doors, never to return to the life that they'd built and had yet to live. As a young girl standing in the room where hundreds of enslaved people were held captive with no way to bathe and had to relieve themselves in the same room was terrible."

Bonsu explained that Ghanaian culture was a part of her life from birth, including a traditional Ghanaian naming ceremony where she was given the name Abena Mirekua Bonsu. She was also immersed in the Twi language.

When it came time to decide on a college major, Bonsu looked to her mom who is a licensed professional counselor. She shadowed her as a teenager and that's where she learned about clinical interventions, behavioral health issues ( which showed up among her family members ) and that most people in prisons and jails had those behavioral health issues.

"I wanted to take part in disrupting this norm and I thought that practicing as a clinical forensic psychologist was the way to do that," said Bonsu. "My mom and her professional life heavily influenced my very individualized view of what change looked like."

Bonsu graduated from the University of South Carolina with a psychology degree and a criminal justice minor. She applied to Ph.D. programs at various schools; however, she was not accepted, so she got a job as a research assistant in the Health and Barriers to Employment policy area at MDRC—a poverty-focused New York nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research organization. Bonsu explained that working at MDRC helped her better understand the systemic issues driving the existence of criminalization and mass incarceration in her family and Black communities nationwide, which made her realize that clinical psychology wasn't the route she wanted to take professionally.

Instead of staying in New York City, Bonsu came to Chicago in 2013 to pursue her master's degree at the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration ( SSA ) ( She graduated in 2015. ) Bonsu said that although the SSA is supposed to be University of Chicago's most diverse graduate school, she didn't see the diversity the university touted.

"In class discussions, I often felt like I was the only one that highlighted the racialized, gendered and/or heterosexist nature of what we're up against as social workers and that shouldn't be the case," said Bonsu. "Being one of the very few Black women in my program, I very much wanted to have a community. Throughout graduate school I wanted to find a place where I could affect change and eradicate problems through policy work and I didn't find that space until BYP100 came into my life."

Professor Cathy Cohen, principal investigator of research project BYP, invited about 100 young Black people to attend the #BeyondNovemberMovement convening in 2013 to discuss ways to mobilize beyond Election Day. During that same weekend, BYP100 was born in the wake of George Zimmerman's acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin.

Bonsu got involved with BYP100 about six months later after attending a national meeting about civic leadership where she met several BYP100 members.

"BYP100 politicized me even more," said Bonsu. "I fell in love with grassroots organizing and transformative campaign work."

As national public policy chair, Bonsu explained that she takes the lead in developing and implementing the organization's policy agendas at the federal, state and local levels; supports local chapters in developing policy strategy in their campaign work, including grassroots lobbying and building a national network of strategic partnerships.

While Bonsu was working at MDRC and attending graduate school, she returned to Ghana when she was 22 and 24. During those visits, Bonsu noticed how religious and conservative the country is and how unsafe it is to be queer there, as well as the lack of consistent electricity and the effects global capitalism has on Ghana's economy.

"I think my being a Black queer woman pushes me to be vigilant about challenging the notions of what is normal and about centering the most marginalized and overshadowed in the fight for social, racial, economic and gender justice," said Bonsu.

Currently, Bonsu is studying for her Ph.D. in social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, with the goal of finishing her studies in 2019. Bonsu will be traveling to Washington, D.C., this summer for an internship at the Institute of Policy Studies. She was chosen out of more than 500 candidates who applied to work on the Criminalization of Poverty project with Karen Dolan at the institute. Bonsu will also be working on the Black Worker Initiative with Marc Bayard at the same time.

See byp100.org/ for more information. To follow Bonsu, visit Website Link Here .


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