Marissa looks into the camera wearing a pink sweater.

The Feministing Five: Marissa Johnson

In the weeks following the election, the “safety pin trend” drew the ire of many activists of color for its superficial display of allyship.

Everyone from luxury brands to Etsy creatives were capitalizing on the trend, with little to no proceeds actually going to support people or organizations working for the benefit of people of color and other marginalized communities in Trump’s America.

Enter The Safety Pin Box: the brainchild of two Black women activists, Marissa Johnson and Leslie Mac. The monthly subscription box challenges its users to do more than just display their solidarity, but actually do something that works towards challenging white supremacy and supporting people of color. Subscribers receive reading, resources, a specific set of tasks, and lessons about racial bias in each box. Part of the box proceeds go to Black Women Being, Marissa and Leslie’s initiative to support individual black women doing liberation and organizing work.

Since its post-election launch, The Safety Pin Box has reached almost 1,000 subscribers,  donated $25,000 to Black Women Being, and has grown so exponentially that both Leslie and Marissa have quit their jobs to devote themselves to the business full time.

For this week’s Feministing Five, I caught up with Marissa Johnson about the incredible growth of The Safety Pin Box, what true allyship looks like, why supporting black women is at the heart of liberation work, and more! Follow her on Twitter at @rissaoftheway.

Senti Sojwal: Tell me about your own journey as an activist and what inspires you to keep doing the work you do, especially in the current political moment.

Marissa Johnson: I really entered activism around the death of Michael Brown. A lot of people were radicalized at that time. I was doing a lot of Black Lives Matter organizing which led me to shutting down Bernie Sanders at a rally….that was kind of controversial. I’m so interested in looking at power in our society and how black people fit into that. Also, how we’re becoming awake to it. I want to support the empowerment of my people, and support others in their understanding of what it means to be black. My work in general is driven by this question of, how do we push back against the system? How can I support, specifically, black women thriving and subsisting and loving? My work has transitioned from direct action and political writing to really focusing on my business, The Safety Pin Box.

Senti Sojwal: You’re doing something so many activists of color have literally dreamed of — being paid for our labor (both emotional and otherwise) in educating white people, who so often expect us to explain racism, privilege, intersectionality, and allyship at the drop of a hat. How does it feel to have created this service and been able to do this?

Marissa Johnson: I don’t think Leslie and I are necessarily extraordinary. This whole thing was really serendipitous, and everything fell together at the right time. It wouldn’t have worked had we done this two weeks later, a month later, after the whole safety pin conversation had died down. What sets us apart is that our business has community benefits. A lot of times, if you get paid for your activist work, you’re just getting paid so you can survive. We are very fortunate to be able to both thrive and help financially sustain others. For many months before this project was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, I was going through a real conflict where I felt like I wanted to be engaged in the work but I also had to pay my bills. I want to do more than just pay my bills — I want to thrive, I want to be secure, I want to do fun things. I also know that going into a standard work environment would have effects on my mental health, I wouldn’t be able to exist in those spaces. Safety Pin Box sort of manifested in a way that really lets me do so many things. I can engage in social justice work, I support black people, and I feel really blessed that everything came together.

Leslie and Marissa sit together, in gorgeous shades of pink and purple.Senti Sojwal: What have subscribers themselves said to you and your co-creator, Leslie Mac, about how the Safety Pin Box has helped them be better allies?

Marissa Johnson: Most of what we’re hearing from subscribers is “Shit, I really thought I was progressive and doing something but…..”. The way I describe it is that a lot of white people think they are really progressive already. What we put forth in our tasks isn’t easy. You have to put in the work. The gap in between the good person you think you are and who you need to be as an ally is a big gap. A lot of what our subscribers feel is that gap. They are learning that they’re not as far along as they thought. Some of our subscribers are looking that and are willing to step up to the plate and change their lives. A lot of the feedback is, I never would have thought about doing this or thinking about racism this way or changed this part of my workplace, if it weren’t for the influence of Safety Pin Box. We’re like a prompt for people. We push people to hold themselves accountable. One of our core values is compensating Black women and doing that anywhere and everywhere. We have a lot of professional white women who are now doing things like passing on 30% of freelance jobs they come across to Black women in their industry. Or they’ll say, people come to me and ask for contracted work for something, I will now put together a list of just black women and only recommend them when people ask for referrals. Or I will specifically hire black women. I will make sure all the media I pay for this month is Black-owned, Black-created media. It’s the little things that we are calling on people to change. Things that can have a profound effect on the shifting of power.

Senti Sojwal: Can you give us an example of some of the tasks that are included in a Safety Pin Box, and if there is a process by which subscribers can be held accountable to completing those tasks or document how they do them?

Marissa Johnson: Each month has a theme. This month’s theme is “Marsha P. March”. It’s all about looking at the issues that black trans people face. We’re raising funds for the Marsha P. Institute. In our premium box, you get three tasks related to the theme. The goals are to move you through reading, self-reflection, and then action. Premium members also get mini tasks that you can do anytime during the month. There are also meditations and profiles of all the black women we’re giving money to that month. There’s an accountability checklist that walks you through what you’re going to be doing over the course of the month, that keeps you on track. For the Digital Allies subscription you get one task delivered electronically. All subscribers get membership into our facebook group where you can engage in conversations with others about specific tasks or readings and share ideas and resources. Leslie and I produce a bi-weekly podcast called The Pincast that gives subscribers more access to me and Leslie, hearing about our lives and our take on the news and profiles of Black Women Being, who we support through the business. We have a quarterly webinar as well where we bring in a high profile Black woman and give more targeted training. We also do a monthly Q+A on Facebook Live where subscribers can ask their ally questions. Anyone can watch, though! In terms of making sure people do the tasks, our primary mission is not educating white folks. Our primary mission is funding Black women. Educating white folks is a means by which we fund Black women. Whether or not white folks do the work is up to them. We’re sort of a racial justice gym. I’m not gonna wake you up, get you out of your bed, you either go to the gym or you don’t! We couldn’t create a business that was contingent on white people doing what they said they’re going to do. White people have great intentions and always let us down. We’re still able to accomplish our mission and goals even if people aren’t doing our tasks. It’s their responsibility to hold themselves accountable.

Senti Sojwal: What’s in store for the future of the Safety Pin Box, and how do you hope to see this project grow?

Marissa Johnson: When Leslie and I started, it was really a side project. This was a joke while we were on vacation in Jamaica after the election. I did not for a second think this was something we could actually pursue. We just launched thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if we had 50 subscribers by the end of the year? We ended the year with 500 subscribers and we are now about to hit 1,000. It’s been so exciting. We started paying salaries and going full time in February, for a business that had no investors and is run by Black women that is truly amazing. We knew there was a need, but seeing its success with no advertising and investors and even people coming after us out of the gate, the structure that we’ve created is so needed. We are trying to build our business in a way that’s sustainable. Leslie and I are both now full time. We’re figuring out what it means to do business our way. We are looking at opportunities in book publishing, creating new projects and partnerships, doing physical boxes internationally, and thinking about developing an app. There’s so much to look forward to!

NYC

Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics, and has worked with NARAL, The Civil Liberties & Public Policy Program and its sister program PopDev, and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She currently works at Sakhi for South Asian Women, an advocacy organization that supports immigrant survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence through an array of culturally competent services and programs. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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