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After the election, the movement for social justice surged with renewed fervor and produced the safety pin. The idea was by wearing a safety pin on your clothing, you identified yourself as an ally, someone who was willing to use their position of privilege to fight for marginalized people.
The safety pin came under harsh criticism. The idea stemmed from a similar movement in England post-Brexit, but it’s one that is pretty lazy on the part of the ally. It requires the marginalized person to seek out the safety-pin wearer, and at its worst, acts as a balm for allies, convincing them they’re helping while putting in no active work.
Leslie Mac and Marissa Jeane Johnson, longtime activists and organizers, figured there had to be a better way to be an ally, so they launched the Safety Pin Box. Essentially, it is Blue Apron for white allies, a subscription box that comes with tangible actions to accomplish every month in order to actively shift power to marginalized people. We spoke with Mac about giving back to black women, what it takes to make a good ally, and how the box is not about giving white people a “pass.”
[Edited for length and clarity.]
In a lot of activist circles, there is the common refrain “it’s not my job to educate you.” Why did you want to make it your job to educate white people about injustice?
No one is really doing the work in a way that we find effective, so that’s the number one motivating factor. One of the lessons from the election results and the timbre of the country right now is we need all hands on deck, right? We have a period of time coming up that’s going to require a lot more people engaged in meaningful ways for change and resistance.
Also, there’s an expectation of allyship and solidarity, but I have found lamentably that with lots of people who are not part of marginalized communities, they don’t understand what real solidarity means. It’s not a muscle they’re used to using. We came up with this idea of providing some guidance and putting it into a format that doesn’t harm black people, doesn’t harm people of color. Because a lot of times these interactions can be painful. When fragility comes up, when people get sensitive about things that they shouldn’t because that’s part of the process—this was a way for us to put the work in a digestible format for people who are committed to really engage with. For people who want to do the work.
You have a rundown on your site about the box versus the safety pin, and how wearing a safety pin is very passive and also something created by allies, not the people they’re purporting to help. Whereas the box is created by black women. Why do you think a box was the most effective way to motivate potential allies?
Transformation happens when commitment meets consistency. A subscription box is a way to build in consistency and continued commitment. It’s easy to read one thing and not have a direct connection to continuing the work. Our hope is that these commitments that subscribers are making indicate they’re in it for the long haul. We want to make allyship less of something you have to think about and more something that integrated into your life, and that’s why a subscription box makes perfect sense.
We see them for all sorts of things—whether it’s for food, boxes that are supposed to make cooking at home normalized, or beauty boxes that are supposed to make your interaction with beauty products more consistent. That’s really what this is, it’s taking that concept of consistency and making something a practice in your life and applying it to social justice work for allies.
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What are the actionable items that come in the box, and how do they help subscribers become better allies?
Right now, folks can download our sample task, which is pretty indicative of the stuff people will see, which is a power-mapping task. It’s four weeks of looking at your life and your community and analyzing the ways in which power plays out in your individual sphere of influence. And we finish up in the last week by looking at three concrete areas in your life that you have power in, and making a decision of how you’re going to shift power in those spaces—whether it is buying black, changing your work relationships, shifting leadership in your church, or even making sure to overtip black service workers. You commit to making some changes.
This particular one is an introspective one, but one of the reasons we chose this is that this is useful in all circles. Everyone who does it will find value in it. Now when these allies walk into these spaces and say they want to help, they have a really good idea of where their power is and how they can apply that.
We are also going to have theme boxes. Our first box is our limited-edition holiday box, for the folks who subscribed in the first four days we launched, and the theme is radical compassion. So all the tasks are questioning what compassion means and how we radicalize that concept to be more meaningful in the pursuit of justice for other people.
How do you feel about the reaction so far?
We’ve been very pleased. We have over 100 people who have signed up and have had really good responses. And the other thing that’s great about the box is we are building a network of folks who are likeminded and committed to doing this work, to changing themselves internally and creating change outwardly. We’re excited about that component. We’re going to have a closed Facebook group for subscribers to discuss how they feel about the tasks, how it’s going, things that they learn. We’re also going to be doing a Twitter hashtag, #SafetyPinSunday, for people to talk about how their weekly tasks are going. We have had over 600 people download the sample task.
The idea of allyship in a box is controversial on some level, but if you look deeper at our intent, people will see real value and value to people on the frontlines doing the hardest work pushing for racial and social justice.
y’all: educate us about how to be better allies
us: here’s a subscription to a lesson plan
y’all: HOW DARE YOU PROFIT OFF ACTIVISM
— oga ann (@annofthefuture) December 5, 2016
Regarding the controversies, there are critics who say a business like this just buys into capitalism, or that it’s just a way for white people to feel like they’re buying themselves peace of mind. What do you think of those?
One thing is capitalism is where we are right now. I like to call this “survival liberation mode.” Organizers need to eat, we need to have roofs over our heads, we need the tools to do the work we do. So many of us are already doing so much work free of charge. I personally volunteer as a social media coordinator for four different black liberation organizations. For Marissa and I, it’s about creating a different model for this work, and one that doesn’t devalue the work that we do.
We put this project together very quickly because it was timely around the discussion of the safety pin and what allyship is, but the work that we did is work that we charged clients for all the time. Marissa is a writer, I charge people for my graphic design skills, so this notion that just because the content itself is meant to educate people, it should be free—I just don’t buy it. It doesn’t add up for me.
Our true hope is the people who subscribe are sincere in their endeavors and really do want to do the tasks we put before them, and I really believe that’s what’s going to happen. People respect what they pay for. That’s something we’re looking to capitalize on.
Also, a big portion of our business model is we’re going to be giving money away to black women who do black liberation work (chosen from an application pool). So from my perspective, if someone wants to pay us $1,200 a year and not do the tasks, but we get to give that money away to black women, my conscience is clear. I’m fine with that. They don’t get a pass for anything, but they’ve given some financial security to me and Marissa and the black women we are excited to give these gifts to.
You bring up the idea of getting a “pass,” and a lot of conversations around allyship focus on that idea of a pass—people looking for a gold star or recognition that they’re “good.” But it seems like, with your box, there’s no such thing.
Correct, and that’s why the tasks are so tangible. Truthfully, we could have just sent people empty boxes, right? And it could have been about making money. But it’s really important for us that the content is critical. I’m thinking about when they’re going into spaces with organizers and someone asks, “What have you been doing?” and they have 12 tasks they’ve done and can say what it’s taught them and how it’s benefited them. I’m excited for all that to come out of the project.
How do you decide what tasks will benefit people?
We’re going to have between 10 and 12 categories that the tasks will fall under. Some will be things like “data collection.” If, for instance, we want to map all the police use-of-force policies across the country (that’s already been done, but it’s just as an example), we could leverage our subscribers for that to be a task for the month. That’s something tangible that can come directly out of it. Other categories are “personal development,” “influencing your network,” “showing radical compassion,” “education,” “prison systems.”
I don’t think we anticipate everyone doing all three tasks each month. Whatever skills you have as an ally you can put into your work. We’re looking to make people effective. Our tagline is “effective, measurable allyship” because that’s the piece that’s been missing. There’s a lot of education, but there’s no effect to it, so we’re looking to change that dynamic. Education followed by action, by actual change in your life for the betterment of other people. It’s nebulous on one end, but when you break it down into tasks, I think people see it as more digestible.
The question black women get most often is “What do I do?” It’s why the response from black women has been so positive specifically, because they actually have a place to send folks that come to them asking this. It’s not meant for everybody, but it’s mean for people sincerely asking themselves that question. “I know something is wrong, I know I want to do something, what do I do?”
What do you envision for Safety Pin Box in the future?
It’s pretty expansive. We announced yesterday we’ll be starting our first Black Women Being gift in January, which is much sooner than we thought we would. We’re hoping to do Safety Pin Box for kids this summer, which would be tasks parents can do with their children. We’ve had inquiries for groups and specifically faith congregations, so that’s another area this work could be really useful in.
We launched a week ago, and we’re very excited about the interest and the possibilities, and to do meaningful work that gives back to people who are undervalued and underpaid. For us, it’s been a win-win to see that we can give back and hopefully create better allies in the world.
Jaya Saxena is a lifestyle writer and editor whose work focuses primarily on women's issues and web culture. Her writing has appeared in GQ, ELLE, the Toast, the New Yorker, Tthe Hairpin, BuzzFeed, Racked, Eater, Catapult, and others. She is the co-author of 'Dad Magazine,' the author of 'The Book Of Lost Recipes,' and the co-author of 'Basic Witches.'