by Nancy Seibel, with Kerra Bolton
From activist to political analyst, artist to award-winning journalist, communications strategist to ardent foodie, Kerra Bolton weaves together a rich array of expertise and experience in founding UNMUTED, an online communications consultancy and academy that helps people spark and drive change.*
Kerra and I recently collaborated to offer WOKE: Changing the World by Awakening to Yourself. We started the workshop with Kerra’s thought-provoking definition of activism:
Activism is more than a movement; it’s a dynamic practice.
Activism is a sustained commitment to bringing your highest self in service of the challenges and opportunities in the beloved community.
This means you can be an activist from wherever you are.
Our workshop planning and follow-up conversations were as exciting to me as the workshop itself! I gained an insight that matters to me a lot — that I don’t have to be famous to be an activist. Nor does activism need to be my full-time occupation. I can serve the beloved community through my work, through my relationships and through my engagement in family, work and community. This counts for as much as my involvement in local, state and national issues and politics.
I wanted to hear more from Kerra, including her story of her own path as an activist, and her thoughts on the link between activism and hope. We talked about the early childhood awakening of her activist self, and how her activism appears in her work today.
Childhood Seeds of Activism
Q. What is the seed that your own activism grew from?
My own activism comes from the strong belief that we can do better.
My first foray into activism happened when I was three years old. My grandfather struggled with alcoholism for years. According to family legend, he was falling-down drunk and I said, “Grandpop, get up off the floor and be somebody!” To which my grandmother said, “Ooooh, I told you that baby was something else!”
Now I have to wonder, what was that like for my grandfather to have his three-year old granddaughter say that to him? And where does a three-year old get that kind of language, and have the concept that he could be a better person than he was being at the moment?
He later told me he started moving toward sobriety at that point because he saw himself through my eyes.
Q. So you saw that when you spoke up, when you used your three-year old’s voice, you could make a difference!
I could! My second foray into using my voice as an activist happened when I was 9-years-old. We lived in what would now be called the inner city, in a nice part of the neighborhood. Tom and Jerry [a cartoon] was popular then, and we all used to get together and watch it after school.
I noticed how incredibly violent Tom and Jerry was. We lived in a neighborhood that was experiencing a lot of violence. It was the 1980’s. There were few jobs. There was crack cocaine, teen pregnancy was common, and there was gang violence. It was a desolate place.
To see violence in our cartoons being marketed to children, when we were living in the midst of so much violence, was deeply upsetting to me. So, I organized a neighborhood boycott of Tom and Jerry, and I wrote to the TV station chastising them for airing the show.
Of course, nobody listened to me and within a week of the boycott, everyone went back to watching Tom and Jerry. My activism didn’t make a difference that time, but I tried.
Activism Takes Root and Grows in New Directions
Q. How has that willingness to speak up and share your truth carried into your adulthood?
There is a myth that all you have to do is stand in your truth and people will listen. That is not always the case.
As a political journalist and columnist, I had some power because I had a large platform and the publisher of the newspaper where I worked supported me and my work. I know that his support was also a business decision. People paid attention to my column and I got invited to appear on television and radio shows as analyst.
Ironically, I began muting myself when I left journalism and went into politics. I was the Director of Communications, Outreach, and Oppositional Research for the North Carolina Democratic Party. I wanted to use my position to create and leverage political opportunities for communities of color and met a lot of resistance at times.
My initiatives to use technology and events – things that are commonplace today, but strategies that were just becoming widespread in 2008 – were successful in engaging African American, college-age, and rural, white voters.
I helped Obama win North Carolina in 2008. The state hadn’t chosen a Democrat for President since 1976. I helped to elect the state’s first female governor and I wasn’t heard by the Democratic Party. In fact, I was scapegoated two years later in 2010 when Democrats lost their majority in both chambers of the legislature and the governorship.
My life wasn’t working on so many levels. So, I decided to reboot and start again by moving to Mexico to pursue a new path in writing and photography.
I still needed income and began working with Jeffrey Davis of Tracking Wonder to build a new consultancy that would leverage my previous experience while putting me on a new path. Jeffrey helped me to acknowledge the pain of my past and use the gifts of my experiences as a journalist, political operative, public policy analyst, and strategic communications consultant in a new way.
That led to the founding of my current company, UNMUTED, which helps individuals, communities, and social sector organizations spark and drive change.
And…honestly, UNUMUTED was created around a certain anger. Like many others, I was devastated that the United States chose to move backwards in terms of racial and social justice to elect Donald Trump. While I appreciated the burgeoning anger among white women who voted for Hillary Clinton, I felt that much of it was misappropriated.
They were angry that their candidate, a woman, wasn’t elected President. They diagnosed sexism to be the main cause while ignoring the deep divisions, especially with race, that were exploited and allowed for Trump’s election.
In addition, I felt that the beliefs and actions of many white women at that time led to the very patriarchy and racism they said they wanted to smash.
For example, I heard women complaining after six weeks of resistance that they were feeling tired, and feeling a need to pull back and take care of themselves. This struck me as another form of privilege, something that marginalized women don’t have time for. We’re assaulted with racism every day.
Instead of criticizing, I wanted to educate about how we can do things better, which is what inspired me to create my mentorship program.* I started thinking about the barriers women were facing and why they were becoming tired and frustrated.
For me, it comes down to having a limited definition of what activism is, and also to the life choices people are making.
Q. What do you offer through UNMUTED?
UNMUTED is a strategic communications consultancy and an online academy. I teach people how the political system, especially on the state level, works and how to use who they are right now, and the gifts and strengths they have, to make a difference.
Activism is a movement, not a moment. We must train ourselves to develop activism as a practice. We have to align our daily choices with our activism. It cannot be something we schedule like date night or a dentist appointment.
Q. What is the greatest misconception you hear about activism?
The definition of activism is limited. People think of it primarily as marches and protests, as putting one’s body on the line for one’s beliefs. It is certainly that, but it can be more. Activism can be running for office, writing op-eds to the local newspaper in support of a cause. It can be lobbying your state legislature to fully fund free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs at local, public schools.
Activism is a commitment that you make over time. Sometimes, it’s about sacrificing in the short-term for long-term gains. It can take decades to see the change you seek. Expecting quick results can lead to disappointment and giving up.
At the same time as activism is a long-term effort, it is also like music, which includes both beats and pauses. As activists, we need the effort and we also need the pauses, the rest that allows us to sustain our energy and commitment.
Activism – an Ultimate Expression of Hope
Q. Is activism a thing you do, or a way of being?
Activism is a practice, much like spirituality, meditation, yoga or physical exercise. It’s important not to think of activism as a hobby, but to see it as a way of being, just as we understand exercise to be one component of overall approach to supporting our own well-being.
Q. What do you see as the connection between activism and hope?
Activism is an ultimate expression of hope. You get up and take an action in the hope your action will have dividends later.
Activism means believing in something that is not yet seen. Taking action toward that belief, that vision, strengthens hope.
Q. What continues to inspire your activism?
I still recall a foundational book I read, Lanterns, by Marion Wright Edelman. Here’s what I took from it. Whether we are a Martin Luther King, or a Michelle Obama, or ourselves, activists are lanterns. We light paths to a better future. Whether on a grand scale, or a small one, we are all lights. We can start where we are, and know that who we are is enough.
Learn About the Activist Archetypes
You created the Activist Archetype Quiz to help others identify their strengths, challenges and motivations as activists. Which archetype fits you?
I’m a Truth-Teller. I have a need to get to the truth, the heart of the matter. I try to speak that truth in love.
Q. How can we learn about our own Activist Archetypes?
You can take the Activist Archetype Quiz*, which is available at no cost. After submitting it you’ll get a series of emails with information on you can use your archetype in strengthening and building your activism. You’ll also be offered an opportunity for a two-session Archetype Deep Dive, where we explore your questions and I help you see how you can most effectively use your interests and strengths as an activist.
*Visit UNMUTED to take the free Activist Archetype quiz.
Did you miss the workshop in October? For $25, you get the workshop audio and video recordings and handouts. These allow you to participate at your own pace. Kerra and I are available to you by email if you have questions or comments. Our contact information is included in the materials you get. You also gain access to special offers with a total value of over $650. These are available only to WOKE participants. Get in touch here to receive purchase and download information.
Photo by Dan Aragón on Unsplash
Kerra Bolton provided her photo.