She launched the “Because of Them, We Can” social media campaign in February of last year, using children to capture images of African American trailblazers during Black History Month. It has now turned into a year-long mission to keep black history alive. I spoke with Gibson this week prior to her Saturday appearance on Melissa Harris-Perry.
Explain how the movement expanded from a February 2013 social media campaign to a year round effort, book and calendar?
In February 2013, when the campaign was ending people were asking us to keep going. They did not want March 1st to come and for it all to be over. I listened to them because I knew there were so many more individuals I wanted to highlight. I decided to quit my job and keep the campaign going from February 2013- Jan 2014. I spent my time engaging with community leaders, traveling the world and expanding the message. Everyone I met with understands how important it is to empower young black kids.
You quit your job in order to focus on the campaign. Explain that decision.
I recognized that I loved my job but I had the opportunity to potentially impact lives and change the world. The risk was worth it. I sat down with my husband and made sure he was fine with my decision and went from there. All I knew is that I would regret not taking the leap of faith.
How did you go about choosing who to include in this campaign?
I spent a lot of time at the library researching and learning about people who impacted black culture. The online community started to chime in and recommend individuals who we should feature. I wasn’t aware of people like Thomas Mundy Peterson-the first African American to vote in an election. I wasn’t aware of some of these names but people on social media helped me by emailing and sending suggestions. Through that collaboration we created a year-long campaign. The campaign is continued because there are so many people to cover. So far we have 365 people in the book and we are still growing.
Who are the icons you would like to still get to as the campaign expands?
I want to capture more people who are currently living. I want this campaign to branch out and include things like women’s history regardless of the hue of the individual…I would love to keep it going. There are hundreds of influencers that need to be introduced to young people. I would like to continue to capture their voice and image.
Explain how the campaign promotes self-esteem and learning for kids.
Kids need to be able to literally see themselves in someone else’s shoes. It may be hard for a kid to envision Martin Luther King Jr. as a young person or Rosa Parks as a young person. Literally putting kids in these icons shoes helps them see themselves as bigger than they are. They learn the icons message and life’s work in context. Parents have the opportunity to go beyond that and use these images as a conversation starter in the home to teach their children who these people are. Of course we’ll all have challenges and roadblocks that may try to stop us from dreaming but we must look at individuals who have been where we are and where we aspire to be and know that it is possible to achieve something similar.
When you’re taking the pictures of the children do they understand why the person they’re portraying is special?
It depends on the age. We’ve taken pictures of one-year-olds, but a number of kids come in to the studio with little print-outs of their icon because the parents have taken the opportunity to teach them about the individual. When the kids come in, I ask them, “Did you know what your person did or why they were special?” Some kids are definitely more into it than others.
You have your son in the photo book posing as Muhammad Ali. What is it about the black man’s experience in America you want your sons to learn?
My plan for my sons is to make them aware of the good side and not so good side. Having black boys, I fear for my kids, it’s natural given the state of the world we live in. I try to use my passion in a positive way so my sons believe in themselves beyond what anyone tells them. I make sure they know about the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis stories so they are empowered and encouraged to make a change. I teach them that they don’t have to surrender to who the world tells them they should be.
Your “I am Trayvon Martin” Campaign also received a lot of attention. What motives you to be a part of today’s narrative, specifically affecting African Americans?
I feel a sense of responsibility, again I have two black boys and I fear for them…but rather than waiting for someone to talk about it and understand why we are disheartened I use my camera lens as a way to help people understand. I feel like it’s my responsibility, if I have the knowledge and resources, to do whatever I can do to bring a light to these issues. I have always been passionate about social justice and social change. I see how my campaign is able to change the narrative and help people channel their anger in a positive way. The “I Am Trayvon Martin” campaign served as a way for people to express their anger in a positive way. It showcases everyone from young children to doctors, all with hoodies on, so that people can relate. Anyone could have been Trayvon. I want to help people understand that things need to change and I have the opportunity to do that with my lens and my voice.
You are careful in this book to feature such a variety of people, from celebrities to civil rights leaders – but also inventors and businessmen and women. Why was that important to you?
It shows just how unique we are as individuals and as a people. It shows that we can be athletes but were also inventors, and scientists. I wanted to show just how many things we have accomplished as a people. We have made accomplishments in every field there is. You hear about entertainers often but not everyone else. I wanted to include modern day trailblazers because often we wait for people to be elderly or gone before we highlight their accomplishments. I want to be sure to celebrate people who are still here that have a positive influence on our kids.
Your campaign is not just a book, you have created short video pieces to further explain the legacy of these leaders. Why is this part of the campaign important?
Using the video shows many lessons and experiences that are still applicable today. For example, in the Rosa Parks video, we all know she refused to give up her seat, but how is that applicable today? The video explains in more detail what her legacy means and how she faced her fears in order for our children to be able to do the same.
In the Harriet Tubman video you see that she is escaping and frees herself but she also goes back and leads others over the log. That lesson applies to us today. Anyone can go and be successful and be the greatest at their craft but it means nothing If I don’t turn back and help others.
Explain why it’s important for people to sign up for and take the “Because of Them We Can” pledge?
The pledge is important because it really captures what we are trying to do with the campaign in a couple of sentences. If people take the pledge, great, but if they BELIEVE the pledge we can make real change. We should adopt this as a way of life and really live it.
What are your hopes for the future of the campaign?
I hope the campaign becomes a part of our everyday lives and I want to expand all over the world. I want it to connect the dots between the past and the present and create a sense of accountability for those who are living. I hope people will honor what’s been done and think about it during our own pursuits of greatness. It will help us as we accomplish our own goals. I hope it becomes a part of the everyday conversation. We have to realize we are all here in service to others and the biggest goal is to show these young people that they can do it!
Who are your favorites/ which pictures meant the most for you?
They’re all great. I love the way the Spike Lee picture came out. My favorite picture is of a little girl named Lyric who portrays Marian Wright Edelman. The quote on the picture says, “If we don’t stand up for children, we don’t stand for anything at all.” Lyric’s mom reached out to me after the picture was taken and told me that everyday Lyric points to that picture of her as Marian and says, “Look, mom. I did something important.” Lyric is autistic. It’s amazing to know that being a part of this has forever changed her life. These kids are definitely learning and feeling empowered.
Your campaign includes our very own Melissa Harris-Perry! Why did you include her?
I met Melissa during a collegiate event that I hosted because I am a member of Delta Sigma Theta. I see her as someone who is changing the narrative and someone who is at the head of the narration. For me, she is like a modern day Ida B. Wells. As soon as we saw the little girl’s picture we knew we were going to use her as Melissa. It was a no-brainer to include Melissa when we talked about expanding the campaign because she is blazing trails and making things possible for others.
For more on the campaign, watch this.