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Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, two of the three founders of #BlackLivesMatter, spoke at Penn last night as part of the 15th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture in Social Justice.

Credit: Carson Kahoe

Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, two of the three founders of #BlackLivesMatter, spoke at the Zellerbach Theatre in the Annenberg Center Thursday night as part of the 15th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture in Social Justice.

Both women said they felt drawn to activism from a young age.

Tometi, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, grew up in a tight-knit community. One day her best friend’s mom was deported, leaving behind four daughters in the United States with no father.

At that moment she decided that she wanted to be an activist.

“It’s not about having a seat at the table, it’s about questioning the table itself," she said.

As the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Tometi has fought for the end to discrimination against black people. She emphasized issues of not just race, but also where race intersects with nationality, sexuality and gender. 

Cullors embraced a similar approach to race relations. 

When she was 16-years-old, her 19-year-old brother was brutally arrested and sent to jail. Growing up surrounded by police violence targeted at people of color inspired her to do something for people in a similar situation.

“I wanted to be someone fighting the system and talking about race,” Cullors said. 

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has been referred to as the modern Civil Rights movement. However Tometi and Cullors intend for it to be much greater than that. They believe that it is necessary to challenge the institutions, not just highlight the problems.

Tometi and Cullors focused on the need to change the media's perception of their movement, which can be thought to only provide discourse on police brutality and the death of black men.

“This is a human rights movement, it was never just about black Americans,” Cullors said, “It’s all of us, or none of us.”

One myth that the co-founders hoped to dispel was the idea that they are connected to the Democratic Party. They said that the party hasn’t done enough for minorities.

Since the Civil Rights movement the goals of activists have had a greater focus on intersectionality, Tometi and Cullors said. It’s not just about solving and addressing issues related to being black, but also issues related to being marginalized in multiple ways at once.

At the lecture, English professor and activist Salamishah Tillet asked why there was a necessity for the #SayHerName hashtag following the death of Sandra Bland in police custody if #BlackLivesMatter covers the issues off all black people.

Cullors responded, “No matter how many times they see us as women, [the media] is obsessed with the men.” When #BlackLivesMatter was not enough, #SayHerName was born.

As the #BlackLivesMatter movement grew from local efforts to worldwide ambitions, the co-founders encouraged everyone to get involved, even if it’s just in small ways.

“There are leaders everywhere. There are leaders within the audience here and we’re acknowledging that,” Tometi said.

Although #BlackLivesMatter is based on a social media platform, there is much more depth to the movement. Tometi said that being united in real life is what matters, and social media is a tool that can be used to do this.

“We’re powerful when we take a collective punch,” Tometi said.

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