The titles and roles of activists may differ, but a good activist can be spotted by their passion and dedication to their work. Most of us choose our paths of activism based on the impact we want to have or life sort of decides for us by placing us in social locations where the only path that makes sense is one of resistance. High levels of recognition are typically reserved for men, the wealthy, or those who have been doing this for so long that their fame is an accumulated fame. This blog series is not a remedy to this situation, but rather designed as a way to highlight activists and their justice work through brief interviews.
This installment is an interview with Justice Gatson, a social justice doula born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. Responses were provided during a one-on-one phone interview, and this post was reviewed and approved by the interviewee prior to publication.
How would you describe yourself as an activist and organizer?
I would describe myself as a social justice doula. This is what I’ve evolved into and this is how I refer to myself. I’ve chosen that title because it embodies me and the work that I have been doing. In my work it is extremely important that those most affected by the issues are centered and their voices are amplified. Being a social justice doula just means that I am in tune with the needs and concerns of my community and that I advocate in a way that is fair, loving, and compassionate. Our communities experience generational and ongoing trauma that is oftentimes unacknowledged. People of color experience high rates of trauma from daily interactions in a society that still has serious issues with race and discrimination. In order for us to heal, we need to be loved on. I’ve tailored some of the concepts I’ve learned as a labor, birth and postpartum doula into a format for my domestic violence and social justice work. In a nutshell, my approach to the work I do is the same as that of a doula. A doulas’ job is to provide physical and emotional support to pregnant families. I do the same thing for my community as a social justice doula.
How did you get started and connected to the work you do?
I had amazing mentors like Mamie Isler and Lloyd Daniel who introduced me to Black authors and provided amazing opportunities for me. At 14 years old, I was introduced to broadcast radio. I began producing and engineering two shows at KPRS/KPRT – one of a few Black owned radio stations – and KKFI – a community radio station in Kansas City. Other teens and I would explore a range of topics and talk about things like gun violence. I was honored to interview a lot of really important people, like Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee and Janet Reno, who at the time, was the Attorney General of the United States.
In particular, what brought you into your role as a social justice doula?
My journey to becoming a social justice doula began at Bennett College in Greensboro, NC. During my first year, I fell ill. Sometime after that I learned I had a rare illness that would continue to attack my body at will. I moved off campus to better care for myself. I began dating a very charming man that I admired and cared for. However to my dismay, that soon turned abusive and extremely hard to break away from due to the fact that he did not want the relationship to end. He continuously tried to manipulate me by playing on my caring and forgiving nature. At the time, I didn’t recognize that this was the cycle of violence that victims and survivors find themselves in when dealing with an abusive partner. To make things even more difficult, I found out I was pregnant. Yeah, during my pregnancy I went through some very abusive and horrific experiences.
As I reflect back, I can remember how back when I was doing radio as a teen, I would cut public service announcements for one of the local domestic violence shelters and after I’d get off the air, I would be talking to my friends and say things like, “Why won’t she leave?” and how it couldn’t be me because I’d defend myself or kill them if they ever laid a hand on me. Then one day, after my ex had tried to choke me, I realized that I was one of those women I had talked about. I now know I had no idea how the dynamics of domestic violence really worked. It’s so much more than what people think. It’s psychological, mental, physical, emotional, and the courts don’t always work in the victim’s best interest. I moved back to Kansas City, and after completing extensive research, I started Reale Justice Network (RJN) as a way for me to fight back and help other parents in similar situations.
Eventually, my work with RJN brought me to Uzazi Village. I couldn’t sign up for their professional doula training fast enough! Becoming a doula has helped me expand my range of services. I especially appreciate that I can provide education around perinatal health.
You do a lot of organizing around various social justice issues. Could you speak to how you’re able to do so much work on so many issues?
If I just take the issue of criminal justice reform then all of my roles are able to approach it from different angles. As an organizer with ACLU-Missouri, I help train people to become legal observers. I also give presentations so people know their rights when engaging with the police. During our big lobby day this year at the state capitol we lobbied, amongst others, on bills that address maternal shackling, racial profiling, and raising the age of juvenile offenders to 17. I’ve helped organize protests with One Struggle KC, which is a Black-led organization that I’m a core leader of. I find that my personal community involvement often times intersects. Basically, I’ve been busy working to stop damn near everything the Trump administration has been putting forward with every organization I’m a part of. There are intersections everywhere.
Something I’ve noticed is how important support is as an organizer. Where does your support come from?
My partner is truly amazing and extremely supportive of me. He helps me set up, he hands things out, and after events, all the women come up to me and ask, “How do you get him to do that?” I’m really not sure what the answer to that question is, however I can say that my partner doesn’t try to control me. He has no problem stepping back and letting me fly and do my own thing. He respects my mind and values my opinion even when we don’t necessarily agree. He’s always looking out for me and making sure that I’m okay. As I mentioned before, I have a rare condition that attacks my body whenever it wants, so there have been times that I literally can’t get out of bed. If I cannot move, he will carry me, and I love and appreciate him for that.
I have three beautiful children who love and support me and my work, and without them I would not have the drive to keep fighting for a better world to leave them. Also, I look to my friends and other women of color for power, strength, and that sacred energy we women share with each other. This work is exhausting and emotionally draining, and I need that energy from my sisters so I can keep my bearings and get them back when I need to keep going.
In what ways would you like to see support for you and your work improve?
I’d like to have more volunteers assisting with Reale Justice Network projects. For instance, we usually fill-up brown paper bag lunches or Ziploc bags with hygiene products for men and women, or however people identify. We try to have stuff for everybody. Sometimes, when we’re able, we include change for the bus. Of course, if people donated more, we could give out more, but I also need volunteers to help put the bags together and hand them out. I’d also like to train others to become social justice doulas, in order to expand the reach in our communities.
What is the effect you hope your work has on people?
I hope that people will take some time to become educated on all social justice issues, but particularly, it is my hope that people gain a better understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence and how abusers manipulate the legal system to inflict further abuse on their victims. Many survivors are revictimized by the very system that is supposed to protect them. I also hope that my work changes the hearts and minds of people. I can go to the capitol and testify in hearings or rally with Dreamers in support of a clean DREAM Act all day, every day, but if the moral consciousness of people isn’t changed then it doesn’t matter what’s written on any piece of paper anywhere. My biggest hope is that I can inspire people to work towards dismantling systemic racism and oppression wherever it lives. It would be great if people could understand that in order to have an equitable society the most marginalized must be centered in our work.
I also want to affect people the way I’ve been affected by people. One person in particular who continues to have an impact on me, even though she passed too soon, is Mamie Lee Isler. Besides my mother, she has had the most influence on my life. She was a leader of leaders. Leaders in my community all loved and respected her. She made us proud to be descendants of Africa. She made us learn about our history. She introduced me to Black authors. She was BAD! I love her and I hold her with me in the work I do every day. There’s not a day in this work I do that she doesn’t come to me in some way. She was the realest.
There aren’t very many organizers of color, particularly women of color, organizers in Missouri. What do you think is the reason for that?
Other than racism, I think that some women of color just don’t know how to access/enter into this work. They don’t know what the entry point is. I know it’s certainly not due to a lack of passion, concern, and willingness to help. For some, there may even be a level of fear or concern about this work. One thing my mama used to tell me all the time is “Girl, you gon’ get killed!” I’ve been hearing that since I was eight years old, so that may be a reason. When we look at what history has shown us, dying is a risk that we take doing this work. With that though, is some room to decide the risks you’re willing to take. You can sit in an office and work on social justice issues, or you can be in the streets at rallies or marches. It all just depends.
A brief biography for the interviewee is below:
Justice Gatson, Social Justice Doula
Justice Gatson grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications from Bennett College. Justice is the Kansas City Organizer for the ACLU of Missouri. She is also a Sister Doula at Uzazi Village where she works on issues like birth justice and infant and maternal health disparities. She is the founder of Reale Justice Network – a group that focuses on domestic violence. She is also a core leader of One Struggle KC. Justice formed “Social Justice Doulas International” and has coined the term “Social Justice Doula” (SJD), which describes a trained professional that supports community members affected by all forms of social injustice, generational trauma, and historical violence. SJD’s are deeply connected to the communities they serve and rely on the principles of soul-care.