Ashley Caldwell
Ashley Caldwell is project director for The Outreach Team, an organization that provides fundraising and mobilization services for a variety of progressive causes. Photos by Jasmine Watson for MLK50

“They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”

Zora Neale Hurston (“Their Eyes Were Watching God,” 1937)

Black women have lifted their voices for freedom and justice for ages — even when it seemed they shouted into the darkness and the cries echoed back like a slap.

Over the next three months, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism will amplify a rising crescendo of new voices of Black women — women nominated by their peers and our staff. These six women might be labeled “activists,” but they resist and defy definition. They organize, lead, and push for voting rights, access to health care, to uplift communities.

Unsung, Unbowed, Unstoppable

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They all fight still, for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s goal of the “beloved community” — a society based on justice, equality and love.

As workers and leaders of modern-day movements, the women honor the historical struggle while embracing new methods. The challenges are real and present in their communities — poverty, police brutality, mass incarceration, health disparities, gender and sexuality discrimination, and voter suppression among them.

As they stare into the shadows, advocate for the voiceless and help to build and organize their communities and beyond, all should heed their voices — because women like them have been proven to be wise. Think, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Stacey Abrams.

These wise women insist that until there is justice, there will be no peace; they will put their heads down and do the hard work, bringing along as many as are ready and willing to work with them.

It’s been a long time. But they know if change is going to come, there is work to be done. Who better to do it?

Caldwell began organizing with the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center on a campaign for criminal justice reform. She built her skills through volunteering for local campaigns and organizations.

Ashley Caldwell, 31
Project director for The Outreach Team

“I believe everyone should have access to health, happiness and peace.”

Ashley Caldwell knows about losing sleep for a cause. Her politically involved parents used to make her stay up late to watch speeches, debates and conventions. At the time, she just remembered being “really sleepy.”

Peruse Caldwell’s exhaustive list of organizing and field operations for progressive causes she performed for 360 Campaign Consulting in 2019 and 2020, including Restore Your Vote in Memphis and Iowa, Planned Parenthood in Virginia, MoveOn in Arizona and Everytown for Gun Safety in three states. Then look at what she has been doing since September 2020 as project director for The Outreach Team — directing canvass offices in three states, and directing and organizing projects in two states for the Family Friendly Action Fund.

Sleep deprivation might as well be in the job description.

But now that she’s woke, Caldwell gets it.

Opened eyes

Caldwell, 31, graduated from the University of Memphis with a degree in political science. Always interested in politics, thanks to her parents’ mandatory TV nights and “a phenomenal government teacher” in middle school, she thought law school was the logical goal.

That plan changed during her senior year of college, while Caldwell worked on a campaign that promoted criminal justice reform for the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center.

While speaking directly to many people affected by negative policies, she was struck by how open they were. “I gained more insight into how the criminal justice system was perpetuating problems, how limited funding and access was affecting generations,” she said.

Caldwell’s eyes were opened. She decided her work would be in the community, and discovered “my natural skill set …working to make things better for marginalized people.”

After graduation from college in 2015, Caldwell worked two years with the Peace & Justice Center, much of that time spent trying to revive the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board. “I learned a lot about how to engage with people,” Caldwell said.

Community organizers should offer assistance, then stand back and let the people lead, she said. It was a valuable lesson. “I learned that people’s lived experience had value. I became more intentional about how to develop relationships and get a full view — a combination of voices.”

Caldwell said the movement for Black lives should center people directly impacted by police killings. “The most marginalized are still not listened to,” she said. 

Caldwell heard those voices because she was campaigning — at first as a volunteer — for groups, including Black Lives Matter, she said. Once her skills were known, many others called on her to help with training and organizing.

“Oh, man, it was so many groups. For free. With no time to eat or sleep,” she said. “I wanted to use the skills that I found I naturally had to make positive changes. To be honest, at the time, I didn’t even think organizing could be a career.”

Law school took a seat in the back. “It was really hard for me when I decided I didn’t want to go to law school anymore,” Caldwell said. Her parents were even a little anxious about their activist daughter’s job prospects. “They were asking, ‘OK, at what point are you gonna start your career?’”

Caldwell said she has found that career — which she now says is a calling governed by her “core” principles: “I believe everyone should have access to health, happiness and peace.”

She has worked on campaigns for gun control, to register college students to vote and helped organize a local community fund for those who cannot afford bail.

But her face-to-face style was cramped by the pandemic. “It made me feel very detached and separate from the community,” she said, “even though I still felt the pain.”

Amplifying voices

Caldwell views the convergence of the pandemic with the protests sparked by the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others, as significant.

“These (killings) are a consistent issue in the Black community” that did not start last summer, Caldwell said. “But we did see more people responding because people were stuck at home. The accumulation meant it reached a breaking point of  ‘Now we have to do something.’”

Even though she found hope in the size and scope of last summer’s protests, Caldwell said the most important voices are still not being heard. “The most marginalized are still not listened to.” A power shift is called for, she said.

“There should be a change in how we view power, consistently empowering people affected by these things to be a part of the work to overcome it. Make space for those who are directly impacted.”

To that end, Restore Your Vote, the campaign to restore voting rights to people with felony records, is one of the most important issues she is working on now, Caldwell said. “This disenfranchisement is definitely against democracy.”

Caldwell has learned from past struggles. “We are always perceived to be so different and radical than what happened before,” she said. “But a lot of what we do is come up with new ways of furthering the efforts of the past. We have followed in King’s steps of nonviolent action,” for example.

While the throngs of protestors are an important, visible message, the hard work being done behind the scenes and around the edges by organizers and others is vital.

“As you move in this work, you have to always make space for those who are directly impacted,” she said. “I don’t talk at people, I listen, too, and invite them to be a part of the work. Most people need to be listened to.”

Celeste Williams is a writer and playwright living in Indianapolis. She was a journalist for more than 25 years, having worked at daily newspapers in Alabama, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Indiana. She has won national awards, including recognition for reporting on extreme poverty in Tunica, Mississippi. Her play, “More Light: Douglass Returns,” about abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, was produced in 2017 and 2018 in Indiana.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

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