5 Ways Black Genius Showed Up at Martha’s Vineyard

William P. Jackson
Dec 20, 2016 · 7 min read

To get to Martha’s Vineyard, I boarded a ferry that had over a hundred people on board. Of those people, five were Black. Two of those five were my wife and myself.

I was traveling to attend the 5th annual Head and Heart Philanthropy (HHP) Summit hosted by Christal Jackson. Ms. Jackson’s HHP Summit brought together a little over a 100 people of color, most of whom are Black, to talk about social change, impact investing, and philanthropy.

I was also on a mission: to find five examples of Black Genius.

I was a little worried.

By my definition, Black Genius is the capacity to create new systems of equity and justice — a capacity that people of color often access more easily because of our lived experience with inequity and injustice. The ferry ride to the island — my introduction to Martha’s Vineyard — was already reinforcing my awareness of inequity based on the demographics of the passengers alone. Who had access to the island? And, to the networking opportunities it presented? And, to building social capital and the power to create change?

Well, this time, thanks in large part to Camelback Ventures, one of the answers to my questions about who had access was me.

I lead Village of Wisdom, an organization whose main mission is to work with families to protect the Black Genius of all children. Currently, we do that work with families and communities that raise Black children by hosting large scale community events to attract families, providing 1-on-1 goal-planning sessions for families, and facilitating parent workshops to build community. All of these efforts are designed to explore and enhance the amazing things families are already doing to affirm their child’s confidence in being Black.

I was looking for five forms of Black Genius to help Village of Wisdom explore and enhance our own concept of Black Genius, and to share the movement to protect Black Genius. So what did I find?

Jessica Matthews: Brilliant Idea — Black Genius Execution.

Have you ever seen kids playing on a field, pitch, or court and thought, “Yo, those kids have energy for days!?” Jessica Matthews had the same thought, but took it further than just being amazed by the energy kids were expending — she actually started to think about how to harness that seemingly endless energy. As a Nigerian-American, Jessica was well-aware of the inconsistent power supply issues experienced in the Global South. Her family, like many Nigerians, use kerosene generators when there are electricity outages — but kerosene generators produce harmful fumes. While watching her younger cousins play soccer, she had the brilliant idea to put a micro-generator inside of the balls they were playing with to convert the kinetic energy (i.e., energy of movement) of the ball into electrical energy that could be used later in the day. Think solar cells, but instead of being energized by sun, Jessica’s micro-generators are powered by the energy of play.

Jessica O. Matthews | Photo by Natalie Brasington

Jessica’s invention is brilliant, and her Black Genius shows in how she is developing her company, Unchartered Play. Jessica deliberately looks to give opportunities to those who are often marginalized, disenfranchised, and overlooked. As she navigated a eurocentric, male-dominated venture capital space to raise the extensive funding it would take to bring her products to market, she hasn’t forced her company to play by those same rules. Jessica has been intentional about hiring a team of techies, engineers, and product managers who are not only diverse but who also share a commitment to social change. On top of this, she didn’t move her company to Silicon Valley — Unchartered Play’s offices are located in Harlem. Her presence in the community shines as a great counterpoint to the “you gotta get out” mantra that is frequently fed to youth of color growing up in urban centers. Unchartered Play is contributing to the revitalization of a community with those who live there, not the gentrification of a space that pushes its community out. Businesses owned and operated by community members are important for so many reasons, not the least of which is to enrich the identity development of Black children, whose families have had so many doors closed to them due to systemic oppression. Consquently, many Black children are often yearning to experience a world in which leaders in their community look like them, or like their mothers, their cousins, their friends. Big-ups to Jessica for responding to the call.

Marcus Littles: Finding the Frontline of Financial Racial Justice with Activest

Have you ever wondered how, as American citizens, we could better wield our economic power to align with the right side of history for social justice? Enter Marcus Littles, who, when you meet him, has a larger than life personality and a keen aptitude for developing ideas that could generate large scale social change. Although, I only had a breif opportunity to break bread with Marcus during HHP, I know that he is a part of the amazing Frontline Solutions team who are collectively incubating Activest. Activest is a platform that will allow anybody to divest from local municipalities that have disturbingly exploitative and predatory fine and fee practices that cause the greatest harm to low-income communities of color. These are the same types of practices that led to the unrest in Ferguson and the slaying of Philando Castile. Learn more about inspiration and plans for the Activest project via Frontline’s blog on Next City. The Black Genius in what Frontline is doing lies in developing the capacity to disrupt the fiscal stability of government institutions that exploit those of us with the least means to support governments that are supposed to be working for us, not profiting off of us.

Satarra Music: Young Face Tapping into a Four-Century-Old Tradition of Rebellion

I like music. There’s a song by Kanye West that I think most have never heard of called Promise Land (do yourself a favor and check it out). While at Martha’s Vineyard, I had the pleasure of hearing from Satarra Music, a young artist who might provide the soundtrack to the promised land of Equity and Liberation for all one day. Satarra is a vocalists and instrumentalist who has a keen love and skill for the bass guitar! At HHP, Satarra opened up for her mentor, India Arie, and she belted out a track called “Reparations.” Satarra’s lyrics remind us that Black folks have given life, blood, tears and much more to this country, and have yet to be compensated for all of the work we’ve put in. Her song would be the perfect musical accoutrement to a documentary Ta-nehisi Coates could create from the popular article he wrot for Atlantic a few years ago. To hear a young soul so clear on the value that her ancestors brought to this country was remarkable and awesome to hear.


Vanessa Garrison of GirlTrek: Mobilizing Superwomen Walking for Justice

Vanessa Garrison (Center) Morgan Dixon (Right) | Pic by Vanessa’s Selfie Hand

Vanessa Garrison has a remarkable passion for the work she and her business partner Morgan lead for their organization, GirlTrek. In fact, whenever I’m talking to either of them, it pushes me to work harder to someday raise my organization to the same level. GirlTrek has set an ambitious goal to get 1,000,000 women walking toward healthier lives by 2018. At the time of this writing, GirlTrek has motivated more than 83,000 women to make this commitment. The Black Genius of GirlTrek’s work has been revealing itself over time; the organization has recently been using its expansive reach to leverage the most reliable voting base in America — Black women. This past August, the organization began the Black Girl Justice League campaign, encouraging their “Trekkers” to walk to the polls to demonstrate Black women’s political power. I’m not sure all of what Vanessa and Morgan have up their sleeves, but the direction they are pointing in is clear, and I can’t wait to see how this group of superwomen decides to wield their political power to bend the arc of our current systems toward justice.

Personal Accountability: Escaping the “Token Leader” Archetype

More than once, I had the opportunity to speak with leaders who were challenging themselves to not allow the privilege they have been afforded to disconnect them from the realities many of their Black cousins, brothers, sisters and community members experience. I heard folks ask how they could leverage their privelege and access to create new openings and spaces for other folks of color, rather than become a token leader in their respective fields. In our conversations we acknolwedeged that even for tokenism to exist, there must be other folks being exploited and oppressed who look just like the token leader. These leaders didn’t want their success to rest on the oppression of their community. They also didn’t want to just build Black wealth, or see more Black folks in positions of power; they truly wanted a better world. Together, we reckoned with the fact that more Black wealth doesn’t translate to more prosperity for all Black people — a truth that has played out as white wealth was built throughout our country’s history, but only for a select group, leaving many lower-income white folks feeling forgotten and disenfranchised. We discussed how we could create a world where no communities experience oppression, and no one lives in extreme wealth while others live in abject poverty.

And these conversations happened, of course, in Martha’s Vineyard, at a beachfront hotel, while we enjoyed finely catered food. Conversations where we attempt to tap into our Black Genius can be complicated. They come with the responsibility to confront our contradictions and ask ourselves: what are we willing to sacrifice for all to enjoy a more equitable world?