Just a few days after the election of President Donald Trump, Marissa Jenae Johnson and Leslie Mac were on vacation in Jamaica, but learned about the trend of White Americans wearing safety pins to show solidarity with people of color. Johnson remembers being disturbed by expensive safety pin jewelry being sold on Etsy. “It’s been completely commercialized,” she recounts saying to Mac. “And the only people benefiting are privileged White people.” Johnson joked that what White allies really needed to do is pay reparations and do tasks to address their complicity with White supremacy. “We could even put it in a box,” she said.
What started as a poolside joke, a way to let out the snark about what they saw as an empty show of White solidarity, quickly became an actual business. Mac purchased the Safety Pin Box URL and within a week of returning to the States, the duo launched their new project. By the end of 2016, they had 500 subscribers, a number that has grown to over 800 as they prepare to send out their third box in March.
Johnson and Mac had known each other through national Black Lives Matter organizing, but this was their first business collaboration. The business plan is straightfoward: White people pay a monthly subscription, starting at $25 per month, to receive materials from Safety Pin Box (SPB) geared toward education and action. There are online communities to support the subscribers’ education including a closed Facebook group moderated by White volunteers and Twitter and Facebook chats hosted by Johnson and Mac.
Johnson used to write children’s curriculum for a church. Mac has experience in graphic design. Both have been involved in Black organizing for years. Mac is the founder of the Ferguson Response Network. Johnson co-founded the Seattle chapter of BLM and gained national attention for interrupting candidate Bernie Sanders during a campaign rally.
The idea of reparations—White people paying money to Black folks as retribution for slavery and White supremacy—remains at the core of their approach. “People think educating White people is the primary goal. It’s not,” Johnson says. “Our goal is funding Black femme activism, to figure out how to build capital for Black women activists. You’ll see an activist on the news for a week, and then that person can’t pay their bills.”
Johnson says they received a lot of criticism early on for not becoming a nonprofit. “We’re just a business who chooses to be transparent about how we use our funds,” she explains. “People were just really mad that we were making money off of this work. [But] we’re not the only ones who make money off this work. A lot of the people making money off of those [racial justice] workshops are White folks who are regurgitating 101 stuff they learned from Black women on Twitter who can’t pay their rent.”
Lori Stone Sirtosky, an early subscriber at the highest membership level ($100 per month) cites transparency as the reason she joined SPB. “Honestly, the thing that is driving me the most to be a part of the [Safety Pin Box] is the part about reparations,” she tells Colorlines via phone. “I love being able to redirect my financial resources in that way. It doesn’t bother me at all that it is a business and that it is not tax deductible.”
Johnson and Mac were able to go full-time with the business in January. They are distributing any funds left after overhead and salaries to Black women activists through their Black Women Being registry. Those who sign up are eligible for a one-time financial gift selected via lottery each month. Citing a desire to protect the privacy and safety of recipients, Johnson won’t say how much each gift is. But she says that by the beginning of March they’d distributed about $21,000 to 21 Black women activists. Joining the program is easy: Black women have to fill out a form on their site describing their activism. Johnson says there is no vetting process. “Basically if you are a Black woman and you can write a number of sentences about your work, you go into our pool.” If recipients are interested, they are profiled for a card included in future boxes. They also answer questions including ”What’s one thing you wish White people would stop doing?” and “What’s one thing you wish White people would start doing?” The February box included profiles of four women from across the U.S., including a writer, an educator, a poet and an organizer.
Annie Lipsitz, a White Washington D.C.-based activist, signed up for SPB in late January and received her first box a few weeks ago. “The different circles of convening, conversations and areas of work are really outstanding,” says Lipsitz, who joined after a friend posted a video of herself unpacking her January box. It was shortly after the inauguration and Lipsitz had served as a de-escalator for a Black Lives Matter protest. “Enough hemming and hawing. What else am I going to do besides going to a protest or a rally and reading things during my work day?” she says of what got her to commit $100 per month to the project.
Each month’s boxes have a different theme. January’s was ”Not My President” and included tasks such as talking to kids about Trump and “building your militia” to resist the Trump presidency. February’s was focused on Black “herstory” month. March’s box is centered around Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman who was part of the Stonewall Rebellion, and focuses on education and allyship with Black trans women.
The materials are a combination of political education and self-guided racial justice curricula, and each box offers hours of learning and doing. The tasks vary, from sharing material on social media to reading a biography of a Black woman to going to an event or artistic experience supporting Black women. Johnson compares the model to a gym: “You pay your membership and you have great aspirations to go, but the gym’s business model is not structured around whether you show up. The business still works regardless of whether White people do the work. We offer it, and it would be great if people do the work, but whether they do or not we still get subscription fees and we still give that money to Black women.”
Johnson says they are committed to supporting Black women at every level of the business, including their vendors. They hired three Black trans women as content creators for the March box. ”Our next big goal is getting to that 1,000 [subscriber] mark. [We’re] taking this year to see what is possible and just be creative and take risks. It’s been really great. It’s been a way to take all of our free labor online and put it behind a paywall.”