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Activist Tamika Mallory has faced backlash in recent weeks for attending Saviour’s Day, an annual gathering held by the Nation of Islam in Chicago last month. In an exclusive op-ed, the Women’s March co-chair addresses the criticism, her connection to the event and her commitment to building an “intersectional movement.”  

I proudly serve as a leader for one of the largest women’s advocacy organizations in the world. For that reason, my recent presence at the Nation of Islam’s Saviour’s Day convocation troubled some of the very people who I have fought for and worked alongside for most of my life.

I have heard the pain and concerns of my LGBTQAI siblings, my Jewish friends and Black women (including those who do and those who don’t check off either of those other boxes.) I affirm the validity of those feelings, and as I continue to grow and learn as both an activist and as a woman, I will continue to grapple with the complicated nature of working across ideological lines and the question of how to do so without causing harm to vulnerable people.

I didn’t expect my presence at Saviour’s Day to lead anyone to question my beliefs, especially considering that I have been going to this event regularly for over 30 years. I first went with my parents when I was just a little girl, and would begin attending on my own after my son’s father was murdered nearly 17 years ago. In that most difficult period of my life, it was the women of the Nation of Islam who supported me and I have always held them close to my heart for that reason.

I am the same woman who helped to build an intersectional movement that fights for the rights of all people and stands against hatred and discrimination of all forms. I am the same person today that I was before Saviour’s Day, which begs the question – why are my beliefs being questioned now?

I was raised in activism and believe that as historically oppressed people, Blacks, Jews, Muslims and all people must stand together to fight racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. I believe that LGBTQAI people are not an abomination or a creation of man, but simply people, and that religion is not to be used as a tool to abuse, divide, harm, bully or intimidate.

Where my people are is where I must also be. I go into difficult spaces. I attend meetings with police and legislators—the very folks so much of my protest has been directed towards. I’ve partnered and sat with countless groups, activists, religious leaders and institutions over the past 20 years. I’ve worked in prisons as well as with present and former gang members.

It is impossible for me to agree with every statement or share every viewpoint of the many people who I have worked with or will work with in the future. As I do not wish to be held responsible for the words of others when my own history shows that I stand in opposition to them, I also do not think it is fair to question anyone who works with me, who supports my work and who is a member of this movement because of the ways that I may have fallen short here or in any other instance.

My fellow Women’s March leaders believe that we can be the bridge to connect different groups in the name of our shared liberation. We don’t just step into difficult spaces, we create new ones. I am guided by the loving principles of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., though I have fallen short of them at times. And it is with the belief that “non-violence seeks to win friendship and understanding” and “non-violence seeks to defeat injustice, not people” that we organized a march on January 21, 2017, that 5 million people participated in worldwide; and we have been guided by those values the whole way through.

It is my intention to walk the tradition of Dr. Dorothy Height, successor to Mary McLeod Bethune as President of the National Council of Negro Women. In 1995, she faced criticism for participating in the Million Man March, which was organized by the Nation of Islam. Financial support was withheld from her organization, and there were attempts to bully and intimidate her. Nevertheless, she stood strong and proudly addressed the massive crowd of Black people who gathered on the National Mall. Her first words? “I am here because you are here.”

I also take cues from my mentor, Hazel N. Dukes, President of the New York State Conference of the NAACP, who has brought together Muslims, Blacks and Jewish people and clergy from all denominations. Her office and her home are open to gang members, teen mothers and formerly incarcerated people as well.

Coalition work is not easy, and these women have operated from a place of authentic love for all people. My work requires an operational unity that is sometimes extremely painful and uncomfortable, even for me. But I push forward even when I am personally conflicted because our people are more important.

– Tamika D. Mallory, Freedom Fighter