Changemaker: Monica Cannon-Grant, the Black activist holding Boston officials accountable


Photo: Lex Weaver

Monica Cannon-Grant outside her home.

Lex Weaver

Monica Cannon-Grant, 38, of Roxbury, is one of Boston’s most well-known activists and organizers.

She was responsible for the 2017 march against white supremacy in Boston, which drew in over 45,000 people in attendance and $65,000 in revenue (which was used to bail out protestors and white supremacists arrested on the day of the march). This past August, she also helped to organize a counter-protest against the heavily criticized Straight Pride Parade.

When she is not organizing rallies or counter-protests, she is running her nonprofit, Violence in Boston, where she is the founder, CEO and currently the only staff member. Through Violence in Boston, Cannon-Grant works to educate, advocate and crowd-fund for various marginalized persons or “disenfranchised communities” that come from lower-income areas and areas with a high person-of-color ratio.

Cannon-Grant sat down with the Scope to talk more about her experiences as an organizer, community initiatives she is involved with and life as an unapologetic Black activist. The following transcript has been edited for length, clarity and timeliness.

Q: Who was Monica Cannon-Grant pre-Violence in Boston?

A: A mom. A daughter. Someone who actually went to college for three years to become a nurse. The moment they tried to kill my son, all of that changed.

Q: Would you say that because of that incident [with your son], it spearheaded Violence in Boston?

A: Oh, definitely! Originally, I did this program called Boston Rising, and at the time I encountered this woman named Talia Rivera. She was talking about neighbor circles and how we don’t know our communities. Her challenge was to invite ten of our neighbors into our house that we did not know, in order to build community.

That was the first time I got my first grant of $500. The stipulation was that you had to put it back into the community, so, I threw my first block party. From there that’s when I tried to get more involved on a community level, but when they tried to kill my son that activism looked a little different.

I left school and attended almost every public safety meeting you could imagine. From there, Violence in Boston was born. It was originally a hashtag we were using [on Twitter]. We kept hearing how shooting and stabbings weren’t happening and so every time one would happen, I would use the hashtag #violenceinboston

Q: Violence in Boston aims to help disenfranchised communities and I see that under your organization you have impact teams. Are they a continuous thing or more-so need-based?

A: Need-based. Also, Violence in Boston is me. I don’t have staff. A lot of the work that I get help with is from people who are doing this work alongside me and people in the community. So, it’s almost like a case-by-case basis. Someone will call me and tell me a young man, who has been shot, is about to get discharged from the hospital and he has nowhere to go. I’ll be brought in to meet that young person at the hospital to kind of get what the dynamics are around them and then from there mobilization happens. We start figuring out where can they go, and we start grassroots fundraising to cover costs. It depends [on the situation]. I’ve had situations where a mom will come and say that she is homeless, and she has nowhere to go with her children…you mobilize. You start calling all of the people that you know who function within the shelter system and food resources and things like that. A lot of it is me navigating getting past the red tape. And, that’s how it’s been for a while.

Q: What challenges do you get operating by yourself? Do you get pushback from law enforcement or the government for doing these things?

A: I get pushback everywhere. *laughs* I get pushback everywhere and I think it’s because I am challenging them to follow through. It’s not that the resources are not there. It’s not that they don’t have the capacity. It’s just that when it comes to communities of color, we often don’t get those resources. So, I push them to do the same thing that they do for white communities for Black communities. So, when you tell me that you don’t have a way to do emergency housing, but then you show me you can do it in one case, that lets me know you can do it whenever you feel like it. When you tell me that you don’t have resources for trauma, but your trauma response looks different based on the color of the victim, then I know you can do it. It’s just a refusal. So, now the goal is to push you to do the same thing you do for one, you do for the other across the board.

Monica Cannon-Grant leads an anti-violence demonstration in Franklin Park in August 2018. Photo by Catherine McGloin.
Monica Cannon-Grant leads an anti-violence demonstration in Franklin Park in August 2018.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your podcast Activist Hour. How did that get started and what was your intention with it?

A: So, for me, it was trying to create a platform where activists can talk about what activists go through. There are so many platforms that cover a multitude of things; I wanted a space where we could discuss what it is to be a Black activist. You know, that experience is different.

I am a content contributor for Patreon, and I dropped an article in regard to be unapologetically unhirable. Everyone loves the fact that you’re radical, that you’re screaming Black Lives Matter and that you are advocating for racial justice, but those are the same reasons they won’t hire you.

I’ve been lucky, in a sense, to navigate both the political spectrum as a person who ran for state representative in 2016 and also navigating activism just being a Black woman, waking up every day having to fight for my life. I do well navigating the two but it hasn’t transcended to a job.

Q: So, people kind of just expect you to come in and save the day?

A: Yeah! It’s ‘come in and save the day, but don’t say any of the things that you said while you were out there.’ So, it’s basically like ‘come work for our organization, but don’t point out the white supremacy from within.’

I’ll never forget one of the jobs I was offered — that I felt like I was a perfect fit for — was for a director of violence prevention for a medical facility. I did three interviews, they loved me and were about to onboard me and then a city council hearing happened on violence prevention. I was invited me to speak on the panel and I got up there and I said, ‘The city councilors in this space suffer from blind patriotism and conscientious stupidity.’ I never got a call back and I was told they were no longer hiring for the position.

I think people don’t realize that this is one of the only spaces where most activists are doing this from a place of poverty.

Q: What did you mean by that statement that you made at the city council panel?

A: So, they always want to talk about how we should support our city, our local government and help support our local politicians while ignoring the disparities that happen in those very districts and communities and not doing sh*t about it. So far this year, in 2019, 158 people [as of September 22nd] have been shot in the city of Boston. So, to celebrate, while negating that there’s a disparity, is ignorance and that’s where I was speaking from.

They will hold a hearing but the first two hours of the meeting they will let elected officials and people who work for the city speak and only give the community 45 minutes. So you haven’t put the community first, but this is the very community that helped get you in office.

It’s a level of ignorance and disrespect. And it’s not because they don’t know. It’s willfully done.

Q: You’ve had some big names in Boston politics on your show in the past, including Michelle Wu.

A: Oh yeah, I’ve had a little bit of everybody. I’ve had District Attorney Rachael Rollins on the show in the past. I try to get all the elected officials. So, what I try to do is have interviews with [politicians], but on a community level. Sometimes they go on these shows and a lot of people are like ‘What the h*ll are they talking about?’ So I try to have a conversation in a way where the person who is not politically involved understands what they’re running for, why we should support them and what supporting them looks like.

I think that’s important — specifically for the Black community.

I wanted to create a platform that even during elections we’re talking to people and saying these are the candidates, this is what they stand for, this is who they are. Put a face to the names. I think a lot of people vote just off of name recognition and they don’t know who the h*ll the person is, and they don’t know what they’re voting for. And then you have those who just vote for whoever’s Black. Listen, all skin folk ain’t kinfolk.

Q: How do you go about getting these politicians on the show? 

A: I’m blessed in the sense that I don’t have to jump through any hurdles. Most of the politicians in the city, I have their cell phone number. The only one I don’t have — but I’m not upset about — is Charlie Baker.

The mayor, direct call to his cell phone. Michelle Wu, direct call to her cell phone. District Attorney Rollins, direct call to her cell phone.

Q: Would you say you have good relationships with them then?

A: For the most part, yeah. This is the thing. Me and Marty’s relationship, I compare it to a baby mama baby daddy relationship. It started with me just coming for his life, a lot. Mainly because of decisions made around violence prevention and just watching the lack of effect. We have now gotten to the point where we can communicate with each other and express our differences directly to each other. I used to come for his life via Twitter. Now, I come for his life via text message.

What I will say is that I applaud the fact that he lets me come for his life. He lets me come for his life because he understands that I’m on the ground doing this work. I’m not just yelling and screaming. I’m not just a mouthpiece. I’m actually in the community, doing this work, and when he asks me ‘Okay, what can you do to this fix this,’ I can actually produce a plan. You have to protest with a purpose.

I’m appreciative that there have been times when I called him, and he’s come through. Anyone like that, I can respect. It doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. It doesn’t mean next week I won’t drag you again. It just means that right now we’re in a good spot to actually be effective and get some stuff done.

I’m grateful for that because he could’ve very well taken the approach of, ‘I’m not f*cking talking to you. You’re crazy.’ Most of them understand that my heart is in the right place. I just want better for my community, and I’m going to hold you accountable. And accountability can’t be hate speech. The same accountability that I’m holding Marty Walsh to, I’m holding our Black elected officials to. I expect you not to be just a mouthpiece and I expect you to show up for communities of color. And if you don’t, we’ll remove you. It is what it is.

Monica Cannon-Grant hands out posters to students outside City Hall at "Die-in protest" in November 2018. Photo by Catherine McGloin.
Monica Cannon-Grant hands out posters to students outside City Hall at “Die-in protest” in November 2018.

Q: What is something you fear about the future of Boston?

A: Gentrification. I fear that one day there will be no Black people here. Tito [Jackson] says this statement that ‘if we don’t fight for the communities that we live in, we’ll be on a tour bus riding through communities saying this is where Black folks used to live.’ So, that’s one of my biggest fears. And displacement. It’s real. I live in an area now that at one point used to be deemed as one of the top ten hot spots for violence in the city, now you see little white women with little furry dogs walking by. [The violence] isn’t stopping them from moving down here because of access. Access to downtown. Being able to walk everywhere in this community. Access to employment. They see the value in our communities and so I believe it’s a strategic effort to get rid of us.

And then the other piece is that a lot of people aren’t being gentrified, because they don’t own anything. They’re just being displaced. A lot of us don’t own property and businesses here. Which is also a strategic effort. I don’t want anybody to think it’s because we can’t, it’s because we’ve been red lining. We’ve been denied loans and denied opportunities so much that it’s never been an equal playing field.

Q: Are there any initiatives, that you know of, to try and buy up property?

A: No. There isn’t. I wish there was, but there isn’t. This is the thing and one of my complaints in Roxbury: You have the Black community and then you have the Black elites. The Black elites, not all but some, very rarely send the elevator back down. The ones that do have access to wealth are hanging on to it with their teeth, and those of us who don’t have access to wealth are striving to get it. I really wish people understood what it means to send the elevator back down. It doesn’t mean giving away all your wealth. It means educating people in a way that they understand how to get to where you made it to.

Q: A lot of Black activists have gone missing or have been found dead recently. Does that scare you?

A: It did at the beginning, but I think we’ve all got to find something to die for. It scared me at the beginning, but I can’t say I’m scared now. Concerned, yes.

I think for me when I did the [2017 white supremacy march], I received a lot of death threats, and then I also just did a counter-rally for the Straight Pride Parade [in August] and received more death threats. It is something that happens a lot, especially when you talk about white supremacy. But I think the other thing I want to kind of debunk for people is that I get death threats from people that look like me.

I’m a firm believer that I have to be careful with everybody as an activist because it can come from someone that looks like me and can come for someone that doesn’t look like me.

Q: When it’s coming from someone that looks like you, what are they saying?

A: Usually, if it’s a Black person who has some type of privilege, they say things like, ‘You’re being divisive,’ ‘You’re a racist,’ ‘You’re separating us as a community. We need to come together and embrace our white brothers and sisters.’ A lot of times, I also get ‘You don’t deserve that platform,’ ‘You don’t deserve to be the one talking.’

Q: How does that take a toll on your body and mentally affect you?

A: First thought, if you’re anything like me, is to get in your car and it’s on-site. But then you realize they’re attacking you because you’re great. And then you realize that they’re attacking you because you’re on the right track. New levels, new devils.

Q: How have you dealt with your almost celebrity-like status?

A: A lot of people talk to me and are like, ‘Oh my God, you’re so powerful,’ and I’m really not. I’m just regular, like, I am a recovering ratchet. I embrace it because it’s like, just as much as I can sit in a room with the respectables and have an educated conversation to make you feel good, I can go in my car and put on Megan the Stallion. I can chill with my homegirls and be ratchet. I like vodka and cranberry juice. I think people, you know, they rob you of that when you get into certain rooms and you’re not allowed to be that regular person, and so I struggle with the celebrity status piece because most celebrities are miserable.

Most prominent individuals from politicians to entertainment are miserable people because they never get the opportunity to just be them. I am very intentional about my friends because when I’m ready to just be Monica, I want to be in a safe space where I can feel free to do so. You’ve got to be intentional with everybody.

There have been times that I’ve been in space and people have literally snap chatted me. I’ve been at the club and have had people Snapchat me and say “Oh wow, look who’s in the club.” It’s sad because you should strive for that, but I never want the type of celebrity where I can’t go somewhere and just have a good time.

Q: What is something you are looking forward to with all your work with Violence in Boston?

A: I have some bucket list items. I would love to do a Ted Talk around violence prevention. I want Violence in Boston to get sustainable to the point where I can hire people. There are so many people who I would love to employ, who have so much value and live in my community. I just really want to get to the point where I am not the founder, the CEO, the volunteer, the grant writer, the everything.

Q: Is there anything that you want people to know about you, Violence in Boston, or activism in general?

A: I have the ability to branch out, I just need volunteers to help with that process. Right now all the postings and data and everything that happens with Violence in Boston, I do myself, through my cell phone; all the preparing for panels, having conversations, doing Black Lives Matter [Cambridge], Violence in Boston and then me as an individual speaker… by myself. So, it’s about capacity.

I want people to stop asking Black activists to come speak on your panel, but then not hiring them. Like Black women get shit done. We’ve proven it time and time again. Whether it’s on a ballot initiative, or it’s organizing a protest or it’s galvanizing people to do things. We’ve proven it across this country. Don’t just embrace us when it’s convenient for you.

You know a lot of times I get asked to help with public safety policy, I get asked to assist with campaigns and organizing… while unemployed. You know, that would be my biggest thing. I watch a lot of white organizations, that focus on racial justice, only talk to the Blacks that they’re comfortable with. Step outside of your comfort zone.

A version of this article was published on Medium.