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Desmera Gatewood, Activist/Community Organizer: Black History in the Making

Desmera Gatewood, a Durham native, is a social-justice activist and community organizer.  She explains, “Activists advocate for the people and actually make the problem known.  Organizers create change by mobilizing people, with the help of community members, to take strategic action.  Together, these mechanisms build movements which confront power and help to dismantle oppression.”

Born in Durham, NC, Desmera and her family relocated to Oxford, NC when she was 13 years old. She completed high school at J. F. Webb and went on to North Carolina Central University, graduating with a BA in English and a concentration in Writing Composition in 2013.

Desmera with her parents, Min. Curtis & Odessa Gatewood

Desmera’s parents, Minister Curtis and Odessa Gatewood, helped to shape her political perspective and give her a firsthand opportunity to witness the power of the people.  She enlightens us on her childhood experiences.

“When my mother was around my age, she was arrested in Warren County while protesting the dumping of toxic waste during the administration of Governor Jim Hunt. She literally partook in the genesis of the Environmental Justice movement.

My father became the president of the Durham NAACP when I was four years old.  He and others led campaigns to boycott the exploitation of the poor.  The NAACP also brought attention to the disparity of in school suspensions by disrupting school board meetings and getting arrested in the process.  I would go with them to public housing complexes to listen to the stories of the people who the system oppressed and left behind.

They both would take me to the Know Book Store to listen to lectures from organizers, former Black Panthers and radical authors.  After the lectures, they would let me get children’s books about black history.

I didn’t know it then, but my parents were planting the seeds to grow my awareness of capitalism and racism. I wouldn’t be an organizer were it not for the lessons they taught and showed me.  Additionally, my mother taught me how to be a mother.  As I experience parenthood, I draw back on the nurturing nature of my mother.  I was an only child, so she was literally my play mate at times.  She drilled me academically and developed my emotional intelligence.”

While at North Carolina Central University, Desmera made an impact by founding an on-campus organization for black women, Kinky and Proud. She also served for two years as the Student Government Association’s Executive Director of Political Affairs. Additionally, she traveled as a Witness for Peace delegate to Oaxaca, Mexico to study the effects of NAFTA and US Imperialism in Latin America.

Following graduation, Desmera organized with the NC NAACP’s Moral Freedom Summer initiative to further the ‘Get Out to Vote’ campaigns in Vance County.  This experience helped to shape Desmera’s awareness of voter challenges in predominately black rural counties.

“We participated in workshops led by various organizations, including the Fight for 15 and Spirit House,” Desmera states. “While completing this program, I worked with the Vance County NAACP and developed partnerships with local entities to register voters. We knocked on doors, visited churches, barber shops, stores and community centers.”

In 2015, Desmera began organizing with the Durham Solidarity Center, a community organization which equips young community organizers with resources and political perspective to fight oppressive forces in marginalized communities. Desmera assisted with organizing anti-police brutality rallies, beginning with a rally to demonstrate solidarity with other cities.

“My activism in Durham really took off under the Durham Solidarity Center. The first direct action I helped to organize with them was a May Day rally, which coincided with the Baltimore Uprising in response to the 2015 death of Freddie Gray.  I have continued to mobilize for rallies with the Durham Solidarity Center, an organization under the Southern Vision Alliance and connected with other organizers from across the Triangle.  They gave me a plethora of tools and knowledge to shape my confidence as an activist and an organizer,” she explains.

That same year Desmera also became a field organizer with Ignite NC, a nonprofit organization which engages youth on college campuses to fight oppression and build political consciousness. She continued to work with Ignite under the 501(c) (4) organization, the Ignite Action Fund, a campaign that endorses local candidates who are most likely to support policies which favor the interests of youth in marginalized demographics.

A recent venture of Desmera’s includes DurmTalks, a community conversation at Beyu Caffe in downtown Durham, with co-host Jesse Huddleston and creative director Alexandria Glenn. Desmera has served as a facilitator on the issues of race and oppression independently, and alongside Jesse. Their facilitated spaces have included guided seminars and discussions with Organizing against Racism, students at UNC Chapel Hill, and families with Partners for Youth Opportunity.

Currently, Desmera serves on the board of Durham Cares and Witness for Peace.  She is a member of the steering committee for Triangle Unity May Day coalition, a collective of Triangle organizations fighting against attacks on working class communities from the Trump administration and other oppressive forces.

Desmera continues to organize mass rallies alongside community freedom fighters and seeks ways to engage the masses in dismantling oppressive structures.  She enjoys loving and spending time with her 5 year old daughter, reading revolutionary texts, indulging in local art scenes, and watching classic films.

Over the next 5-10 years, Desmera wants to continue to

learn about the best ways to dismantle oppressive systems and build strong communities.  “Hopefully I’ll finish my master’s degree in Organization Development — I’ve taken time away, on and off.  Ultimately, I want to be the best mother I can be to my daughter. She has fueled my fire and given me purpose.”

When asked how she wants to be remembered, Desmera confidently states, “I want to be remembered as a revolutionary and a fighter for working class people.”

Submitted photos (click on photos for slideshow):

BLACK HISTORY FACT:

ELLA BAKER,  Civil Rights Activists

Ella Baker

Ella Baker was born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia. Baker developed a sense for social justice early in her life. As a girl growing up in North Carolina, Baker listened to her grandmother tell stories about slave revolts. As a slave, her grandmother had been whipped for refusing to marry a man chosen for her by the slave owner.

Baker studied at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a student she challenged school policies that she thought were unfair. She graduated in 1927 as class valedictorian and then moved to New York City. Baker began joining social activist organizations. In 1930, she joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League. The League’s purpose was to develop black economic power through collective planning. She also involved herself with several women’s organizations.

In 1940, Baker began her involvement with the NAACP. She worked as a field secretary and then served as director of branches from 1943 until 1946 when she resigned from the NAACP staff. She remained an active volunteer after her resignation from the staff, Baker led the New York NAACP branch’s fight to desegregate New York City public schools.

In 1957, Baker moved to Atlanta to organize Martin Luther King’s new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She also ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship. Baker stayed at SCLC for two years although she disagreed with its policy of strong central leadership over grass-roots organization, saying “strong people don’t need strong leaders.

Baker left the SCLC after the Greensboro sit-ins. She wanted to help the new student activists and organized a meeting at Shaw University for the student leaders of the sit-ins in April 1960. From that meeting SNCC was born. Baker continued to take part in SNCC mostly as a quiet leader who listened and encouraged the young activists. She was widely respected by the students who referred to her as “Miss Baker.”

Ella Baker died on December 13, 1986, in New York City.

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