An author, poet and social justice organizer, Tawana Petty is the National Organizing Director for Data for Black Lives. A movement of activists, organizers, and mathematicians committed to the mission of using data science to create concrete and measurable change in the lives of Black people.
Also known as Honeycomb, Petty is a poet and is also a board member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership also known as “The Boggs Center”. She is also the director of Data Justice Programming for Detroit Community Technology Project, runs an art organization called Petty Propolis, and a member of the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition.
Petty notes that as a lifelong Detroiter, she remembers being fed a negative narrative about the city. It was one that she sought to change, but it would be after a foray into corporate America. “I got disconnected from movements. I will say, I got back connected, there were intervals,” Petty says. “Things happened with Hurricane Katrina, Jena Six, Malice Green, Rodney King, just different moments throughout my adulthood that connected me to start thinking about what’s happening in society.”
“So I would just say, I dipped in and dipped out at these moments of consciousness. But I became more consistently involved somewhere around maybe 2007.”
Petty notes that she became re-engaged in community activism after the election of the 44th president, Barack Obama. In an interview she notes, “I was learning that it was a real thing that folks were still looking at you as inferior based on your race, I was disconnected from it.” She adds that during her tenure working in a law office that was largely led by white men, “I started to hear commentary that I hadn’t heard from folks that I was really close with. And so, that was a rude awakening for me.”
She credits her talent as a poet with how she made the jump from witnessing social justice issues to working hands-on in the Detroit community.
It was through her involvement at The Boggs Center that Petty rediscovered her voice and her passion. “I started to go to community meetings and things that they were organizing, and then I joined their team and helped them organize a conference. And I’ve kind of been glued to their hips ever since. And throughout that trajectory, I’ve met a lot of other people in the community, social justice, warriors, and things.”
Author, social activist, philosopher, and feminist—Grace Lee Boggs was an important figure in Petty’s life. She still lives on the property of the Boggs Center, and when the legendary activist was making her transition, she was on her hospice team. “Grace was tough on me,” she says with fondness. “She would really challenge and push you, but I really started to appreciate those challenges.”
Boggs was known for saying, “What time is it on a clock of the world?” Petty notes once she realized what the statement meant that it became her own personal mantra. “It’s kind of been how I navigate the world. It’s not just about me as an individual, it’s not just about my city. It’s about the global experience. How are the things that I’m doing impacting people all over the world?” She added, “All the toughness, the pushing, the challenges had a tremendous impact on how I see the world, how I see social movements, how I navigate all of those things.”
Petty says that she sees the reflections of what she and others learned from The Boggs Center in current organizations like Detroit Summer, Allied Media, and Avalon Bakery. “There’s so many moments and places in the city that folks just don’t know the roots. But they’ve had a lot of impact over 60 years in Detroit.”
A fierce defender of the city, Petty was staunchly against the takeover of the city through emergency management. “There are so many ties to the downfalls in Black cities to emergency management that a lot of folks just don’t think about. But when you have done such a number, a propaganda number on a community, it makes it easy for folks to just go along with what they say.”
Resisting propaganda remains important to Petty who is currently working to push back against the popular Project Greenlight program which has grown to 2,000 cameras across the city. She adds that #SurveillanceAintSafety and notes that the system moves away from the true narrative that quality of life is the greatest contributor to crime in the city.
The activist notes that it is key that every movement understands its roots and understands passing on legacy knowledge. If not, she adds, “We’re going to repeat things every 50 years. If I look at the moment that we’re in, in this country right now, I see a lot of ties to folks not knowing history.”
This sentiment may also be captured in her work in helping to free Palestine with the organization, Black for Palestine–a group of over 1,100 Black activists, artists, scholars, students and organizations who have signed the 2015 Black Solidarity Statement with Palestine.
Petty notes that “the last several years of my life essentially has been doing anti-racism organizing, in addition to technology work, and those other things. I have been very focused on understanding root causes, tapping into folks’ humanity, drawing forth the impact that white supremacy has had on every identity, no matter who you are.”
She notes that even more important than understanding history in movements is “creating the world that we all deserve. And I think we can’t do that without knowing all the moments that came before us. History is so important.”
Petty notes that as a board member of The Boggs Center, they still ask themselves what time it is in the world. She adds that the center and Allied Media projects produced, adding, “and anything that we do, we try to produce documentation to show other folks how to do it. And so I think that’s really important because it takes away this self-centered ownership of movement that tends to permeate social justice.”
As it relates to her personal ownership of the movement, Petty notes, “I wake up super Black every morning, Black mother, I have a Black son, I’m in the Blackest city. One of the last remaining Black Meccans in the country, I think it’s tremendously important to protect that.” She noted that collaboration is key to allyship for new and old Detroiters and she operates from that space. Petty often says that “If you don’t see your liberation tied up into the liberation of folks that are being oppressed all over the world, then it’s a pet project.” Co-liberation is more valuable than allyship because it encourages us all to see our humanity tied up in each other.
Tawana Petty, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, April 5, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.