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Intersectionality and the Past, Present, and Future of Activism in Our Neighborhoods

After the Supreme Court’s decision in DOBBS v.JACKSON WOMEN’S HEALTH ORGANIZATION overturning Roe v. Wade was released on Friday, June 24, people took to the streets. It was no surprise that people hoping to make their voices heard looked to our neighborhoods as a gathering place. Two of the many protests and rallies that took place in New York City were held in Washington Square Park and Union Square. These protests were organized by intersectional advocacy groups across labor, housing, immigration, and LGBTQIA+ movements, among many others. 

This coming together of what might seem like disparate strands of social movements is not new to activism, and certainly not new to our neighborhoods. The neighborhoods of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo were cradles of this ‘intersectional’ approach to activism (we have a number of resources and tools that can provide further light on this, including our Civil Rights & Social Justice Map, Oral Histories, Historic Image Archives, and our free public programs). 

Let’s define “intersectional.” Often misunderstood as “collaborating across issues,” the term has a much more specific meaning that influences the leaders of these movements to collaborate toward systemic solutions across a range of issues.  If one looks up “intersectional” in the Merrium Webster dictionary, you will find this quote from Kimberlé Crenshaw:

“Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.”

Crenshaw, the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and a Distinguished Professor of Law and Promise Institute Chair in Human Rights at University of California, Los Angeles, is a scholar and writer on civil rights, racism and the law, critical race theory, and Black feminist legal theory. She coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the double bind of simultaneous racial and gender prejudice. The original context was a legal one, but this term has been adopted to go beyond a legal definition.

Bringing this theory back home to our community, this interview question with Professor Crenshaw shines light onto the continued discussion of how intersectionality works across identities and movements:

Question: You originally coined the term intersectionality to describe bias and violence against black women, but it’s become more widely used—for LGBTQ issues, among others. Is that a misunderstanding of intersectionality?

Crenshaw: Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things….”

Now that we have definitions and a theoretical basis for this exploration, let’s journey through Village Preservation’s resources to discover how this intersectional fight for justice is reflected in the history of Greenwich Village, the East Village and NoHo. By revisiting these important moments in the fight for social justice from these communities, we can begin to see that the intersectional organizing on Friday, June 24th has a strong foundation in this particular geographic area.

Stonewall Riots

As we celebrate Pride in New York City, we are reminded of its beginnings at the Stonewall Inn. Some of the key the leaders of this fight were Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. According to The Equality archive:
“Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were there. They witnessed the police raid and were among the first people to fight back. Born male, Johnson who was African American and Rivera, who was Puerto Rican, were then known as drag queens, or transvestites, but they self-identified as women. Today, both Rivera and Johnson should be understood as [transgender] women. They both lived in New York City. And, because of their gender non-conformity, racism, and their sexual orientation, they often struggled for food, shelter, and safety.  Today, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project advocates on behalf of their community. [Because of t]heir courage, their acts of resistance, and in 1970 their activisms as co-founders of STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, they were pillars of the gay liberation movement.”

These roots in leadership around the intersectional impact of society’s oppression and inequity has again been highlighted as Stonewall became a rallying point in the fight for LGBTQIA+ and Black lives in recent years, through today. Activists came together in this historic geographic area to drive the movement for Black Lives forward with the leadership and inclusion of Trans and Non-binary New Yorkers. 

Examples include the March for Justice for Donnelle Rochester on June 26th during NYC Pride 2022 activities. Here local costume designer and founder of Black Trans Liberation, Qween Jean, shares the details on Instagram.

Stonewall is a location steeped in this intersectional fight for justice. Writer, historian and curator Hugh Ryan takes us through the involvement of Black Panthers Afeni Shakur, Joan Bird, and others imprisoned at the Women’s House of Detention, in the Stonewall Riots. His work also highlights the connection between abolition and the fight for civil and human rights for those with intersecting identities:

Women’s House of Detention

“Women’s House of Detention at the intersection of Greenwich and Sixth Avenue. At this time, the prison had been closed for two years and was slated for demolition, which was completed the following year.” Village Preservation’s Historic Image Archive.

At a recent program, in collaboration with The Center, Hugh Ryan discusses his book THE WOMEN’S HOUSE OF DETENTION: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison. Ryan presents us with the history of intersectional organizing and cross-identity collaborations in our neighborhoods. Here is a story about the founding of the Gay Liberation Front, and reminds us that their actual first protest was outside the Women’s House of Detention in support of the Black Panthers. 

Barbara Kahn

Artists are a central component of the political and social action that takes place in our neighborhoods and around the world. In March we celebrated the release of Village Preservation’s oral history with Barbara Kahn. In this program Barbara and her long time collaborator Robert Gonzales Jr. shared monologues, songs, reflections, and memories of their work in the East Village and Beyond. 

“Union workers protest factory conditions” From Village Preservation’s Historic Image Archive.

Barbara’s work is rooted in both history and social justice. Here you can hear her talking about Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and her work to create a play about the fire and its impact on workers’ rights. Watch the entire conversation to hear how Barbara’s identities as a lesbian playwright, a renter, and East Village resident influences her work. 

Rev. Dr. Jaqui Lewis and Middle Collegiate Church

At Village Preservation’s 2022 Annual Meeting and Village Awards, we honored Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis and Middle Middle Collegiate Church with a Village Award. In a recent blog post we highlighted a quote from Rev. Dr. Lewis that acknowledges the complex history of a congregation that makes its business intersectional work based in the ethos of Love, period.

“The church building dates to 1892, but the Collegiate Church dates to 1628. We got centuries of stuff. We have, honestly, being the Dutch Reformed Church that “bought Manhattan from the Lenape,” lots of apologies and repairs needed around that. Some of our folks, some of our senior ministers owned Black people, our church was built with stolen labor and that’s real. And I think the work we’ve done in these last few decades has been all about repairing that harm—LGBTQ justice, opening the doors for all the people in the community dying with HIV/AIDS. We fed them. We housed them. We gave grants to them. We loved on them. We became a multiethnic, multiracial, anti-racist church. People count on us for anti-racist trainings. Six thousand people or so we trained during Covid in the digital space. This Black dreadlocked leader leading Middle Church is part of the way the Collegiate Church offers repair in the world for things we participated in.”

– Quote from Rev. Dr. Lewis’ interview in The Nation entitled “The Fierce Love of the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis”

The awards were held at another location on our Civil Rights & Social Justice Map, The Cooper Union’s Great Hall. Here you can see Rev. Dr. Lewis accept the award and talk about the continual work necessary in the East Village and Beyond. 

As one grapples with the ever-evolving nature of the fight for human rights and social justice, one can look to some of the things that have remained true through history — activism across a broad range of categories and identities can unite people to join together to address the root problems of inequity in our society.

Police officers arrest demonstrators in Washington Square Park during a march, April 9, 1961. The march was held in protest of the parks commissoner’s refusal to grant permits to allow folksingers to perform in the park. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)

This history is reflected throughout Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, and Village Preservation is honored to be your guide through our resources such as the Civil Rights & Social Justice Map, Oral Histories, Historic Image Archives, and our free public programs.

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