On Monday, Ife Johari Uhuru lifted the hood of one of her shop's high-intensity hair dryers and asked her client to take a seat. As soon as the woman was comfortable, Uhuru grabbed the laptop computer sitting nearby. Uhuru, a Detroit hairstylist and burgeoning activist, had other work to do.
Uhuru, 35, is one of two core coordinators behind Occupy the Hood, a group that aims to bring the concerns of people of color to the global Occupy Wall Street movement. On Monday, she needed to add a few palliative posts to a debate raging on Occupy the Hood's Facebook page about which issues the group should rally around. She needed to design and print a new flyer for Occupy the Hood's ongoing food and clothing drive for Detroit's poor. She needed to convince a few more businesses around town to serve as collection points for the goods. And, in about 20 minutes, Uhuru's client's hair would require her full attention. The woman was there to have her dreadlocks washed, deep conditioned and re-twisted.
"I'm a single mom, a small business owner, a daughter, a neighbor. I have a lot of obligations," said Uhuru, who is black and lives in Novi, a community about 30 minutes northwest of downtown Detroit. "But trying to foster something where people who look like me, who have the same concerns as me are seen and heard? Doing that, I've discovered a whole new kind of busy."
Uhuru is one of thousands of people across the country long concerned about the rising tide of poverty and household debt who have found both inspiration and cause for action in the Occupy Wall Street movement. The protests have transformed Uhuru: Before, she was a suburban single mom who occasionally shared her political views with her wide circle of Facebook friends and volunteered for community projects, and now she is at the center of a developing national organization focused on economic issues that deeply effect communities of color.
Occupy the Hood was founded by Malik Rahsaan, a New York-based substance abuse counselor and Occupy Wall Street protester. When Occupy Wall Street was just beginning to take shape in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan in September, Rahsaan started spending time there. He discovered a community of people who shared his outrage about rising income inequality, student loan debt and foreclosures, but who didn't have a lot of personal experience with economic distress or the long-term effects of poverty. The protesters gathered in the park were driven and sincere -- and almost all white, he said.
"I know this economy has been hard on a lot of folk," said Rahsaan, who is black, in an October interview about Occupy the Hood's origins. "But I really know how it has savaged and sabotaged so many people of color. This is going to make some people squirm, but when I looked around and saw that we weren't there, I just really felt like something had to be done."
In late September, Rahsaan decided he was going to bring more people of color to the protest in New York and the occupations across the country. He gave the recruiting effort a name that he thought would capture black attention: Occupy the Hood. And he put up a Facebook page. A few days later, he got an online message from Uhuru. She had been watching the news out of Zuccotti Park and hearing about plans for an occupation in downtown Detroit.
After that first conversation, Rahsaan was impressed enough to hand over Occupy the Hood's Facebook and Twitter passwords to Uhuru. She got to work, contacting her 4,000 Facebook friends and started sending out tweets.
Within two weeks, there were thousands of people who had expressed their support for Occupy the Hood and Occupy Wall Street's core concerns about economic inequality. Groups in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia and several other cities began organizing under Occupy the Hood's banner. Most of the group's initial supporters appeared to be black, Uhuru said.
But the decision to talk openly about race and limited diversity in a movement that describes itself as rejecting the country's traditional divisions and hierarchies has not gone uncriticized.
Stories written about Occupy the Hood have generated a wave of reader comments online. Some critics assert that race is a non-issue and an undue obsession for black Americans. Others say Occupy the Hood is an example of the type of divisive activity that has stymied progress toward racial harmony in the United States. Some stories about young people of color organizing through Occupy the Hood have elicited comments that suggest that the only issue in which the group might be interested is expanded access to welfare aid. And others still have declared the occupations around the country sufficiently "diverse" and therefore undeserving of Uhuru and Rahsaan's critique.
Even long-time Detroit civil and workers' rights advocate Grace Lee Boggs has questioned the idea that Occupy Wall Street's success can or should be evaluated by the presence of people of color in the movement. Boggs, 96, is Asian and moved to Detroit with her African-American husband, James Boggs, in the 1950s to organize workers and advocate for a range of left-leaning causes.
"To ask, 'Where are the people of color?' I think, is to look at the wrong idea," Boggs said. "That is a question of the past. I think the question we need to be asking ourselves, which the occupy movement has raised, is: what are our obligations to each other and to the world? How inclusive are our institutions, and if they are not, why not? And why is it that the worst things do appear to be open to all? These are questions that were not on the agenda for most people until the Occupy movement began."
At her hair salon, Uhuru sometimes accommodates clients well into the evening and on days such as Monday, when other salons are typically closed. The shop is an essential part of the formula that's helped Uhuru support her two sons, who are 13 and 8. The rest comes from her mother and neighbors, who sometimes feed the boys dinner, shuttle them to after-school activities and check their homework.
"I have a great village," Uhuru said, in reference to the African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child. "I couldn't do half the things that I do without them."
Occupy the Hood's main Facebook page, which Uhuru controls, had garnered 11,318 fans as of Thursday. But there hasn't been the kind of rabid real-world support for Occupy the Hood that Uhuru had hoped. When the group tried to raise funds for needed supplies and for Detroit events dedicated to collecting food and clothing for the poor, just $80 in online donations materialized.
"It's been eye opening," she said.
Rakiba Brown, 59, is a long-time Detroit activist who is deeply involved with Occupy Detroit, the Motor City's response to Occupy Wall Street. She met Uhuru at an Occupy Detroit meeting in October and has witnessed the limited results of Uhuru's efforts, so far, to get more people of color involved in Detroit's occupation.
"I think she hopes to be that bridge that can help people understand that the things we are talking about at these occupations, at the general assemblies, are the things that are destroying the communities where people of color do live," said Brown, who is black. "I just don't see a lot of people who have walked across that bridge yet."
But Brown insists that both Occupy Detroit and Occupy the Hood are too young to be assessed. And she says she supports Uhru's efforts.
"I think she is like a lot of these young, first-time activists," said Brown. "She has some things to learn and some things to teach. And at this point there are so few people who really understand the kind of paradigm shift that we are after that I don't think people can really understand what the occupations have done. This is just something really new."
Uhuru and Rahsaan -- who met in person for the first time in October, when Rahsaan accompanied a group of Occupy Wall Street protesters from New York to Detroit -- insist that attempting to start a movement in two different cities is not a huge challenge because of the Internet. The two have begun working to trademark the Occupy the Hood name.
They have also decided that Occupy the Hood should be more than a recruiting effort or arm of Occupy Wall Street. They will soon begin to work with the coordinators of Occupy the Hood groups in other cities to develop a national agenda. That platform will likely include issues such as protesting foreclosures and cuts to social safety net programs, supporting efforts to help ex-convicts find work once released from prison and advocating for public spending on transportation and public schools, among other issues, Uhuru said.
In late October, Occupy the Hood members helped to get heat and electricity restored to a Harlem, New York, apartment building, Rahsaan said. Several protesters occupied the building's boiler room and refused to leave until the building's owners agreed to make repairs. After some debate, Occupy Wall Street protesters based in New York's Zuccotti Park decided to donate about $3,000 toward the effort, Rahsaan said.
The ongoing food and clothing drive is Occupy the Hood's first public activity in Detroit, outside of participating in meetings at the Detroit occupation itself. A core group is discussing what sort of activism might push area schools to reduce class sizes and force changes inside the child welfare system, Uhuru said. One Detroit school, forced to cut teachers because of budget cuts, is operating classrooms of 50 children, she said. Other food and clothing drives are being planned for other cities.
"I think that we've decided that the twinkling fingers and all of that may not be for us," said Uhuru, referring to the way that Occupy protesters express approval for ideas and proposals at meetings. "We remain in solidarity. But we want to be able to speak and then act autonomously and really get involved in grassroots causes."
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more