Because of Eunique Jones Gibson, black kids can dream, imagine, and aspire to be whatever they want to be.
Gibson shows kids their future by introducing them to their past. In 2013, she founded Because Of Them We Can, a platform that teaches kids about the black excellence in history ― and in the present ― that they typically don’t learn about in school or in the media. Starting out as a photo series, Jones has been able to expand the brand by making facts about the giants of black history accessible for parents, educators and everyone else.
She approaches the brand by doing things “the Woodson way,” looking to the father of Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson for inspiration. Gibson is reclaiming the limited narrative society has given black history by attacking revisionism head-on with facts that show our story is not monolithic.
As a part of HuffPost Black Voices’ “We Built This” series, Gibson spoke to us about founding “Because Of Them We Can,” her new subscription box and the role education plays in showing black kids their potential.
What have you built?
I built Because of Them We can, a platform and an ongoing campaign to highlight black history and excellence on a consistent basis.
Because of Them We Can started as a photo series and grew. What was that idea, the inception, behind this and calling it Because of Them We Can?
For so long we’ve said we stand on the shoulders of giants. To me, Because of Them We Can is a way to capture that sentiment and to make it real for anyone. It started with me as a mother of two black boys knowing they’ll grow to be black men and really wanting to create content and imagery that could surround them and help them to build their self-esteem by rooting it in their history and where they come from and the DNA that they are inextricably tied to and that there’s greatness in that DNA.
There are so many things that have been erased from our history. What has been your experience in witnessing kids seeing these photos and these campaigns you’ve distributed with Because of Them We Can?
Seeing the kids respond to the imagery is probably the best part of doing this type of work because they’re excited to learn about people that they’ve never heard of. They’re excited to understand that they’re connected to these individuals. The kids who stand in as these people, as well as the kids that are observing and are consuming the content. It’s the reason why we’ve gone back to the kids when it comes to the subscription boxes and trying to give kids a way to actually touch and feel history beyond Black History Month.
When did you realize that this needed to be more than just a digital brand?
The campaign started in February of 2013. Before the month ended I knew that it was more than just a photo series, so much so that I quit my job. Six years later, we find ourselves in a position where it’s very clear that we need content like this not just online, not just on the internet, not just on a digital space. When you interact with young people and you see them sort of disconnected from who they are and where they come from, we realized that there was a greater opportunity to extend the content offline. We started doing things like going into the classrooms and leveraging my book to teach them about these history-makers by showing them other kids who posed as the same individuals that we were teaching them about. From there we realized, you know what? There’s a real opportunity to scale this and to grow it and to really get kids to understand that we should be talking about black history and black excellence daily because black history is made daily. Black excellence appears daily. We embody it and we exude it. The only way that we can continue is if we continue to make that the narrative in what we’re talking about.
There’s a lot of hope that goes into your work. I’m thinking about in 2013 when you started, it seemed to be, even though we’ve always had a lot of misfortune and plenty of instances of police brutality —that was a year after Black Lives Matter was founded — all these things were happening. Still, it seemed to be a bit easier to grasp on to that hope to instill the kids. How has that evolved or changed, especially now that it feels harder than ever to grasp onto hope?
Yeah. When the campaign started it was definitely rooted in hope. This idea that there is better, there is more. We just aren’t talking about it. We just aren’t lifting it up. That was also right when Trayvon Martin’s murderer was acquitted. It was like, what can we do to really just get people excited and to change the narrative. The narrative at that time, although we had a black president was also very negative. It was still very stereotypical. This was a way to kind of refute that by injecting some hope, some joy, some good energy into the conversation. You’re right. It was very easy for people to grasp it and to run with it because they, too, saw an absence of that type of content. Right now, given the world that we live in, it’s far more important that we maintain this campaign and that we continue to build this content because our beauty, our existence, our relevance, our significance, our contributions, are consistently being challenged.
You have a young African-American man, or young boy, who was told to cut his hair so that he could wrestle. You have his teammates encouraging the act so that they could win a match when it was at the expense of his dignity. This type of content is because those types of instances seem to happen far too often now than they were happening four years ago, or eight years ago. People have been almost gassed up to do things of that nature. It’s definitely rooted in hope. It’s targeting young black children. Everyone can consume it, but this is a campaign that’s really built to help young black children know that they’re seen, that they’re valuable, that they’re wanted, that they’re special, and that there are people who have worked really hard to make it so that they can pursue whatever their wildest dream may be. I love that.
Your kids must think you’re so cool.
They do. Last night I asked my six-year-old ... He gave me a kiss on my cheek and he was like, “I love you mom.” I was like, “Oh, I love you too.” I was like, “Are you glad I’m your mom?” My ten-year-old is like, “Who wouldn’t be?” I was like, “Oh, okay. Okay. Good answer. Good answer. Go down and load a game for your Play Station now. You guys have earned that with the flattery. I appreciate it.”
The digital properties, of course, are super important. I mean, four-year-olds have iPhones now. Also, I think it’s really vital that you have this tangible presence, especially now through your subscription box. Why did you decide to incorporate that and what’s in the boxes?
The digital content, we know that adults are really consuming it whether it’s a story about black excellence or the content that we’re creating. We also consistently get emails. People reach out to me and say, “I’m showing my students the videos that you’ve made. They’re great. Can you make more?” When I was going into the school systems, and I was talking to some of the parents and the teachers, they were saying, “We need more content. We need more material like this.” I really just started to think more about those conversations because I knew I couldn’t replicate myself. Right? I knew it would be very difficult to just, at one time, send out the same message to all of these different schools or children.
It was like, do you know what? A subscription box. This would give every child whose parent has ever emailed and said, “Can my kid be in your campaign?” “Oh, my gosh, my child loves Spike Lee.” “Oh, my gosh, my child needs to know about Zora Neale Hurston.” Whatever the case may be, it gives them the opportunity to make it real for them in their own home on a consistent basis. Every single month there’s a theme for Black History Month. It is the Because of Carter G. Woodson Box. That box revolves around Carter G. Woodson and his life and whatever is going on in the world.
February is also Valentines’ Day so the kids, for instance, in this box, because he created the Journal of Negro History, they get a journal of my history where they get to personalize it for themselves. They get Valentine’s Day cards where it says, “You are your ancestor’s wildest dream and mine too.” Or, “Wishing you love, peace, and soul.” Then they also get collectible pins and toys and props that allow them to really take on the likeness of this individual and go through activities that are in the box to understand who this person is and why they need to know who they are. The box is a way to teach black history through a theme every single month and give the kids apparel, toys, props, and tools to really make it real. It’s for all children. It’s not just for black children. It’s for all children to consume so they can learn this information.
The box is a way to teach black history through a theme every single month and give the kids apparel, toys, props, and tools to really make it real. It’s for all children. It’s not just for black children. It’s for all children to consume so they can learn this information.
So much that we know about ourselves, has been erased and left out of textbooks, left out of even Black History Month or black history celebrations in general. I think about how excited kids are to see themselves reflected in Mae Jemison or these other giants of black history. For those who may not understand the gravity of what it means to take pride in your history, can you explain why it’s important for black kids to see themselves reflected in history?
It’s important for black kids to see themselves reflected in history and reflected in the present day from the right lens. What happens is black children see themselves reflected all the time. They see images of themselves all the time, but those images aren’t always positive. Those images aren’t always accurate or uplifting. It’s important for them to see themselves in a light that we know is true for them. It’s important for black kids to see themselves as doctors, as lawyers, as engineers, as creatives and artists, as trailblazers, as the builders of this country that we know we are.
It’s important that they understand that and that they see it.
It’s important for me to create the type of content that will help them to not just feel it but know it and know who these individuals are. Know who Carter G. Woodson was or George Washington Carver or Zora Neale Hurston or Harriet Tubman or Mae Jemison or some of the other people that we’re still learning about. We’re still uncovering hidden figures today. It’s extremely important because it will help them to really understand their power and their potential. We will have less children of ours who are lost as a result.
What do you remember about learning about our history when you were a child?
I remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember Rosa Parks. I remember Harriet Tubman and I remember slaves. That’s it. When I was a child, our history in schools and in textbooks was relegated to those narratives and those individuals. While I appreciate the accomplishments and the trails that have been blazed by those individuals, I also recognize that there is so much more to our history than just those people. Our history also didn’t begin with slavery. That’s something that I want to change. That’s something that so many people want to change. I look at Because of Them We Can as a platform and a tool to actually do that.
Who are the black history makers, the ancestors, the elders, who you look to who continue to inspire your work?
The elders that I look to first are in my own home. It would be my grandparents. It would be Maxine Jefferson and Burnetta Jones and Raymond Jones. It would be my family. Beyond my family, it’s individuals like Carter G. Woodson. I believe that we should do things the Woodson way. That’s really to know our contributions, know our history, know what we’re doing, and make sure that other people know and that we never stop talking about it so that black history becomes this thing that we’re doing, and we’re uplifting and we’re talking about on a 365-day basis. There are individuals that are presently living and walking that continue to inspire me like your Debbie Allens, or your Oprah Winfreys, your Ava DuVernays. Spike Lee is somebody that I’m really inspired by because I believe he took a very creative and nontraditional approach to bringing certain conversations to the forefront. He continues to do that. He would probably be one of my biggest inspirations today that’s currently walking the earth.
Then, of course, our Forever FLOTUS. Our 44, of course, continues to inspire and to really just show us what’s possible, to really show us what grace under fire looks like, to really show us what black excellence looks like. That’s an example that I’m so happy that we have. It’s an example that up until eight years ago never existed on a platform like we saw it, but it was in our everyday lives. We had our own little examples of President Barack Obama or Michelle Obama in our individual lives. There are community members and people in schools and neighborhoods who are excellent just like they are. I’m happy that they were put on a platform to make it very clear that it exists.
When it’s all said and done, what do you want to accomplish with Because of Them We Can?
The “can.” When it’s all said and done what I want to accomplish with Because of Them We Can is for people to understand who the “them” are. That we can do anything that we put our minds to. When it’s all said and done, Because of Them We Can, I want young black children to feel empowered, to be inspired, and to feel like there are no limitations on whatever it is they aspire to do or to become. I want other people of different races to really recognize and understand all that we’ve built and the power that exists within our community and to, for once, put a hold and a pause on all the false narratives.
Photoshoot produced by Christy Havranek. Audio production by Nick Offenberg and Sara Patterson. Hair & makeup by Monae Everett.