Opal Tometi ’05: Co-founder of Black Lives Matter

By:
Lori Harwood, Kara Aquilano Forney/UA Communications photo

When Opal Tometi was a UA history major, she had no idea that just a decade later she would help create a social movement that would thrust her into the national and global spotlight.

“Little did I know, in 2005, as a fresh graduate, that I would be catapulted to the center of one of the key political movements of our time,” Tometi says. “Little did I know that I would not only use my history degree, but actually make history.”

Tometi is most widely known for her contributions to the Black Lives Matter movement. With Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza, she co-founded the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, the defining social movement of her generation. In 2015, BLM was named as a runner-up for Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

She currently is executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), the leading national organization working to coordinate immigrant rights and racial justice across African American, Afro-Latino, African and Caribbean communities.

Tometi is the recipient of many significant honors and awards, including an honorary doctorate from Clarkson University. She was an invited keynote speaker at the United Nations and is featured in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Tometi was named one of Glamour magazine’s 2016 women of the year and, along with her BLM partners, was recognized as one of the top 50 world leaders by Fortune magazine. 

In recognition of Tometi’s influence, she was named the College of Social and Behavioral Science’s 2016 Alumna of the Year.

“The College of SBS is tremendously proud of Opal,” says John Paul “JP” Jones III, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “Through her work at BAJI and in the formation of Black Lives Matter, Opal has applied the lessons of history to better understand race and social justice in the United States. 

“Her efforts have made a tangible difference in the lives of many, especially the most marginalized.”

In December 2016, Tometi, who grew up in Phoenix, was the convocation speaker for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. A proud Wildcat, Tometi said in her address that she cherished her years in Tucson. 

“I didn’t even know what I was going to do with my degree,” Tometi said. “However, the skills to obtain it did teach me some things I will use throughout my entire life, like how to research and how to account for what happened in the past.”

Tometi advised students to take stock of their history. She relayed her story of being raised by Nigerian parents who immigrated to the United States, of her mother’s “fierce intellect,” and of her hard-working father, whom she called her “first true example of a feminist.” 

Her family history shaped her beliefs, she said, “that women are worthy and capable and that my own life mattered.”

“Each of us inherits certain privileges, beliefs and resources, and unless we do the work of examining our past, distilling the values, choosing the ones we want and deliberately discarding the others we know don’t serve humanity, we’ll find ourselves repeating the same errors of the past,” Tometi said.