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On the first day of the BOLD National Gathering in February 2020, just three weeks before major cities across the United States shut down, Serena Sebring addressed the group of over 160 young Black leaders. She was flanked by 17 BOLD participants across a spectrum of gender, age, and ability in green shirts — a team named the Dora Milaje after the Wakanda army inspired by the all-female African military corps of Benin, West Africa.

Sebring, a BOLD alumni and the Executive Director of North Carolina Blueprint, had developed this operational framework and customized it for the National Gathering. After getting the participants’ verbal agreement to the ground rules, she led the room in an electric chant that reverberated through the walls:

Who Keeps Us Safe?
We Keep Us Safe!
Photo from BOLD National Gathering

The Dora Milaje came together for the weekend to take responsibility for holding the gathering in a container of safety, security, and care to support self-governance. Tasked with supporting the boundaries of the space and de-escalating any conflict situations that might arise, the Dora Milaje also planned to minimize external threats, including any unnecessary encounters with law enforcement (such as in the case of a medical emergency).

Almost four months after the National Gathering, the world has shifted and we continue to learn lessons about what it will take to manifest the vision we began building at the gathering. Our goals were to build self-determination and increase safety by not relying on the state or police. Despite these accomplishments, there remains work to be done to grow safety in relationship to each other. We are grappling with how to grow our capacity to interrupt rape culture and domestic violence, and to support survivors of harm that happens even in our “maroon space” of BOLD. This is an invitation to deepen our practice. 

In We Keep Us Safe: Building Secure, Just, and Inclusive Communities, Zach Norris, Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, posits a world in which a criminal justice system that purports to keep communities safe only compounds the social, environmental, and physical harms they already face. In this context, building intentional, independent systems and practices of accountability, healing, and harm reduction within Black communities has become essential work.

For Sebring, harm reduction principles came into her work when she was organizing women, sex workers, and non-gender conforming survivors of violence into kinship networks. Sebring, a survivor herself, had to acknowledge the personal need for a sense of safety, like the need to know where the closest exits are, and for a vigilance about the security measures needed to bring activist bodies together.

Especially when Black bodies hold trauma, it’s important to set clear guidelines for how to practice radical consent. Also, emphasizing healing and restorative practices, said Sebring, became critical to building spaces where participants first strive to protect and liberate each other.

When she joined BOLD’s Directors and Leads training in 2018, a profound experience brought her to understand her work and feel it in her body.

At the historic Franklinton Center where the training was held, there was a string of robberies of equipment and, in response, the police came on patrol. As the police officer got out of the car, “we’re noticing our heart rates are elevating,” said Sebring.

Our palms are sweating, people are feeling triggered. And as much as I felt that lack of safety, I wanted to feel the presence of it as well.

Sebring incorporated the practices of embodied leadership that she had learned through BOLD into her efforts to help other leaders to extend the lessons into the other environments and organizations they inhabited. “When we are aware of our bodies, we are more able to take leadership,” she said.

Through her work to build kinship networks and direct action tactics as an organizer with Southerners on New Ground (SONG) Sebring learned to guide processes of collective problem-solving with street marshalls and medics in order to create a security container in street actions. The idea of the Dora Milaje was born by asking: how can we expand and transfer those safety skills to our neighborhoods, communities and families? 

Even the Dora Milaje would not have predicted that the practices developed at the National Gathering would be so critical now, or for the work ahead.

BOLD is currently working with folks who have been harmed or did harm to develop systems of healing, accountability, and repair, said Sebring. 

We are a commitment to developing a high bar of principles, practices, and clarity in our BOLD community and this will take collective patience -Denise Perry

“I credit BOLD along with many people for saving my life, and it was such an honor to bring back something that has been useful for me in my community, and offer to this network,” said Sebring. “But this is going to take continued practice and experimentation.”